Posts Tagged ‘Intelligence’

The Anti-Snowden

May 22, 2016

UPDATE: And after you read this essay, read this report, on a now-former DoD Inspector Generals official who tried to support the whistleblower laws.

U.S. News and World Report has an interview with Geoffrey Stone, described as a

… member of the National Advisory Council of the American Civil Liberties Union [and] member of a special review group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.

Stone exonerates the NSA of running amok, by pointing out that

Every one of the programs the NSA was running in foreign intelligence surveillance was approved by the House and Senate intelligence committees, White House, the attorney general and the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court. Every program was authorized and approved…. If there were extensive criticisms of the programs, the fault rests with the government entities that approved and authorized them.

I have always said that the problem doesn’t lie with NSA. The problem I have with this is that none of the groups Stone mentioned provided appropriate oversight. The Congressional intelligence committees are a bunch of know-nothings who are too busy trying to get re-elected to actually read any of the authorization documents. You can tell by looking at all the gasping and running around that was done after the disclosures. Maybe the committee chairs were witting, but the rest were complaisant and happy to remain in the dark. As for other possible sources of oversight, recent Attorneys General seem to think of themselves as aiders and abettors of whatever the President wants to do, and the FISA court is generally considered to be a rubber stamp and a joke.

Then, Stone puts his finger on the crux of the matter.

The risk is always there that some head of the NSA, or a J. Edgar Hoover or Nixon or LBJ would access those records for illegitimate reasons.

Exactly. We have secret laws, interpreted in secret ways, and approved in star chamber hearings. To that list of possible threats, we could add some future Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or Donald Trump. This is how you start a democracy on the road to collapse — you institute bad policies for reasons of expediency, and you prevent those policies from being scrutinized by persons more concerned with good government than operational efficiency. Two or three Presidents later, you find those rules being used to attack political opponents.

About Snowden, Stone thinks he exposed too much.

I think if he had only disclosed the existence of the second 215 metadata program, then one might be able to make the case he did more good than harm because there were reforms adopted because of his disclosures

As for the rest of it

My involvement ended before all the consequences could be evaluated. I have no doubt folks in the government are quite confident of that (the subsequent damage). It’s quite logical.

So, he doesn’t know, but he thinks it hurt our collection activities. Except that when he gives examples, he admits that smart terrorists already assumed that NSA was listening, and so it would only be the dumb terrorists that would be caught. You know, like the ones who the FBI regularly entraps just in time for the next round of budget hearings.

Stone’s final take on Snowden:

I don’t doubt that Snowden was courageous and did what he did for what he thought were good reasons. But I think he was unduly arrogant, didn’t understand the limitations of his own knowledge and basically decided to usurp the authority of a democracy.

My personal opinion is that if it hadn’t been for the continuing drumbeat of revelations, from inside the US and overseas, the metadata revelations would have turned out to be another inside the Beltway, one-week-wonder, pushed off the front page by the latest round of political shenanigans, and that nothing would have been done.

Did Snowden’s revelations hurt the U.S. in its fight against terrorism? If there had been major damage, the agencies involved would have been trumpeting the news all over town. There’s been nothing. At least, nothing factual. There’s the periodic “it must have” and “it’s logical to assume”, but nothing that I have seen that is both substantial and concrete. And for what small impacts there have been, think of it as collateral damage, like you get from a drone strike.

As for usurping the authority of a democracy, sorry Mr. Stone, democracy had already been usurped by the very agents you describe in your first quote, above. And the defense that Snowden proposes isn’t the defense that you accuse him of inventing. It’s not “You can violate law if you have good enough reason to do it.”, it is “several agencies of the US government were committing acts that are both criminal and unconstitutional, and the purported methods of reporting them were closed to me.” And as an aside, the same laws that prohibit Snowden’s proposed defense include prohibiting that defense for revealing the 215 metadata program, so your argument is inconsistent.

So, my takeaway on all this? Yes, NSA, as usual, was acting within the constraints of law, as specified and approved by a whole range of government agencies. In doing so, they were the victims of an ongoing scam in much the same way that CIA interrogators were misled by John Yu’s DoJ opinions on torture. Edward Snowden, believing in both the Constitution and the new American motto for living “If you see something, say something”, essentially sacrificed his life to reveal the crimes. Could he have done it in a way that put fewer US programs at risk? Possibly. Could he have done it in a way that was just as effective but less sensational? Probably not.

