Showing posts with label PRISM. Show all posts
Showing posts with label PRISM. Show all posts

09 March 2016

Gen. Hayden Comes Out


David Edgerley Gates

A lot of stuff happened on Michael Hayden's watch - or watches. 40-year career military, he retired with four stars. He served as Director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA) from 1999 to 2005, Deputy Director of National Intelligence (DDNI), 2005 to 2006, and Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), 2006 to 2009.


The last ten years of Hayden's career are, um, interesting, a period that was a particular challenge for the American intelligence community - and for Hayden personally, a time when he became a senior placeholder and the brand label for an emerging subset of spycraft, the Information Domain.

Hayden commanded the Air Intelligence Agency before moving up to NSA. This is one of the three military cryptologic units (each of the major branches have one), and in fact it's my old outfit, the USAF Security Service, dressed up in new clothes and renamed. the basic mission is much the same, but as the electronic battlefield has gotten more sophisticated and elusive, the targeting and analysis strategies have kept pace. Hayden's assignment to AIA was a bellwether of his later tenure as DIRNSA. Although he seems to have miraculously few serious enemies in and around the Beltway, he's known to take no prisoners.

Air Intelligence apparently became something of a test case, both for Hayden and the secret world at large. It's a commonplace that generals fight the last war, and it's just as true of the secret intelligence community. Hayden brought a different mindset to AIA. The enemy was no longer state-sponsored. The environment was target-rich, but suddenly diffuse, amorphous and unfocused. Hayden didn't invent the concept of metadata, but he understood how it could be a useful tool. The problem wasn't too little intercept, it was too muchYou needed a way to shape the raw material, to give it context and collateral, and put the dirty bits in boldface.

Otherwise, your 'product,' in the jargon, turned lumpy and indigestible, like a cake that's fallen in the oven, and your consumers would spit it out. You're only as good as your box office. Hayden understood the relationship was market-driven.

Let's cut to the chase. There's a cloud over Hayden's job performance as DIRNSA, and then as DCI. The complaint is that he was, in effect, a Good German - that he turned a blind eye to excesses. Now that Hayden's published a  memoir, PLAYING TO THE EDGE: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, he gets to tell his side of the story, or at least blow some smoke our way.

Let me 'splain something here, Lucy. Spook memoirs are a mixed bag, a specialized genre like the campaign biography, with peculiar ground rules. There are the outright fabrications, like Kim Philby's MY SILENT WAR, which was ghostwritten by his KGB handlers. On the other hand, some are entirely reticent. Dick Helms' A LOOK OVER MY SHOULDER is so dry you wonder if the guy even has a pulse, until he gets to Nixon and Watergate, and his fury boils over. They usually split the difference, between a poison-pen letter and a sanitized employment application. It helps if you're familiar with the background landscape, and the supporting cast, which of the stories have been told before, from which perspective, and who's gone into Witness Protection. Valerie Plame Wilson and Scooter Libby are going to have two very different recollections of similar events, let's face it, and the possibility of active disinformation is never far from mind. You have to sort it out, and separate the self-serving from the malicious, or purely deceptive.

'Frank' isn't a word that trips immediately off the tongue when you consider Michael Hayden, but the book is revealing in ways he maybe isn't aware of. It surely displays the quality of his mind, and it also betrays an impatience with fools, which is no bad thing. I was put off, though, by a certain rigidity of temperament, or even spirit. Hayden doesn't seem to entertain much self-doubt. He's not a second-guesser. He weighs the arguments, he calls heads or tails, and then the tablets are written in stone.

A case in point is PRISM, the eavesdropping program I've described previously. Hayden refers to it as STELLARWIND, which is how the product was labeled, and although he admits there were some privacy concerns, it was simple necessity to use it. Okay, take his word for it. Then let's talk about Enhanced Interrogation. Opinions vary, but a lot of professional interrogators say torture doesn't get the needed results. Hayden says different. Again, is this philosophical, or metaphysical? Depends whose ox is being gored. If you're the guy on the operating table with water running out your nose, you're in no position to argue. We could also get into the nuts and bolts of the drone program and how targets for elimination are selected.


The larger question here, aside from specific issues, is transparency. Hayden's read on this is spectacularly tone deaf. When he took the helm at NSA, he made an effort to drag them kicking and screaming into the daylight. This was simply good public relations, to position the agency as a visible presence, and sitting with the grown-ups. He'd also inherited a recalcitrant and ungainly command and reporting structure, so Hayden's reorganization went some way toward establishing his own independent power base. What didn't happen, though, was any change in his baseline metabolism. The habit of security, circling the wagons, is ingrained, it becomes second nature.

Hayden falls back on the Honorable Men defense. This is the title of William Colby's memoir of his years as DCI - and comes, in fact, from his testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee. We work in secret, Colby's train of thought goes, and the American public has to trust us to be honorable men, that we know right from wrong. Or, as Mike Hayden puts it, quoting an unexpected source, "To live outside the law, you must be honest."

Stop me if you've heard this. It sounds much the same, set to new music, and sung in the key of Tuned Out.

26 June 2013

Through a Glass, Darkly


by David Edgerley Gates

The exposure of PRISM, the clandestine NSA data-mining operation, has raised a lot of hackles, both inside and outside the national security structure, and on both sides of the privacy debate. I'd like to assess three of the issues I think are involved. This is of course by no means exhaustive. I'm just putting my oar in the water.

