Who Watches the Intelligence “Experts?”

The other day my wife had me check out an interview she was watching on Hannity since she wanted my feedback.  The interview was with William Binney, a former NSA official who worked for the agency over 30 years.  You figure, a guy like that, with that kind of background, should have some sort of credibility right?

Maybe not.

Just a few observations, other than the obvious one that Hannity really should shut up for a second and let his guests speak.  At 6:20 Binney, in response to a question by Hannity, “so every phone conversation I’ve had in my life you believe has been taped?” Binney responds, “Without warrants, yes that’s right.”

Color me skeptical, but I find it hard to believe that a lifetime of Sean Hannity phone calls has been recorded and are sitting in storage out in Utah, or anywhere.  Maybe I’m naive, but that seems implausible to me.  I just can’t imagine that the technology and storage capacity was there, starting in the 1970’s to record and store every single phone call of a teenage Sean Hannity.  Now? Possibly, but going back decades?  Or maybe Binney didn’t really mean Hannity’s entire life and misunderstood the question.  Or maybe, since he has 30 plus years with the NSA I should shut up since he should know what he’s talking about.

But then at 6:28 he blows any credibility I might have given him when he references the story of former military linguists Adrienne Kinne and David Faulk, “whistleblowers” who made the claim that the US Intelligence Community was deliberately targeting US military and civilians working in Iraq.  This blew up into a big national story for a few days in 2008. And although it’s mostly forgotten now, every so often it’s trotted out in the media as an example of the US Intelligence Community spying on innocent civilians as a routine fact of life and this incident just happened to have been outed by brave whistleblowers speaking truth to power.

I happen to have some peripheral knowledge of that incident and know that the media narrative of it is false.  So why should I trust Binney if he’s bringing that issue up?  More to the point, Binney was out of government by then, so what particular insider knowledge would he have of that incident?

This of course, is just one example of a problem I’m seeing with National Security and Intelligence experts, who go on cable news and, depending on the network, take totally opposite positions on an issue from other National Security and Intelligence experts. It’s by no means unusual for commentators to disagree on cable TV.  I mean, that’s the business model right?  But unlike other commentators and so called experts, commentators on Intelligence issues are trading on their exclusive access to the Intelligence Community and their access to classified information.  But rather than being honest brokers of that kind of access and expertise, they seem to be doing the same thing other cable news talking heads do: exploit their credibility to please the host of whatever show they’re on, in order to get more bookings.

Another “National Security Expert” guest of Hannity’s is LTC Tony Shaffer. Shaffer seems to be more of a wild card than Binney.  He’s claimed that President Obama watched the attack on the consulate at Benghazi from the situation room.  Explosive news if true, but how would Shaffer had known?  It sounds like something he just blurted out.  But Shaffer’s most recent wild eyed claim was that retired NSA and other IC types did the actual hacking of the DNC and gave the information to Wikileaks. Another earth shaking claim if true, but where’s the evidence?  What’s even the basis of the claim?

Another one who plays that game is Malcom Nance, a former Naval Cryptologic Technician and Arabic linguist.  He is also billed as an all-around National Security expert.  He actually has an impressive resume, but when you want to be called to be on panels on MSNBC or the BBC, you have to pick a side, which lead to this tweet a few months ago after the Wikileaks release of John Podesta’s emails:

Now there were no “obvious forgeries” in the Podesta emails.  Even months later, all the information we have on them is that they are authentic. But if a “National Security Expert” tells you they’re “obvious forgeries,” why wouldn’t the average person just accept that? But calling them forgeries, backed up by Nance’s resume, makes good copy; particularly on MSNBC.  That was the kind of national security expertise they want on that network.

Like Nance, John Schindler got his start in the Navy as a Cryptologic Warfare Officer and was a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College until yada yada yada, and now he runs a National Security blog The XX Committee. Schindler isn’t a cable news whore, but he uses social media in much the same way.

Now…is this just an old friend who is a crusty old liberal and hates Trump, or is this an indication of some cabal in the Intelligence Community that has the goods on Trump and is just waiting for their moment to strike?  Clearly Schindler wants us to think the latter, but who knows?