UPDATE: And if you don’t believe me, here’s the story of a now-former DoD Inspector General official who tried to support the whistleblower laws.

Collateral Damage

February 16, 2014

Collateral damage is a military term of art, a shorthand way of referring to unintentional damage inflicted during military operations. So, a taliban is in the next room, shooting at you, you throw in a grenade, and, in addition to killing the taliban you also set fire to the wallpaper. A machine gun is set up inside a compound, you drop a bomb on it, and you also kill the owner of the house and his family. The Al Qaida number-two-man in Afghanistan is attending a meeting, you hit it with a Predator drone, and find out later it was a wedding party and you now have two clans and fifty cousins declaring blood-fued -feud against the US. Collateral damage, as horrific as it can be, is accepted under the laws of war, as an inescapable side effect of combat operations. The requirement is that you take reasonable precautions to minimize it, and that the level of damage is commensurate with the objective of the action.

In 2013, Edward Snowden decided that many actions of the US government and the Intelligence Community were illegal and unconstitutional, and that the only way to bring those crimes to light was to release a large number of documents for public scrutiny. Although the government has so-far successfully prevented a wholesale judicial review of their practices, some of them have been declared unconstitutional (although not by the Supreme Court), and others have been changed — a tacit admission that they were impermissible under US law. This is good. American government actions are well into the shadowy corners of despotism, and sunlight is the best way to cleanse those corners.

Snowden claimed that he made a serious effort to minimize the collateral damage of the documents, and that he gave them only to western journalists. However, in addition to causing public, congressional, and judicial review, the revelations have had, or are purported to have had, a harmful effect on other parts of the US. Things like loss of sales for cloud computing companies, increased counterintelligence operations against the US by the allies we spied on, and admittedly dubious claims of damage to US national security.  By my reading of the situation, this counts as acceptable levels of collateral damage, given that the counter-terrorist mission of NSA has never done squat to protect us.

There’s a point to this discussion. Snowden was incensed that we spied on Americans, and others, and his actions may have made it harder to spy on those others, any others. And it may well be that various foreign governments will now take the steps they should have taken years ago (’cause we aren’t the only ones with good collection systems), and make it harder to do our collection against them, and other others. If NSA had not been so secretive, if they had been more sensitive to the issues of Constitutional law, if they had asked their lawyers “what can we do to stay within the law” rather than “what can we do to get around this pesky law”, then they might not have provoked Snowden, and they might not have suffered so much collateral damage.

The NSA tells no tale; but even as bulk collection was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Despot’s Bane.’ #MT: Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring

NSA: The more things don’t change

January 18, 2014

…the more they stay the same.

So, here’s Obama’s speech. And here’s some commentary, and some commentary and some commentary. (UPDATE: here’s a belated commentary from Greenwald, and a line by line analysis by The Reg). Now, it’s my turn to do some commentary, on one specific part of the speech: bulk collection and storage of American communications data.

As far as I can tell, nothing much has changed, or will. Bulk collection and storage of phone call data will continue, despite the NSA-acknowledged fact that it hasn’t contributed squat to national security. I’d like to say it’s unconstitutional, but the government has worked very hard to prevent any associated cases from going to court. They say because of national security reasons. I say it’s because they’re scared spitless that SCOTUS will break up the party.

What the President proposed was that the data be held by someone other than NSA (this is in the speech, not in the official Presidential Policy Directive, PPD-28). That doesn’t pass the laugh test. Who would hold it? AT&T? You know, the communications monopolist that has spent most of the 21st Century profiting from illegal deals with NSA? Sorry, formerly illegal deals. A “third-party” company? One staffed by ex-NSA-ers because those are the only people with clearances? One that is beholden to NSA or DoD for the continuation of their contract? One that doesn’t have the status of government agency, and therefore can’t do lots of things that would protect this data from outsiders?

To my mind, if we are going to keep this data, then NSA are the best people to keep it safe. But, of course, none of these proposals can keep it safe from the US government and the intellectual and moral heirs of people like Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. That’s the main problem and that’s why safeguards were built into the Constitution.

