Monthly Archives: July 2013

Some Perspective on PRISM and Other Spooky Stuff

As many of my close friends know, I have more than a passing acquaintance with the intelligence world. Note that I did not say, the “intelligent” world; I am currently in academia where, as Arthur C. Clark wrote, those in academia too often have had their education far surpass their intellect.  I’m talking about “intelligence” in the sense of one team trying to gain an advantage over an opposite team by learning the plans of the other team and/or when possible disrupting those plans one way or another.

On a geopolitical front, ALL of the teams, large and small, have fielded players in this global and sometimes ugly game because all have a vested interest in sustaining their futures and not being overrun by a surprise action on the part of some other team that would dearly like to see you and your homies wiped off of the face of the earth.

THe current and on-going flap over the espionage and counter-intelligence resulting from those well meaning but useful (to the other teams) idiots Manning and Snowden has roused many who were too busy or too dense to be aware of activities long ago publicized, into a state of righteous indignation even if that is based on nearly terminal ignorance of the geopolitical world.  I’ve shied away from posting about it because it would be too easy to counter that I would simply be self-serving in doing so or too biased to do it more or less objectively.  But those of you who have read this blog for any length of time know that I very much like the private intel fromn groups like STRATFOR and LIGNET, but most especially the former.

What follows, republished by permission from STRATFOR, is a report by their founder, George Friedman, giving some background and, in the end, asking the important questions we need to disxuss as a nation vis-a-vis such activities.  I think it gives the clearest context for the issue I’ve read so here it is.

——— ESSAY ON THE NSA and PRISM by George Friedman ———–

Keeping the NSA in Perspective

In June 1942, the bulk of the Japanese fleet sailed to seize the Island of Midway. Had Midway fallen, Pearl Harbor would have been at risk and U.S. submarines, unable to refuel at Midway, would have been much less effective. Most of all, the Japanese wanted to surprise the Americans and draw them into a naval battle they couldn’t win.

The Japanese fleet was vast. The Americans had two carriers intact in addition to one that was badly damaged. The United States had only one advantage: It had broken Japan’s naval code and thus knew a great deal of the country’s battle plan. In large part because of this cryptologic advantage, a handful of American ships devastated the Japanese fleet and changed the balance of power in the Pacific permanently.

This — and the advantage given to the allies by penetrating German codes — taught the Americans about the centrality of communications code breaking. It is reasonable to argue that World War II would have ended much less satisfactorily for the United States had its military not broken German and Japanese codes. Where the Americans had previously been guided to a great extent by Henry Stimson’s famous principle that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” by the end of World War II they were obsessed with stealing and reading all relevant communications.

The National Security Agency evolved out of various post-war organizations charged with this task. In 1951, all of these disparate efforts were organized under the NSA to capture and decrypt communications of other governments around the world — particularly those of the Soviet Union, which was ruled by Josef Stalin, and of China, which the United States was fighting in 1951. How far the NSA could go in pursuing this was governed only by the extent to which such communications were electronic and the extent to which the NSA could intercept and decrypt them.

The amount of communications other countries sent electronically surged after World War II yet represented only a fraction of their communications. Resources were limited, and given that the primary threat to the United States was posed by nation-states, the NSA focused on state communications. But the principle on which the NSA was founded has remained, and as the world has come to rely more heavily on electronic and digital communication, the scope of the NSA’s commission has expanded.

What drove all of this was Pearl Harbor. The United States knew that the Japanese were going to attack. They did not know where or when. The result was disaster. All American strategic thinking during the Cold War was built around Pearl Harbor — the deep fear that the Soviets would launch a first strike that the United States did not know about. The fear of an unforeseen nuclear attack gave the NSA leave to be as aggressive as possible in penetrating not only Soviet codes but also the codes of other nations. You don’t know what you don’t know, and given the stakes, the United States became obsessed with knowing everything it possibly could.

