Fear and loathing (and other things) at the FBI

I don’t normally write about American politics, partly out of boredom, partly because the blogosphere is full of little else these days.

But my eye was caught yesterday by the release of a Top Secret memo on the surveillance of a Trump supporter in 2016, issued by a House of Representatives Committee which is supposed to oversee the intelligence community. Like most people who have worked in government, I know what  Top Secret document looks like, and this is nothing like a Top Secret document.

All it records is that the FBI applied to special secret court for permission to spy on a US citizen on the basis of allegations made in a dossier paid for by opponents of Trump, and supported by a Yahoo News story which ultimately turned out to be from the same source. This is pretty incompetent practice at the best of times, and worrying, if true, for anyone who still believed that the intelligence agencies in the US were under any kind of control at all. But why Top Secret – unless there was an actual operation to stop getting Trump elected? But that couldn’t possible be true, could it?

Russian intelligence services doing their job, shock horror.

Well, I was waiting for the self-pitying neurotic hysteria to die down, but it hasn’t. Maybe it will over the next week or so as Trump consolidates his power. (As of the time of writing he hasn’t been assassinated).

Take a deep breath and put yourself in the position of the Russians. (Yes, I know it’s difficult but try hard). There’s an election coming in the US and you want to know all you can about the major candidates. In the case of Clinton (whom you view as a dangerous and aggressive psychopath) you want to know more than she is saying publicly. Accepting that all politicians lie, your judgement is that she lies more than most, so that it’s important to know what she and her coterie really think. So maybe you hack into her party server (which seems to be about as secure as a meringue in a coffee grinder) or you just make use of leaks you come across naturally to brief your leader. This is what all intelligence services do. This is what all intelligence services are supposed to do. A Russian intelligence service that was not trying to find out everything about US electoral candidates would not be doing its job. Can we at least calm, down, stop hyperventilating and accept that?

Repression without ideology

I hope there’s a part of paradise reserved for writers, because I am fairly sure that you would find George Orwell there. Not that he’d be in a very good mood at the moment.

It’s understandable that recent proposals in Britain and France to massively increase surveillance of ordinary people, together with the numbing cumulative effect of the Snowden revelations, each more disturbing than the last, have prompted people to dig out their copies of 1984 again. And yes, Mr Cameron, with that tone-deaf disconnection from reality which only an expensive education can buy, tells us he proposes to criminalize thought itself. No doubt it won’t be long before the boys in the black uniforms are out on the streets and listening at our windows.

But what is really creepy about the current situation, is that we seem finally to have arrived at the situation that Orwell foresaw: a repressive political system without an ideology. The Party in 1984, you will recall, had no ideology. As O’Brien explains to Smith during his interrogation, the only purpose of the Party (which significantly has no name) is to remain in power. “The purpose of power” he explains “is power”. Patriotism, ideology and so forth, are simply for the masses, to keep them quiet. Power is all that matters.

This must have seemed very far-fetched in the ideologically-charged world of 1949, but it’s horribly relevant today. In the past, it could at least be said that repression served an ideological purpose. The Soviet State spied on its ideological enemies, and even Assad and Saddam Hussein had a degenerate ideology of some kind to defend. Now there is nothing. Most western states have, in fact, a single Party – The Party- although it may notionally be split into several parts, and have disagreements about peripheral issues, just as the old CPSU did. But it’s The Party, nonetheless, with the important qualification that, like Orwell’s it has no ideology. The Party, with its international branches, has no real objectives other than staying in power, and making money for its leaders and their financial backers. As in 1984, foreign wars and alleged domestic threats are a good way of keeping the masses quiet.

How far today’s political class are really aware of this is hard to say. But since (Mr) Clinton and Blair, they have been managerial politicians, essentially with nothing between the ears. Cameron or (Mrs) Clinton today are almost caricatures of tone-deaf, largely ignorant and insensitive political hacks. Perhaps at some millimeter-deep level of their shallow psyches they actually think they have some kind of beliefs, some kind of principles. Or perhaps they drink a toast every night to O’Brien. The purpose of power, one more time, is power.

Torture for profit

I wasn’t originally going to write anything about the latest ghastly CIA torture revelations, because a lot has been written already. But unfortunately, from what I can see, almost all of it misses the point.

