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Belmont Club

The Wizards At War

November 25th, 2014 - 4:09 pm

For more than a decade some entities, identified by pundits as probably the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, have been seeding “telecom operators, government institutions, multi-national political bodies, financial institutions, research institutions [and] individuals involved in advanced mathematical/cryptographical research” with malware called Regin.

Regin can be thought of as the B-2 bomber of cyberware.  It was a vehicle for different kinds of payloads which dropped software components in the target systems.  These components constituted a secret library which could later be invoked by some signal or event,  or which routinely interacted with other components in ways that are as yet poorly understood.  Regin came to public attention when researchers at Symantec realized that one of the ‘viruses’ they were cataloging was only the tip of a shadowy iceberg.

Even so, there is still much about Regin that they do not understand. They have, for example, not identified a reproducible infection vector, and these may have been customized for attacks. There are also “dozens of Regin payloads,” providing for all the usual things like password stealing, captured screens, stolen files — including deleted files — and more.

The malware also makes use of non-standard and odd techniques as a means of stealth. For example, it has a custom-built encrypted virtual file system. Symantec believes that many components of Regin remain undiscovered.

Nor will they ever. Regin was versioned and its successor has moved on in ways nobody in the public domain wants to talk about.  The old versions created encrypted virtual file systems  on target systems. They would look like noise or empty space on the hard drive. But Regin would “see” it, with its special software glasses and use it just as easily as you might a CSV file. Those invisible files could store  screenshots as when you are entering your credentials into your bank’s ‘unhackable’ screen keyboard or intercept the keyboard interrupts of  letters as you type. It would squirrel away a trace of  emails, chats and the history of all your browsing in this invisible file system. Then at the opportune time or on command,  it could upload the whole shooting match via some other zombie device and hence by routes devious and circuitous to the NSA.

Regin could colonize networked devices.


Hagel Gone

November 24th, 2014 - 7:58 am

The New York Times characterizes Chuck Hagel’s departure as “the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and the struggles of his national security team to respond to an onslaught of global crises.” The article hints at an underlying conflict over policy and over Hagel’s “problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner”.

The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said. … He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

An unnamed source at NBC news leaves little doubt that Hagel was fired.

Senior defense officials confirmed to NBC News Monday that Hagel was forced to resign. The officials say the White House has lost confidence in Hagel to carry out his role at the Pentagon. According to one senior official, “He wasn’t up to the job.” Another senior administration official said that Hagel has been discussing a departure from the White House “for several weeks.” … Multiple sources also said that Hagel was originally brought to the job to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but, as the fight against the Islamic State ramped up, he was not as well matched for the post. “Rather than winding down two wars, we’re winding up,” said one source close to Hagel and top Pentagon officials.


The Next Gold Rush

November 23rd, 2014 - 1:23 pm

While most space headlines have focused on Tourism or the major probes to the planets,  a potentially significant issue was making its way unnoticed underneath the fold. Wall Street OTC says reports on the formation of three asteroid mining organizations:  “The Asteroid Mining Company” (aka Planetary Resources), Deep Space Industries (DSI), and NASA.”

In fact, the ill-fated Ares spacecraft which blew up at Wallops Island carried the Arkyd 3, “a space-testing platform dedicated to test Planetary Resources’ telescope systems for further space exploration.”  It was in short, a prospecting device. “Planetary Resources plans to rebuild and re-launch Arkyd 3 in 9 months time.”

Future historians may remember the early 21st century not for Obamacare or Amnesty, or even the War on Terror as much as for the first beginnings of a new era in economics. There’s a long way to go yet, but the development of outer space is no longer a fantasy.  It is promising enough to attract real money.

As in all mining activities, the validity of claims will be a key issue. Claim jumping, mineral rights, and all the rest are all bound to the question of  who can own property in outer space. That must be resolved. “A bill that would grant property rights and other protections for commercial asteroid mining ventures received a mixed reception at a hearing of the U.S. House Science space subcommittee Sept. 10.”

A bill that would grant property rights and other protections for commercial asteroid mining ventures received a mixed reception at a hearing of the U.S. House Science space subcommittee Sept. 10.

H.R. 5063, the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act, would grant U.S. companies the rights to resources they extract from asteroids. The bill would also allow companies to take legal action if they suffered “harmful interference” during those activities by other entities under U.S. jurisdiction. …

Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita of space and remote sensing law at the University of Mississippi. “Strictly from reading the text, and based on legal knowledge, it definitely needs work.”

