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.

    Riding The General Staff

    Tawdry inconsequentiality sums up the Petraeus matter. Petraeus and Allen, two Imperial Viceroys from CENCTOM, strode across the globe with more direct and indirect power regionally than any U.S. diplomat or civilian, outstripping in many ways their Roman forebears. Yet the Pro Consuls are socially seduced by shameless con artists. How does this happen?

    Jill Kelley, the Philadelphia native, is apparently a ruthless social climber only five years in Tampa. Her apparent wealth masking profound insolvency, alleged IRS fraud, and a litany of creditor lawsuits for staggering sums. Her potentially sociopathic sister knows both generals well enough to finagle two ineffective letters of character support in her child custody war. A judge saw more clearly than the two Titans of CENTCOM. He rejected them, noting her mendacity and untrustworthiness are well known to the court.

    ‘Camp whores’ (of both genders) are a well known sociological phenomenon. Yet these two did little more than play hostess at various functions. None are obviously stunningly attractive outside the Jersey Shore framework. But flaunt a lifestyle vastly beyond their means. Something else must explain their extraordinary access. It’s not about Petraeus or Allen individually, but a systemic phenomenon.

    Reports now indicate that Petraeus used to arrive at Kelley’s parties in military motorcade with 28 Tampa police as escorts. Kelley in return offered expensive cigars, bottle service and musical serenades. It’s corrupt from both sides. Why does CENTCOM condone this?

    Kelley tried to get her house declared the other day a diplomatic mission because of a flimsy volunteer certificate bestowing the awesome title of ‘Honorary Ambassader’ [for cheese whiz, or the like]. This is the person who trades personal emails with the Titans of CENTCOM? She has those bona fides. Besides 30,000 pages of emails with General Allen. Her intimacy with Allen involves flying up from Tampa to see him in Washington, D.C. Evidence suggests she had some similar access to Petraeus.

    A foreign intelligence service couldn’t design a more useful penetration of Imperial Viceroys. Especially when Jill Kelley is millions in debt and fighting foreclosure and her sister, she of the court order, just declared $3.5 MM bankruptcy. There are a dozen intelligence services that would toss some coin for their access and then guided/targeted collection efforts.

    Apparently, to penetrate an American Viceroy you just need some decent tits a good profile, cigars, a foreclosed Mercedes, ruthless self-promotion and South Philly/Jersey shore moxi. The Chinese might well be dumbfounded at the ease and minimal funds involved.

    The Affair and Petraeus

    Quick thoughts. We’re somewhat sympathetic to both original ‘sinners.’ Everyone probably knows an ex that did not take a breakup well (or been that ex). Sure, she pursued him. He was the alpha male in a system based on latent crypto-homoerotic glorification of the top dog. He made the mistake. To sociological analysis noting the affair began 2 months at CIA without his accustomed staff, etc. we repeat the above: he made the mistake. Full stop.

    re Petraeus’ departure and reducing CIA paramilitary interest, history teaches it’s the President, not the Director that determines this. CIA built up its capacities in every major military conflict to compete with and complement the Pentagon. Stan Turner’s famous 1978 ‘Halloween Massacre’ under Carter was in part (though not entirely) a house cleaning of paramilitary personnel from Vietnam. Few can say that his refocus on technical collection by itself improved things.

    Current CIA paramilitary interest began in the Fall of 2001 and grew in a steady line. If you’re here you likely agree the drone program is out of control. What calls itself CIA these days still responds to White House interest, priorities and wishes (spoken or unspoken). Obama must be the one to set new priorities, not a Director.

    We agree the FBI’s role is both ominous and pathetic. We also agree the underlying emails should not be sufficient for an FBI investigation. One silver lining: people see that the Bureau does not need a court to access all of their email and Cloud data from 6 months ago. The Bare-Chested Dude (take that, Cigarette Smoking Man!) adds to the entire South Philly/Jersey Shore-in-Tampa motif. His circumventing Bureau Protocol to ignite Congress directly a further warning that the FBI can not be trusted to control information.