Certainly, the same excuses and justifications are trotted out as have been used throughout modern history. (They were bad people/we saved lives/they started it/I knew nothing/ Who would have guessed?/I was only following orders). And we know enough about what happens when you put absolute power of life and death into the hands of sadists, not to be surprised at what one group of sadists did. But there’s one thing, among the anal rape and the humiliation and the drowning and the electrocutions that really does stand out, because it’s new.

I mean, of course, the idea of outsourcing torture. It appears that a private company was actually paid some $80M to oversee the programme and provide training, even though, in the great tradition of outsourcing, the company had little expertise in the area. Perhaps there were people in the CIA who thought that, somehow, some of the filth would not settle on their hands if they did this: it’s hard to know.

At least the French in Algeria (and the Americans in Vietnam for that matter) used their own people to carry out torture. The idea of anal rape as a business opportunity had, I admit, not occurred to me until now.

GCHQ: Being fair to the spooks

In a spirit of fairness, and having once had to deal with this kind of thing as a civil servant (though not in the intelligence area, thank goodness) I thought I’d actually put in a good (or at least mitigating) word for GCHQ.

You’ll have seen the Guardian story, based on some of Edward Snowden’s revelations, suggesting that GCHQ opposed the use of intelligence in criminal trails because, in the newspaper’s words it “could lead to legal challenges against its mass-surveillance programmes.”

There are, in fact, a number of reasons why the use of intelligence material in criminal trials is problematic. As well as threats to sources and methods (criminals are not entirely stupid, and would no doubt adapt) there’s the simpler and more basic fact that much, if not most, intelligence material is actually not very useful as evidence, and doesn’t actually help to establish a criminal level of proof. Intelligence isn’t intended for that; it’s intended to guide and nudge, and to fill in gaps with the best information you can manage to get. It also often means very little outside a context you are already familiar with. A scrappy conversation in heavily-accented West African French between two individuals who don’t identify themselves but talk about a “cargo” going “north” – well, you get the drift. For this reason, most intelligence material is actually pretty banal and mundane when taken out of its brightly coloured folders and seen for what it is. It’s no wonder politicians are often a bit disappointed when they see intelligence  material for the first time (you mean this is it…?)

I see that quite a few people got the wrong end of the stick about the “legal challenges” bit as well. It doesn’t mean that what GCHQ were doing was illegal, or that they thought it was. The British system doesn’t work like that, or at least it didn’t. What it means that a clever defence lawyer defending, say, a group of accused fraudsters, would try to get any intelligence evidence ruled out of court by using some such device as the European Convention on Human Rights, and probably get the government to abandon the trial rather than have to give all sorts of sensitive information about the how and the why of surveillance. “Legal challenge ” these days means “using the law as a weapon”. It doesn’t unfortunately have anything to do with guilt, innocence or the merits of the case.

There, you see. Not everything GCHQ say is wrong.

NSA: What’s the (power) point?

Revelations about the spying habits of the American National Security Agency and its UK equivalent have now settled into a comfortable, if also disturbing, routine. People are no longer surprised to read that the NSA has been attaching tiny microphones to children’s’ books to record the political views of parents, or drawing up a database of iTunes users who like subversive rock bands of the 1960s. But there’s actually something about the documents that have been revealed that worries me even more. It’s the format.

Most of the documents I have seen have been Powerpoint presentations. No, scrub that: most of them have been bad Powerpoint presentations, a jumble of fonts and sizes, with far too many words on the page, and difficult or impossible to read. An organisation which can produce such monstrosities, and inflict them on others, is by definition an organisation in trouble.

But in that it’s typical of many similar organisations. From the wordy construction of the slides it may be that they were not intended just as briefing aids, but may actually have been the briefings themselves. Increasingly, in the US system, Powerpoint has replaced written briefs, and this is something which, inherently, it cannot do. You can’t reduce a carefully argued paragraph to a single line, or a whole paper to a jumble of a hundred words on a badly-prepared and crowded slide. Or you can, but if you do you make reasoned debate and argument impossible. have you ever tried to argue with a bullet point?