In order to collect data about nuclear attacks, you must also collect vast amounts of data that have nothing to do with nuclear attacks. The Cold War with the Soviet Union had to do with more than just nuclear exchanges, and the information on what the Soviets were doing — what governments they had penetrated, who was working for them — was a global issue. But you couldn’t judge what was important and what was unimportant until after you read it. Thus the mechanics of assuaging fears about a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” rapidly devolved into a global collection system, whereby vast amounts of information were collected regardless of their pertinence to the Cold War.

There was nothing that was not potentially important, and a highly focused collection strategy could miss vital things. So the focus grew, the technology advanced and the penetration of private communications logically followed. This was not confined to the United States. The Soviet Union, China, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, India and any country with foreign policy interests spent a great deal on collecting electronic information. Much of what was collected on all sides was not read because far more was collected than could possibly be absorbed by the staff. Still, it was collected. It became a vast intrusion mitigated only by inherent inefficiency or the strength of the target’s encryption.

Justified Fear

The Pearl Harbor dread declined with the end of the Cold War — until Sept. 11, 2001. In order to understand 9/11’s impact, a clear memory of our own fears must be recalled. As individuals, Americans were stunned by 9/11 not only because of its size and daring but also because it was unexpected. Terrorist attacks were not uncommon, but this one raised another question: What comes next? Unlike Timothy McVeigh, it appeared that al Qaeda was capable of other, perhaps greater acts of terrorism. Fear gripped the land. It was a justified fear, and while it resonated across the world, it struck the United States particularly hard.

Part of the fear was that U.S. intelligence had failed again to predict the attack.  The public did not know what would come next, nor did it believe that U.S. intelligence had any idea. A federal commission on 9/11 was created to study the defense failure. It charged that the president had ignored warnings. The focus in those days was on intelligence failure. The CIA admitted it lacked the human sources inside al Qaeda. By default the only way to track al Qaeda was via their communications. It was to be the NSA’s job.

As we have written, al Qaeda was a global, sparse and dispersed network. It appeared to be tied together by burying itself in a vast new communications network: the Internet. At one point, al Qaeda had communicated by embedding messages in pictures transmitted via the Internet. They appeared to be using free and anonymous Hotmail accounts. To find Japanese communications, you looked in the electronic ether. To find al Qaeda’s message, you looked on the Internet.

But with a global, sparse and dispersed network you are looking for at most a few hundred men in the midst of billions of people, and a few dozen messages among hundreds of billions. And given the architecture of the Internet, the messages did not have to originate where the sender was located or be read where the reader was located. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. The needle can be found only if you are willing to sift the entire haystack. That led to PRISM and other NSA programs.

The mission was to stop any further al Qaeda attacks. The means was to break into their communications and read their plans and orders. To find their plans and orders, it was necessary to examine all communications. The anonymity of the Internet and the uncertainties built into its system meant that any message could be one of a tiny handful of messages. Nothing could be ruled out. Everything was suspect. This was reality, not paranoia.

It also meant that the NSA could not exclude the communications of American citizens because some al Qaeda members were citizens. This was an attack on the civil rights of Americans, but it was not an unprecedented attack. During World War II, the United States imposed postal censorship on military personnel, and the FBI intercepted selected letters sent in the United States and from overseas. The government created a system of voluntary media censorship that was less than voluntary in many ways. Most famously, the United States abrogated the civil rights of citizens of Japanese origin by seizing property and transporting them to other locations. Members of pro-German organizations were harassed and arrested even prior to Pearl Harbor. Decades earlier, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, effectively allowing the arrest and isolation of citizens without due process.

There are two major differences between the war on terror and the aforementioned wars. First, there was a declaration of war in World War II. Second, there is a provision in the Constitution that allows the president to suspend habeas corpus in the event of a rebellion. The declaration of war imbues the president with certain powers as commander in chief — as does rebellion. Neither of these conditions was put in place to justify NSA programs such as PRISM.

