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On the Shoulders of Giants

Things rarely spring full blown into existence.  Even espionage.  Things that surprise us turn out, on inspection, to have roots that seemed unimportant at the time.  The media are now caught up in the drama of possible Russian espionage in high places.  But Ali Watkins at Politico notes that Russian espionage in the United States progressively grew after a decade of neglect.  "After neglecting the Russian threat for a decade, the U.S. was caught flat-footed by Moscow’s election operation. Now, officials are scrambling to figure out how to contain a sophisticated intelligence network that’s festered and strengthened at home after years’ worth of inattention."

For years, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pressed a hesitant Obama White House to crack down on some of the Kremlin’s more brazen stateside maneuvers.

“There was a general feeling that this was not getting the attention it deserved,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has supported the panel’s efforts in pressing the White House to tow a harder line with the Kremlin.

The public record is horrifying enough.  Many readers are probably familiar with the Edward Snowden fiasco, the loss of 250,000 diplomatic cables, the Office of Personnel Management hack which led to loss of 21.5 million personnel records and the embarrassing online sale of NSA tools by the Shadow Brokers.  As if that were not enough the liquidation of CIA's China network between 2010 and 2012 was recently reported by the New York Times.

WASHINGTON — The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward.

Current and former American officials described the intelligence breach as one of the worst in decades. It set off a scramble in Washington’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to contain the fallout, but investigators were bitterly divided over the cause. Some were convinced that a mole within the C.I.A. had betrayed the United States. Others believed that the Chinese had hacked the covert system the C.I.A. used to communicate with its foreign sources. Years later, that debate remains unresolved.

These intelligence disasters, like the brazen Russian spying reported by Politico, share one common characteristic: they took place in the BT era.  Before Trump. While concerns about security in the current administration may be well founded -- how could they not be given the record of widespread penetration? -- the current compromises must stand, to paraphrase Newton, on the shoulders of giant breaches.  They are the cherry atop a towering sundae that goes down God knows how far.

The investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian influence though wide, can realistically never be wide enough to address the breaches of the last decade. Digging that up is a gargantuan undertaking.  But something wicked has crept into the woodwork and merely refocusing national intelligence efforts on Climate Change will not fix things. Yet hunting moles is an extraordinarily difficult and traumatic process.  It is so painful that to avoid trouble the political system sometimes just lives with it, like a man who never has a bullet dug out.