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.

Spy v. Spy

Videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”

Twenty minutes into the interview, listening to rationales for torture euphemistically branded ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (EIT), 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl put on her schoolmarm scold: “This is Orwellian stuff.  The United States doesn’t do that.”

José Rodriguez, the former Deputy Director/Operations CIA, clenched his jaw offering the pugnacious look of a Latin Ray Kelly and retorted, “Well, we do!”

Of course we do.  Any bleeding-heart ACLU type, including the Inspector General of the CIA, who takes exception, should know that Rodriguez doesn’t give “a rat’s ass.”  And neither do ‘tough-tawkin,’ real Americans who, like 24hrs devotees in the Bush-Cheney White House, are in thrall to visions of agent Jack Bauer  tracking down the “ticking time bomb” before it is too late.  It is a variation of the Nam-era battle cry, “Kill ‘Em All – Let God Sort Out the Innocent,” variously called The One Percent Doctrine or the Mosaic Theory.   

In 2002, when a high-value detainee (HVD) named Abu Zubaydah was captured during a firefight in Pakistan, he was, as Rodriguez stated, taken to a “black site,” so that “we could elicit intelligence.”  Code-named ‘Cat’s Eye,’ the site was a disused warehouse, in proximity to a SIGINT complex, just off Udon Royal Thai Air Force base, in northeastern Thailand.  The US Air Force based out of this location during the Vietnam War, as did CIA proprietary, Air America.

The American epitaph in Vietnam is an iconic 1975 photo depicting the scramble for the last helicopter out of Saigon.  Evacuees are clambering up a ladder to the roof of an apartment building serving as a makeshift landing pad for an Air America UH-1 Huey.  As the chopper lifted off, leaving behind thousands of desperate Vietnamese US-proxies to the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA), CIA officer Frank Snepp watched.  The mayhem had manifested in the most personal way, as his Miss Saigon, thinking herself abandoned by him, had just killed herself along with the child she claimed was his. 

Snepp was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit by D/CIA at the end of ’75, in part for his analysis laying out the collapse, but also for his interrogation of one HVD.  In late ‘72, 29yrs-old Snepp was dispatched by Langley HQ to Station in Saigon to conduct the interrogation of Nguyen Tai, an NVA colonel characterized as “one of the most hostile counterintelligence prisoners ever to fall in allied hands.”  Snepp came on the heels of other interrogators, including the South Vietnamese who used electric shocks, clubs, all manner of privation, waterboarding and “Chinese Water Torture.”  

For a field officer whose first assignment in ’69 had been profiling targets for strike teams in the notorious Phoenix Program, harsh interrogation may have seemed tame fair indeed.  For Snepp’s stint at interrogating, conditions were tempered to an all-white cell, brightly lit 24/7 with maxed-out air-conditioning, as Tai, like many Vietnamese, thought cooling poisonous. But if “interrogation is a hunt for the game of the human mind,” Tai’s revelations yielded small quarry, as he was convinced cooperation would spell his demise once all of Vietnam fell to his comrades. 

For Snepp “our handling of the evacuation was an institutional disgrace” so he set down all its hairy details in “Decent Interval”, published without clearance from CIA’s Publications Review Board.  He suffered the consequences.  When I ran into Snepp in Manhattan in the early ‘80s, all his royalties had been clawed back.   He was a remote figure, estranged from almost everyone, his moral outrage muted.

No such fate awaits José Rodriguez for publishing “Hard Measures” which touts EIT and boasts of destroying 92 tapes of the EIT of Abu Zubaydah.  “We needed to get everybody in government to put their big boy pants on and provide the authorities that we needed,” Rodriguez told 60 Minutes.  “I had had a lot of experience in the agency where we had been left to hold the bag.  And I was not about to let that happen for the people that work for me.” 

Rodriguez got to look out for his people, Snepp did not.  But what was the real tale of the tapes?  For one thing Zubaydah was a guinea pig, Rodriguez testified, and EIT was very much a questionable work in progress.  But videotaping would be “subject to too much scrutiny in court,” one DIA officer suggested in Thailand and CIA counsel concurred: “Even totally legal techniques will look ugly.”  But maybe the tapes revealed that EIT simply didn’t deliver as claimed. Maybe EIT is less about information and more about messaging to what depth of hopelessness captured terrorists will be reduced. 

The FBI’s Arabic-speaking lead interrogator, Ali Soufan, like Snepp, favored “informed interrogation technique” that involves “engaging and outwitting” the subject into believing more is known than actually is, thus providing that delta of actionable intelligence.  He believes “people in Washington rewrote the results” to give undue credit to EIT; Zubaydah gave up dirty nuke wannabe Jose Padilla prior to his 83 waterboardings, says Soufan, as well as identifying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) as the mastermind of 9/11.  

Though KSM was waterboarded 183 times, Leslie Stahl pointed out that, “you really didn’t break him…. He didn’t tell you about Osama bin Laden.”  Rodriguez did a rare retreat: “there is a limit to what they will tell us….  That was the one secret he was going to take to the grave, and that was the protection of the Sheikh.”  So much for EIT leading to the ticking time bomb.

Cofer Black, a classmate of Rodriguez’s from the Farm and his predecessor at CIA/CTC, famously proclaimed that he was going to bring back Osama bin Laden’s head on a stick with flies walking across his eyeballs.  Mission Unaccomplished, Cofer now serves on Team Romney as their Black Ops, flies-on-the-eyeballs guy.  His Sancho Panza goes on 60 Minutes to lay claim for the ultimate reckoning of bin Laden, followed two weeks later by a fawning interview of another high-ranking Black acolyte, Hank Crumpton.  

What kind of domestic psyops are in the offing here?  This Spy v Spy tradecraft debate between Manchurian Candidate and Machiavelli presents a classic divide writ large: the distinction between uncertainty, a law of physics, and certainty, an article of faith.  The Company Man v the mission minded; the morally righteous v the morally outraged.


Photos: (Top) Frank Snepp, (Bottom) Jose Rodriguez