Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘espionage’

Untouchable

Is there any better example of Trump’s disjunctive speech patterns than that moment in his Helsinki press conference where he seemed to be trying to support Paul Manafort by comparing him to Al Capone?

With Paul Manafort, who really is a nice man, you look at what’s going on, it’s like Al Capone

Nerve agents and the World Cup

Here’s a crazy theory that I need to write down, because no one else seems to be saying it: Could it be that the Novichok poisoning of two ordinary British people in Amesbury was not, as most have assumed, an accidental effect of residual Novichok somehow lingering after the Skripal poisoning in eight miles away in Salisbury, but rather an intentional effort to keep Theresa May away from the World Cup.

British politicians and royals are staying away from the World Cup in protest against the March assassination attempt. Of course, no one cares. Putin has his spectacle. But May was hedging recently:

THERESA May has hinted that her World Cup boycott on royals and ministers attending the football tournament in Russia could be dropped if England were to make it to the final.

When questioned whether her stance could change, the Prime Minister said she is taking the decision “every game at a time” but the Government had been “very clear” about why the position was taken.

Wouldn’t that be just the sort of psychopathic trolling that would appeal to Vladimir Putin, to raise the embarrassment level for British politicians to come, or prevent them from basking in the reflected glory of their football team?

Divided illoyalties

A few years back I commented on the British government’s attempts to bully David Miranda — partner of Edward Snowden’s favourite journalist, Glenn Greenwald — during a stopover at Heathrow Airport, accusing him of transporting secrets that were damaging to UK interests. There is literally no sense in which a foreign national acting on foreign soil to dig out UK state secrets is violating UK laws, whether or not they collaborate with Britons and/or foreign governments. I felt similarly about the bizarre sotto voce threats of American authorities to charge Julian Assange with espionage.

First time tragedy, second time (or third time) farce. From the dwindling arsenal of Brexit rhetoric health secretary Jeremy Hunt has pulled out the rustiest blunderbuss yet:

Jeremy Hunt has called warnings from Airbus about the UK’s Brexit strategy “completely inappropriate”, saying the government should ignore “siren voices”.

In the most bullish comments from a cabinet minister since the intervention by the aerospace company’s chief executive, Hunt said businesses sounding the alarm about job losses risked undermining the government at a key moment in the negotiations.

“It was completely inappropriate for businesses to be making these kinds of threats, for one simple reason,” the health secretary told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “We are in a critical moment in the Brexit discussions. We need to get behind Theresa May to deliver the best possible Brexit, a clean Brexit.”

Airbus, perhaps Mr Hunt needs to be reminded, is not a British company. They care about a “good” Brexit deal for their own narrow interests, but have no obligation not to “undermine” the chieftain of the strange folk among whom they are temporarily working. They are issuing a warning — a threat if you will — not an expression of patriotic support. Their obligations to the British nation begin and end with maximising long-term shareholder value. According to the ideology that his party has been promoting for the past 40 years, that would be the case even if it were a centuries-old British company. Fiat lucrum, pereat mundus.

To put it differently, if the plan to leave the EU depended for its success on the loyal support of businesses based in the UK, then it wasn’t a very smart plan. (I’m pretending, for rhetorical purposes, that I believe there was a plan.) To paraphrase an earlier Tory PM, a politician complaining about the disloyalty of business is like a sailor complaining about the sea.

My “industry” — education — is immovably British, and isn’t going to move away, even as its status will diminish post-Brexit. Many other leading British companies — concentrated, as far as I can tell, in gambling, manufacture of liquor, and money laundering — will do splendidly.

Landing the plane

One of the weirder stories to come up right after the 9/11 attacks was that the “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui  — the Al Qaeda operative who was arrested by the FBI a month before the attack — raised the suspicions of the flight school teacher because he wasn’t interested in learning how to land the plane. In fact, this doesn’t seem to have been true, but the instructor said one of the things that aroused his suspicions was that Moussaoui was interested in how to turn off the oxygen and the transponder. They also thought it was odd that he was starting with learning to fly jumbo jets, which clearly could not part of any rational career strategy.