    Should Petraeus have resigned? Yes. Not because of all the pontification of blackmail, etc. That same 1959 mindset has always been used to enforce needlessly orthodox lifestyle preferences. It’s been rolled back in many areas. Had he chosen to remain, he would of necessity be defending his actions and be perceived as bureaucratically weakened, internally and externally.


    These past days may be the only time ever among grown men, we’ve heard someone actually say “Look at those arms, pretty hot, eh?” So there’s that.

    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.

    The Baroque Incentives Of A President Addicted To Dealing Death

    Overtly covert wars and drone assassinations happen because Obama and his unremarkable White House national security staff want them. Obama’s fulsome embrace of tactical expediency only accelerates degeneration of American strategic thinking into compartmentalized, impulsive, unconnected random spasms of violence.

    Ignatius repackages known struggles within the U.S. Islamabad embassy over who controls U.S. drone war in Pakistan, the ambassador or CIA? (Ignatius adds a morsel that St. David Petraeus is cross).

    Drone War, Obama
    Bureaucratically, ambassadorial struggles for policy control are not unprecedented. State overall has been fending off encroachment on ambassadorial authority for a long time. Rummy pushed DoD assassination teams into embassies who expressly were exempt from ambassadorial oversight. Earlier, even Commerce and FBI drove wedges. Managing an embassy now is far more demanding for any ambassador than just 20 years ago. Without the drones.

    In Pakistan’s case, the ambassador’s attempt to control policy predestined to fail. He didn’t understand Obama court political realities. Obama faces domestic gridlock. (Much of it his own doing). Foreign policy and especially ‘covert’ action are his release. The ambassador really contested Obama’s authority and the one sphere of presidential positive feedback.

    Foreign policy as mentioned here recently is the preferred refuge for domestically stymied presidents. CIA, CTC and DoD covert militarism cater to Obama’s frustration and proclivity for judging others. They tease and often deliver instant gratification: ‘results’ (aka death), action, baseball cards, full motion video and alleged secrecy. Approving who lives or dies? Doesn’t get any judgier.

    Per the NYT it requires a veritable death bureaucracy, faceless GS and super grades, to feed the Addict-In-Chief. The death apparatchiks routinely offer candidates like discussing draft picks in ‘Moneyball’. The rot is deep. Think about this the next time someone suggests watching ‘Conspiracy’. Obama insists on bringing the Cesarian thumbs up/down into the Oval Office. Is it really noble sacrifice to control the otherwise out-of-control system? Then why the leaks bragging about it all?

    It’s a compartmentalized program, except spread very far and with direct presidential patronage. The secrecy, insularity and reward mechanisms (presidential approval, a ‘good kill’) create an alternate reality, smug, aloof and at odds with those not read in (let alone ‘Consensual Reality’).

    Into this disposal, the ambassador in Pakistan stuck his hand. Others control the switch. Only a poor poker player challenges Obama to abandon his one area of seeming control and instant kicks for what? Prolix cables back to Foggy Bottom? More complexity and frustration with brown people far away?

    State’s failure in Pakistan is part of a wider pattern. Lack of strategic coherence is in some ways unavoidable. Institutions of all types erode and dissolve into digital ADD across American society. Tactical impulsiveness commands media, corporations and individuals. Why should foreign policy be any different? Compartmentalized thinking and operations are perfectly suited for a fractured age.

    Crafting and implementing enduring, strategically rational architectures perhaps was easier under the old monoculture. No one can deny contemporary American inability to govern domestically. Still, it’s not that we are powerless even so. The root enabler of American imbalance abroad — and Obama’s personal mechanism of death — are the budgets we craft here at home. DoD and the Community must be pared down from their wartime extravagances. Eliminating the gross resource imbalance at least makes a more coordinated, recalibrated strategic posture likely. And State restored to a modestly functioning role.

    One unanswered question is would Weberian bureaucratic logic compel any president in these circumstances to pursue similar activities — regardless of character?

    All we know is this president isn’t interested in trying to find out.