First of all, what is it? The system, or systems, is based on pattern-recognition technology. A crude analogy might be a chessboard. Bobby Fischer was a genius at chess because he could read the entire game, not just six or eight or a dozen moves ahead, but every possible outcome of every available move. Consider the sixty-four squares and the fact that each piece, rook, knight, bishop, pawn, or queen, has a specific capacity, for attack or defense, all of them in relation to the others. 'Position' is the sum of these parts. Imagine, then, if you stacked eight chessboards on top of one another, a cube, sixty-four squares to the eighth power, making it a three-dimensional game. Not even a Bobby Fischer could calculate all the possible coordinates and relationships. Multiply this model by a few billion, and you'd have some idea of PRISM's brute strength.

Metadata, so-called, isn't about content. PRISM doesn't filter for keywords, or labels, or names. It looks for contours, and reconstructs their shape. A recent piece by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker explains this in some detail,

 Nor is this is a new development. DARPA, the Pentagon research facility also known as the Skunk Works, began work ten years ago or more on a set of programs they called Total Information Awareness. The first practical application was CARNIVORE, which analyzed electronic communications, encrypted and cleartext, but CARNIVORE was never fully deployed because of---wait for it---privacy concerns. PRISM has a narrower search parameter. Think of it this way. It's an axiom in the spy trade that a given message, by itself, is meaningless without context. What's important is who sent it, and who it was addressed to. In other words, the link is incriminating, and what might actually have been said in the message is secondary. PRISM ignores the message, and concentrates on the messenger. How is this effective? Your circle of contacts, immediate or one step removed, defines your profile, but 'profile,' in this sense, having nothing to do with your Facebook page. Everybody leaves a footprint, a migratory pattern, a set of lazy habits. I can stalk you through your friends.

The second point I'd like to take up is the role of private contractors in the defense and intelligence communities. GI's, for example, don't pull KP anymore. Food service is jobbed out. More at issue, hired guns like Blackwater have taken over physical security for diplomatic personnel in high-risk areas, and their lack of accountability got them thrown out of Iraq. Two of the guys killed in Benghazi, on the security detail, weren't CIA, but outside hires. This isn't just anecdotal. DoD employs 700,000 contractors, 22% of its workforce. 70% of the intelligence budget, by some estimates, goes to outsourcing, but this is difficult to pin down, because the specifics of the intelligence budget are of course classified. In the case of NSA, nobody knows exactly---nobody knows anything about NSA, exactly, since its culture of secrecy gives it the nickname No Such Agency---but an educated guess is that they have half a million private contract employees on their payroll, with high-end security clearances. These aren't insignificant numbers, and it's worth noting that they don't represent any kind of savings, either. Edward Snowden was knocking down 200K, twice what a GS-15 would make, or any military enlisted or officer rank. Booz Allen, Snowden's employer, had 5.9 billion dollars in revenue last year, almost all of it from U.S. government contracts.

The question being raised now, though, is whether private security contractors are stakeholders in national security. This isn't to tar them all with Snowden's brush, or to suggest dereliction of duty, but career military or civil service people tend to serve a purpose larger than themselves. Working for Booz Allen is a job, like any other. If you get a better offer, you move on. Oversized cubicle farms don't inspire brand loyalty. You're not in the Marines. It may be unfair to make these assertions, and the last thing we need is a witch-hunt, which would do nothing to undo the damage already done, and the lack of confidence the leaks have created, but it's long past time to re-examine the hermetic culture of the intelligence community. A good starting point might be the influence of corporate, marketplace economics.

Which brings us to the third and last question.  Who are these guys? Whistleblowers. Leakers. The terminology is suspect. It implies high moral standards, or at least moral relativism. Bradley Manning was obviously a square peg in a round hole. He may have been bullied, because he was gay, or just an odd duck. Almost certainly, he was isolated and unhappy, and his supervisors in the chain of command should have picked up on it. He was an accident waiting to happen. The court-martial proceedings against him have the flavor of retribution, not so much for his actions, but for the inaction of his immediate superiors. They should have suspended his clearance and sent him to a psychiatrist. Instead, they left him to sink or swim. The fact that Manning was treated with such indifference might go some way toward explaining him. He was at the bottom of the food chain. Perhaps, as a reflex, or in an effort to regain his self-respect, he came to feel he was better than they were, a sort of prince in exile, a secret agent, and in the end, he cast off his disguise. Sadly, no prince was revealed.

Snowden is a different case. He had a successful career, and the material trappings to show for it. He was, by his own account, quite the ladies' man. He was outgoing and personable. He had a social life. The other side of the coin from Manning. Snowden was dealt better cards. He turned for unaccountable reasons. He claims the high moral ground, but there's an odor of sanctity I mistrust. I'd give him more credit if he'd stuck around to face the music, but the prospect of doing thirty to life in a federal supermax would give anybody pause. What bothers me is the itinerary he's chosen. He's now left Hong Kong for Moscow, with the stated intention of flying to Cuba, en route to seeking asylum in Ecuador. The net effect of his stay in China has been to give support to Beijing's control and censorship of the Internet, e.g., they can claim that U.S. accusations of Chinese hacking are the pot calling the kettle black. Not to put too fine a point on it, Snowden is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. These are not the actions of an honorable man impelled by outrage. These are the acts of a defector.