Tag Archives for " national security "

National security or insecurity?

national securityA review of Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden, by Mark Hertsgaard

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Since 2013, when Edward Snowden released a flood of classified data from the National Security Agency to the public eye, whistle-blowers have come under increased scrutiny. Snowden’s courageous act has highlighted the earlier efforts of other men and women whose names are familiar to many Americans: Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), Frank Serpico (NYPD), Jeffrey Wigand (tobacco), Karen Silkwood (nuclear industry), Coleen Rowley (FBI – 9/11),  Sherron Watkins (Enron), and Chelsea Manning (Wikileaks). As Mark Hertsgaard makes clear in his study of contemporary whistle-blowing in the U.S. government, Bravehearts, we owe a great deal to these brave people, who have helped keep democracy alive in America. However, he makes clear that these high-profile cases are among those involving hundreds of other men and women who have brought to light wrongdoing both in government and in private industry over the past several decades.

National security or insecurity?

Though whistle-blowers come to light in corporations as well as government agencies, Hertsgaard’s focus in Bravehearts is on those who have worked in the federal government. Much of his information comes from a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization, the Government Accountability Project, known as GAP. The author himself witnessed GAP’s creation in 1978 as a project of the Institute of Policy Studies, and he has reported on its findings on several occasions in the years since then.

One constant them in Hertsgaard’s book, and in GAP’s work in general, is a pattern of retaliation that almost invariably greets any well-meaning whistle-blower. Those who go through channels to report lawbreaking are typically fired and sometimes subjected to far worse. Those who go public in hopes of avoiding the harsh treatment that has greeted so many of their predecessors typically receive the harshest treatment. For example, as Hertsgaard points out, it’s not just Edward Snowden who has borne the brunt of the government’s antipathy. “The Obama administration has brought charges against seven whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act, far more than any previous administration has charged.” Given the importance of what came to light as a result of Snowden’s disclosures, it’s important to ask whether his act made the American people less secure, or more so. I believe, as Hertsgaard clearly does as well, that national security in a democracy must rest on the rule of law. It was lawbreaking that led Snowden to do what he has done. The same is true of so many others cited by the author in this superb little book. Without question, we are more secure as a result rather than less.

Why do they do it?

In explaining the motivation that leads whistle-blowers to act, Hertsgaard quotes Thomas Devine, GAP’s long-time legal director: “Whistle-blowers don’t start out as dissidents. Usually, they are the ones who believe most strongly in the institution where they work. That’s why they speak out — to help the institution live up to its mission. It’s the indifference and retaliation from management many whistle-blowers face that can turn them into dissidents.”

Hertsgaard’s book comes to grip with a question that no doubt has puzzled many Americans: why did he do what he did how he did it? Why did he go public instead of going through channels, as President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton belatedly (and, I believe, disingenuously) suggested he should have done?

In answering this question, the author cites the experiences of two other whistle-blowers in the national security community: Thomas Drake and John Crane. Like Snowden, the former was employed at the National Security Agency though in a much more senior position. He tried to blow the whistle on the same illegal practices that Snowden successfully brought to light only many years later. His mistake was to go through channels; the result was that he was fired, stripped of his federal pension, indicted and threatened with prison, the FBI raided his home at gunpoint, his security clearance was removed, and he became unemployable to the extent that “he was reduced to clerking at an Apple store” in suburban Maryland.

Crane, whose “testimony [is] published here for the first time,” was the assistant inspector general of the Department of Defense in charge of supervising the Department’s whistle-blower office. When he acted as expected and took his complaints about Drake’s shabby treatment to his superiors, he was ordered to shut down his investigation and identify Drake to the FBI. “To his horror, Crane watched as Drake and . . . four other NSA whistle-blowers were secretly ratted out to the Justice Department and then had their homes raided at gunpoint by federal agents.” As GAP’s Tom Devine explained, “Crane was our fly on the wall, letting us understand after the fact what really happened to Drake.” Hertsgaard notes: “Crane’s account illuminates how a system that in theory is supposed to protect whistle-blowing can in practice do just the opposite, a lesson Snowden took to heart when planning his own disclosures.”

About the author

Mark Hertsgaard is best known as the author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and as the environmental correspondent for The Nation. Bravehearts is his seventh book. Six years ago, he published Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, a discussion of the consequences of climate change that I reviewed in this spot.

