Faster, Please!

Reading Others' Mail...or Going Blind on the Battlefield

“Gentlemen don’t read each others’ mail,” said U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson back in 1929.  False then, false now.  What?  Spies are actually spying?  asks the blogger known as the DiploMad, who has done a bit of spying himself.  Ridiculous!

Virgins are losing their virginity?  Surely no serious person can be surprised, least of all any American who — even occasionally — follows the news.  “Privacy” has been abolished, long since.  We live in the age of Wikileaks and Anonymous, as readers here have known for some time.  Snooping is omnipresent, although the White House has said it will do less in the future.

Don’t forget that eight years ago the Wall Street Journal told us:

In a recent survey of 840 U.S. companies by the American Management Association, 60% said they now use some type of software to monitor their employees’ incoming and outgoing e-mail, up from 47% in 2001,” wrote staff reporters for The Wall Street Journal on March 9, 2005. “Other workplace privacy experts place the current percentage even higher.

And that’s just the private sector.  The government’s bigger, by orders of magnitude.

What are we to make of all this?  For guidance, I turned to the spirit of the late James Jesus Angleton, once upon a time the head of CIA counterintelligence, himself a consummate snooper.  I wasn’t sure my untrusty ouija board would work, having been occupied with writing obligations of late, but it was fine.  There he was, gravelly voice and all, seemingly happy to chat.

JJA:  Wow!  Talk about action…so many circular firing squads, it’s amazing anyone is still standing in the intel world, huh?

ML:  I’ll say.  And everyone’s an expert.

JJA:  Of course.  As a general matter, knowledge is power and status.  Not always, of course.  Ignorance is blissful at scandal time.   But the general rule is that admitting ignorance is tantamount to confessing weakness and lack of importance.  So they feign knowledge.  But not the president, who wants to blame his assistants in this case.

ML:  Well, there ARE others who purport to be ignorant.  The Feinstein woman, for example…

JJA:  Good point.  She’s calling for an investigation, as if that wasn’t her job all along.  I mean, she’s the chairwoman of the Senate Intel Committee, isn’t she?  So she’s supposed to be on top of such activities.  What does she need an investigation for?  She should just tell us what she thinks about it all.

ML:  I agree.  Her call for an investigation is a bit of misdirection to protect herself, and it also fits well with the president’s strategy.

JJA:  Yup.  They want to develop a picture in which lots of otherwise important people didn’t know.  That’s standard scandal practice.

ML:  It’s unlikely anyone is going to step forward and say “but I briefed the president on such and such a date,” so we’re left to ponder the logic of the ignorance claim, right?

JJA:  It’s certainly unlikely, but it’s well short of impossible.  Remember that NSA is a military organization, and there are many current and former top officers who are very upset with Obama.  You’ve been reading the stories about the so-called purge of the military, right?

ML:  Yes.  This one, for example, by one of the best journalists in Washington.

JJA:  It’s conceivable that someone in the military might actually know that the president gets briefed on the targets of our intercepts, and might be so angry at what he sees as a purge of his friends and colleagues that he comes forward.

ML:  Or someone who straddles the line between the military and intelligence communities…

JJA:  Yes, a Petraeus type.  Or someone close to Panetta.  But this is all what the Italians call fantapolitica, and there’s plenty of reality to deal with here.

ML:  Let’s come back to the logic of the president’s claim of ignorance.  Do you find it credible?

JJA:  It all depends.

ML:  Huh?  Depends on what?

JJA:  Depends on which statement you believe is a lie.  On the one hand he claims to micromanage the drone program.  On the other hand, he claims ignorance of the intercepts.  It seems impossible for both claims to be true.  So we’re told that he chooses targets for assassination by drones, but not snooping targets.

His personal involvement in choosing drone victims was spelled out in some detail by the New York Times:

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.

Seems pretty explicit, doesn’t it?  But we’re also told, according to the White House, that the snooping decisions, which after all are of far less consequence, are made by underlings. Here’s the exact language, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens:

President Barack Obama went nearly five years without knowing his own spies were bugging the phones of world leaders. Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief him on all of them.

They added that the president was briefed on and approved of broader intelligence-collection “priorities,” but that those below him make decisions about specific targets.”

ML:  It’s an odd picture.

JJA:  Very.

ML:  “Between you and me, I never believed the story about his choosing the victims of drone attacks.  Too much work.  Plus, it would incur enormous personal liability (might get him dragged in front of the International Criminal Court on a war crimes charge) and of course the risk of a crazed avenger.  So if I had to bet, I’d bet he was fibbing on that story.  Ok, let’s move on a bit.  In all the excitement,  there’s a tendency to forget what started the intercept scandal.

JJA:  Snowden is the proximate cause of the current pseudo-frenzy.

ML:  I can imagine what you think about Snowden…

JJA:  Anyone with a working brain would have to take seriously the possibility that Snowden is a fully recruited enemy agent.

ML:  Well that’s certainly carefully stated, isn’t it?

JJA:  Counterintelligence isn’t for people who like to arrive at quick conclusions.  So you start with plausible hypotheses and test them, knowing that you’ll often fail to prove any one of them.

ML:  Agreed.  Although maybe somewhere in that pile of big data there’s real evidence.

JJA:  Maybe.  That would be real poetic justice.  In any case, there’s a decent prima facie case that he was recruited by the Russians and worked for them.  I’m told that he lived in the Russian consulate in Hong Kong.  Is that true?  If it is, that would support the hypothesis.

ML:  On the other hand, he might be an idealist, right?  Shocked and outraged at all the snooping.

JJA:  Yes, it’s possible.  But whatever his motives, he’s done enormous damage to the United States.  Notice the way the Brits have been talking about it:  the new head of MI5 said that Snowden’s leaks have “caused enormous damage” and enabled terrorists to attack the UK “at will.”  That’s strong language.

ML:  And the former acting director of CIA calls the Snowden Affair “the damage here was extensive — the most damage that I have ever seen from a disclosure….In my mind, this guy is not a hero. He has violated the law….”  That’s also pretty strong stuff.

JJA:  Indeed.  But the press coverage is only just beginning to come to grips with the gravity of it all.  We were penetrated, a vast quantity of terribly important information was delivered to our enemies, and we’re in a real war, deprived of what has been our most potent weapon.  And now…

oops!  static, little flashes of light from the ouija board…

JJA:  Idiots want to shut down even more…

And he was gone.  I never had a chance to ask him about his own unhappy experience, back when he was opening letters — letters! — to U.S. antiwar activists from foreign Communists.  It was exposed in that era’s precursor of the Snowden operation, and was one of the big stories that led to his own purge from CIA.

All in all, I’d say he showed remarkable self-discipline.  Like good spooks are supposed to…