Quite aside from the constitutional issues, what makes this so tragic is, we have no idea what other collection and analysis efforts are being stifled because all the resources are going into haystack maintenance. Even a massive organization like NSA is resource limited. There’s never enough analysts, linguists, database administrators, to do all the jobs that need doing. In the past, NSA has been accused of cherry picking — sitting on an easy target and then flipping through the requirements list until they found a line item that would justify it. It looks to me like that’s what’s happening here. Bulk collection of phone call and Internet data is easy — just pay the telcos to siphon it off for you. Collection against overseas communications that aren’t from Angela Merkel is presumably harder. Why waste time on the hard stuff when you can get 100% coverage of your US targets?

Truth-Teller Clapper

October 23, 2013

denies reports of NSA spying on France.

I wouldn’t lie to you. I mean, it’s not like you were Congress.

The Paradox of Warning 2

August 9, 2013

And so Ramadan has come and gone, the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr have come and gone, and there’s been no attacks. Maybe there never were any planned, at least, none of substance.

As I said in my first post on the subject, The Paradox of Warning is that if you give your boss a warning of an event, and your boss acts on it, and as a result of those actions the event doesn’t happen, were you guilty of crying wolf?

Sometimes there’s corroborating evidence. In a big operation like this, there’s always that ten percent what don’t get the word, and so there’s a pattern of minor attacks — guys running up to the barricades carrying a flag with their shirt undone and not enough people behind them to justify a painting. Sometimes the other side will admit to their plans, usually years later. But sometimes you just get it wrong and there never was a serious intent to make a serious attack. And sometimes you are guilty of lying.

Take this latest kerfluffle. Look at the leaked “evidence” around it. The Legion of Doom holds a conference call that we are able to tap into, maybe because there’s so many participants they can’t keep track of who’s dialed in. There’s a threat that stretches across all of the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, requiring that we close our embassies there for a week. There’s a threat of attacks on pipelines and ports in Yemen. Except, of course, there’s always attacks on pipelines in Yemen and the pro-AQ tribes have never had the ability to mount a major attack on a port. Plus, I’m not aware of any pipelines that run through the embassy there.

What’s the result? I mean aside from us becoming the laughingstock of the Middle East, and aside from giving Al Qaida in Madagascar an idea for their next deception operation? Well, at home, the NSA supporters have the opportunity to claim that their programs (legal, but of questionable constitutionality) are needed to prevent these kinds of plots in the future. Funny timing on that, isn’t it?

It stinks, as they say, on ice.

Snowden started it, but it was only a matter of time

August 5, 2013

The NYT this morning is reporting that NSA is being pestered by other government agencies, clamouring for their data (and in some cases, getting it).  This is all coming out because the Snowden leaks have made it possible to talk about it, but the fact is, those other government agencies have always wanted in on NSA’s surveillance data on US citizens. It’s an organizational imperitive. If there’s a tool that will help you do your job better, then you want to use that tool.

Better, of course, means “more convictions”, not “protect American values.” Convictions can be measured and therefore have become the standard. Safeguarding the rights of Americans can’t be easily measured, can’t be reduced to a sound bite for an appropriations committee, and so becomes irrelevant.

This is the slippery slope. This is why the various NSA programs should be prohibited. It’s not that NSA is a rogue agency, ’cause it’s not. It’s that elements within all three branches of the government conspired to make legal that which should never have been made legal.

Will shutting down these programs increase the risk? Certainly. Will shutting down these programs lead to increased American deaths? Most likely. But Americans have always been willing to accept risks, and to die, in support of freedom and, let’s say it “the American way of life”. Because that’s what’s under attack right now. Al Qaida, for all their chatter, poses no great threat to the US, not compared with, say, furniture. But NSA, FBI, DHS? These are the real threat.  These are the organizations whose chatter we should be listening to.


There were 54…

August 1, 2013

Do you want to know why General Alexander claimed there were 54 terrorist plots foiled by NSA surveillance of everybody in the USA? Because 57 was already taken.


Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA — Part 3

June 20, 2013

If the whole Intelligence surveillance system comes crashing down around Obama’s floppy ears, the basic cause will be the excessive secrecy surrounding every aspect of the counter-terrorism operation since 9/11. The creators of the system have been so afraid of giving the other side the least possibility of finding a chink in our armor that they’ve defeated its very purpose. There’s been two direct results.