My point is, I’m not sure that we can take these Intelligence and Security experts at face value.  They all seem to have agendas, whether commercial or personal, and because of the nature of their expertise, they are more or less unchallenged.  They are usually the only ones on a cable news panel that have held a security clearance so it makes them hard to challenge.  And frankly, that even goes for me too.  I dismissed Binney because of his take on the Kinne and Faulk story but I’m not willing to share anything about my issues with it.  So why trust me?

Don’t trust me, but you’re better off not trusting any of these “experts” until you can discern their real motives and agendas. And even then…

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Shadow Brokers

 

nsa_meade

ABC News had an interesting story yesterday about a hacker group called “Shadow Brokers” releasing information related to the National Security Agency loss of some of it’s most closely guarded hacker tools.

OK maybe not that closely guarded. Per the article:

“A group calling itself “Shadow Brokers” says it has released another gem from its trove of high-level hacking tools stolen from the U.S.’s National Security Agency, potentially offering added insight into how America’s spies operate online.

The leak discloses NSA-style codenames — including “Jackladder” and “Dewdrop”— and carries internet protocol information about scores of organizations, many based in Japan, China and South Korea, according to several experts who have examined the data.”

It looks like yet another embarrassment for the NSA, which seems to have generated plenty over the past few years.  When hacker groups get to troll the NSA with their own hacking tools, it’s like getting a wedgie and being stuffed in a locker for that most secret of American spy agencies.  This caught my eye:

“The Intercept, an investigative publication with access to NSA material leaked by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, later confirmed Shadow Brokers’ tools were really from the NSA by cross-referencing the leaked data with information held in a previously unpublished top secret manual.”

That seems to tell me that intimate knowledge of these hacker tools have been out there since Snowden defected.  Glenn Greenwald may not have published the details in The Guardian, but I’m sure whatever laptop he kept Snowden’s data on was a target of every intelligence agency in the world, so the entire worldwide intelligence community must have been aware of some of the specifics of these hacker tools for years.

And then, somehow, these tools got released.

At some point.

That gets kind of cloudy.  It was revealed publicly a few months ago that not only had the hacking tools been leaked, but that it may have been due to carelessness.

“Embarrassingly, an investigation into the matter has revealed that a NSA operative may have inadvertently left the hacking tools in question on a remote computer, effectively leaving it behind as a gift to whomever discovered it.”

At this point, maybe it’s time for the NSA to wear a dunce cap and sit in the corner?

But wait, there’s more:

“Interestingly enough, a U.S. operative is said to have left the hacking tools behind about three years ago.”

Now I wonder what else happened in the intelligence community three years ago?  That’s right, that’s when Snowden defected.  Now at seems a bit of a coincidence to me that at about the same time Edward Snowden began his ‘round the world defection tour that in a totally unrelated incident, some random NSA employee loses a laptop containing some of the most valuable hacking software in the world.

Now here is where I get confused.  Harold Martin III, an NSA contractor employed by Booz Allen Hamilton was arrested in August for pilfering an unbelievable amount of classified material that he had stolen from work and was keeping at home.  Per The New York Times:

 “Investigators pursuing what they believe to be the largest case of mishandling classified documents in United States history have found that the huge trove of stolen documents in the possession of a National Security Agency contractor included top-secret N.S.A. hacking tools that two months ago were offered for sale on the internet.

They have been hunting for electronic clues that could link those cybertools — computer code posted online for auction by an anonymous group calling itself the Shadow Brokers — to the home computers of the contractor, Harold T. Martin III, who was arrested in late August on charges of theft of government property and mishandling of classified information.”

So this is why I’m confused.  The FBI is trying to make a case that Martin sold or tried to sell NSA hacking tools to the Shadow Brokers hacking group; the same hacking tools that were inadvertently lost three years ago?

“But so far, the investigators have been frustrated in their attempt to prove that Mr. Martin deliberately leaked or sold the hacking tools to the Shadow Brokers or, alternatively, that someone hacked into his computer or otherwise took them without his knowledge.”

The tools were lost three years ago.  The FBI thinks that Martin sold them to the hacker group, and per the ABC article, everyone agrees that the hacker group Shadow Brokers does have the hacking tools right?

