Belmont Club


The Brandenburg Gate is shrouded in fog as a man looks from a watchtower over the Wall to the Eastern part of the divided city on November 25, 1961. AP Photo/Heinrich Sanden Sr.

When faced with a muddled trail, investigators sometimes go back to the beginning and take backbearings. That’s was George Smiley‘s plan when he wanted to find out how the rot started in the Circus.

[Smiley’s] premise was, that in briefing [the mole], Karla was exposing the gaps in Moscow Centre’s knowledge; that in ordering [the mole] to suppress certain intelligence which came the Circus’s way, in ordering him to downgrade or distort it, to deride it, or even to deny it circulation altogether, Karla was indicating the secrets he did not want revealed.

‘So we can take the backbearings, can’t we darling?’ murmured Connie Sachs, whose speed of uptake put her as usual a good length ahead of the rest of the field.

‘That’s right, Con. That’s exactly what we can do,’ said Smiley gravely. ‘We can take the backbearings.’ …

By minutely charting [the mole’s] path of destruction–his pugmarks as he called them–by exhaustively recording his selection of files; by reassembling, after aching weeks of research if necessary, the intelligence culled in good faith by Circus outstations, and balancing it, in every detail, against the intelligence distributed by [the mole] to the Circus’s customers in the Whitehall marketplace, it would be possible to take backbearings–as Connie so rightly called them–and establish [the mole]’s, and therefore Karla’s, point of departure …”

George Smiley is fictional and British. Still it may be profitable in real-life Washington to go back a few years, as Dana Priest in the New Yorker does, to unravel a problem  similar to that which baffled Sherlock: why did the dog not bark in the night? Or as Priest puts it,why couldn’t the Obama era intelligence community detect Russian meddling.

After failing to detect and stop Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack sixteen years ago, Congress more than doubled the budget of American intelligence agencies and gave them unprecedented secret authorities. …

And yet, last year, these vastly larger agencies failed to defend, or even warn, the American public against the most audacious Russian covert operation toward the United States since the end of the Cold War. Only after the fact, when a Russian disinformation campaign had already tainted the 2016 Presidential election, did the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, another vast post-9/11 creation, disclose the Kremlin’s interference. The unclassified January, 2017, report, made public by the O.D.N.I., included only the thinnest of evidence, leaving many people wondering if it were true. Whether the Russian campaign actually changed the outcome of the election is impossible to know, but it clearly succeeded at exacerbating political divisions in the United States and undermining the credibility of the results.
Unlike 9/11, the Russian campaign did not occur without warning on a quiet fall day. Rather, it unfolded over at least six months on Americans’ social-media accounts—hardly the stuff of spy novels. Kremlin leaders had signalled their plans years in advance. The Russian playbook wasn’t a secret, either. It had been well documented by European governments, researchers, and journalists after the Kremlin’s information operations to destabilize Estonia, in 2007; Georgia, in 2008; Ukraine, in 2014; and Britain, in the leadup to the 2016 Brexit vote.

He puts it down mostly to faulty bureaucratic arrangements, yet “another American intelligence failure.”  Yet the New Yorker expose comes on the heels of another New York Times disaster story bemoaning the Kremlin’s theft of the NSA’s crown jewels during the Obama years. One ex-NSA staffer knew something bad was up when he realized the Kremlin knew all about his work. It was worse than he thought.

WASHINGTON — Jake Williams awoke last April in an Orlando, Fla., hotel where he was leading a training session. Checking Twitter, Mr. Williams, a cybersecurity expert, was dismayed to discover that he had been thrust into the middle of one of the worst security debacles ever to befall American intelligence. Mr. Williams had written on his company blog about the Shadow Brokers, a mysterious group that had somehow obtained many of the hacking tools the United States used to spy on other countries. Now the group had replied in an angry screed on Twitter. It identified him — correctly — as a former member of the National Security Agency’s hacking group, Tailored Access Operations, or T.A.O., a job he had not publicly disclosed. Then the Shadow Brokers astonished him by dropping technical details that made clear they knew about highly classified hacking operations that he had conducted.

“They had operational insight that even most of my fellow operators at T.A.O. did not have,” said Mr. Williams … there is broad agreement that the damage from the Shadow Brokers already far exceeds the harm to American intelligence done by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who fled with four laptops of classified material in 2013…. Created at huge expense to American taxpayers, those cyberweapons have now been picked up by hackers from North Korea to Russia and shot back at the United States and its allies.

There are too many coincidences for it to be just bad luck. Some journalists are belatedly realizing they are living through the aftermath of the Big Bang. A huge strike happened without them even being aware of it and the scale of it is boggling. The Obama administration failed to detect the rise of the Islamic state, was surprised by the Russian invasion of Crimea and Putin’s intervention in Syria, did not see the rapid development of Kim’s nuclear arsenal and, publicly at least, ascribed the assault on the Benghazi consulate to a video — and as the New Yorker points out, were even blindsided by Russian election interference openly happening on Facebook.

Just how great the failure was is captured in one iconic election debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. During the debate, the president ridiculed his rival for even thinking Russia could be dangerous. “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize Al Qaeda as a threat because a few months ago, when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia. Not Al Qaeda, you said Russia,” Obama continued. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”

Boy did they laugh at Obama’s clever jibe.

Yet we return to the question: why did the dog not bark in the night? How far do we go back for the answer?

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The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi, by Kevin Lacz, Ethan E. Rocke, Lindsey Lacz. A bold, no-holds-barred first-person account of the Iraq War by Kevin Lacz of SEAL Team THREE, the warrior elite of the Navy. This legendary unit, known as “The Punishers,” included Chris Kyle (American Sniper), Mike Monsoor, Ryan Job, and Marc Lee. These brave men were instrumental in securing the key locations in the pivotal 2006 Battle of Ramadi, told with stunning detail in the book.

The Interpretation of Murder: A Novel, by Jed Rubenfeld. In the summer of 1909, Sigmund Freud arrived by steamship in New York Harbor for a short visit to America. Though he would live another thirty years, he would never return to this country. In his novel, Rubenfeld weaves the facts of Freud’s visit into a riveting, atmospheric story of corruption and murder set all over turn-of-the-century New York, drawing on case histories, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the historical details of a city on the brink of modernity.

The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish, by Emily Voight. A young man is murdered for his pet fish. An Asian tycoon buys a single specimen for $150,000. Meanwhile, a pet detective chases smugglers through the streets of New York. This book tells the story of a fish like none other, the Asian arowana or “dragon fish”, treasured as a status symbol believed to bring good luck. From the South Bronx to Borneo and beyond, Voigt follows the trail of the arowana to learn its fate in nature.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Naturalist Sy Montgomery explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus — a surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature — and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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