Gabrynowicz said she was concerned about the use of the term “harmful interference” in the bill. While the phrase is used in accords like the Outer Space Treaty, it refers to exploration activities by nations, not private entities. “Harmful interference has never been used that way in the treaties. It’s a completely novel application of that term of art,” she said. That, she said, could raise questions about what constituted such interference.

She added that international legal opinion is divided on whether an entity that extracts space resources then owns those resources, ownership that the bill would recognize. “What we are talking about is resource extraction, which is a very volatile and contentious issue at the international level,” she said. “There will be a great deal of political and legal discussion catalyzed by this.”

It’s not attracting much attention yet, but it may before too many more years. The stakes are potentially sky high. Whereas space activity in the mid-20th century focused around Cold War rivalries the new Space Race is fueled by the technological possibilities that has made the Solar System the new frontier.  Twentieth century space was about spending billions but twenty first century space will be about making quadrillions.


Of Worms and Dragons

November 22nd, 2014 - 9:37 pm

Two articles illustrate two different attitudes.  The article which demonstrates valuing civility and fairness above all is presented by Peter Shuck’s New York Times  piece on why “The Impeachment of Obama on Immigration May Be Legal — But It’s Wrong”, referring to his amnesty of illegal aliens by executive order.

Shuck says  Congress may have good grounds to file an impeachment but it would be impolite, cause discord, sow resentment and generally lead to unpleasantness.  Therefore don’t do it.

Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, once rejected the very arguments he now embraces. Last year he said that extending amnesty beyond the so-called Dreamers (the children of undocumented immigrants brought here at an early age) would be “ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally.” It is hard to think of a confession more damning to his position in a court of law, in a congressional court of impeachment and in the court of public opinion. …

But even if Congress has constitutional authority to impeach the president, that doesn’t mean it should. Quarrels between a president and Congress over the statutory limits on his authority are common, and the precise boundaries can be hard to discern. However truculent Mr. Obama’s defiance may be on this issue, Congress has other ways to stymie it — for example, barring the action by statute. Such tactics are within the normal give-and-take of interbranch disputes. Americans, including many like me who want a legislative amnesty, would support Congress’s use of them here.

Impeachment, moreover, would tend to normalize its use as a political weapon, even though the framers intended that it be used only in extreme cases that endanger the republic. Only inveterate Obama haters think that is true here.

In contrast to Shuck is a piece by William Greider in the Nation which lays out the case for Chief Justice John Roberts’ head. “Republicans like to talk about impeaching President Obama, but there is a far more deserving candidate for impeachment—Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court. While the Republicans in Congress have blocked Democrats from enacting much of substance, the GOP majority in control of the Court has been effectively legislating on its own, following an agenda neatly aligned with their conservative party. Step by step, the five right-wing justices are transforming the terms of the American political system—including the Constitution.”

Greider draws up a bill of outrages.

They empowered “dark money” in politics and produced the $4 billion by-election of 2014. They assigned spiritual values to soulless corporations who thus gained First Amendment protection of free speech and religion. The justices effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even as they allowed state governments to create new obstacles for minority voting. The High Court made it okay to take guns to church and more difficult to keep guns from dangerous people. It rendered a series of decisions that collectively shifted political power from the many to the few.

This power grab by the unelected—and supposedly non-partisan—justices has already produced a historic rewrite of America democracy. But it was done by blatantly usurping the decision-making authority that belongs to the elected government in Congress and the executive branch. The Republican justices are not finished with their undeclared revolution. They will continue unless and until people rise up and stop them.

The Roberts Court’s latest target is once again President Obama’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Under peculiar circumstances just three days after the midterm elections, the Court announced it will hear another legal challenge that threatens to disable and perhaps destroy the new healthcare system.

Then he issues a call to action. “Barack Obama can win this fight by not giving in to the Supreme Court, even if he temporarily loses there. The president has to call out his opponents and tell the hard truth about their illegitimate abuse of power. People may listen if he genuinely fights for them.”


Slow Motion Crisis

November 21st, 2014 - 3:39 pm

After the first massive clash of arms in during the Great War, combatants on both sides began to extend their trenches to either side until the Western Front became one continuous trenchline.  Without anyone being quite aware of it at first, a vast stage was set upon which a tragedy would be enacted. In a somewhat analogous manner, the zones of global conflict are spreading to distant corners of the globes from their initial centers of gravity.