First, is that the average citizen can find themselves caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare wherein they are charged with crimes that aren’t crimes, based on evidence they cannot see. Take TSA and its watch lists. It would appear that anybody in the government can cause you to be placed on the watch list, but nobody can take you off. The reason? Our obsessive fear that if we tell people how they get on and how to get off, the terrorists will exploit that information and sneak into the country and blow up the Boston Marathon or something. That’s not as bad as being on the no-fly list — that list of 20,000 people, including 500 or so Americans for whom we don’t have enough information to arrest but who are so dangerous we can’t let anyone with that name on an airplane. Or, if you’re lucky, you don’t get on any lists at all and you just have to stand in line for hours with your shoes in one hand, while the other one holds up your pants.

What does this have to do with the topic at hand? The fact that inept connecting of dots in a database can result in grievous harm to an individual’s life and reputation, with little hope of redress. Not a US example, but do you think what happened to David Mery in London can’t happen here? Or a 62-year old Catholic nun’s problems with TSA (yes, it was years ago — does anyone believe that anything has changed? Note the “I’d have to arrest you” line).

Second, the secrecy helps create a regulatory vacuum. The secret court judges, hand selected by the same Chief Justice who was responsible for the theft of the 2004 Presidential election, make their decisions in secret, based on secret interpretations of the laws. There’s no oversight of the court. Congress isn’t capable of doing it, because, you know, secret, and besides, no politician wants to be seen as being soft on terrorism. Even those few, few people in Congress who did have misgivings about the effects of the laws and their administration, were only able to allude to their concerns in the most general way possible. And when they are presented with direct evidence of lying to Congress by the DNI, they are strangely silent.

I mis-spoke in an earlier segment, when I said the FISA court had rejected 11 applications last year. It was 11 applications in its entire existence. This, at a time when the FBI Inspector General was charging that the same FBI agents, in sending out thousands of NSL’s with gag orders, had violated the law or internal procedures over a thousand times. In the face of that kind of evidence, we are supposed to believe that the data collected by VerizonVac is protected by internal procedures and that same FISA court? To say nothing of the fact that when it comes time to write the actual SQL query that pulls the data, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of court oversight at all. The next time you look up “FISA Court” on Wikipedia, you’ll get a redirect to “rubber stamp“.

Fortunately for the current regime, the Baby Boomer generation is still around. We were birthed at the start of the Cold War, and grew up with a real existential threat just beyond the North Pole. We learned to trust authority and the government because we could see the threat paraded through Red Square every May Day. We lived through the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Yom Kippur DEFCON 3 and understood why we needed to live with intrusive laws that were not nearly so draconian as today’s. So we are conditioned to trust the government, and even if we were inclined not to, we’re old and frail and succumb easily to fear. But we’re dying out. The grandparents of today’s generation were Viet Nam era hippies, and their parents knew the Soviet Union as an ailing, flailing empire, bleeding to death in Afghanistan — much like the US today. Today’s generation, like, just for e.g., Edward Snowden, were born into a Soviet-free world. They’ve never known what it means to be thirty minutes away from Armageddon, and they don’t care. They value freedom, they hate hypocrisy, and they recognize (those that have taken time to think about it), that a thousand or ten-thousand semi-literate plotters in some far off hell hole pose no existentialist threat to the USA.

At some point they’re going to wake up, put down their shoes, pull up their pants, and start to fight back, and the recent revelations might just be what does it.

Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA, Part 2

June 17, 2013

Mission creep, known in the software world as creeping featurism, reflects the tendency of any successful organization to add more tasks to its list, so as to become more important to the bureaucracy.

Sometimes agencies are smart enough to avoid it. For years, every time there was some sort of spectacular crime, the politicians first reaction was to make it a federal offense, and turn it over to the FBI. The FBI worked very hard to avoid these additional duties, partly because they never came with the resources needed to do them.

Of course, some organizations aren’t as smart as the FBI. DHS, for example, or its mini-me, TSA. They keep expanding the areas in which they are not contributing to American security or safety. DHS does this because it’s in its DNA. Think of it as the administrative equivalent of Katamari Damacy. TSA, of course, because fuck you.