    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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    If Only People Opposed The PATRIOT Act Like SOPA; The Power Of LOLCats

    All the Interwebs are buzzing about de-railing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, Protect IP Act (PIPA). Those kidz at Reddit started a campaign against a company (GoDaddy) so dull (it registers Internet domains and sells email) it gets marginal mindshare deploying quasi-strip tease acts for ads designed to be blocked at the Super Bowl. Technology companies flirting with the IP crowd are now backing away.

    SOPA is kitchen table talk now. Perhaps everyone wants to at least feel like they’re ‘in’. Like Tina Fey-kinda-in. It’s a simple talking point, too. Why, allowing Hollywood lawyers to tell backbone companies to block websites the lawyers deem carrying pirated material? That would “break the Internet.” Angry Birds would die. Mafia Wars end. And so on.

    We won’t rehearse all the original machinations of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Business Software Alliance (MSFT eta al.). You’ve seen it elsewhere. And of course, watching MSFT and others at BSA cave to pressure and retreat is not un-fun. But it’s the same old story of IP holders’ greed and fear from the DMCA days. Turned up a notch. Except now there’s social media – like Reddit. And it bit them in the backside but fierce.

    Still, it’s a bread and circuses thing. We’re just puzzled why Amerikhuns care more about access to online porn, Pirate Bay wannabees and LOLCats than, say, oh, their personal freedom. Nobody lifted a finger to slow PATRIOT down then. Except Dick Armey and a few who demanded and got sunset provisions. OK, it was right after 9/11. Feelings were raw.

    Feelings weren’t that raw when Democrats and Republicans voted to blow past the original sunsets. How raw could feelings be with the Boy King in office? To get *expansions* to the PATRIOT Act, notwithstanding its classified offshoots. Chirp. Chirp. You’d think this would be something custom made for social media, ala Cairo, etc. But alas, people can’t conceive of losing something that’s not tangible, like a shiny new iPad suddenly no longer showing a favorite website.

    So if you go to one of those usual suspect aggregators news sites proclaiming this ‘dramatic’ SOPA victory to ‘preserve the Internet’, just remember, sure, Amerikhuns may get LOLCats unimpeded. And the torrents running free in Sweden.

    High fives all around. Because, like, saving the “integrity of the Internet” is so much more important than a constitutional republic. You know we’re right.

    Tinker, Tailor, CSI – An Adequate Remake

    The 2011 cinematic version of Le Carre’s finest novel, Tinker, Tailor is a competent procedural that manages to tell the story of a 1970s British mole hunt with diligent attention to period atmosphere. Those unfamiliar with the book or lyrically accurate and evocative 1970s BBC mini-series with Alec Guiness likely will find the movie fine entertainment.

    Tinker, Tailor On Auto Tune

    Both the book and BBC series at heart are about layers of betrayal: to colleagues, to institutions, to ‘set’ or social caste, to spouses, to country and ultimately disappointed life entitlement. It’s no accident the BBC series’ credits roll with Oxford spires and a choral lament. That is the alpha and omega of the story. None of that is in the movie. And thus we are left with something less.

    The movie also misses a key character. 1970s Britain. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson works overtime to pull the viewer into his re-created 1970s world. Shot after shot lingers on mini-skirted extras, 1970s furniture rejected by “Mad Men” as not innocently 60’s enough, period wall paper in the background and lots of 1970s cars. The film chromatic scale even seeks to lure the viewer in. Yet it’s a manufactured strain that still can’t capture what the BBC cameras did effortlessly — London (and Oxford) as imperial detritus, floating on memory.

    The screenplay invents some new scenes and omits others but like a good CSI or NCIS episode tells how a British mole burrowed to the aorta of British intelligence and turned it all into an arm of Moscow Center. When confronted after capture the movie’s mole declares his rationale “I made my mark.” Very 21st Century. In the book and BBC series, this scene is a complex fugue like crescendo of all the cascading betrayals.

