Happy Festivus And 2013 Year In Review

Happy Festivus, Dear Reader


We ponder 2013’s biggest story:

  • Boston’s terror attack
  • Rightist congressional theatrics
  • Syria and Obama’s stumbling
  • Miley Cyrus twerking
  • Egypt and Arab Spring’s collapse
  • Obama’s passivity
  • Iran’s opening
  • L’Affaire Snowden
  • Snowden Wins No Surprise

    Neocons and their R2P fellow travelers get runner up for their urgent efforts to jump start yet another American Middle East war. Bandar’s bizarre lashing out at American last minute resistance to Sunni manipulation a Golden Globe-worthy turn.

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    NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

    One of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s cruelest feats? Forcing some of his fiercest critics (us) again to defend American self-interest and the role and purpose of intelligence. Despite NSA’s (and the Community’s) wanton, flagrant contempt for both. If Neocons were America’s malignant Id at her moment of apogee, then as Nemesis follows Hubris, they ushered in her over soon decline. NSA and the Community, engorged on national security self-entitlement, scuttled behind as ever-present shadow.

    We get no pleasure writing that. Nor seeing so much needless and perhaps irretrievable ruin in Snowden’s aftermath. Much of it gleefully celebrated by those who care nothing for American interests, privacy or otherwise. It takes a big man to bring down an epoch in American and global history, they say. So why are Alexander and Snowden perfectly, coevally so small?

    Crushed Like A Spent Can Of Diet Coke

    The seemingly ancient preceding post here about Obama’s first NSA-focused press conference reads quaintly now. We see in stark relief the cost of this Administration’s (typical) passivity. That’s not to excuse or diminish NSA’s stunning, profoundly stupid (and so totally unnecessary) transgressive acts. But we all should be clear about one distinction – intolerance for NSA’s transgressions is not embracing others’ attempt to exploit political fallout to see America diminished.

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    Snowden’s Pyrrhic Victory? *

    Episode Recap

    State of play so far since our last episode. Putin bemoans now being stuck with an unwelcome Christmas present (Snowden). Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia offer Snowden asylum but can’t get him there. The man of the hour meanwhile finally seeks asylum in Russia yet’s vague about ceasing public ‘anti-U.S. activities’, a pre-condition set by Putin.

    Greenwald in turn threatens the U.S. with the worst disaster in history should anything ever happen to Snowden – while decrying that people pay too much attention to Snowden. And the U.S. hints about canceling a tete-a-tete with Putin after the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg.

    So we ask you to join in our poll:

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    Keeping Up With ‘The Americans’

    Pop culture fascination with the covert continues to crest. Under Bush besides the torture porn of ’24’, NCIS began its long run exalting ‘warfighters’ and hierarchical obediance. We endured the Bournes’ editing and celebrated a more brutal Bond.

    And it continues. “Homeland” has become a ‘Starbuckian’ touchstone. “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” pull crowds. Even lighter, sillier cable fare like the CW’s “Nikita” and USA’s “Burn Notice” name check espionage argot.

    And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne
    And Comrades, Remember The Paco Rabanne

    So what to make of FX’s new series, “The Americans”? Larval CIA employee Joseph Weisberg (1990-94, no overseas) launched it all. He runs with the 2010 ‘Anna Chapman Spy Ring’ sensationalism but places his ostensibly married Soviet ‘illegal’ couple in Reagan’s 1981 America. The producers add some “Californication”-esque gestures; within the pilot’s first hour the female Soviet spy fellates a hapless presidential confidante, ostentatiously wiping her mouth afterwards and is later shown raped brutally. She also asks said confidante, supra, if he liked her finger up his ass. Quelle shock!

    If It’s Phil Collins, It Must Be The 80’s

    But is it any good?

    When credits rolled, we asked “What did we just see?” It’s all preposterous, of course, as it must be. A show survives if it entertains. Here, the team generously drops gratuitous and titillating details to provide a modicum of verisimilitude – beyond say, “Burn Notice”. Yet for all that “The Americans” likely will be a soap opera.