Mission creep is bad enough, but there’s a more insidious flaw, probably best described as “we’ve got ’em, let’s launch ’em“. If you have a capability, and that capability is applicable in some way to the current situation, then there’s an almost overwhelming urge to use it. I’m of the opinion that “treating citizen organization X as if they were terrorists” comes from that. If you have a multimillion dollar “fusion center”, with people sitting around trying to figure out how to keep both thumbs warm, and Occupy X sets up camp in a nearby public park, of course you want to exercise your system by tracking them. Of course you want to show in your reports that you are on to every possible “threat”. Even as I typed this, a new story surfaced, about police using driver’s license photos as a permanent lineup.

As an aside, this is likely the cause of the upsurge in SWAT team deployments in support of the recovery of overdue library books (and I exaggerate only slightly). You have a highly trained, highly paid team of hair-trigger Rambo-wannabes just daring any terrorist to start something on their patch. But of course, there aren’t any terrorists. The overwhelming majority of plots broken up by the FBI have been arguably government entrapment of inept nebbishes. So, even if there’s no terrorists, there’s always drug busts of state-legal marijuana clinics. Or RIAA-targeted CD resale stores. Or various kinds of white-collar crime that can be labeled ‘cyber’, which is almost as bad as WMD and so deserve the SWAT treatment.

To get back on topic, in the last decade or so we’ve spent billions of dollars and millions of man-hours defending against a threat that is barely detectable, so that we can (as Snowden recently said) potentially reveal a potential terrorist with the potential to kill fewer Americans than our own police. When you have this kind of organization, and something occurs that can be made to be construed as falling within its purview — dissent, whistleblowing, unauthorized leaks — of course the powers that be will attempt to use it to their advantage and the detriment of Democracy. That’s what has people worried. In the back of everyone’s mind is the whispered voice “they came for my metadata, and I said nothing…”.

Quite naturally, everyone in power denies this possibility. It would not be allowed because, in the immortal words of a former President, “That, would be wrong“.

Slippery Slopes, Mission Creep, and NSA, Part 1

June 15, 2013

On the one hand, I agree with Robert Graham about NSA. I worked with NSA people off and on for twenty years. They aren’t evil. While they’re not all “Ph.D.’s with military experience”, they are some of the smartest people you will find in any organization, now that Bell Labs is closed. Read the stories about Bletchley Park, and then think of NSA as Bletchley on an industrial scale. Among other things I can attest to is that they are scrupulous about obeying the law. The problem is with the law itself.

The arguments in favor of that law (when I say that law, I mean all the surveillance laws, from Patriot Act to CISPA) are that what is allowed isn’t that much different from what was allowed back in the wiretap days, see Simon, and that their vacuum cleaner approach is totally unbiased (reading all Americans metadata is better than discriminatorially targeting some, see also Simon). The truth is, the overwhelming majority of that data will never, ever be looked at. Some small percentage of it will be looked at in near-real-time, and could provoke a court order to allow deeper delving. A somewhat larger chunk will be called up for analysis after the fact (say, once a terrorist act has occurred and we’re chasing down the culprits) and could lead to further court orders.

Knowing what I do of kinds of people who work in Intelligence, I’m comfortable with that.


The people at NSA are, of course, part of DoD, which means part of the Executive Branch, which means subject to ultimate civilian control. This is usually seen as a Good Thing. Unless, of course, you have the Attorney General (and the President’s brother) calling you every other day, asking if you have offed Castro yet. Unless, of course, you have the Vice President coming to your cubicle in Langley, demanding that you prove that Saddam Hussein has no WMD. Unless you are the FBI under Hoover.

Did you know that FBI requests for an improved “tie everything together” computer system were regularly turned down by Congress, back in the day? They did it because they didn’t want to give the FBI, and its handlers, any more power over Americans, no matter what the Soviet (remember them?) spy threat, and no matter how big the mafia (remember them? Small scale gunsels when compared to Wall Street and B of A) organized crime threat.

The problem is, to quote that left-wing tyrant Abraham Lincoln, “the first job of a politician is to get elected”. That means defeating your political opponents, and if you are in the bottom part of the political ethics spectrum, that means defeating your opponents by whatever means possible. No American is immune from this threat. The only requirement is that they oppose the current incumbents, and it doesn’t matter if they are political opponents or dissidents.

As we found with lead in the environment, and with CFCs in the atmosphere, the only way to control it is to ban it completely.

This is turning into a multi-parter. Next time, I’ll talk about the implications.