Moreover, partly because of the constitutional basis of the actions and partly because of the nature of the conflicts, World War II and the Civil War had a clear end, a point at which civil rights had to be restored or a process had to be created for their restoration. No such terminal point exists for the war on terror. As was witnessed at the Boston Marathon — and in many instances over the past several centuries — the ease with which improvised explosive devices can be assembled makes it possible for simple terrorist acts to be carried out cheaply and effectively. Some plots might be detectable by intercepting all communications, but obviously the Boston Marathon attack could not be predicted.

The problem with the war on terror is that it has no criteria of success that is potentially obtainable. It defines no level of terrorism that is tolerable but has as its goal the elimination of all terrorism, not just from Islamic sources but from all sources. That is simply never going to happen and therefore, PRISM and its attendant programs will never end. These intrusions, unlike all prior ones, have set a condition for success that is unattainable, and therefore the suspension of civil rights is permanent. Without a constitutional amendment, formal declaration of war or declaration of a state of emergency, the executive branch has overridden fundamental limits on its powers and protections for citizens.

Since World War II, the constitutional requirements for waging war have fallen by the wayside. President Harry S. Truman used a U.N resolution to justify the Korean War. President Lyndon Johnson justified an extended large-scale war with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, equating it to a declaration of war. The conceptual chaos of the war on terror left out any declaration, and it also included North Korea in the axis of evil the United States was fighting against. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is charged with aiding an enemy that has never been legally designated. Anyone who might contemplate terrorism is therefore an enemy. The enemy in this case was clear. It was the organization of al Qaeda but since that was not a rigid nation but an evolving group, the definition spread well beyond them to include any person contemplating an infinite number of actions. After all, how do you define terrorism, and how do you distinguish it from crime?

Three thousand people died in the 9/11 attacks, and we know that al Qaeda wished to kill more because it has said that it intended to do so. Al Qaeda and other jihadist movements — and indeed those unaffiliated with Islamic movements — pose threats. Some of their members are American citizens, others are citizens of foreign nations. Preventing these attacks, rather than prosecuting in the aftermath, is important. I do not know enough about PRISM to even try to guess how useful it is.

At the same time, the threat that PRISM is fighting must be kept in perspective. Some terrorist threats are dangerous, but you simply cannot stop every nut who wants to pop off a pipe bomb for a political cause. So the critical question is whether the danger posed by terrorism is sufficient to justify indifference to the spirit of the Constitution, despite the current state of the law. If it is, then formally declare war or declare a state of emergency. The danger of PRISM and other programs is that the decision to build it was not made after the Congress and the president were required to make a clear finding on war and peace. That was the point where they undermined the Constitution, and the American public is responsible for allowing them to do so.

Defensible Origins, Dangerous Futures

The emergence of programs such as PRISM was not the result of despots seeking to control the world. It had a much more clear, logical and defensible origin in our experiences of war and in legitimate fears of real dangers. The NSA was charged with stopping terrorism, and it devised a plan that was not nearly as secret as some claim. Obviously it was not as effective as hoped, or the Boston Marathon attack wouldn’t have happened. If the program was meant to suppress dissent it has certainly failed, as the polls and the media of the past weeks show.

The revelations about PRISM are far from new or interesting in themselves. The NSA was created with a charter to do these things, and given the state of technology it was inevitable that the NSA would be capturing communications around the world. Many leaks prior to Snowden’s showed that the NSA was doing this. It would have been more newsworthy if the leak revealed the NSA had not been capturing all communications. But this does give us an opportunity to consider what has happened and to consider whether it is tolerable.

The threat posed by PRISM and other programs is not what has been done with them but rather what could happen if they are permitted to survive. But this is not simply about the United States ending this program. The United States certainly is not the only country with such a program. But a reasonable start is for the country that claims to be most dedicated to its Constitution to adhere to it meticulously above and beyond the narrowest interpretation. This is not a path without danger. As Benjamin Franklin said, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

———-End of STRATFOR Essay—————

It is so easy to see the world as simply filled with others who all just want what we want and if we would just play nice in the sandbox, so would they.  Jimmy Carter believed that and it led to one of his most important quotes when that nice belief blew up in his face, “I can’t believe the lied to me!”

