Wolves in the Fold: FBI = NSA = 1984

February 26, 2016–This is major league serious business. I might observe how tiresome it is to have to go back again and again to these issues over government access to private communications of citizens, except that the issue is way too important to be left to government officials. Like the hammer seeing only nails, if you’re the FBI every telephone is a potential gateway to a crime (so you need them all). Weren’t we in this exact same place two years ago with the National Security Agency? Let’s review the bidding.

James B. Comey, the FBI director, won big points in my book a decade ago when he stood up to White House thugs trying to strongarm the Justice Department over the NSA blanket surveillance program Stellar Wind. But he’s blown it all now–and is plenty deep in the Big Muddy–with his dogged bids to saw out a back door into everyone’s private communications. In The Family Jewels I documented at some length the government excesses this kind of thing leads to. Edward Snowden, practically moments later, revealed NSA programs–starting with Stellar Wind but including a lot more–that were doing just that.

The NSA used to rely upon the FBI as front man. That is, if NSA wanted some access it would prevail upon FBI to open an investigation and make applications to the FISA Court in its own name. After the judges approved the warrant the agencies would share the take between themselves.

In one sense the current mess about access to the San Bernardino murderers’ phone is a replay of that. The ink was hardly dry on the NSA’s stuck pig squeals that denying blanket eavesdropping would emasculate it–followed by the tech companies’ promises they would add encryption–and the cosmetic “reforms” President Obama enacted–before the FBI started complaining about its iphone access. (Or, more properly, about its diminished ability to wiretap.) Director Comey began this drumroll long before the San Bernardino murders. To say, as he still did yesterday in front of a congressional committee at an annual threat hearing, that this is all about one telephone, just boggles the mind.

It is possible that Comey (and the FBI) really believe this is just about one phone. Naturally, that strains credulity, but of course this is the FBI, the government agency which spent multi billions of dollars and took over ten years to fail at the simple task of getting all of its employees onto a common computer network.

The bit from Comey about The Bureau not being able to look itself in the mirror, etc., if it could not give the victims’ survivors good answers is well-meant but it is devised to pull at heartstrings. FBI does not need iphones to obtain the evidence it needs for good answers–that it has already collected. The San Bernardino murders are past us, so no current law enforcement objective obtains. Even the intelligence potential of these iphones is minimal. These were not people talking to ISIS strategic commanders, nothing beyond minutiae stands to be revealed. There is no trial or indictment for which to collect evidence either.

The only purpose for which this access is relevant is for the future–which means, the future being unpredictable, and all–the potential for access to every iphone.

FBI mavens claim their demand for access to the San Bernardino phone is unique and can go no further based on the notion that Apple can write a “back door” (datamining) program and this would be installed in just the single phone by use of a maintenance access code unique to that phone. The Bureau seemingly does not understand that all iphones are identical, their operating systems also, and the back door program would be too. The only protection left to the individual is the maintenance code. At the point in the future when any of this becomes relevant, the precedent for tech companies yielding their maintenance codes to government inquisitors will already have been set by the “San Bernardino phone” case.

You can see how insidious this is. It is Apple executive Ted Cook, not the FBI who is right–this is about the future, not the San Bernardino case. That’s the only way it makes sense, and the only explanation that accounts for James Comey’s drumbeat about encryption that starts from before the San Bernardino murders.

This is the place where I have to disagree with columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post, who writes in today’s issue that “the basic problem” with Apple’s position is that “a private company and the interests of its customers should prevail over the public’s interest as expressed by our courts.” Ignatius is an experienced and acute observer of the security agencies, but here he carries their water.

Here Apple (and its customers) are only surrogates for the public. It is the public that is the real target. That Apple stands in the place of the citizenry is purely a function of the type of hi tech equipment involved here. As for the expressions of our courts, Ignatius knows better. Courts, in particular at the district level, have as much resilience for standing against national security claims as ice cubes in an oven. That FBI would obtain a court order was perfectly predictable. To represent that as a considered judgment is short-sighted. One need only look at the judgments of our supposedly conscientious Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to see the legal system stretching ancient precedent to justify modern intrusiveness.

The intrusion is a Constitutional matter, and the answer has been there all along in the Bill of Rights. The Fourth and First Amendments prohibit intrusive surveillance, individual or mass, in any form at any time. End of story.

Or not. It won’t be the first time myopic self-interest or security hysteria have breached the walls of constitutional rights. The wise citizen will take measures to avoid intrusive surveillance. For me, I am inclined to take my typewriters out of storage. I understand the German intelligence service BND is doing the same. Decades ago the NSA spent millions (probably now billions) figuring out how to recover the text printed with a typewriter ribbon. I bet you they have now lost that skill they once had.