Peter Shinkman, writing in MSN says ‘ISIS [is] making deadly inroads in Libya, Pakistan and Afghanistan”.  Osama bin Laden’s plan to oust the West from  Muslim countries, create chaos and establish a caliphate is succeeding better than he could have expected.  It’s spread now and may spread further.

It’s irrelevant – for now – whether the expanding presence of the Islamic State group is at the explicit direction of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or if regional “lone wolf” insurgents are branding themselves as such. What matters is that average citizens from Libya to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and perhaps even farther – believe now more than ever this murderous firebrand could show up at their front doors.

After watching Zero Dark Thirty on the eve of the 2012 elections, who would associate al-Qaeda with North Africa? Yet the New York Times reports that the militants who attacked the US consulate were al-Qaeda affiliated. Citing UN documents as well as other sources as a basis, the NYT writes:

Witnesses in Benghazi as well as United States officials say that Ansar al-Shariah fighters played a major role in the assault on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

El presidente appears to have minimized the fact that a threat is growing across North Africa. The Nation reports that “For years now, the Pentagon has been increasing its missions there and promoting a mini-basing boom that has left it with a growing collection of outposts sprouting across the northern tier of the continent.”  So he must have known something was up.

This string of camps is meant to do what more than a decade of counterterrorism efforts, including the training and equipping of local military forces and a variety of humanitarian hearts-and-minds missions, has failed to accomplish: transform the Trans-Sahara region in the northern and western parts of the continent into a bulwark of stability.

Janes has stills from videos of an Islamic group overrunning Egyptian detachments in the Sinai, including on which overran an “Egyptian Army mechanised detachment that was dug in and equipped with at least two M60 tanks, two M113 armoured personnel carriers, and one YPR-765 armoured fighting vehicle.”  The country of the soaring Cairo speech is immersed in big trouble.


That Fearful Symmetry

November 20th, 2014 - 2:07 pm

Jaime Fuller of the Washington Post explains why none of the major broadcast networks are covering the speech where president Obama is scheduled to announce amnesty for up to 5 million illegals.  ”ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS knew that their customers would not be happy if the President ate into time reserved for some of the most popular shows on television, including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Bones.” (Editor’s Note: If I wasn’t watching Obama’s speech, I’d be watching “The This Old House Hour.”)”

It would be possible to respond symmetrically; to respond to lawbreaking in kind. But to do that would rip the whole fabric of law to pieces. Short of that, the most effective response to Obama’s to what some commentators have characterized as an act of lawlessness is to snub it deliberately.  The non-coverage by the networks, though perhaps accidental, is a start. It’s almost as if some people had independently come to the conclusion attributed to Eamon de Valera. Pondering the problem of Irish independence he says (in the movie Michael Collins at least) that “we must act as if the Republic is a fact. We defeat the British Empire by ignoring it”.

Bob Corker of Tennessee argues that Obama desperately wants to be noticed.

“This president is not acting in strength, he is acting in weakness. Unless lightning strikes, it will be the worst presidency in modern history.

“There has to be a response, no question. But it has to be a response that enables us to continue to move our nation ahead, remembering that this president will be gone in two years. He’s incredibly weak, and candidly, he is doing these things because he doesn’t have the ability to lead and is not willing to put the effort out to do the work to actually cause things to pass in Congress.”

The danger to being content with this conclusion is passivity.  What the Valera ‘quote’ failed to emphasize, is that in order to “ignore” someone effectively you do so obviously.  Ignoring someone has no effect unless you do it insultingly. The act of overtly and publicly ignoring a person is called ‘scorn’.

Scorn works best when the person to be ignored provides an object of scorn. That way there is something to overtly ignore. One of the most famous historical examples of a scorn-objecct was Gessler’s Hat.


Is the Cold War Back?

November 19th, 2014 - 3:40 pm

“The nuclear gun is back on the table,” writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. “Both in private and in public, Russia is making explicit references to its nuclear arsenal”.  Speaking of the new tensions with Russia, Angela Merkel said, “who would have thought that 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the end of the Cold War and the division of Europe, and the end of the division of the world into two blocs, that something like this could happen right in the heart of Europe.”

