The Scorpion and the Turtle

“I’d prefer not to deal with this issue at all,” said the Vlad the Animal Farmer.  “It’s like shearing a pig—too much squeaking, too little wool”

Nonetheless, the Russian President issued a residence permit to this “unwanted Christmas present” named Edward Snowden.  It will give Vlad the Fixer a year to formulate, “the smartest solution to this complicated international problem.”  It may be on par with the one he offered the Patriots football owner who claimed Vlad the Impaler pocketed his Super Bowl Ring after quipping that, “I can kill someone with this ring.”  Vlad the Snarkster shrugged and offered a “superior replacement that can be passed from generation to generation,” or roughly the time Snowden can expect to remain in jail if he’s ever returned to the U.S.

Further compromising information will likely be exacted by FSB, the state security apparatus which succeeded KGB, Putin’s Soviet Russian leadership academy.  Snowden’s status will surely be leveraged in the future by Putin the Pragmatic.  In the meantime, Snowden can re-assume his on-line handle, TheTrueHooha, and accept a job like the one offered to join the “all-star security team” of Vkontakte, the Russian Facebook.  Krasavitsas are already queuing up to help him forget his pole-dancing girlfriend.  In your face Uncle Sam.

“The Snowden leaks have the potential, if not already the reality, to be the single most destructive leak of American security information in our history,” declared General Michael Hayden, former Director of NSA then CIA.  Some nine years ago, I attended a Ft. Meade symposium briefed by Hayden.  (He was followed by his former NSA SIGINT director, Mo Baginski who had already admonished a senior Snowden precursor named Thomas Drake to silence his whistle).  Hayden came to NSA in 1999 when the acronym, otherwise known as No Such Agency, was less indicative of secretiveness than dysfunction.  Within his first year, the computer system crashed for nearly four days.  Hayden set out not only to overhaul and elevate its operations but to give NSA an outward-looking face-lift.

Hayden has the look of a bespectacled accounting professor.  His globe head could well have been the model for T-Top, the cartoon turtle at CryptoKids®, the adolescent outreach section he launched on NSA’s web-site.  With his beguiling intellect and commanding, yet matter-of-fact presentation, Hayden can engage a room of 3,000 “semi-reformed hackers,” as he did at the BlackHat 2010 cybersecurity conference.  Rising above geek speak, he exhorted them to go Big Idea: “God made the domains of land, sea, air, and space, but you guys made cyber.  And you messed it up…. You made your world look like the North German plane and then you bitch and moan because you get invaded.”  While the cyber domain is primed for exploitation and offense, it is, in effect, virtually defenseless at this stage of development. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Hayden challenges his audiences.

With the outing of PRISM and XKeyscore, USCYBERCOM stands betrayed by the very CryptoKids NSA cultivated then recruited.  “He certainly has done a very, very bad thing,” Hayden scolds, “and I think he is also a very troubled young man.”  Note that the general is careful to distinguish, with part avuncular indulgence, part cunning: this young, troubled Snowden does not meet “the legal definition of being a ‘traitor’ according to our Constitution.”  Hayden realizes that, while this talent pool comes with poison pill values, NSA can’t function without them.  “In American society, as in Russian society, we have a generation of young folks (who have) a kind of absolute commitment to transparency,” Hayden lamented in an eye-raising interview with Russian television, ‘RT’.  “An almost romantic attachment to revealing secrets.”

Isn’t the actual nature of secrets Snowden revealed more like suspicions confirmed?  PRISM/XKeyscore stands on stark display in the busy, Wham!/Bam! cut&paste power points often favored by DOD, graphic evidence of breaking and entering 4th Amendment rights, aided and imbedded by tech icons.  But how shocked or disturbed is populace fed surveillance omniscience via Bourne Identification of Criminal Minds?  Clear majorities of those (Pew) polled see Snowden as whistleblower, believe the government uses data for purposes other than investigating terrorism, yet support the data-collection program.

Just as 2nd Amenders dominate the gun debate, at this point, 4th Amenders have the upper hand in getting Big Brother’s hands off Big Data.  When Hayden bemoans the exposed plumbing, his greatest concern is the monkey wrench thrown at private sector cooperation. One estimate has U.S. cloud computing providers losing $35B in business over the next three years thanks to PRISM while prospects for NSA’s aspiring ‘Star Wars’ cyber defense is threatened by Congressional storm clouds. This is problematic.  Cyberattacks on infrastructure or financial markets can, potentially wreak far more havoc than the couple dozen terrorist plots purportedly pre-empted by NSA data mining.

The computer malware worm known as Stuxnet that crippled an Iranian nuclear fuel enrichment plant three years ago was identified by a lean, young Belarussian who looks like he could be Snowden’s cousin.  His analysis has Stuxnet invading via an infected USB stick, doing a so-called “zero-day” denial of control and denial of view, akin to feeding unsuspicious footage into a surveillance camera.  It “root kits” and lurks undetected for an extended period of time as it undermines programmable logic controllers (PLC) of the supervisory-control-and-data-acquisition (SCADA) system.  Security consultants who focus on vulnerabilities of the pervasive PLCs have taken concerns down the line from power grids to pipelines to water systems and, ominously, the controls in correctional facilities like the pneumatic prison sliding door.

There are so many scenarios vying for our fear that it is tough to gauge levels of response and readiness.  Then there are all the public fear mongers who, for personal aggrandizement, distract us from our most palpable threats.  For all their preoccupation with the Constitution, Americans widely ignore their physical constitution (cue Rush & Newt).  The U.S. expends more than $500 million per victim on anti-terrorism and $10,000 per victim on cancer research.

Until statistician Nate ‘538’ Silver is enlisted to develop an actuarial algorithm app that delineates the likelihood of actual threats, folks might exercise precautionary measures to keep fears from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Don’t search for pressure cookers and backpacks simultaneously on line and cook your quinoa in a Dutch oven.  Though you might subscribe to the premise that enemy of your enemy is your friend, you will want to give due consideration to whom you would want in a fox-hole with you.  If your choice is between Rand Paul and Michael Hayden, read the fable of the Scorpion and the Turtle first.

Author: Dorian Dale

Dorian Dale’s writing has appeared in journals ranging from Government Security News to Dads World. He is the 8th Distinguished Citi Fellow at the NYU’s Stern School of Business and a member of the Associations of Old Crows and Former Intelligence Officers. Submissions fielded at doriandale@aol.com