 

Farewell Old Indochina Hand: Philippe Devillers

February 21, 2016–In the middle of another piece of writing I checked the mail only to see the notice that Philippe Devillers had passed away. Actually that had happened a week ago, on February 15, but the news was only now circulating. He died in Paris at age 96. Devillers looms large in the historiography of Indochina, and the French and American wars. He was recognized all over. Nearly a decade ago in the former Saigon, for example, I wandered into a second-hand shop where I found a copy of his first great book, Histoire du Vietnam. The shopkeeper wanted an amount for that book that would nearly have financed my trip.

Born in Villers-Cotterets in Picardie, in November 1920, the man went to Saigon with General Philippe Leclerc and the French Expeditionary Corps in September 1945. He had graduated from Sciences-Po and had more degrees in law and administration. Leclerc employed him as an officer of the Fifth Bureau–the French staff for psychological warfare. Named Philippe Mullander, the man wrote as a stringer for the newspaper Le Monde, and adopted a second name referring to his home town to distinguish his writing for the French army from that for the press.

What distinguished Devillers so much was his drive to explore Vietnamese history and culture. Rather than base himself on French pronouncements and claims to historical events, Devillers explored the Vietnamese backgrounds of developments. He was also driven to report. In Saigon barely two months Devillers joined with others in creating the biweekly broadsheet Paris-Saigon. There he teamed up with another man, Jean Lacouture, who would become a key writer on Indochinese matters. His first article for Le Monde concerned the Dalat conference of April 1946, where French negotiators stalled the Viet Minh government in according rights promised in an agreement Leclerc had reached with them earlier.

After some time as a government official Devillers covered Asia for a local paper in Rouen for more than a decade. Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 a 1952 appeared while the French war still continued, and was printed in 19,000 copies. It remains a key source for the outbreak of the Vietnamese revolution, end of French Indochina, and the early French war. The book served to counterbalance arguments from some that the Indochina war was simple a communist aggression against the West. Devillers importantly showed the conflict’s roots in Vietnamese nationalism.

Devillers and Lacouture collaborated on two books and a movie. One, La fin d’une guerre, Indochine 1954 is an important source on the Geneva conference of 1954, and helped me with my study America’s Dien Bien Phu. Their movie also concerned Dien Bien Phu, arguing that French democracy had ended there, and in the late 1960s they joined to publish on the passage from the French war to the American one. In 1988 Devillers edited a collection of key documents, press releases and other material, Paris-Saigon-Hanoi that revealed the role of certain French officials in an explosive fashion.

FBI/NSA/KGB: Obama Crosses the Line

February 20, 2016–President Barack Obama dropped his veil this week, lending White House support to the misguided and dangerous push from James Comey, the FBI and Justice Department, and law enforcement generally, to obtain entry into individuals’ private information. This time we’re not talking phone numbers, “metadata,” and private records–although that is the excuse. We’re talking about nothing less than the creation of a tool that will permit 24/7 surveillance of anyone, anytime, in real time as well as in retrospect. This is scary, ghastly, sinister, put on it any adjective you want.

Readers of this space will know we’ve been following the electronic surveillance issue. We’ve commented in the past about how our fearful leaders– no longer just James Clapper the DNI, but Comey the DirFBI, John Brennan the DCIA, and Mike Rogers the DirNSA–have spoken with forked tongues. Barack Obama made plenty of concessions to them, and this week the White House went all in. Obama has drunk the koolaid. We’re headed toward abuses of the sort documented so sordidly in The Family Jewels.

Let’s dispense with the foolish excuses first. Ostensibly the FBI needs cellphone access to the devices used by San Bernardino murderers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik as part of its investigation into their December killing spree now understood as an ISIS terrorist attack. Farook and Malik were killed in a shootout with authorities within hours of their attack. They are not going to be shooting anyone now. Nor does the FBI need evidence for a trial. In terms of linking the two to Farook associates, the FBI seized direct evidence with a search warrant just the other day. The phones will be no help there.

The New York City Police Department entered the ring on Thursday with a claim that it has been denied access to some 175 communications devices. Sounds like a lot until you put it into the context of how many cases the NYPD has open at the moment.

The real questions are proportionality and privacy. Authorities want to use these cases as a lever to force the technology companies to furnish them tools with which they can access all manner of devices. In the San Bernardino case the Apple Corporation is resisting, including resisting the court order the FBI obtained.

