Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘espionage’

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Last month the promise was retracted.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…)

Defending the fraud

From the perspective of normal human psychology, everything about the Trump-Putin interaction seems off. As I remarked before, if Trump were really a Russian agent, you would expect Putin to advise him to be less conspicuous in advocating Russian interests, simply to preserve his usefulness.

On the other hand, imagine Trump as a naive businessman with generally russophile leanings. (I don’t know, maybe he read The Gambler at an impressionable age, and modeled his life on it.) He’s had no significant contact with the Russian leadership, but he once met Vladimir Putin at a beauty pageant, thinks he praised him (mistakenly), and thinks he could do some good for the world by relaxing tensions with the world’s second-largest nuclear power. He is convinced that he deserves to be president, but privately unsure the world will acknowledge his greatness. Now he receives intelligence briefings giving strong evidence that the Russians are attempting to interfere with the election in his favour. What would he do? Before the election maybe he keeps quiet and tries to suppress or discredit the claims. But you would expect him to be seething with fury, that the Russians threaten to taint his election. The help they’re giving is marginal, but the blowback is potentially enormous. It’s like a referee intentionally calling an unwarranted penalty in a football match. It probably won’t change the result, but it makes the favoured side look terrible. To do that without consent is an act of aggression against those you’re ostensibly helping. (more…)

The Deep State election

Maybe in 2020 we can clarify matters by dropping the Republican/Democratic mask and just let the FBI and CIA field their own candidates.


Against all odds, all political sides in the US are converging toward agreement. Here was a headline from the left-wing Daily Kos that seemed extreme three weeks ago:

Former spy reports Kremlin cultivated Trump as an asset for 5 years

And here is Donald Trump, speaking yesterday at a press conference:

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that’s called an asset

Donald Trump is not a Russian agent

If he were, they would surely order him not to blow his cover by so blatantly promoting Russian interests.

I realise I’m clutching at straws here…

Confidence game: Growth mindset for the secret police

Powers that give MI5, MI6 and GCHQ a “dizzying” range of electronic surveillance capabilities will be laid out in the investigatory powers bill next month, in a move that will bolster the confidence of the intelligence agencies but pave the way for a row with privacy campaigners.

According to one headline announcing this report in the Times, the security services will get the “legal right” to hack into people’s computers and other electronic devices. Under must circumstances, “legal right” might be seen as redundant, but not here. They already do these things, they have the power to do these things, but what they lack, apparently, is confidence in their abilities.

Cue the Growth Mindset (TM). I suppose it was only a matter of time before education fads started sloshing over into spying: After all, aren’t GCHQ and the others supposed to be “learning things”? What they need is confidence. The standard critiques apply:

Confidence and motivation are crucial, but confidence without competence is simply hot air.

By their scandals you shall know them

I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.

Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.

What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.

It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.

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