    The Soviet husband likes American malls and wants to defect. The wife is fiercely opposed, clinging to a memory of Moscow in 1962. And their kids! Already their young boy seems to have the hots for the next door neighbor’s daughter. Her dad’s an FBI counter-intelligence agent (yes, really). Oh, and there’s a KGB general. He pops up somehow at the end in D.C. to tell the female spy he’s fighting off extremists in Moscow while defending the motherland.

    The atmosphere is the show’s real star and asset. Like Miami Vice, the show wants us to notice the music, style and set decorating. The clothes accurately are post 70s muted browns and not the much later, stereotypical big hair, neon and mullets. (Watch for Members Only jackets in future eps). They’ve gone the extra mile recreating 1981 on a basic cable budget. The music from Phil Collins to Pat Benatar is true to that year’s charts. (The only bum note was using The Who’s ‘Eminence Front’ as the FX TV ad campaign, which was from 1982).

    Still, atmosphere can carry only so far. A soap opera requires caricatures acting broadly. The show’s premise and conceit point the other way. And nothing suggests ambition to deconstruct the American self-image through the eyes of its Soviet protagonists. Leaving us with what, precisely?

    We doubt we’ll stick around after initial novelty dissipates. Aside from name-check fan service, it feels like Oakland, no there, there. (For that matter, we’ve never been able to sit through a re-watching of the recent “Tinker, Tailor” remake; the original BBC show remains sublime). Many pulp series have overcome inauspicious pilots. Will be interesting to see if we’re given a reason to care in time.

    FISA And The FAA Of 2008

    DNI’s recent letter (the “Letter”) to Feingold regarding FISA and in particular Section 702 (PDF here) underscores three things:

    1. Many in the blog and twittersphere are unable to read a letter longer than 140 characters;
    2. Feingold’s opposition to the FAA (FISA Amendments Act) is even more marginal politically today than during his quixotic stand in 2008; and
    3. The National Security Nomenklatura are secure enough to toss Feingold a marginal bone, showing no concerns about repercussion.

    Feingold sought DNI permission to discuss three statements about the FAA. He wanted political cover to avoid claims of violating security and to lock DNI into a position.

    Feingold’s most notable statement of the three submitted was that after 2008 FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court) ruled that the government acted unreasonably retaining information on AMCITs (American Citizens) in one instance. The Letter noted that FISC ruling but underscored remedial steps were since taken. Hardly the major admission characterized by breathless blog posts and tweets.

    Feingold, FISA, DNI, FAA

    Long time readers know our background and experience with FISA and intelligence oversight going back decades. Here’s our verdict on this little dust up.

    In boxing terms, Feingold didn’t even land a glove. If that’s all Feingold has to work with since 2008, stick a fork in it. DNI knows it, too. A FISC determination was made, and allegedly their concerns were followed. Rather than a black eye, this episode becomes a poster child for ‘rule of law.’ The Letter is typical Nomenklatura bureaucratese, feigning interest in cooperation with Feingold, civil rights, etc. But there’s also a barely concealed gloating underlying tone in the formality. They know Feingold’s got nothing to work on. And he’s probably even more alone in the Senate than in 2008.

    A long time ago we wrote about how unlikely Congress could prevail in re-asserting meaningful intelligence oversight. And that assumed Congress as a separate and co-equal branch of government re-discovered itself.

    Congress failed all of us at the beginning. With PATRIOT ACT (and blowing past its sunsets), with each subsequent compromise and a decade of Duma-like timidity. One or even a handful of Senators can’t revive an entire institution, let alone the other body.

    We are all of us like the people in our short story in the link above, prey for what was once supposed to guard. Now that Obama normalized and put his bi-partisan (albeit of the Kenyan, socialist, KGB mole variety) imprimatur on Cheney’s excesses, we don’t foresee rollback in our lifetime.

    Wikileaks And Stratfor Reveal An American Fantasy

    The remarkable thing about the Stratfor Wikileaks flap is what it says about America 2001-2011. A hyper-militarized society conditioned to fear the outside world, prostrate itself before ‘the warfighter’ and venerate the clandestine inevitably would create a Stratfor-like entity.