He also had a weird reason for wanting to learn to fly a jumbo jet, said Nelson — he told them that he merely wanted to be able to boast to his friends that he could fly a 747.

“He was telling us that it’s an ego thing,” Nelson said. “That’s a lot of money to spend to play.”

“I need to know if you can help me achieve my ‘goal,’ my dream,” Moussaoui wrote, listing five types of Boeing and Airbus jets. “To be able to pilot one of these Big Birds, even if I am not a real professional pilot.”

There’s an oddly similar story in The Guardian’s new report on Cambridge Analytica’s possibly even more consequential attack on the British and US elections, facilitated by Facebook. There was this pitch that the company made to the Russian oil conglomerate Lukoil in 2014:

A slide presentation prepared for the Lukoil pitch focuses first on election disruption strategies used by Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL, in Nigeria. They are presented under the heading “Election: Inoculation”, a military term used in “psychological operations” and disinformation campaigns. Other SCL documents show that the material shared with Lukoil included posters and videos apparently aimed at alarming or demoralising voters, including warnings of violence and fraud.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who has come forward to talk to the Observer, said it was never entirely clear what the Russian firm hoped to get from the operation.

“Alexander Nix [Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica]’s presentation didn’t make any sense to me,” said Wylie, who left Cambridge Analytica soon after the initial meetings. “If this was a commercial deal, why were they so interested in our political targeting?”

Lukoil did not respond to requests for comments.

I guess even oil conglomerates have dreams. And they can find clueless techies willing to make their dreams come true.

His master’s voice

 

So yesterday I was reading about the White House position on the nerve-agent poisoning  of Sergei Skripal et al.:

White House declines to back UK’s assertion that Russia is behind poisonings of ex-spies

Not what you would expect if you believed that the US would stand up for its number-one lapdog ally, but obviously someone in the White House is concerned about not upsetting the Kremlin. But then there was a report that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said

Russia is ‘clearly’ behind spy poisoning and ‘must face serious consequences’

This seemed like a significant disagreement. And I thought, either this reflects a change of position — perhaps with more information implicating the Russians — or Rex is freestyling. Presumably Tillerson is speaking for the state department professionals and the White House is speaking for… Well, let’s just say that Vlad would want to see some evidence that Donald hasn’t forgotten who he’s working for. I was expecting there to be some sort of demeaning tweet about Tillerson’s height or his body odour, or something.

And today we have this:

Rex Tillerson Out as Trump’s Secretary of State, Replaced by Mike Pompeo

Weird coincidence. Even if Tillerson’s ouster actually had been planned long in advance, it’s pretty obvious that a small delay would have prevented this appearance of truckling to the Kremlin’s interests. Which means that, whatever else may have motivated this step, that appearance was almost certainly desired.

The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration. (more…)

Learning to count

The US espionage services promised last year to reveal roughly how many Americans were illegally spied upon through “accidents” in the warrantless surveillance law restricted to communications by foreigners overseas.

Last month the promise was retracted.

“The NSA has made Herculean, extensive efforts to devise a counting strategy that would be accurate,” Dan Coats, a career Republican politician appointed by Republican President Donald Trump as the top U.S. intelligence official, testified to a Senate panel on Wednesday.

Coats said “it remains infeasible to generate an exact, accurate, meaningful, and responsive methodology that can count how often a U.S. person’s communications may be collected” under the law known as Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

So we’re supposed to believe that the NSA is capable of making brilliant use of the full depth of private communications to map out threats to US national security… but isn’t capable of counting them. Presumably these “Herculean” efforts involve a strong helping of Cretan Bull—-.