But we are in a world in which some very capable and scary folks want us dead and removed from the planet.  THey do not want out good or standard of living which they see as decadent at best and blasphemous at worst.  THey just want us GONE so they can establish their theological world empire and see anyone opposing that goal as Godless sinners to be eradicated.  The problem is they are transnational and not constrained to a political state with which we could easily deal.  Their ideology has cost us lots of lives and damage.  Their diffuse organization means a decisive frontal assault is not only unlikely it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to define much less carry out.

So the only remaining question for us, as a country that at least used to be of, by, and for the people (not of, by, and for the government) is how much, if any, of our freedoms are we willing to give to that government to support its efforts to keep us safe from those and other threats and to perserve and defend the Consititution and to faithfully execute the laws passed by Congress, as they swear an oath to do?

Or maybe the more important question is, since we have already allowed that oath to be selectively kept and broken at will, do we even care anymore.  Because of we are OK with the selective breaking of that oath for things we may like, we have no standing to complain when it is also broken for things someone ELSE likes but we don’t.

As I’ve written elsewhere, if we allow the Constitution and its rules to be re-interpreted by any new regime, then it has no meaning, no rules, and though we would not have the nerve to say so, we have de facto scrapped the whole thing on the midden heap of convenience and entitlement.  Is that something we really want?




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Posted by on July 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


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A Tragedy Does Not Always Play Into an Agenda

It has been a while since I posted here.  Reading the intellectual offal from many of my colleagues on Facebook has been disheartening.  To see the extents to which they will cite inapplicable and often fabricated statistics to cover up a complete lack of insight in order to see the world as all bad or all good based purely on party affiliation is at once sad, laughable, and reprehensible since i know many of them use their positions of authority to press their skewed points of view on their students.

But few things seem to have excited them recently as much as the mere thought that the jury might find George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Treyvon Martin is cold blood in an act of rampant and naked racism  hearkening back to the horrific days of lynchings. It was clear that they believed no person in whose heart beat the sense of sympathy and outrage proper to this situation could even conceive of the defendant being anything other than guilty and of far more than the simple and inadequate charge of murder.  Anyone who had the temerity or the political insensitivity to even suggest otherwise was instantly accused of being openly racist simply because they might suggest the prosecution didn’t make the case.  The prosecution and the law be damned, regardless of such inconvenient things as the law, the jury had to — HAD TO — find him guilty, guilty, guilty or they too were clearly racist.

Well, the verdict is in, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges.  Already the weeping and gnashing of teeth has started among the liberal race-baiting crowds rending their clothing, shaking their posters, and indulging in intellectual self flagellation that what is to them such an obviously bigoted result could have let this wanton killer of an innocent black youth free to walk the streets.

How, they ask, could we skeptics not see that this innocent youth was gunned down purposefully and unmercifully by this self-styled vigilante harboring his deep-seated desire for racial cleansing of all non-whites? How, uness we shared the same level of heinous bigotry and racist thinking, could it not be abundantly clear to us that this was just another example of the overt racist acid eating away at the belly of hypocritical America, much less failing to see that the only proper outcome was to send this evil gunman to the chair for a gruesome and public execution to stand as an object lesson that it was time we all threw off the Klan robes all those who questoined this case must secretly have in the closet?

Actually, in my case at least, it is pretty easy.  It is about the law.  In this case, the law of self-defense in which anyone reasonably in fear for their life or serious bodily harm may use deadly force to defend themselves.  The entire case turns on a single, simple question: did the defendant, who admits to shooting the victim, do so as a wanton  and racist act of murder, or during a time when he was in fear for his life or of serious bodily harm?  The police investigators did not want to press charges, the original DA did not want to press charges at this point and for the same reason… they understood that they did not have the hard evidence to form a successful case.

But this quickly became a political cause celebre because it perfectly played into the libeal agendas based on the view that although a continuous litany of black on black crime and murder in places like Chicago is unworthy of comment, any single incident where an evil “white” guy can be played as a typically hateful bigot snuffing out the life of a poor black person, is to be exploited with all energy available.

