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Archive for the ‘Intelligence’ Category

A few days ago, I got a chance to watch Inception and enjoyed it very much. To Christopher Nolan’s credit, the film held me in such an almost pained state of suspense that, if I had been reading a book, I would have skipped ahead to the ending. In spite of the fact that I expected Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to shout “we are duly-appointed federal marshals,” Nolan’s dream world worked for me. Moreover, the premise of stealing (“extraction”) or implanting (“inception”) an idea deep within another’s mind was intriguing.

Yet, the film’s strongest feature was the masterful way he draws upon the cultural imaginaries of films like The Matrix and the James Bond franchise to create a world that is very likely the fiction of one or more characters’ minds. When you have a scene like the Alpine assault on the fortress deep within layers of dreams, the fun–above and beyond the fascinating visuals–is in wondering where, exactly, is the origin of the fantasy.

Amongst my friends and the mainstream press, I keep hearing you have to watch the film multiple times to “get it.” If anything, the film would have benefitted from being even more inscrutable. The whole plot (cover your eyes if you have yet to watch it) can be too easily dismissed as a figment of Cobb’s imagination as he is drowning in the disorientating wish-fulfillment of “limbo” as he is chased by his dead wife and shadowy corporations–both of which may or may not have ever existed. After all, if Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levy), Ariadne (Ellen Page, who I would have bet money would have been an irritating reminder of Juno and those terrible Cisco commercials, but was not), and the other members of the team are mere “projections” of Cobb’s mind, can we trust anything we see in this environment? Perhaps, the audience are themselves positioned as dreamers observing a world we cannot trust.

Indeed, this idea of a world that we cannot trust has taken hold elsewhere in the popular press with the Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” expose. As I tweeted when the story broke, I continue to be underwhelmed by the revelations. If you are remotely shocked by a single one of these, you are not paying attention–and I say this from an English Department where I am the farthest place in the universe from being an “insider.” Indeed, the ‘scariest‘ among the so-called revelations is that there are installations across the United States where this “top secret” business takes place. They are not as inconspicuous as you might think. A building with hardened security fences, 360-degree camera coverage, and persistent security personnel above and beyond the occasional bored doorman tends to stand out. Moreover, a trip to the property appraiser’s website will tell you what shadowy organization owns it. In sum, these places are not exactly hidden within volcanos. It removes the romance/horror (depending on your politics), doesn’t it?

(If you represent an organization that actually operates out of a volcano lair, my resume is but a click away.)

The story’s “legs” is its evocation of an impenetrable hidden world that may or may not be watching us. I quite literally laughed out loud when the Flash video proclaimed a “fourth branch of government–Top Secret America.” If only it were that sexy. The shear number of people that have security clearance should indicate how mundane this world really is. (I recall a segment of The Daily Show where, instead of ‘if I told you, I would have to kill you,’ John Stuart says, “If I told you, you would never have sex with me.”) Many of the number advertised are folks like DEA agents who are subjected to a clearance process in the interest of protecting the names of undercover agents, confidential informants, etc. The risk is not you, reading my blog in your cat-themed night dress, but a cartel trying to gain access to that information. “Top Secret” is more a measure of scrutiny applied to employees rather than actual access to information–much less nefariousness of purpose. Others are folks like Foreign Service Officers who have access to information that may be valuable to actors ranging from foreign companies to intelligence services.

That is not to say domestic surveillance does not creep me out. It does. From my dating misadventures to my politics, I value every shred of my privacy–something, it is worth noting, that those who have Secret or Top Secret clearance have sacrificed in the name of public service. However, having argued better security practices to friends and clients over the years as an IT guy, I guarantee you those who are worried about the NSA spying on your porn habits are far more at risk from disclosing confidential or otherwise damaging information on Facebook, in unencrypted IMs or web browsing, or via just plain bad security practices to criminal organizations than they are anyone in the Intelligence Community.