The Department of Justice snidely asserts that Apple is using its resistance to the FBI as a marketing tool. Maybe that’s true–but the term “marketing tool” applies only because of previous actions of both the FBI and NSA, which violated the privacy of millions of individuals everywhere. Apple and other corporations woke up to realize that, absent the installation of encryption, their products were on the way to the junkpile.

Apple’s stance may be bogus, but the security agencies are being positively mendacious. There is little investigative value to be gained from the phone devices at issue in this court order. But there is enormous value (not investigative, but intelligence value) in gaining access to the backdoor software that will enable entry into millions of devices. That is, until the world abandons American-owned technology corporations in pursuit of ones which offer more secure products. Here’s where proportionality comes in: at issue is the record of every person’s contacts, the record of communications, the texts of messages sent from iphones or texting, the apps, the record of usage, increasingly bank records and other financial information–the Big Enchilada.

That’s way out of proportion to what the FBI can discover from Farook’s iphone.

You want to make America great again? Stop the hysteria, drop the pretense, tell the truth, restore privacy. The security agencies’ present course is an invitation for some very large businesses to leave the United States, impoverishing us all the more.

Gamers’ Corner: PANZERKRIEG Historical Notes

For all those gamers who may be interested, I have assembled a set of the Historical Notes that go with the boardgame Panzerkrieg. It’s available as a download from the “Download” section of the website. Because I had to put some time into finding a copy of the game, scanning the material, and assembling the material as a product, I have put a $1.00 price on the download. Hope you enjoy it!

Fearful Leader At It Again!

February 10, 2016–We have again marked the annual exercise–it’s not yet risen (or is that “descended”) to the level of a “tradition”–where the intelligence agency chiefs appear to present their assessments of the array of threats currently facing the nation. You can believe me that many zillions of hours of staff time go into figuring out what to say, how to say it, and making sure the heads of the different agencies present a unified picture.

Lead man is General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), under the current scheme headman of the spy community, whom we’ve taken to calling “Fearful Leader” for his combination of inability to present a level-headed view, excessive deference to bureaucratic politics, and myopic dedication to secrecy, leading him to lie outright to his congressional overseers (and the American people).

At least this year Fearful Leader managed to avoid the trap of telling us the biggest threat to American security is our own spies (that is, whistleblowers). But Clapper’s whopper is nearly that myopic. Now the national security super threat is “home grown terrorists.” This gem of idiocy has gotten popular among the security services lately, and I’ve not got much time today, but I can’t let this pass again without saying something.

The “home grown terrorist” is the person, like the couple in San Bernardino, California; or the crew who perpetrated that tragedy in Paris. These people either long want to strike a blow for jihad, or they recruit themselves, reading and watching material that finally leads them to the same place. Every time there is one of these incidents it is distressing and horrible but that is not the same thing as a national security threat. These people strike in their immediate surroundings. The victims are friends, associates, casual passer-bys at stores, concerts, whatever. Random attacks are not a strategy unless the level of the attacks, the sheer volume of the attacks becomes so high it inhibits routine functions of society. We are many orders of magnitude away from the point that becomes a true national security threat. These random attacks are serendipitous, not aimed, do not strike critical targets, and are not directed–except in the sense that ISIS (or anyone else) bids recruits to go out and act like mosquitos.

To see a nuisance as the major national security threat facing the United States–and, for that matter, civilized society–is a measure of the lack of realism of our intelligence officials lined up behind Fearful Leader.

The sooner we wake up and learn to make this distinction the more quickly we can begin to rise out of the quicksand of hysteria into which Fearful Leader–and others–are trying to lead us.

QUI NHON AT TET

February 8, 2016–Greetings to all who observe the Lunar New Year! For me personally, the shock of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, back in 1968, put the Lunar New Year on the calendar, while many years of living in New York, with very active celebrations downtown, made it memorable. But the indelible element is Tet. Now, the thing about the Tet Offensive which made it so extraordinary is that fighting suddenly broke out all across South Vietnam. Yet when people talk about “Tet” it’s mostly three pieces of the action they mean–the fighting in Saigon (especially at the American embassy), the siege of Hue, or the battle of Khe Sanh. I admit I’ve written about all three. But there’s more to the story. In my book Vietnam: Unwinnable War I tried to expand the horizon, particularly on actions in the Mekong Delta. I’ve done pieces elsewhere, too, including one on “Tet in II Corps” that appeared in The VVA Veteran back in 2009. I was pleased the other day when a veteran of the events portrayed in that article approached me to correct some of what it said. With the Lunar New Year coming right up, this seems an ideal moment to mark it with a non-Saigon story. So, herewith, to Qui Nhon at Tet.