The law, or any concern with the law, got lost in the political fog.  That this case deals with a tragedy is beyond debate.  But a trial is not about justice or fairness or karma or any warm fuzzy feel-good elements: it is supposed to be and should be about one simple thing… the law and whether or not it can be proved that someone broke it.

Zimmerman himself was not white; his mother is Peruvian.  Serious racists and white supremicists of the type Zimmerman is accused of being would see him as contaminated by that non-white blood if there was so much as a drop of it in his system.  And besides, as we all know, straight from the spoken gospel of that paragon of interracial ethics, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, only white people can be racist and bigoted.  A worse blow for this view of him is that, according to unchallenged testimony, being Hispanic in southern Florida he was raised in a mixed race environment and even dated a black girl.  It is really hard to make a case for vicious unrestrained bigotry out of that history. Yet the press and the prosecution tried to do so even resorting to implications of other misconduct that in restrospect appeared to have been fabricated. and by withholding evidence, especially of his own wounds from the struggle that tended to indicate he might actually be telling the truth.  THe TV stations even edited a phone call to make it appear that he was after this kid only because he was black which, when you hear the enitre conversation, is not at all what he expressed or implied. That idiocy does not inspire confidence in the prosecutor by any juror who, unlike trial followers hearing selected reports through their own political filters, got to hear all of the witness testimonies and see everything brought into evidence.

Unsubstantiated allegations have been raised saying he is a closet bigot, but even if he were an open bigot, the trial was not about that; it was about murder.  He is free to think whatever he does, but he is not free to act on it in such a way as to use deadly force outside of very defined circumstances, none of which includes his ill will toward a group to which the victim belongs.  The press tried to make him into a bigot with the clear implication that if you would believe him to be bigoted then he must therefore have murdered the young black kid as a natural and inherent result of the bigotry.  The press thought so little of your intelligence they assumed they could force you into that conclusion with some very selective documentation and misleading information.  And one of the tragedies of this case is that they seemed to have been right.

But from a legal standpoint, even the darling of the left, Attorney Alan Dershowitz, long standing champion of civil rights and the ACLU, told an interviewer that if ever there was a case for reasonable doubt, this was it and that the prosecution should have been disbarred for unethical overreach in their charges, and for trying to alter charges in mid stream when they realized they had made a hash of their main plan.

“What reasonable doubt can there be?” the liberal crowd exclaims as they salivate all over themselves seeing this as the equivalent of a modern lynching over which they can get worked up in righteous indignation to castigate their favorite whipping boys.  The outcome is important for them because if it turns out not to be true then they would have to face the concept that other closely held beliefs about the evil U.S. might also have some flaws in them and need to be re-examned.   For them, therefore, no explanation other than rampant racism will ever explain any result other than a guilty verdict.

Well, the problem for them is, as Dershowitz pointed out, all of the evidence presented in the trial demonstrated clearly that no one, NO ONE but the defendant and the victim actually knew what happened because they were the only ones on the scene.   He (Dershowitz) wasn’t there, the prosecutor wasn’t there, the reporters weren’t there, the President wasn’t there, I wasn’t there, the jurors weren’t there, and most importantly neither were any of you who claim to have some pipeline to truth about it because your political blinders force you to see such actions through very specific and very ugly filters.  Thank God the legal system demands more proof for major crimes than that.

The burden of proof is on the state.  Defendants (except when dealing with the IRS) do not have to prove their innocence; the state, rather, has to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  With no more evidence than the prosecution brought to bear in this case, if that level of proof were truly sufficient for convictions there are few of us who could not be found guilty of a wide assortment of crimes despite our actual innocence.