L’affaire Snowden

June 13, 2013

There’s so much going on and so many new aspects of this case being revealed daily that I think I’ll just start a link-list of interesting and insightful articles, with minimal comments. I will update this post as I find interesting stuff. Newer articles will go on top.   give up unless I find something particularly compelling. Particularly since Mike Masnick over at TechDirt is doing such a fine job of covering all the breaking news. Why don’t you go hang out there for a while?

Snowden speaks


and a comment


I’ll let George Takei lead off

David Simon says that from a legal standpoint this isn’t much different from what went on in the pre-Internet age:
and does a point/counterpoint on questions that came up in the comments

Backer of the Patriot Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, says it was written to prevent NSA data-mining
…doesn’t think Snowden is a traitor

Background — secrets are only secrets until policy makers need them public
…this is my experience in DC. Biggest leakers are program managers and Congressional staffers

This is why sites like WikiLeaks are necessary

FISA court says DoJ is interpreting the law incorrectly
…and they waited until now to tell us because why?
…oh, because we didn’t ask….right.

NSA’s greatest nightmare
…they’ll get dragged into domestic court issues
…and get sued themselves


About geolocation

About collecting data on Americans
…and a commentary on Clapper

The NSA data-mining program either has or hasn’t helped
…Congressmen say it hasn’t. NSA says it has, but its examples are …flawed.

de-mything the myths about NSA

Has the US become the type of nation from which you have to seek asylum?

One of the advantages of having 6000 items in one’s RSS feed is that I have enough recent history at my fingertips to be worth something. Here’s a few links from last April’s discussion of FISA and CISPA legislation:

A timeline

Worries about privacy

and confusion over NSA

You can’t trust the Feds

Here’s the WH positon

and what one person believes

Why Clapper’s In a Twist

June 11, 2013

DNI James Clapper said on national television this weekend that having the Verizon letter leaked was a “gut wrenching” affair, and that whoever did it had caused grave national damage. That got me to thinking.

What the Verizon revelation did was confirm that NSA had an ongoing program of vacuuming up external data on US domestic phone calls, i.e. it exposed a sensitive Intelligence source, thereby creating the possibility that the source would dry up. Or did it?

A source dries up when the target has control of it and finds out it’s being tapped. If I leak that the US has dug a tunnel under the Berlin wall to a GDR telephone cable and is intercepting Russian and East German phone calls, pretty soon the Stasi is out with a jack-hammer and that source is closed. The Communists are dismayed and surprised, because they didn’t think that could happen.

If the European Parliament publishes an official report that the US is intercepting and analyzing the content of all phone calls between the US and Europe, and that the program is known as Echelon, everybody figures that’s what NSA has been capable of for a long time, and so what’cha gonna do? The source doesn’t dry up, because (a) the users have no real control over such a large, complex system, and (b) they were operating under that assumption already. Maybe they could, with great effort, fix parts of (a), and maybe they occasionally forget about (b), but the fact is, the Echelon report didn’t change much of anything, except maybe EU laws about data protection.

Note the similarities between Echelon and VerizonVac. The user of the source doesn’t have control over the system — and they have no effective alternative. There are some countermeasures they could attempt, but if they were at all competent they already assumed this was happening, and were taking what precautions they could. Given what everybody has believed about NSA for years, they’d be fools if they didn’t.

Leap back to the state of Clapper’s bowels. The professional end of the terrorist spectrum should already be taking precautions. The unprofessional end has the memory and mental processing power of a bird, and won’t be a problem anyway. So, why would the source dry up?

Maybe the VerizonVac source will dry up because their constituents will become enraged at this intrusion on their privacy and demand that Congress do their job and pass laws against this sort of thing.

Maybe the primary reason for the Top Secret classification was to hide the programs’ existence from the American people.

How is it possible?

June 9, 2013
This is what happens when organizations shirk their duties

This is what happens when organizations shirk their duties

Everyone has been beating up on NSA and the White House after the Verizon/Prism revelations, and the Intelligence Community have been presenting carefully weasel-worded defenses. Here’s some examples:

New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, BBC, McClatchy, BoingBoing

People are right to be shocked. People are right to be angry. People are taking it out on the wrong people.

First, as far as I can tell, every single action of NSA and the companies they dealt with, as described, was totally legal, as defined by the laws passed by Congress, interpreted by the Executive Branch, and approved by the Judiciary. BTW, so were the actions of the Stasi, back in the day. Just sayin’.