 

Qui Nhon is a city on the central Vietnamese coast. In the American war it was important as the rear base, at the foot of the Central Highlands, for troops engaged on the high plateau, the point of origin for the road to Pleiku. Qui Nhon was probably the most important place in Binh Dinh province, which was undoubtedly why the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam chose to attack it. As a bellwether for the pacification situation in Vietnam, a Binh Dinh province attack offered to put a propaganda feather in the NLF’s cap.

Qui Nhon lay in the tactical area of responsibility of the South Korean expeditionary corps in Vietnam, but the bulk of defense forces  for Binh Dinh were troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) 22nd Infantry Division, in particular its 41st Regiment. As the North Vietnamese and NLF did elsewhere in South Vietnam, they made careful preparations in Binh Dinh, including attempting to neutralize the ARVN. During the predawn hours of January 10, 1968, about three weeks before Tet, an estimated battalion of the Vietnam People’s Army attacked Phu My, base of Captain Nguyen Van Ru’s 2nd Battalion, 41st Infantry.

ARVN units were importantly backed by American advisers. Sergeant Ray J. Robison, one of four men with the battalion’s U.S. detachment, believes the word “adviser” is a misnomer. Captain Ru had been fighting since the French war. There was nothing the Americans could tell him. Rather, the advisers were the point men for ARVN access to many resources their army lacked–from lavish artillery and air support to a scale of supply the South Vietnamese lacked. The North Vietnamese knew that too. During the attack on Phu My some People’s Army bo dois were specifically assigned to take out the Americans’ bunker. The enemy soldiers crept up and rolled two grenades into the emplacement. The first burst wounded 1st Lieutenant Richard Morris, Staff Sergeant Robert Harcum, and Sergeant Gerald Deady, while concussion threw Sergeant Robison against the bunker wall. The second grenade landed at Robison’s feet, an object of morbid dread. But before anything else happened an ARVN private, Do Van Tan, jumped on top of the grenade and shielded the Americans from its blast. Private Tan became one of only three ARVN soldiers awarded the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross during the war.

Sergeant Robison lived to fight at Tet. The other Americans were sent to get medical treatment at Qui Nhon. Captain Ru’s battalion had been badly enough handled that Brigadier General Nguyen Van Hieu switched it for Major Duong’s 1st Battalion. Duong impressed Robison as another great guy to work with.

Then came Tet. It was the night of January 30/31. At least two Liberation Front units hit Qui Nhon–the E2B Local Force Battalion and the H-36 Sapper unit. A Vietnam People’s Army infantry battalion stood in reserve outside the city. The NLF targeted the compound of the South Vietnamese Military Security Service, the railroad yard, and the radio station. They struck an hour later than other positions in II Corps. Police chief Captain Bui Van Lan had time for some preparations, and he assembled five platoons and put them on alert. Captain Lan’s men turned aside most of the initial attacks, though the NLF captured the radio station (they were unable to broadcast any of their pre-recorded tapes). A South Korean battalion and two U.S.-led companies of montagnard strikers reacted to the NLF attacks.

Police killed the leader of the NLF sappers and captured their political officer among more than fifty others. Over 150 Liberation Front soldiers were killed. The Binh Dinh province chief called off the police units after dawn, turning instead to his Regional Force/Popular Force (RF/PF) militia. To give the RF/PF, and the montagnards, more striking power, ARVN sent in Major Duong with two companies of his 1st Battalion, 41st Infantry. They airlifted from Phu My in CH-47 helicopters. The ARVNs complained, “We are jungle fighters, not city fighters,” but in Qui Nhon they would do splendidly.

Montagnards led by Green Beret Sergeant Michael R. Deeds were pushing toward the railroad yard as the ARVNs came up. The South Vietnamese infantry were painstakingly clearing nearby buildings house to house. A Green Beret and another soldier came up to Sergeant Robison, told him they had a 90mm recoilless rifle to set up, and asked him where on the rooftops they could best employ it. Robison advised them to stay off rooftops because enemy snipers were all around. The Americans disappeared but a little later one returned to ask for help–his sergeant had been wounded on the rooftop of a hotel. After seeing the situation for himself, Sergeant Robison told the young soldier to fetch his vehicle and put it as close to the wall of the building as he could. Robison then crept along the rooftop, got hold of the wounded Green Beret, and managed to lower him to the carrier truck that could take him to hospital. Sergeant Robison still wonders what became of the wounded American.

Major Duong’s soldiers spent two days working their way through Qui Nhon, while the South Korean troops cleared the hinterland outside the city. On the second day Sergeant Robison went along with the ARVN scouts ahead of a force of two platoons heading for an outlying village. They soon encountered the NLF and a firefight began that lasted all day. At one point Robison accompanied a relief party to retrieve several wounded Vietnamese soldiers, covering them with fire from his carbine. The sergeant would receive the Bronze Star with a combat “V” for his actions at Qui Nhon.