    This is exactly why places like The Atlantic get it precisely wrong. Here, the The Atlantic smugly assures us, the -in-the-know-Atlantic-reader, that George Friedman and others (some of whom the Stiftung knows) built a fairly significant cash flow from nothing based purely on ‘marketing.’

    Something more than ‘marketing’ is revealed by Stratfor’s significant cash flow. (Friedman after all makes more money than Newsweek/TheDailyBeast. We’d be interested in seeing The Atlantic’s numbers). Corporate intelligence subscription newsletters have catered to Wall Street and executives for decades. Still, Friedman’s achievement building a business from nothing to today’s enterprise is a fact.

    How did it start?

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    Whatever You Do, Don’t Tweet About This: Intelligence Community Wants To Monitor Social Media

    Large standing military and security forces have troubled ruling regimes from the dimmest tribal pasts down to today. Governing ideology doesn’t matter: totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist, Mao-ist or American corporatist democracy/demotic – all rely on and are often threatened by these – in political science terms – ‘power institutions.’

    FBI, Surveillance, National Security State

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    A Day In The Life Of Covert Technical Support

    [Phone rings]

    [Man in cubicle, late 20s, wearing headset, playing FarmVille on computer under heavy florescent lighting]

    Служба Внешней Разведки! Меня зовут Иван! Thank you for calling Directorate OT customer support. Your call is very important to us. How may I assist you today? This call definitely will be monitored for satisfaction.

    [Female voice, exasperated]: You have to help me, no one at Directorate S has a clue about iPhones and Macs.

    [Ivan]: Oh, uh, wow Directorate S! You know, procedure? You aren’t even supposed to be calling here? You’re an illegal.

    [Female voice, sharp]: Well, I’m calling, aren’t I?

    [Ivan] OK, OK. It’s just S . . . they’re touchy. You’re breaking cover and all. Is it true? I mean, the good life, yeah? All those Red Bull and vodka parties. Pay per view? I guess I can do some tech support, but if I help you out, how about you do the same? Put in a word for me? I look Belgian. Everyone says so.

    [Female voice, heavy sigh]:

    [Ivan]: First off, to open your account, may I ask your legend’s name and date of birth, please? (muttering under breath, ‘I am soo getting fired for this’).

    [Female voice]: Anna. Anna Chapman, 1982, OK? Look, I can’t get my Mac to synchronize for my scheduled meetings. Something stopped working. We use an ad hoc encrypted drive-by wireless data transfer with the contact’s van. And I have all this huge, huge news on Facebook’s privacy policies . . .

    [Ivan]: May I call you Anna? Your problem involves your van’s broken wireless network. OK, now I just need to verify your your account status. “I think we may have met before in Kharkov last June.”

    [Anna]: What? I would never go to Kharkov in a million years. Help with this Mac now. Or do I need to ask for a supervisor?

    [Ivan]: Thank you, Anna, that was the correct response. I can enter your general account now. One moment, please. I don’t have access to all your Directorate S accounts – their security is good. But I know some work arounds . . . [keys clacking].

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    Mercenary ‘Intelligence’ Spats In The Sandbox

    The memo also said that Mr. Furlong had a history of delving into outlandish intelligence schemes, including an episode in 2008, when American officials expelled him from Prague for trying to clandestinely set up computer servers for propaganda operations. Some officials say they believe that the C.I.A. is trying to scuttle the operation to protect its own turf, and that the spy agency has been embarrassed because the contractors are outperforming C.I.A. operatives . . .

    To skirt military restrictions on intelligence gathering, information the contractors gather in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is specifically labeled “atmospheric collection”: information about the workings of militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan or about Afghan tribal structures. The boundaries separating “atmospherics” from what spies gather is murky. It is generally considered illegal for the military to run organized operations aimed at penetrating enemy organizations with covert agents.

    Amusing and even predictable. DoD let the Lockmart contract lapse this month. Still, an ‘investigation’ will result in nothing but a pile of dead trees (and overly ornate PDF file).

    Once again Dewey Clarridge pops up like a telemarketer at dinnertime. North by contrast channelled his energies into churning out awful television. Nice to know DoD, Petreaus and Lockmart hired a Czech company to assist intelligence operations (putting a retired senior U.S. General who helped start it all on the payroll).