Anyone who thinks the East German population ended the Cold War is bound to be surprised that it’s started again.  The Cold War ended largely because the Soviet Union was unable to continue fighting it. “By the time the comparatively youthful Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985,  the Soviet economy was stagnant and faced a sharp fall in foreign currency earnings as a result of the downward slide in oil prices in the 1980s”.  In the evocative phrase of Le Carre’s novel, Russia House: “the American strategists can sleep in peace. Their nightmares cannot be realized. The Soviet knight is dying inside his armor. He is a secondary power like you British. He can start a war but cannot continue one and cannot win one. Believe me.”

Yet the bomb is back. Conflict is back. Putin warned that he won’t let the Ukraine defeat him. The Daily Beast says that the Eastern Ukraine is bracing for full-scale war. Some news outlets claim a lot of Russians are already dying in the Ukraine, shipped back secretly in trucks marked “Gruz 200″.

Families receive a soldier’s body for burial with information about the date of death, but nothing more — and the Russian government responds to questions by threatening to cut off death benefits or send family members to prison for national security violations.

The dying Russian knight, feeling no better than he did in the 1980s, has crawled back into his armor and picked up his rusty sword. Just as in Gorbachev’s time, Russia’s ruble is crashing, demolished by a rising dollar and falling oil prices — ironically caused by the domestic energy revolution in the United States which the Obama administration had no use for.

Jack Caravelli, formerly of the CIA, morosely concludes that “an era of unprecedented nuclear cooperation between the Cold War rivals is drawing to a close. Early this month Sergey Kirienko, who runs Russia’s state nuclear company, announced that in 2015 no new nuclear projects involving U.S. participation are ‘envisioned.’”

The Western Europeans are baffled.  MSN reports that “Europe, facing multiple threats, still isn’t spending on defense.” They can’t get their heads around the problem.

Donetsk is smack in the middle of Eastern Europe. Kobani is just beyond Europe’s southeastern edge, and thousands of radical fighters there come from Europe. The two hot spots span what military experts call the full spectrum of modern warfare, from the traditional Russian force to the far-too-common asymmetric threat of the terrorist Islamic State. Both represent very real and serious threats to European security.

Yet European militaries aren’t prepared to deal with either one, much less both. European security remains dependent on the might of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and NATO increasingly is dependent on the might of the United States. The European nations NATO was set up to defend contribute less and less to the organization.

Nor can the president. A poll among government workers found that “the Obama administration has no strategy for ISIS, the Pentagon is not leaving enough troops to protect Afghanistan and Congress isn’t qualified to keep watch over the military and intelligence services, according to survey of federal workers and troops at the Pentagon, and other national security agencies.”

In fact, political dysfunction ranks ahead of “international terrorism,” “a nuclear armed Iran,” and Russia, China and North Korea, in the minds of these respondents.

The list of mistrust in government leadership is long. Seventy-three percent think Obama does not have “a clear national security strategy.” Not just an ISIS strategy – but a strategy for all national security. Only 26 percent approve of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And 20 percent of federal workers and troops surveyed think members of Congress are qualified to perform their oversight duties for national security.


The Split-Level World

November 17th, 2014 - 12:46 pm

It is a rich country with a poor southern neighbor.  Each year countless economic migrants attempt a desperate journey over arid terrain and fearfully cross the border fence in search of better jobs in the north only to add to a burgeoning population of illegal aliens.  In response the authorities have vowed to crack down on these migrants.  Early this year 250,000 illegals were deported.  ”Haggard and penniless,” writes the Economist,  they “are being dumped at the dusty and chaotic” border crossings by a government eager to reclaim jobs for its own citizens.

The rich country we are talking about is of course,  Saudi Arabia.

Oman, Yemen’s other neighbor, is also planning a border fence. “Following the conclusion of a secret bidding process, preliminary surveys along the fence line began earlier this year after Oman awarded a contract to an Indian development company, according to border officials. They estimate the construction process will be completed by 2018,” despite protests by environmental activists that the barrier will affect endangered species.

Shorter, but more heavily guarded is the Egypt-Gaza barrier. It’s the one you never hear about when news stories describe ‘conflict in the Middle East’.  But it’s a barrier all the same.

The Egypt–Gaza barrier refers to the steel border barrier along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Because it is essentially splitting the city of Rafah, the steel barrier is also referred as a separation wall.

In December 2009, Egypt started with help from the US, the building of a steel wall along the Gaza border. If it is finished, the wall will be 10-11 km (6-7 miles) long and extend 18 metres below the surface. The wall was to be completed in 18 months.[

On 29 October 2014, Egypt had begun demolishing homes along its border with the Gaza Strip as part of a planned 500m buffer zone that is intended to prevent weapons smuggling entering Palestine.