That second day ended with the security situation much improved. South Vietnamese authorities declared the battle at Qui Nhon over on February 5. Yet another of the NLF’s Tet tentacles had been lopped off.

 

Hillary email Update

February 6, 2016–News continues to boil about secret information allegedly contained in emails sent to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state in the first Obama administration. The emerging record continues to confirm what I’ve said in this space: that senior officials of the intelligence agencies, with nearly a year now to pore over Hillary’s email cache, plus their own fish to fry–and demons to fear–find it irresistible to range backwards in time to cast veils of secrecy over information that was in the public domain.

Latest reports add to our point, originally taken from press reporting about the CIA drone war. Other emails apparently pertain to the North Korean missile program, and to events in the Libyan revolution. Some of the 22 emails over which classification is asserted apparently contain the special access slug “HCS-O,” which pertains to human intelligence sources, although officials hasten to add that no specific names of sources or CIA officers actually appear in the emails.

Two more fresh items add to our update. Just yesterday, it was reported, other, similar emails, containing information discussed in classified materials exists in the personal communications files of former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and national security adviser– then secretary of state– Condoleezza Rice. Powell has been quoted responding that it was understood his emails were his–and were not classified. There’s been no response so far from Ms. Rice.

The facts are not what our spooks seem to think. Global events are visible, attract attention, and trigger discussion and analysis. The drone war, to cite our starting point, is watched and remarked upon by a wide range of media outlets, human rights organizations, international entities, think tanks, and national governments (and their own security services). The fact that secret ODNI and CIA documents discuss the same matters does not make those subjects classified. The spooks’ attitude is that even specific CIA information, if it becomes available from any source (such as a leak) other than declassification by the CIA remains secret!

Plus, there is declassification and there is declassification. The CIA quietly releases secret information to an author or journalist, for example, in the expectation that books or articles will show the spooks in a positive light. Yet at the same time others who might request the same or similar information be declassified are denied, told the agency will neither confirm or deny the very existence of the information, or told outright it does not exist.

The other new development is the revelation of “eyewash”–someone’s adaptation of a term of art used by CIA disguise artists. According to these reports eyewash describes a category of documents that move over regular CIA channels that contradict memos or messages which circulate in hidden channels. This is described as a mechanism to reduce the circle of officials knowledgeable about some subject, but it’s much bigger than that. For decades we have known about backchannel and front channel–where the important message goes over the (secret) backchannel and the idle chatter on the (less sensitive) front channel. Nixon’s covert operation against Allende in Chile was facilitated by “Track II,” exactly such a device. The CIA’s destruction of its torture videotapes in 2005 was implemented by a backchannel message to a station chief that ordered that person to put in a request on the front channel, using certain specific arguments and rationales, for authority to destroy the material.

The difference between “eyewash” and backchannel is that in the former the front channel traffic is positively designed to be false.

This is described as a security technique. In its simplest form the safety of an agent is protected by giving broad distribution to the message that says the operative is dead, while tightly restricting the message that gives the spy a different codename and reports his information. For a moment that sounds OK–until you realize the same technique can be applied to deluding the Senate intelligence committee that the Panetta report had no meaning, that the CIA’s hit team operation (Project Cannonball) had long been stopped, or, indeed, that CIA remains responsive to congressional authority at all.

Such methods are worse than unacceptable. Here is an intelligence agency, whose whole purpose is to tell truth to power, where the biblical proverb “the truth shall set you free” is actually carved into the marble wall, indulging in the practice of actively lying– not to the enemy, not is a deception operation, but in official records that will be seen by anyone dealing with the agency on its business–in other words, CIA officers, their bosses, the Congress,  the president.

Meanwhile the same intelligence community is presuming to comb over the private emails of its executive branch masters, such as Hillary Clinton or Colin Powell, and denounce them for having information in messages that spooks decide in retrospect should have been classified!

This is a scam.

As I argued in some length in The Family Jewels the intelligence community has long since passed the point of safeguarding legitimate secrecy in favor of practices designed to protect its own interests–political and financial as much or more than operational. “National security” is expanded–bloated–to hide that. And what I said here last summer (“Hillary’s Emails: Bursting the Secrecy Bubble,” August 22, 2015), I repeat here today: the secrecy rules have become so bloated that senior officials can no longer do their jobs without violating them. It’s time to change the rules, not prosecute the secretaries of state. While we are at it, the CIA and ODNI need to be taken out of the business of declassification.