    This Administration will do nothing. No one’s clearances will be revoked. No letters of reprimand. After all, a Tampa-based CENTCOM lawyer said it was kosher. Haven’t we seen *that* dance before? Holder probably has everyone involved on ‘call block.’

    Congress in its heart of hearts wonders what’s the fuss? Of more concern is why aren’t more Czech holding entities U.S. front companies showing up at breakfast fund raisers?

    Thank goodness one no let it slip to the Pakistanis. Imagine if Pakistanis realized American mercenaries and drones were operating in their country. Killing 20-30 people at a time with – to Americans – monotonous regularity. Even a non-radicalized Taliban faction Pakistani eventually might get pissed off. That kind of ‘nut’ could over react to those few silly drone fusillades and other “war” stuff. And suggest someone go buy propane. Or something.

    Made In America

    You Never Hear It Coming

    Officers are concerned that public revelation of the CTC (Counterterrorist Center) program will seriously damage Agency officers’ reputations, as well as the reputation and effectiveness of the Agency itself . . .

    According to a number of those [analysts] interviewed for this Review, the Agency’s intelligence on Al-Qa’ida was limited to prior to the initiation of the CTC Interrogation Program. The Agency lacked adequate linguists or subject matter experts and had very little hard knowledge of what particular Al-Qai’da leaders – who later became detainees – knew. This lack of knowledge led analysts to speculate about what a detainee “should know”, vice information the analysts could objectively demonstrate the detainee did know. . .

    When a detainee did not respond to a question posed to him, the assumption at Headquarters was that the detainee was holding back and knew more; consequently Headquarters recommended resumption of EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques].

    Those nuggets, buried within the released CIA IG Report, are all you really need to know. The rest is dressage. The Report like most well crafted government documents obeys certain forms and rituals. The damning truth above is embedded — like steganography; there was and is no professional intelligence justification for any of it. The Report also confirms what we’ve known, the Agency’s Office of General Counsel was an active participant in shaping and distorting information (such as hiding the SERE proponents’ lack of credentials or skills from the Agency’s Office of Medical Services, etc.) As a lurid distraction, we are also treated to the utterly disheartening spectacle of Agency officers or contractors role playing like unusually dim Chekists in Lubyanka’s basement.

    Writing a report like this as noted is a stylized ritual like a waltz. Even with the black out this is an intricate and synchronized affair. Major FCC Orders recite a factual record similarly but on a more mundane level (and oddly are as opaque on pages as the black out).

    The IG’s Office (and we’ve personally known and respected senior personnel in that office) weave a tapestry around the wreckage that shields but does not contradict this devastating, damning finding. For example, the Report notes that valuable information did indeed come from detainees while carefully noting the information obtained was not due to torture and emphasizing the disorganized program can not demonstrate any clear cut instance where the torture produced uniquely helpful information [we will eschew Cofer Black’s et. al preferred faux macho euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’].

    The Scott Horton types justifiably will be up in arms about the human rights abuses and torture. There is also a more nuanced discussion to be had about the corruption of the intelligence product cycle, as well as continued human capital problems. And as you know, we continue to believe the Nation and currently serving personnel would be better off starting clean and letting CIA’s corpse be interred.

    We can’t think of any platform where this more serious conversation could occur, especially sans tired culprits like John McLaughlin stroking The Beard in his comedic ‘Situation Room’. Perhaps Rachel Maddow can help out.

    We doubt much will come from any of this (particularly the glaring collapse of congressional oversight). With Obama’s promise of non-prosecution for any officer or contractor who acted within the four corners of the absurd OLC memos Holder is free to go after the few, new Lynndie Englands. If they play their cards right, they will position themselves as martyrs, get book deals, air time on Fox and then become senior fellows with that titan of international policy analysis, Cliff May. Embedding the rendition and detainee program with Brennan in the White House would not have occurred to Terry Gilliam even with ether and a Samoan attorney.

    Sad times for the Stiftung. We used to pride ourselves as being different. We *were* different. One more thing destroyed by Tenet, Black et al.