It’s not too much to wonder whether the NSA would have got quite so far out of control if all of its activities had to be justified by the written word, and not by a hierarchical, intimidatory tool like Powerpoint.

But then as Lord Acton said (according to Wikipedia, anyway) “All power tends to corrupt, and Powerpoint corrupts absolutely”. Quite so.

NSA: Because we can

Recent revelations about the activities of the US National Security Agency have provoked a lot of questions: one of the most common is, why would the US spy on the commercial interests of its major western allies? The simple answer is, because it can.

The US intelligence system displays a dangerous combination of almost unlimited capability with almost total impunity. It’s an extreme case of the malaise that afflicts the US system as a whole. It’s a massive, complicated, fractured, incoherent system that is autistic in its exclusive focus on itself. It’s so busy with its turf wars, its political infighting and its budgetary battles, that the outside world, and especially the world outside the United States, might as well not exist.

In the US system, there are effectively no penalties for annoying foreigners, unless, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, they have purchased part of the system itself. Stealing your allies’ commercial secrets may not be the smartest thing to do, but that’s a State Department problem. And in the end if the Germans or the Japanese don’t like you spying on them, what are they actually going to do about it?

Governments run on information, and more information is better than less information. So if you could find out lots of things that would give you a political and financial advantage over other countries in the world, with effectively no penalties if you were discovered, wouldn’t you want to do it?

Snowden: In a hole, stop digging

If you have spent any time in a political environment, then you will tend to react to a political crisis or controversy in two different and separate ways. On the one hand, you may well have an opinion about the underlying issue. On the other, you will probably also have an opinion about how well a government has handled the issue from a technical perspective. It may be that – as was the case with the 1991 war against Iraq, for example – you have grave doubts about the morality of the policy, but that, from a technical point of view, you have to admit that the issue was intelligently handled.
That obviously is not the case with the US government’s chaotic pursuit of Edward (or Edmund, no-one seems to be sure) Snowden, the former NSA employee. The shambolic way in which the issue has been handled screams amateurism, even extending to not being able to give the Hong Kong government his correct name and passport number when asked.
But it indicates something else as well: a worrying blindness to wider issues and, frankly, to the larger interests of the country. If you’ve just been found out spying on the citizens of other countries, it’s politically inept to demand of those same countries that they help you to catch the individual responsible for these revelations. If one of those countries is your principal banker (China) and another is a major oil exporter (Russia) then threatening them as well is not only pointless, it’s also counter-productive. In both relationships, the US has more to lose than either of the others.
So it’s perhaps time to remember the sage advice of Dennis Healey: when you’re in a hole, stop digging. From the beginning, the US would have done far better to have played the issue down, and it would then have been forgotten rapidly. But by making a drama of it, threatening and trying to bully other nations, and peremptorily demanding assistance from those whose interests it has damaged, is only going to harm US interests as well in the longer term. Whatever the need for the wimp Obama to look “tough” on national security issues, he’s not doing himself, or his country, any favours.

GCHQ: Doing its job

There are two amusing things about the revelations (which have not been denied) that GCHQ, the UK’s communications intelligence organisation, spied on delegates to the London G20 summit in 2009.

The first is that it’s a valuable corrective to governments, and their media cheerleaders, who tell us that intelligence agencies exist only to “keep us safe” and “warn about threats”. This channelling of Thomas Hobbes is understandable as a way of maintaining public support for these large, expensive organisations, but of course it’s completely removed from the reality of why intelligence agencies exist, and how they function.

The second is that, ironically, the story shows just why intelligence agencies do exist, and how they do function. They exist to get hold of information that governments need to do their jobs, and that they cannot obtain in any other way. So when the British government organised the G20 summit, it wanted to know more about the objectives and tactics of some key players, and how they thought the negotiations were proceeding. It also wanted to know what the various parties were saying to each other bilaterally, and indeed what they were saying to their own governments about all sorts of unrelated questions.

This makes perfect sense, and nobody should be surprised. Those who were spied on in London must have expected something like this to happen, and should have taken precautions to minimise the risks.

It would be better of both those who romanticise intelligence, and those who demonise it, simply understood it for what it was: a way of improving a government’s understanding of the world, no more, no less.