Somebody can’t keep their story straight.  Did the Shadow Brokers get the tools from the loss from three years ago or from Martin more recently?  And is Martin that good that if he did sell the tools, he left no tracks, including payment?  Since he’s sitting in jail, facing a lifetime of more of the same, it would seem that he would have an incentive to cut a deal.

Let me posit an alternative explanation.  I won’t even call it a theory since I have no evidence or no knowledge one way or the other.  But try this on for size:

When the after action on Snowden’s stolen material was reviewed, it becomes clear that a technical manual that has specific information about the NSA hacking tools was part of Snowden’s stolen intelligence material.  Greenwald never published it, no doubt because it was technical and he had no idea what it was, but just having it in his possession made the material vulnerable since Greenwald became a target for every intelligence agency in the world once it went public that Snowden gave him all of his ill gotten gains.

So the information on the hacking tools is out there, even if the tools themselves are not.  But there is no doubt enough technical data that would make it possible for a sophisticated intelligence service to perhaps identify and defend from those particular tools. So maybe, just maybe, the NSA wants to muddy the waters a bit by “losing” their tools, only to be found by a hacking group which then brags about having them and uses them to intrude into systems worldwide.

So…what if the tools were never lost, or stolen by Martin?  What if it’s an elaborate setup to create a black hat hacking group, that can be the fall guy for failed or identified computer systems intrusions?  Since the technical manual stolen by Snowden is out there, that means the useful shelf life of these hacking tools are limited, so an entirely new set of software has to be created, but that takes time.  In the meantime, there is a fall guy for failed or identified computer intrusion operations, the Shadow Brokers.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Shadow Brokers are nothing but a creation of the Shadow Factory?

Do I think this is likely?  Sadly no.  It’s more hope than anything else. Or it’s a good episode of The Blacklist or Scorpion.  But I would rather believe that as opposed to the alternative public explanation that not only did the NSA lose information on almost every major intelligence program to Snowden, but that it lost the US technical edge in cyber warfare to an accident.

 

No Strategy and No Intelligence

This sort of dereliction of duty should have President Obama giving himself a facepalm.

What am I talking about you may wonder?

Source: Obama Given Detailed Intelligence For a year about the rise of ISIS

President Obama was given detailed and specific intelligence about the rise of the Islamic State as part of his daily briefing for at least a year before the group seized large swaths of territory over the summer, a former Pentagon official told Fox News. 

The official — who asked not to be identified because the President’s Daily Brief is considered the most authoritative, classified intelligence community product analyzing sensitive international events for the president — said the data was strong and “granular” in detail. 

The source said a policymaker “could not come away with any other impression: This is getting bad.” 

If true, it means that Obama was lying out of his ass when a few weeks ago he said this:

“There is no doubt that their advance their movement over the last several of months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and I think the expectation of policy makers both in and outside of Iraq.”

How would he know?  He’s not getting briefed on them.  But this sort of amateurishness I find galling:

Obama, unlike his predecessors who traditionally had the document briefed to them, is known to personally read the daily brief. The former Pentagon official, who has knowledge of the process, said Obama generally was not known to come back to the intelligence community with further requests for information based on the daily report. 

This issue has actually come up before.  Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote a column last year noting that Obama skipped more than half of his intelligence briefings. However he included the administration response, which was that the President reads his Daily Intelligence Briefing every day and doesn’t require an actual in person briefing.  One presumes because darn it, he’s just that smart.

I would call that nonsense, and I know a little bit about the subject.  During my military career I gave briefings, I wrote and helped assemble briefings, I’ve read them, and sat in on briefings.  Military and Intelligence officials get their briefings in person from a briefer, and I can assure you it’s not because they aren’t as smart as the President.  You need a briefer there because if you have any questions on any of the briefed issues (and I’ve never seen a high level person being briefed who didn’t ask questions) you need to have someone there who can elaborate on the issue.  Being briefed isn’t a passive activity; you are supposed to be actively engaged in your own briefing.

And that’s among people who already have spent a working lifetime immersed in the details of military and intelligence capabilities and areas of interest. That is not the President’s background.  He received his first intelligence briefing shortly before the election in 2008; the guy is no expert.  If anyone needs the handholding of a skilled briefer it’s him.