The secret history of cyber war

cyber warA review of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, by Fred Kaplan

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Occasionally, I come across a book on an important topic that’s crammed with information I was able to find nowhere else — but is a chore to read. Even though it is not an academic study but clearly intended for a general audience, Fred Kaplan’s recent history of cyber war, Dark Territory, is one such book.

A story stretching over five decades

Unlike previous treatments that I’ve read about the topic, which zero in on the vulnerability of the American economy to attacks through cyberspace, Dark Territory traces the history of our government’s slowly growing awareness of the threat, beginning nearly half a century ago. Then, a prescient Pentagon scientist wrote a paper warning about the dangers inherent in computer networks. Apparently, though, no one in a position to do anything about it paid much attention to him.

Kaplan identifies an incident fully fifteen years later in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan — a movie fan, of course — saw the film War Games. He queried the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a top-level White House meeting whether it was possible for a teenager like the one portrayed in the film by Matthew Broderick to hack into sensitive Pentagon computers. When the chairman, General John Vessey, reported some time later that the feat was in fact possible, Reagan called for and later signed the government’s first policy directive on the topic of cyber war. But that, too, led to no significant change at the Pentagon or anywhere else in the federal government.

Dark Territory is filled with revealing anecdotes like this, based on what surely was top-secret information not long ago. Kaplan reveals many little-known details about the Russian cyber war on Estonia and Ukraine, the Chinese Army’s prodigious hacking of American corporations and the Pentagon, the massive North Korean assault on Sony, Iran’s disabling of 20,000 computers in Sheldon Adelson’s casino empire, and the successful US-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Kaplan also reveals the reason why US complaints about China’s cyber attacks have fallen on deaf ears: it turns out that the National Security Agency is attacking the Chinese government in much the same way. As The Guardian revealed in 2013, “the NSA had launched more than 61,000 cyber operation, including attacks on hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and mainland China.”

The book casts a particularly harsh light on the Administration of George W. Bush. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other senior officials in the early 2000s cavalierly dismissed urgent reports from national security and intelligence officials that the threat of cyber war, and the vulnerability of the US economy, were growing at an alarming rate. Only under Bush’s successor did reality strongly take hold. As Kaplan writes, “During Barack Obama’s presidency, cyber warfare took off, emerging as one of the few sectors in the defense budget that soared while others stayed stagnant or declined.”

It’s difficult to understand how anyone who was awake could have failed to grasp the problem. For example, a war game conducted in 1997 was intended to test the vulnerability of the Pentagon’s computer systems within two weeks. “But the game was over — the entire defense establishment’s network was penetrated — in four days. The National Military Command Center — the facility that would transmit orders from the president of the United States in wartime — was hacked on the first day. And most of the officers manning those servers didn’t even know they’d been hacked.” Not long afterwards, the Pentagon was hacked in a similar way by two 16-year-old boys in San Francisco. And when national security officials widened the scope of their attention to encompass the country’s critical civilian infrastructure, such as the electricity grid, they were shocked to discover that the situation was far worse. The Pentagon eventually bowed to the warnings and implemented needed security measures. But private corporations blatantly refused to do so because they didn’t want to spend the money — and Congress declined to allow the federal government to make security measures obligatory.

Unfortunately, Kaplan’s book is poorly organized. It’s roughly structured along chronological lines but jumps back and forth through time with such regularity as to be dizzying. And it’s crammed so full of the names of sometimes obscure government officials and military officers that it becomes even more difficult to follow the thread of the story.

However, these challenges aside, a picture clearly emerges from Dark Territory: For decades the American public has been at the mercy of incompetent and  pigheaded people in sensitive positions in the government, the military, and private industry — and we still are. Bureaucratic games proliferate. Politics intrude. Inter-service rivalries abound. Personal grudges get in the way. Repeatedly, some of those who are entrusted with the security of the American people make what even at the time could easily be seen as stupid decisions.

Other takes on cyber war

Last year I read and reviewed a book titled Future CrimesEverything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It, by Marc Goodman. I described it as “the scariest book I’ve read in years.”

Five years earlier, I read Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake. From the early 1970s until George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Clarke filled high-level national security positions under seven Presidents, so he knows whereof he writes. (He resigned in protest over the invasion of Iraq, which he thought distracted the government from the real threats facing the country.) Not long afterward, I read and reviewed Worm: The First Digital World War, by Mark Bowden, a much more focused treatment of the topic — a case study, really — but equally unsettling.