Moreover, I am 100% confident in the ability of truly nefarious organizations to evade billion dollar systems steeped in bureaucracy whether it be syphoning credit card numbers or planning terror attacks. Just as malware authors continue to defeat signature-based detection regimes like antivirus programs, others will defeat monitoring programs like the NSA’s creepily-named “Perfect Citizen.” Even if there is someone who can perfect an automated surveillance system that could flag real threats (they won’t), bad guys can resort to passing notes between their cousins and brothers-in-law–a medium a lot more trustworthy than the Internet or telephone. Hell, I am reasonably confident in MY ability to evade surveillance and my budget is a grad student’s stipend and my ‘tradecraft’ I picked up via podcasts, websites, and Amazon.com. In other words, I am hardly a Bond villain–golden gun and third nipple, notwithstanding.

What scares me does scare me is two-fold: (1) the over-confidence in high-tech surveillance for reasons I have already stated, and (2) the judges and lawyers making the legal determinations based upon this over-confidence or outright ignorance. At a talk at University of Florida, former FBI senior executive Randall Murch recalled the approval process for an early post-9/11 electronic surveillance measure. The judge, who needed his grandson to turn on his computer, only asked, “Would this technology have prevented 9/11?” Murch answered, “Yes.” I have a great deal of respect for Murch, but the answer was at best “maybe” and belied the fact that security (whether maintaining it or undermining it) is a software issue–specifically, the kind of software between your ears–rather than a hardware one. Unfortunately, human beings prove the weak link whether it is computer security or National Security. Just look at all the leaks to emerge from this so-called Top Secret America.

Yet, the illusion of an omniscient, omnipotent intelligence community is a persistent figure in American culture that resonates in films like Eagle Eye or Enemy of the State. If anything, it speaks to a perverse longing in our culture to be surveilled evident everywhere from Facebook to the boogie man CIA constructed in films like those mentioned above. Certainly, Inception taps into this fear given the assumption that our collective subconscious has become the new battleground. After all, DARPA would trip over its collective self to create a machine that could peer into people’s minds rather than the notoriously unreliable polygraph, which is more of interrogation prop than tool, for all those many thousands of clearance investigations in Top Secret America. However, “extraction” and “inception” prove every bit as fleeting.

This is what makes Inception different (and so much more interesting) than those before it. Nolan shows how this this imaginary technology is every bit as unreliable as its real-life counterparts. Authenticity proves impossible to prove when humans become involved. This is more than the tired “wilderness of mirrors” Espionage trope. For all we know, Cobb is not a spy but some accountant trying to escape his mundane life in one of those opium den-like dream beds we see early in the film.

Whether it is the general public or the Intelligence Community itself, we can no more trust our fantasies about this so-called ‘Top Secret America’ as those in Inception. This film taps into our own perverse desire to have shadowy companies, terror groups, and faceless agencies persecute us even as we (that is, American society) become ever more willing to have our privacy invaded–thousands of times more often for advertising purposes such as with Gmail and the exhibitionism of Facebook than by any act of the Intelligence Community. If there is a truth to be had from the Washington Post piece and Inception, it is that we live in a truly inauthentic age where what we call ‘reality’ is scripted and humans are–in spite of all everything disclose to our therapists or on Twitter–as unknowable as ever.

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The assassination of Hamas military leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh has received worldwide attention from the mainstream press to the national security blog circuit. A series of videos has emerged documenting the operation, and now CNN is covering the autopsy results (via “Thoughts of a Technocrat”):

The killers of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh first injected him with a muscle relaxant and then suffocated him, Dubai police said Sunday.

Toxicology tests on the Hamas leader found significant amounts of succinylcholine, a drug that is used to relax muscles during surgery or as an anesthetic.

“The assassins used this method so that it would seem that his death was natural,” Maj. Gen. Al Mazeina said.

But signs indicated that al-Mabhouh resisted his attacker as they suffocated him, police said.

The latest determination are in line with what police disclosed earlier and told al-Mabhouh’s relatives.

The injected-then-suffocated causality made me imagine the operators injecting the paralytic and smothering him with a pillow. However, al-Mabhouh was likely restrained first, received an intramuscular injection, and suffocated as a result of the medication paralyzing his respiratory system. At this point, he would have suffocated without further action unless al-Mabhouh was put on a ventilator. The struggle may have, in fact, occurred prior to injection.