It could scarcely have been more muddled. There were conflicting witnesses about whose voice was on the tape calling for help – even the boy’s father wasn’t sure it was him — however the answer is possibly irrelevant anyway since the time between the call for help and the actual shooting was enough for the flow of the fight to have turned.  If you have never been in a fight where you reasonably (or even unreasonably) thought your life was in danger, you need to shut up now and keep your terminal ignorance to yourself.  In such struggles the tide of battle can turn back and forth almost instantaneously.  It is more than likely that during the fight BOTH participants had moments when they feared for their lives.  And when you are fighting for your life you no longer are fighting to kill the other person, regardless of the initial intent, you are fighting to keep the other person from killing you and you will do any and everything you can to accomplish that.

There was, lacking witnesses other than the defendant, conflicting forensic evidence as to who was prevailing in the ground fight although the wounds on the back of the defendant’s head sure seemed to look like those of someone having his head slammed into the concrete.  How would I know that?  Because I’ve been there and bore the scabs and scars from it for quite some time.  The forensic testimony about the gunshot wound declared that it was consistent with a shot from below and at an angle.  The prosecution claimed, nevertheless, that the defendant ran the victim down and shot him down in cold blood.  The only thing certain was it was at close range.  Well duh…

Bottom line, there was not a shred of incontrovertible hard evidence, much less an eye witness, to corroborate either Zimmerman’s version, the only surviving participant, or the story concocted by the prosecution, or even the story they had to modify that first version to when facts proved them wrong, or even their third version as more facts surfaced.  So as a juror, if you have the honesty and integrity to follow the law, whether or not you like the outcome, you had no choice but to vote that the State had not met their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt” does not mean he might have done it, or that you think he probably did it, or even that you are, say, 70-80% convinced he did it based on emotion, and political agendas.  That you want non-blacks to always be the bad guys does not mean they always are any more than real bigots seeing them as always thugs means they always are.  That you want members of a specifically sympathetic group in your view to always be the victims does not mean that they always are.  No group is all bad or all good; truthfully it is almost safe to say that for the most part no individual is always bad or always good.  We are complex individuals and we create even more complex groupings.  People who see groups as monolithic in any way, from issues of political philosophy to issues of ethical behavior, are simply delusional and usually are following some particular political agenda.  Guilt by association is as inane as innocence by association.

What happened was a tragedy, a death that need not have happened.  Either party might have stopped the processes early on and derailed that final fateful moment.  But legal decisions are not supposed to turn on the stupidity or immaturity or a lack of wisdom of the parties, but on the legally defined consequences for provable actions.  Zimmerman may have been mistaken or been stupid, or he actually may have done any of the various versions the prosecutor claimed, but they failed to make a case for any of it beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a jury.

Perhaps if they had not been forced by political meddling to act so soon, the needed evidence might have been uncovered but that potential was not allowed to play out.  In some ways, Zimmerman was acquited by the people who hate him the most because they forced the charges before anyone was ready.  There is no statute of limitations on murder so the police and DA could wait for further investigation if they believed an issue existed.  God knows the press would have every investigative reporter out digging, in ways not kosher for real investigators, for precisely such evidence since they now had a vested interest in his conviction.  But no, they stupidly forced a trial before any hard evidence surfaced.

The jury had no option but to acquit.  When even Mr. Dershowitz agrees with that, it is very hard to argue it on any grounds other than purely emotional or political.  Unless you can demonstrate that in fact you were physically there and witnessed the whole thing start to finish, or unless you can produce a tape or photo or ANY hard evidence demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant simply chased down an innocent kid and shot him, for ANY reason, then it is time to let it go.

I know, I know, now there is now a call for civil suits to be brought where the standard of proof is reduced to “the preponderance of the evidence.”  Well, good luck with that.  Unless more evidence is uncovered before THAT trial starts, the results will be the same because there is currently NO hard, incontrovertible evidence to support even an evidentiary balancing act.

It is always handy when some event reinforces our heartfelt political beliefs, and tragedies are the best sort because they have the deeply emotional aspect to them.  But sometimes, tragedies, even gut wrenching tragedies involving unfortunate and wasteful loss of life, simply do not play into the hands of those agenda.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Uncategorized


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