Though less current, all three of these books are better organized and more readable than Dark Territory. Admittedly, though, Kaplan’s book reveals the history that is only hinted at in the others.

About the author

Fred Kaplan wrote five previous books about the nuclear arms race and other topics bearing on US national security. He was on a team at the Boston Globe in 1983 that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the nuclear arms race.

September 8, 2015

How Homeland Security went abroad to capture an Iranian arms dealer

Iranian arms dealerOperation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting, by John Shiffman

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It shouldn’t be surprising that agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security would go out of their way to trumpet their prowess by opening the files on their greatest successes to writers hungry for meaty subjects. One recent example is The Billion-Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman. Another is John Shiffman’s Operation Shakespeare. I find it highly unlikely that either of these books would have been written without special dispensation from the CIA in Hoffman’s case and DHS in Shiffman’s. Both of them gained access to files that would have remained classified for many years.

Operation Shakespeare relates the story of a successful, years-long investigation led by one of the more obscure Homeland Security agencies and the regional Justice Department offices in Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia. It’s truly a remarkable tale. With great skill and astonishing patience, an inter-agency team of investigators and prosecutors captured and persuaded an Iranian arms dealer to confess to his work procuring American military hardware for the Iranian armed forces. In the process, the man’s cellphone and laptop proved to be a treasure-chest of information about Iran’s military and the many other arms dealers who were similarly getting their hands on embargoed U.S. goods. The dealer’s arrest also closed off one major source of the essential hardware used in building IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) by Iranian-backed insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. IEDs there killed at least 2,500 U.S. soldiers.

The coordination that this project required on the American side alone is staggering, involving several rival government agencies including the FBI as well as Justice and two agencies within DHS — not to mention the essential cooperation of the government of Georgia (the country, not the state), where the arms dealer was arrested before being spirited off to the United States.

The story of Operation Shakespeare, PR effort though it may be, is well worth telling. As Shiffman writes, “Arms and military technology proliferation poses the most destabilizing factor in geopolitics, a greater danger to U.S. national security than terrorism.”

Shiffman gives a clear sense of just how unusual was this success story: “Following 9/11, the CIA created eleven overseas counter-proliferation sting operations similar to Operation Shakespeare. Only one succeeded.” In fact, such efforts were similar to King Canute’s attempt to hold back the sea. Trade restrictions are often adopted in vain: arms dealers and the U.S. and European companies that produce weapons and spare parts are often hungry enough for profits that they’re willing to deal under the table. Many of the biggest American arms manufacturers have been among them and have paid stiff fines as a result.

John Shiffman is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a former staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Previously, he coauthored Priceless, about the FBI’s success in recovering stolen works of art.


December 22, 2014

Who makes national security decisions? Not the President!

national securityA review of National Security and Double Government, by Michael J. Glennon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Why does Barack Obama’s performance on national security issues in the White House contrast so strongly with his announced intentions as a candidate in 2008? After all, not only has Obama continued most of the Bush policies he decried when he ran for the presidency, he has doubled down on government surveillance, drone strikes, and other critical programs.

Michael J. Glennon set out to answer this question in his unsettling new book, National Security and Double Government. And he clearly dislikes what he found.

The answer, Glennon discovered, is that the US government is divided between the three official branches of the government, on the one hand — the “Madisonian” institutions incorporated into the Constitution — and the several hundred unelected officials who do the real work of a constellation of military and intelligence agencies, on the other hand. These officials, called “Trumanites” in Glennon’s parlance for having grown out of the national security infrastructure established under Harry Truman, make the real decisions in the area of national security. (To wage the Cold War, Truman created the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the NSA, and the National Security Council.) “The United States has, in short,” Glennon writes, “moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system — a structure of double government — in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy. . . . The perception of threat, crisis, and emergency has been the seminal phenomenon that has created and nurtures America’s double government.” If Al Qaeda hadn’t existed, the Trumanite network would have had to create it — and, Glennon seems to imply, might well have done so.

The Trumanites wield their power with practiced efficiency, using secrecy, exaggerated threats, peer pressure to conform, and the ability to mask the identity of the key decision-maker as their principal tools.