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In the 2000 Presidential Election, both George W. Bush and Al Gore raised the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) as the most pressing national security issue of the day. Since then, the specter of WMD has been a consistent presence in policy and rhetoric–most notably evoked as justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In recent months, however, the global economic crisis has overshadowed that threat in the national security community as well as the public imagination. The drastic reordering of priorities is most evident in Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair’s Annual Threat Assessment Hearing (PDF), which describes the crisis as the “primary near-term security concern of the United States.”

However, the threat of WMD has not disappeared. Former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO), chair and vice chair of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, hope to keep the threat of WMD as a top priority. While they acknowledge the danger presented in the current economic climate, their concern is that, as Senator Graham says, “the urgent has crowded out the important,” leading policymakers and the general public to ignore a growing threat to national security.

On March 5th, Senators Graham and Talent visited the University of Florida for a panel discussion on the findings of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. Their report, World at Risk, available in online and as hard copy, suggests some alarming trends despite great strides made in the prevention of WMD.

“We’re running fast,” said Senator Talent, “but our enemy is running faster.”

The very definition of WMD has been muddled through the inclusion of everything from cyberwar to economic sabotage. The commission chose to define weapons of mass destruction as the means to kill tens of thousands in one use, which lead them to focus on nuclear and biological attacks over chemical and radiological weapons due to their “lower kill rate.”

Among these weapons, the report identifies three areas of concern. First, the margin of safety from WMD continues to decline in spite of improvements to military, intelligence, and other governmental processes. Secondly, there is a greater than 50% chance that a WMD will be used somewhere in the world by 2013. Lastly, bioweapons may prove to be the greatest WMD threat given the ease that they can be “reloaded.” While takes substantial effort for a state or non-state actor to obtain the materials for one nuclear weapon, it is easy to stockpile a biological weapon once a sample of the agent is obtained.

One possible scenario is repeated biological attacks against an American city. The initial attack may kill thousands, but survivors may return after being evacuated only to be targeted again weeks or months later. In this case, the existence of the city itself is threatened. What began as an evocation may turn into a mass migration, effectively “killing” a city.

Senators Graham and Talent highlighted the improved security of WMD within the United States and elsewhere, but there is still much room for improvement. For example, there are three agencies currently that regulate select agents and toxins, which pose the greatest risk to the general public, and each agency has different policies on securing them. This situation makes it hard for institutions to meet government standards, much less maintain best practices.

Furthermore, the Intelligence Community has made progress. Senator Graham, former chairman of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, highlighted three significant improvements. First, the IC has acknowledged its “primary responsibility to speak the truth.” Secondly, there is greater information sharing and fewer institutional stovepipes. Lastly, the overall organization of the IC has improved.

Yet, the Intelligence Community has a long, long way to go. According to Senator Graham, the greatest need for improvement is in the arena of human intelligence. Most notably, clearance process continues to take too long and be prejudiced against first- and second-generation immigrants who speak the languages and understand the cultures of regions most relevant to national security concerns.

Given the focus on the current economic crisis, there is little doubt that the debate will continue whether or not the WMD threat is receiving adequate attention.

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According to Reuters, retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair has been chosen to be the next Director of National Intelligence:

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair as the top U.S. intelligence official and could make an announcement as early as Friday, a source familiar with the nomination said on Thursday.

As director of national intelligence, Blair would oversee the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus and be responsible for delivering Obama’s daily intelligence briefing.

“We expect the announcement tomorrow,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Blair, a four-star admiral and former top U.S. military commander in the Pacific region, has for some time been considered the front runner for the intelligence job. Blair’s nomination would keep an experienced military leader in the post, and he has a reputation as a smart thinker.

I first saw this news item on the US Naval Institute Blog, which links to commentary on the pick at The Huffington Post, Hot Air, and The New York Times. The New York Times has my favorite tidbit by far:

Is otherwise known for: Being a cerebral and intense workaholic. Yet he also tried to water ski behind a Navy destroyer while commanding the ship in Japan.

That is shades of Colonel Kilgore!  Amazing!

Update: Jeff Stein at SpyTalk offers some interesting thoughts in “Blair Rumored Yet Again to be Obama’s Top Intelligence Pick.”

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