First, some history. The thousand-page Patriot Act was passed by a panicked Congress in the weeks immediately after 9/11. The act was the cobbled-together wish-list of every federal agency that could justify a seat at the table. Congress passed it without reading it. The other acts, including the review of the Patriot Act, were passed later, in an atmosphere of fear — fear that the other side (of the aisle) would brand them soft on terrorism. Most of this, but not all of it, not by a long shot, was done on the GOP watch, under Bush. Obama inherited a collection of powers, and since when has a President ever voluntarily given up any powers?

Next, and this is the reprehensible part, came the secret interpretations of what the various acts allowed the government to do. Think of them as Presidential signing statements, only secret. The WH claims that these powers are all being exercised responsibly and with strong oversight. Of course, we have to take their word for this. Just like we had to take their word that the FBI wasn’t misusing their National Security Letters, until the FBI Inspector General admitted that no, they’d actually been violating the spirit of the law and the letter of the Constitution. But that’s all stopped now. Trust us.

The judiciary, meanwhile, remained just as pusillanimous as Congress. The special court set up to oversee the requests would look at two thousand in a year, and turn down eleven — roughly one-half of one percent. Some of those requests were amazingly sweeping, like the leaked Verizon document — “give me everything you’ve got for the next three months, at which time you’ll get a new request, and by the way you can’t say anything about this because it will tip-off our target”. The target, apparently, being everyone. In addition, the courts caved whenever the WH would play the “national security” card, which was every time they got thwarted. So, effectively, there was no oversight and no protection for American citizens.

There were a couple of Senators who tried to warn us, but if the WH stonewalls discussion, and nobody violates their oath and leaks the information, then there’s nothing that can be done.

Meanwhile, the defenders of the status quo, AKA President Obama, said

“I think it’s important for everybody to understand . . . that there are some tradeoffs involved. You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

That’s a false dichotomy… trichotomy. We’ve never had 100% security in anything, anywhere, ever. You want to do something to improve the chances than an American will live a full life with their privacy intact? Do something about the 40,000 fatal, preventable, medical errors each year. Everything we do is a tradeoff between convenience and security. Every time you cross the street you are taking your life in your hands. Every time you walk across your living room. You are far more likely to be killed by a doctor or an automobile — or your sofa — than you are by a terrorist.

The people who wrote the Constitution recognized that. They recognized that you can’t trade freedom for security, for soon you will end up with neither. They crafted a system of checks and balances, designed to make sure that no branch of the government — particularly not the Executive Branch — could arrogate to itself enough power to turn America into a dictatorship like they’d left back in the Old Country. The catch was, each branch of the government had to do their damn job. If that had happened. If Congress had read what they voted on. If the GOP wasn’t such a proto-fascist organization. If more than a handful of federal judges had a backbone. IF the government worked the way the founders had intended, we wouldn’t be in this situation today.

Here’s one commenter that says some of what I wanted to say, but says it better. And here’s another, with a timeline that shows how long this has been going on.

The bottom line? We knew this could happen, and we willfully ignored the possibiltiy. The people who did it are in the Executive Branch. The people who enabled it are in the Legislative and Judicial Branches. The people who let it happen are us.

Iraq – The Real Failure of Intelligence

March 19, 2013

On this, the tenth anniversary of the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the BBC has a retrospective on a small part of the Intelligence picture that was available prior to the war. In a nicely balanced report — balanced from a literary standpoint at least — they discuss two low-level defectors who fabricated stories, and the two high-level sources who reported accurately on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. The US, with the UK in tow, accepted the fabricators and ignored the truth-tellers, and so went to war. At the end of the BBC-USA clip on the report (but not in the on-line version), they ask the rhetorical question “If more people had listened to these two, would the US and UK have still gone to war?

The answer is, yes, of course we would have.

The Afghanistan Estimate

January 16, 2012

The Los Angeles Times has an article on a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was recently prepared on Afghanistan. The picture it paints is as gloomy as anything that came out of the Viet Nam era. Despite local successes against the Taliban in the south, the central government is still considered to be fragile, the security forces are corrupt, and Taliban elements in the east are still finding refuge in Pakistan. The only thing holding up the whole house of cards is us, and it’s all likely to go pear-shaped before the door hits us on the butt.