Michael J. Glennon comes to this task with unexcelled credentials. A professor of international law at Tufts and former legal counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee, he came face to face on a daily basis with the “Trumanites” he writes about. National Security and Double Government is exhaustively researched and documented: notes constitute two-thirds of this deeply disturbing little book.

The more I learn about how politics and government actually work — and I’ve learned a fair amount in my 73 years — the more pessimistic I become about the prospects for democracy in America. In some ways, this book is the most worrisome I’ve read over the years, because it implies that there is no reason whatsoever to think that things can ever get better. In other words, to borrow a phrase from the Borg on Star Trek, “resistance is futile.” That’s a helluva takeaway, isn’t it?

On reflection, what comes most vividly to mind is a comment from the late Chalmers Johnson on a conference call in which I participated several years ago. Johnson, formerly a consultant to the CIA and a professor at two campuses of the University of California (Berkeley and later San Diego), was the author of many books, including three that awakened me to many of the issues Michael Glennon examines: Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis. Johnson, who was then nearly 80 and in declining health, was asked by a student what he would recommend for young Americans who want to combat the menace of the military-industrial complex. “Move to Vancouver,” he said.

The mounting evidence notwithstanding, I just hope it hasn’t come to that.


August 14, 2014

Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored

genocideThe Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass

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When Americans today think of Richard Nixon, four or five episodes in his public life usually come to mind: Watergate, the Cambodia invasion, the opening to China, his TV debates with John F. Kennedy, and, perhaps, his kitchen confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev when still Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Nixon’s frantic efforts to sanitize his record — including ten books he wrote after resigning from the presidency — and the cult of secrecy that envelops the US government have obscured another history-changing episode: his and Henry Kissinger’s inexcusable collaboration in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh.

Nixon and Kissinger complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.

Acting out of spite toward Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (whom they loathed) and disdain for all Indians in general (whom they dismissed as liars) as well as inexplicable regard for Pakistan’s brutal (and reportedly stupid) military dictator Yahya Kahn, Nixon and Kissinger forced the US government into taking sides between the two bitter enemies. They actively supported the Pakistani military’s genocidal campaign in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to suppress the popular democratic movement that had won a huge election majority there.

Despite continuing resistance from the Foreign Service, the State Department hierarchy, and sometimes the Pentagon and the White House staff as well, the two men shipped arms and ammunition to the Pakistani army again and again as it marched throughout East Pakistan, murdering at least 300,000 Bengalis (most of them Hindus) and forcing ten million of them across the border into India as refugees.

Their support for Yahya was so single-minded that Nixon and Kissinger revealed highly classified information to the Chinese leadership in hopes of persuading them to move troops to the Indian border to disrupt Indian plans to halt the genocide. Even worse, considering the Soviet Union to be India’s faithful ally, they warned the USSR to back off, running a real risk of nuclear confrontation. The whole sad business finally ended only when India attacked and trounced the Pakistani army, freeing the East Bengals to establish an independent Bangladesh.

If Bangladesh to you is merely a faraway place where thousands die in collapsing garment factories, you may need a brief lesson in the geopolitics of 1971 to understand just how important these actions were. Anti-communist rhetoric was still the order of the day in Washington, especially under Richard Nixon, who’d made his career on the backs of liberals he accused of softness on Communism. In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin called the shots, and Mao Tse-Tung was still very much in control of China, his Cultural Revolution engulfing the country.

Partly out of his own instincts and partly under the tutelage of Henry Kissinger, then the head of his National Security Council, Nixon looked on the world cold-bloodedly through the lens of the 19th century concept of the “balance of power.” Since the USSR and China were then at odds, having fought a series of border skirmishes, it behooved the USA to drive an even deeper wedge between them. Hence, Nixon’s opening to China, still a closely-held secret while the events in East Pakistan began to unfold. Similarly, since India relied on the Soviet Union for arms — the US would sell her none — then it was convenient for Nixon and Kissinger to support any move by Pakistan. In any case they liked its dictator far more on a personal level than the elected prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. A contributing factor was Yahya Kahn’s personal role in facilitating the now-famous dialogue involving Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, and Chinese Foreign Secretary Chou En-Lai, serving as their go-between.

Geopolitics aside, what is most troubling about this episode is the extent to which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s mean-spirited personalities dominated their policies — dismissing out of hand as Indian propaganda repeated warnings from their own Foreign Service about the use of American arms in Pakistan’s genocidal campaign, trash-talking about every Indian leader involved in the events, and shrugging off warnings from the State Department, the Pentagon, and even their own White House that they were breaking US law.