I am reminded of this passage in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften [The Man without Qualities]:

Es gibt also in Wirklichkeit zwei Geistesverfassungen, die einander nicht nur bekämpfen, sondern die gewöhnlich, was schlimmer ist, nebeneinander bestehen, ohne ein Wort zu wechseln, außer daß sie sich gegenseitig versichern, sie seien beide wünschenswert, jede auf ihrem Platz. Die eine begnügt sich nicht damit, genau zu sein, und hält sich an die Tatsachen; die andere begnügt sich nicht damit, sondern schaut immer auf das Ganze und leitet ihre Erkenntnisse von sogenannten ewigen und großen Wahrheiten her. Die eine gewinnt dabei an Erfolg, und die andere an Umfang und Würde. Es ist klar, daß ein Pessimist auch sagen könnte, die Ergebnisse der einen seien nichts wert und die der anderen nicht wahr. Denn was fängt man am Jüngsten Tag, wenn die menschlichen Werke gewogen werden, mit drei Abhandlungen über die Ameisensäure an, und wenn es ihrer dreißig wären?! Andererseits, was weiß man vom Jüngsten Tag, wenn man nicht einmal weiß, was alles bis dahin aus der Ameisensäure werden kann?!

Thus there are in fact two distinct mental types, which not only battle each other, but which, even worse, generally coexist side by side without ever exchanging a word, other than that they assure each other that they are each desirable in their own place. The one contents itself with being exact and keeping to the facts; the other is not content with that, always looking for the big picture, and derives its knowledge from so-called great eternal truths. The one gains success thereby, the other gains scope and value. Of course, a pessimist could always say, the results of the one have no value, while those of the other have no truth. After all, when the Last Judgment comes, what are we going to do with three treatises on formic acid, and so what if we even had thirty of them?! On the other hand, what could we possibly know about the Last Judgment, if we don’t even know what could happen by then with formic acid?!

The NSA is focusing on the big picture…

Wake-up call

Microsoft responds to the worldwide ransomware attack on Windows XP:

The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call.

A wake-up call where they kill sick people in need of medical treatment. I’m not staying in that hotel again.

Fortunately, it turns out that no one was responsible: not Microsoft, not the NSA. Here in Britain, the government that skimped on funding vital infrastructure for the National Health Service so that their computers didn’t get urgent security patches looks likely to be re-elected in a landslide, because the important thing is not what a government does in office, but whether its plans for what it would do get leaked to the press several days early.

Strong and stubborn stable leadership.

White House samsara

Is there some cosmic law of recurrence that decreed that as soon as Donald Trump had decided to go full-Nixon by firing the FBI director who was investigating his crimes, Henry Kissinger would pop up in the Oval Office?

Was he really there in the flesh, or were the photographers astonished to find his image appear on the film negatives? “Where two or three are gathered to subvert the Constitution, there am I among you.”

The serious point is, this shows how Trump’s impulsiveness (fortunately) gets in the way of his authoritarian showmanship. Presumably, a competent would-be strongman would have found a moment to subvert the rule of law for reasons that HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH TREASONOUS CONTACTS WITH MOSCOW (which didn’t happen anyway), when he wasn’t scheduled to meet the next day with his handler the Russian ambassador and with Nixon’s Watergate henchman National Security Advisor.

Comey of errors

After the November US election I agreed with many commentators, who said that Comey really should resign for his failures of judgement or (depending on who you’re listening to) malfeasance with regard to the Clinton email server investigation, that it would provide partisan satisfaction for Democrats for him to be forced out, but that it was essential for the nation for him to stay in office as an independent check on the president’s authoritarian impulses. Some said he has the most secure job in Washington, since Republicans and Democrats both wanted to keep him, albeit for very different reasons.

Apparently not.

We’re used to thinking of scandals as something that will damage the politicians involved if and when they come out, possibly driving them from office. But that’s not always how it works. That isn’t even really the fundamental dynamic. Hidden criminality by people in power locks them in a death struggle with the rule of law and the system of honest democratic politics. Only one can survive. If the politician has weak support, or self-doubt, or respect for democratic norms then it’s like a moon in Jupiter’s gravitation — for all intents and purpose we can just say it’s the massive planet (the constitutional system) acting on the small body. But it can be more like a black hole interacting with a star: Both are perturbed, and until they get close you can’t judge how massive the black hole is. (more…)

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