The Pentagon, and the theater military commanders disagree. If you go back to the NIE’s coming out of Viet Nam, you find the same thing — gloomy NIE’s (unless distorted by pressure from policy-makers), denials from the military leadership at all levels, and requests for increased troop strengths for, as Uncle Owen would say “only one more season”. (more…)

Last Days of the GSFG

September 9, 2011

Here is a “now it can be told” story from Berlin at the end of the Cold War. It’s typical of the kind of information one really gets in this business, and the kinds of inferences that you have to draw. There’s a whole sub-discipline of Intelligence, called Indications and Warning, that deals with predicting major actions like the withdrawal of the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany.

While I worked I&W most of my career, I wasn’t in the line of work portrayed here (it’s Collections, not Analysis) but I knew folks who were, and at the time the story occured I had just retired from my USAF job at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where I was trying to unravel the GSFG problem from that end. The “liaison mission” mentioned in the article is the USMLM. They drove all over East Germany with big American flags on their license plates, but were prohibited from entering “Permanent Restricted Areas”.

USMLM tour car on the road

My uncle was in the USMLM, back in the late ’40’s, and was one of the people declared “persona non grata” for violating the Rugen Island PRA.

It was just outside of the Ludvigslust PRA that Major Nicholson was shot to death by a Soviet guard in 1985, about four years before this story took place.

Air Spy

June 6, 2011

Here is a BBC infomercial for a recent program(me) on the use of “3D”, AKA stereo, imagery by Photo Interpreters (PIs) in Operation Crossbow, the effort to find and destroy Hitler’s V-weapons.


What makes this interesting to me, is that I trained on a stereoscope exactly like the one shown (I still have it), and I knew PIs who knew Constance Babington Smith (“Babs”), the original “Air Spy” on Crossbow. (more…)

A Leak Too Far?

December 1, 2010

So, the latest massive wikileak has gone public, and now the black helicopters are out after Assange and the State Department is putting serious efforts into damage control. How will the US fare when all the dust has settled? I think, pretty well. (more…)

The Morality of Leaks

October 26, 2010

I have been musing about the Wikileaks leaks ever since I posted yesterday’s comment. Not so much about the leaks themselves as about the change in attitudes about classified information over the last half century.

During WWII, we broke a number of Axis codes, the most famous being Purple, the primary Japanese diplomatic code, and Enigma, a German high-level military code handled on the Allied side under the codeword Ultra. The men and women at Bletchley Park, who did most of the work with Ultra, were sworn to secrecy. They kept that secret for thirty years, and it was only after Winterbotham’s book “The Ultra Secret” was published in 1974 that the stories began to come out. One anecdote (which may come from Winterbotham, I don’t recall) talked about a high society grand-dame who had to undergo an operation in the 1960’s. Her greatest fear was not of dying, but that she might, under the influence of the anesthetic, speak of Ultra, which she worked on during the war twenty years before. In my day, long after everything about the code-breaking had come out, there was a conference on the history of Ultra, held at the Defense Intelligence Agency. One person in the audience stood up and challenged the speaker, asking how it was possible that such a secret had been kept for so long. Another, older, historian stood up, and said (with his wife looking at him somewhat open-mouthed, from her seat by his side) “Because we gave our word not to speak of it.” (more…)

More Time Out Than In

August 13, 2010

Depending on how you count things, today is the day that I have spent more time retired from the USAF than I spent on active duty. I was commissioned in ’66, stayed off active duty for a year to get my Masters, served in VietNam (DaNang), England (RAF Mildenhall), Illinois (Scott AFB), Korea (Osan AB), and Washington DC — the Pentagon (DIA NMIC), and Bolling AFB (AFIN) — retiring in 1989. The pinnacle of my career was probably the year I spent leading the DIA briefing team that provided the morning Intelligence briefs to the JCS and SecDef. My whole career was great fun, and an ongoing window on history. I was working with people who cared about their work and who were dedicated, in ways one doesn’t see outside of the military. I never made any of the big decisions, and wasn’t in the room when they were made, but I was in the room next door for a lot of them. I was in the watch center at MAC when the ’73 Arab-Israeli war broke out (and we knew it was serious two days before CIA did), and on the watch at DIA when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. I wouldn’t trade any of those years.