Edward Snowden in context: the inside story

Edward SnowdenThe Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding

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When the news broke late in May 2013 about a junior contract employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) who had fled to Hong Kong with a collection of top secret documents about US intelligence practices in his possession, I didn’t pay a great deal of attention. Nor did I think much of it when the first stories surfaced in the Guardian and the Washington Post that were based on the purloined documents. The headlines merely seemed to confirm what we in the public had learned from previous disclosures about widespread surveillance of US citizens by the NSA.

Then subsequent articles began making clear the previously unknown scope, depth, and character of the NSA’s prodigious abilities to scoop up unprecedented volumes of communications data all across the globe. I was shocked to learn that the US government had bugged the personal cellphones of Angela Merkel, Enrique Pena Nieto, Dilma Roussef, and dozens of other world leaders. My eyes bugged out when I discovered that the NSA was stealing all the data that coursed through the cables used by Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and other Internet companies. And I did a double-take when I learned that the NSA wasn’t alone in this global data-mining endeavor — that Britain’s GCHQ and their counterpart agencies in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were all in business together under an agreement known as “Five Eyes.”

Now, having read Luke Harding’s terrific new book, The Snowden Files, I know how much worse the problem is.

As Harding writes, “[p]aradoxically, in its quest to make Americans more secure, the NSA has made American communications less secure; it has undermined the safety of the entire internet” by inserting a “back door” into the encryption software used to protect personal and corporate data such as health records and financial transactions.

Clearly, these developments aren’t simply isolated events in a tale of a bureaucracy exceeding its brief (as bureaucracies are wont to do). In a larger sense, what Edward Snowden brought to light is that the governments of two of the world’s leading democracies acted more like dictatorships. Rather than clamp down on the rogue agencies that lied to conceal their most outrageous missteps even from senior elected officials, their leaders instead rushed to defend them to the hilt. Simultaneously, the US government used all available resources to track down Snowden and put him on trial for treason. Senior officials in the British government accused the Guardian of treason, too, and even at one point forced its staff to smash to bits the computers that were holding the files transferred from Snowden.

Treason? Really?

One of the most revealing episodes in this sad drama was the claim by General Keith Alexander, Director of the National Security Agency, that the wholesale data-scooping had enabled the NSA to stop 54 terrorist plots. As Harding notes, “Alexander’s deputy Chris Inglis subsequently conceded that only about a dozen of these plots had any connection to the US homeland. Then he said that just one of them might have been disrupted as a result of mass surveillance of Americans. (He was also ambiguous as to whether the plots were real ‘plots;’ some of the citations he gave had more to do with financial transactions.)”

So, a four-star US general accountable for the actions of his 40,000-person agency publicly distorted the truth — almost certainly knowing what he was doing — and got off scot-free, while the person who brought to light his agency’s illegal and unconstitutional activities was charged with treason! How can this possibly make sense in a democracy?

Yet there are even broader implications to this story.

The surveillance state and the future of democracy

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Barack Obama spoke sincerely in his 2008 campaign for the presidency when he promised to “strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and … harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.”

Contrast that with the president’s remarks in January 2014 on the subject of government surveillance, when he responded in a major address to the publication of the Snowden documents detailing massive privacy abuses by the NSA. He heralded a series of largely cosmetic changes in procedure but insisted “the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.”

In other words, candidate Obama pledged to turn back some of the egregious abuses of Americans’ civil liberties introduced by the Bush Administration — while president Obama unapologetically defended them, just as he had in 2010 by signing the renewal of the notorious Patriot Act.

To my mind, this blatant turnaround reflects two major aspects of the new reality that now characterizes American government: first, that the president is not an all-powerful chief executive but must routinely accept as fait accompli much that has become established practice in the federal government, no matter how he might feel about it; and, second, that the intelligence establishment, lavished with unlimited funds and highly permissive laws by decades of protective presidents and compliant congresses, has grown out of control.

What does that say about the future of democracy in America?

Think about it. Read The Snowden Files — if only because Luke Harding is an excellent writer. This book reads more like a thriller than a work of nonfiction, and it’s clearly based on extraordinary access to many of the principals in the story.