    The major theme? Young men working in intelligence during WW II, recruited from Oxford to rule the world themselves betrayed by fate. Their youthful expectations to preside over an empire invisibly now just a bitter joke in a world of American and Soviet preponderance. The movie doesn’t touch this but inserts serial betrayal as simply dastardly acts. Tinker, Tailor on Auto Tune.

    Some changes are just odd. The original plot device to start the book and BBC series is a sabotaged covert mission to Warsaw Pact Czechoslovakia. The cat’s paw here was fake Soviet mobilization along the NATO border to trigger a crisis in London. For some reason, the movie puts this mission to Budapest and Hungary. Why? Soviet mobilization in Hungary? Even then. Puzzling, maybe, but yawn.

    Perhaps modern audiences can’t conceive of Czechoslovakia as ferrin enough. After all, Czech super models adorn beaches from the Aegean, Dubai to the Hamptons. The whole “New Europe” thing? American BMD sites? Recently departed Vaclav Havel being so familiar for decades ? So . . . Hungary?

    Ever Listen To A Band With Some Instruments Just *Slightly* Out Of Tune?

    We felt the movie generally miscast but the acting solid and serving the truncated procedural format. Our new Smiley, as mole hunting protagonist, is stoic and purposeful, with hesitancy intended to show character. Gone is the apparently befuddled, genuinely uncertain (about Ann and many things) Smiley, quiet but with intellectual stride. Gary Oldman, Commissioner Gordon from Batman to you kool kidz, said he modeled his take on Le Carre himself.

    Oldman in one or two shots is shown to act physically weak. That’s age but not character. Oldman’s Smiley vehemently confronts Lacon and The Minister that they’ve been duped by The Mole, etc. Oldman’s viscerally assertive, combative and unabashedly confrontational. The anti-Smiley. On all counts. But exactly what a 127 minute procedural format requires.

    The rest of the major cast are too young to be men of WW II now in the 1970s. John Hurt, playing Control, rips off his earlier portrayal of Chancellor Sutler from “V for Vendetta”. (We did think about a chest burster but that’s just us). His Control is a alcoholic who likes to socialize with the staff. The movie abandons Control’s journey of quietly frantic desperation to fend off an internal coup. That would have been more valuable than the fabricated scenes of his drinking and carousing.

    Similarly, we thought fabricated scenes of violence gratuitous. They seemed tacked on to remind today’s audience that “THE SOVIETS ARE MEAN.” Maybe that was the smart thing to do.

    The Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux cast in the movie are improbable urchins. Both actors are fine, but there’s no way in hell that Prideaux, the spy betrayed in Czechoslovakia Hungary was “Old Circus” – i.e. an institutional legend, whose stature in fall would topple Control from his throne. This Prideaux looks like the guy you see when you walk by Charles Schwab who welcomes new customers. Haydon, too. Far too young to be the foundational superstar. The movie’s Haydon plays the louche well but simply lacks the internal, instinctive Christ Church hauteur essential to his Miltonian Fall. And without that, all you have “I made a mark.”

    A few minor quibbles with supporting roles. Toby and Bland get so little screen time their performances don’t register much. Greatly missing, however, is Toby’s unctuous superciliousness. Ricki Tarr comes across as a petulant tennis coach. His time on screen outsized given sacrifices forced on other characters in the screenplay.

    Percy in this movie is a complete fumble. YMMV. And Peter Guillam? What’s with that?

    Lacon, the permanent career intelligence functionary is reduced on screen to a quasi- accountant/minder (who plays squash). Gone are his estate, the foundation of his knighthood and pre-occupation with order and appearance. Again missing are motivations and impulses driven from entitlement and prestige. Perhaps this is surgical precision here – if that overarching theme is absent why provide Lacon the buttressing details?

    All in all, the audience appeared to enjoy the movie a great deal. If Smiley here is not quite Horatio Cane or Gibbs he still wraps up the puzzle nicely in 127 minutes (and is shown at close assuming Control’s throne (again out of character) triumphantly). We give it a good 3 Leos out of 5. Those less immersed in the BBC series or book may rate it higher.