The Hippie Uniform

November 16th, 2014 - 4:27 pm

Through the modern miracle of the Internet it is now possible to buy hippie uniforms from China wholesale at “high quality and low prices”.  The phrase “hippie uniform” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but as the Washington Post’s article on mathematician Jonathan Touboul explains, it’s entirely natural. Most hippies are doomed to don — and to change — uniforms.

Touboul concluded that is because “hipsters” define nonconformity in terms of the ‘perceived mainstream’ and because of delays in rebellion toward it, they entered into oscillating states which effectively doomed them to uniforms.

The mathematician who proved why hipsters all look alike. What brain neurons tell us about the ‘hipster effect’ when all contrarians end up looking the same. …

His key insight is that people (and neurons) do not instantly perceive what is mainstream. There’s a delay. And in situations where the delay is large enough, the contrarians can inadvertently synchronize with each other.

The key parameters are perception and delay. It is the date you recognize something as square and the period thereafter when you decide to be ‘hip’. “What Touboul noticed is that if you increase the delay factor past a certain point, something amazing happens. Out of what appears to be random noise, a pattern emerges. All of the hipsters start to synchronize, and they start to oscillate in unison.”

Andrew Klavan noticed the same thing by observing the ratings of Lena Dunham’s show. It’s obviously a bomb, but the hipsters have declared it a hit. Why? Because they’re wearing a mental hippie uniform, and they have to stay in sync.  The Dunham show may be a stinkeroo, but that’s not the point. The real object is to know when to realize it’s from hunger. To recognize it too early carries just as much of a penalty as recognizing it too late.

The recent season finale of Dunham’s HBO show Girls garnered under 700,000 viewers which, by television standards, is essentially none. And yet if you read articles about her, you’ll find the show repeatedly described as a hit. Why do people describe it as a hit? Because even though it’s not watched by a lot of people, it’s watched by the right people. Who are the right people? The people who describe the show as a hit. There’s a reason this is called the Echo Chamber.


Promises, Promises

November 15th, 2014 - 2:48 pm

The primary ingredient for betrayal is trust. The most dangerous traitors are the people who are above suspicion. Heinrich Himmler, for example, approached the OSS in 1943 to explore the possibility of staging a coup against Hitler and making a separate peace with the Western allies. John Waller writing at the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence says that further exploratory talks begun in Sweden were vetoed by Wild Bill Donovan, the State Department and finally Franklin Roosevelt himself out of the fear that any such talks would shatter the Grand Alliance.

Stalin would find out, Roosevelt’s advisers argued, if he were to deal with Himmer. And indeed he would have, because the Soviet union had agents working at the highest levels in the Western alliance. (As a thought experiment consider if Stalin would have sold out Roosevelt if Himmler had offered him a similar deal.)

The Hewitt report that reached the president did not go into detail on the damage that such an operation posed for American and British relations with Stalin. The United States had an important stake in keeping Stalin friendly—certainly until the Japanese as well as the Germans were soundly defeated. Hitler’s last-ditch strategy as the Third Reich slid toward defeat would be an effort to break up the Grand Alliance that the West had with the Russians. Hewitt was, of course, oblivious to the several penetrations at top levels of the Western Allies by spies, such as British Secret Intelligence Service officer Kim Philby, who were keeping Stalin informed of efforts by Western intelligence to establish contact with the various factions of the secret German opposition. In fact, the US Department of State, faithful to the spirit of the Grand Alliance with the USSR, and doubtless fearing Stalin’s reaction if the OSS was caught dealing behind his back with Himmler, kept the Russians as well as the British generally informed of Hewitt’s talks with Kersten and Schellenberg.

Robert Hanssen of the FBI and Aldrich Ames of CIA were in trust positions also, and sent many a man working for the United States to their deaths. Ames alone sold out 25 men and women to the KGB, some of whom were sentenced to vyshaya mera (the highest measure of punishment).

The Soviets released video of the arrest by the KGB of Dmitri Polyakov, “Soviet Major General, a high-ranking GRU officer … In the CIA he was known by code names BOURBON and ROAM, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) knew him as TOPHAT (Top Hat).”

Polyakov got the vyshaya mera, this time courtesy of Robert Hanssen.  But what goes around comes around.  Eventually the Soviet agents in America were identified by the American agents in the Soviet Union.  Treason goes in both directions.