And if you want to delve more deeply into the present-day reality of the US intelligence establishment, read Top-Secret America by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, and The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti. Taken together, these three books paint a chilling picture of the intelligence establishment that has increasingly dominated America’s role in the world and, more recently, limited the scope of our freedom at home.



Five illuminating books every American should read

illuminating booksStop. I’m not going to make you feel guilty by suggesting you read the Federalist Papers, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travels in America, and other works on every historian’s list of seminal books in our past. (After all, how many of us have actually read those books — I mean, actually opened them up and read them from cover to cover?)

No, instead you’ll find below a short list of much more recently written books that cast a penetrating light on the reality of American life in the 21st Century. You won’t find any archaic language in any of these five books. I’ve chosen them from among the nearly 300 I’ve read and reviewed here during the past four years.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Read more . . .

1The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Are you aware that the highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as White? That the percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is 7.9%? That the greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of Bill Clinton?

Read more . . .


1The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

If you were among those who sighed with relief when Barack Obama was reelected because you’d been concerned that a Republican administration would invade Iran, David Crist has news for you. In fact, The Twilight War is full of surprises, even for one who stays relatively well informed about world affairs. The underlying message — the meta-message, if you’ll permit that conceit — is that what we normally consume on a daily basis as “news” is an awkward mixture of critical opinion, wishful thinking, rumor, partisan posturing, self-serving news leaks, and a smattering of hard information.

Read more . . . 

10The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

[Editor’s note: This review was written in 2010, but it could easily apply to 2014 as well.] Last week the Republican majority in the House of Representatives passed a budget that slashes taxes for corporations and high-income taxpayers while drastically cutting federal assistance for food and other safety-net programs. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic expression of contemporary “conservative” ideology. It’s straight out of Atlas Shrugged,based on the tragically misguided notion that brilliant, driven individuals produce the country’s wealth and are solely responsible for creating jobs for the rest of us.

Read more . . .

1All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Once upon a time, not so long ago, really — it was 1999 — there was a group of three exceedingly smart men whom Time Magazine called The Committee to Save the World. In fact, these three men — Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin — seemed to think they were the smartest people in the whole wide world. Together, they had put in place the economic policies of the Clinton Administration, and, boy, did things look rosy then, back in 1999, with a big budget surplus and the Dow Jones averages heading for Neptune!

Read more . . . 

Now, if you’re tempted to complain that all these five books take a negative view of the issues within their scope, all I can say is, if we can’t identify the problems we face, we’ll never fix them. And I doubt you’ll feel that there are no problems that cry out for fixing.


The coming Big Data revolution


Big DataBig Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

While Edward Snowden bounces from one temporary refuge to another in search of safe harbor from the long arms of the U.S. government, the American public is starting to wake up to the reality of Big Data. The National Security Agency, long one of the pioneers in this burgeoning but little-appreciated field, has been teaching us — or, rather, Snowden, The Guardian, and the Washington Post have been teaching us — about the power that resides in gargantuan masses of data. Now here come Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier with a new book that goes far beyond the headlines about espionage and invasion of privacy to give us an eminently readable, well-organized overview of Big Data’s origins, its characteristics, and its potential for both good and evil.

When we think of Big Data, we, or at least most of us, think of computers. However, the authors persuade us that the fundamentals of Big Data were laid down more than a century before the invention of the microprocessor. They point to a legendary American seaman named Matthew Maury. In the middle of the 19th Century, after 16 years of effort, Maury published a book based on 1.2 billion data points gleaned from old ships’ logs stored by the Navy that dramatically reduced the distances (and, hence, the time elapsed) in ocean voyages by both military and commercial ships. Maury used facts derived from decades of mariners’ observations to dispel the myths, legends, superstitions, and rumors that had long caused ocean-voyaging ships to pursue roundabout courses. Not so incidentally, Maury’s work also facilitated the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

If not the first, this was certainly an early application of Big Data, which the authors describe as follows: “big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more.” For example, if Maury had had available only a fraction of the old ships’ logs he found in the naval archives, his task would have been impractical, since each individual log doubtless included small errors (and an occasional big one). Only by amassing a huge store of data did those errors cancel out one another.