It’s not as if Obama is the first President who arrived in the White House with no military or national security experience, but I doubt there has been a more arrogant one who was just too cool for the room and who no doubt genuinely thinks he knows more than the military and intelligence professionals who desperately need to educate him. No wonder Obama has ‘no strategy for handling ISIS.  He’s just recently heard of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Better Than a Telescreen

The Guardian, as part of its ongoing program of weakening the West by revealing bit by bit the Snowden documents, released a new one a few weeks ago about a GCHQ program called Optic Nerve. GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters, is the British equivalent of the NSA and because of the close relationship between the American and British Intelligence communities got caught in the Snowden web of stolen documents.  Optic Nerve was (or is?  Who knows?) a program for capturing video images from Yahoo video chats.

As The Guardian reports:

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham

A model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

GCHQ files dating between 2008 and 2010 explicitly state that a surveillance program codenamed Optic Nerve collected still images of Yahoo webcam chats in bulk and saved them to agency databases, regardless of whether individual users were an intelligence target or not.

In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery – including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications – from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally.

The comparison that the paper immediately and obviously uses is the telescreen from Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s telescreens were basically TV’s that worked both ways; while you’re watching a show calling for all praise to the State (think Hardball), the TV is watching you back, checking to see if you’re rolling your eyes when Chris Matthews praises Obama or if you are in a rapturous state at the mention of his name.  The totalitarian implications of both the technology and the program are obvious.

So when I saw the story, why did I think, “Man that’s freakin’ cool?”

Well the technology is pretty neat.  And I can hardly blame an intelligence agency for wanting to know everything.  It’s only what any intelligence agency has every wanted, to be able to know absolutely everything.  The thing is, our technology is rapidly reaching the point where it’s possible to know, if not everything, than almost every communication that you make that has some sort of electronic component.

I can even see why GCHQ would be interested in screen capturing people’s video chats.  Imagine a situation in which a terrorist event in the UK has a shot of a suspect on closed circuit cameras.  Facial recognition software on the usual government databases turn up nothing.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have another source of pictures to scan through?  More than that, if you get a hit on a Yahoo image, that brings along quite a bit of other metadata associated with the Yahoo account being used.  That, my friends, is neat!

Low probability of success you say?  I would agree.  The odds are not great that you could check all legitimate government databases but then get a hit on a Yahoo video chat database, but who knows?  If it helps you solve a terrorist event, it would be worth it and all would be forgiven.

Low probability searching is becoming more and more worthwhile as the capacity for computer processing and data storage increases.  You only need a human to take a look at something if you actually get a hit on your searches. So that makes it more worthwhile to expand intelligence gathering into every nook and cranny on the off chance that you can prevent, or help solve, a terrorist event.

But that brings us back to telescreens and Orwell in general.  Do we really want to be observed to that extent that you literally are on someone’s video, phone, or internet presence at all times?  The Western nations are having that conversation right now, but the problem isn’t the intelligence programs, it’s the technology itself.  You may not like the NSA or GCHQ having this technology, but eventually, the technology will spread out so that everyone can have it.  Would having Putin’s Russia or the Red Chinese looking in everyone’s video chat be any better?  How about Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea?  There are real totalitarian regimes right now that would love to have this technology for nothing but nefarious purposes and eventually, they will be able to buy it or build it themselves.

In the Western countries we think we can reign in our intelligence services by passing a law or something, and we can.  I can see us returning to a pre-World War II political climate in which, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” But we can’t pass a law stopping the Russians or Iranians from doing the same thing.  Even if we legally denude the ability of agencies like NSA, CSE, or GCHQ to achieve some sort of total information dominance, we can’t stop the rest of the world that could care less about our concerns for privacy.  I think you can imagine the possibilities of foreign dictatorships using these technologies to blackmail and manipulate westerners.

Maybe I’m naive, but if these technologies have to exist, I would rather the NSA or GCHQ have them than the Russian FAPSI or China’s Technical Department of the Central Military Commission.  But we are not going to get a choice on that since the technologies exist now and will eventually be acquired and used by the baddest of the bad.  Even Edward Snowden may look back in nostalgia when only the Western intelligence agencies had these capabilities.

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