Now, in the Digital Age, the volumes of data that can be harnessed are, at times, literally astronomical. “Google processes more than 24 petabytes of data per day, a volume that is thousands of times the quantity of all printed material in the U.S. Library of Congress.” AT&T transfers about 30 petabytes of data through its networks each day. Twenty-four or 30 of something doesn’t sound like much, unless you understand that a megabyte is a million bytes, a gigabyte is a billion bytes, a terabyte is 1,000 times the size of a gigabyte, and a petabyte is 1,000 times the size of a terabyte. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. That’s a lot of data! But even that’s only a tiny slice of all the data now stored in the world, “estimated to be around 1,200 exabytes.” And an exabyte (I’m sure you’re dying to know) is the equivalent of 1,000 petabytes. So, 1,200 petabytes could also be stated as 1.2 zettabytes, with a zettabyte equal to 1,000 petabytes, and I’ll bet that not one person in a million has ever heard of a zettabyte before. Had you?

All of which should make clear that when we talk about Big Data today, we’re talking about really, really big numbers — so big, in fact, that almost no matter how messy or inaccurate the data might be, it’s usually possible to draw useful, on-target insights from analyzing it. That’s what’s different about Big Data — and that’s why the phenomenon is bound to change the way we think about the world.

We live in a society obsessed with causality. We often care more about why something happened than about what it was that happened. And in a world where Big Data looms larger and larger all the time, we’ll have to get used to not knowing — or even caring much — why things happen.

“At its core,” write Mayer-Schoeneberger and Cukier, “big data is about predictions. Though it is described as part of the branch of computer science called artificial intelligence, and more specifically, an area called machine learning, this characterization is misleading. Big data is not about trying to ‘teach’ a computer to ‘think’ like humans. Instead, it’s about applying math to huge quantities of data in order to infer probabilities: the likelihood that an email message is spam; that the typed letters ‘teh’ are supposed to be ‘the’; that the trajectory and velocity of a person jaywalking mean he’ll make it across the street in time [so that] the self-driving car need only slow slightly.”

The authors refer to data as “the oil of the information economy,” predicting that, as it flows into all the nooks and crannies of our society, it will bring about “three major shifts of mindset that are interlinked and hence reinforce one another.” First among these is our ever-growing ability to analyze inconceivably large amounts of data and not have to settle for sampling. Second, we’ll come to accept the inevitable messiness in huge stores of data and learn not to insist on precision in reporting. Third, and last, we’ll get used to accepting correlations rather than causality. “The ideal of identifying causal mechanisms is a self-congratulatory illusion; big data overturns this,” the authors assert.

If you want to understand this increasingly important aspect of contemporary life, I suggest you read Big Data.

Viktor Mayer-Schoeneberger and Kenneth Cukier come to the task of writing this book with unbeatable credentials. Mayer-Schoeneberger is Professor of Internet Governance at Oxford University, and Kenneth Cukier is Data Editor at The Economist.

June 11, 2013

Concerned about NSA surveillance? Read this book!


NSA surveillanceTop Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Note: This review first appeared here on September 11, 2011 (yes, 9/11/11). In view of more recent news about the NSA’s Prism program and other widespread and long-standing efforts to amass personal information about the American public, I’m posting it again. This superb book deserves a far wider audience than it received in 2011.

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Even then — even if we somehow reined in the known alphabet agencies — we would only be scratching the surface. Here’s Priest writing about the work of her co-author: “After two years of investigating, Arkin had come up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States — all of them working at the top secret classification level.” There is an additional three thousand “state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions.”

Perhaps there’s one saving grace in this brouhaha of activity. Priest again: “Post 9/11, government agencies annually published some 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports under 1,500 titles, the classified equivalent of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Some were distributed daily; others came out once a week, monthly, or annually.” There is so much “information” generated by the counterterrorism establishment that senior managers frequently ignore it all and instead ask their aides to talk to people to find out what’s really meaningful.

Don’t be mollified by the belief that all this activity is carried out by designated intelligence agencies. The nation’s warriors have their own alphabet-soup of agencies, departments, and units devoted to the same ends. The Pentagon created a major new entity called the Northern Command headed by a four-star general (the military’s highest rank) to protect the “homeland.” However, the Northern Command has no troops of its own and, to take any action, must ask permission from the leaders of each state’s National Guard and other agencies on whom it depends for personnel.

Priest and Arkin clearly take a dim view of all this:

  • Many, if not all, of the Federal Government’s most closely guarded secrets are vulnerable to theft through simple file-sharing software installed on 20 million computers.
  • The Director of National Intelligence, a new position created in 2004 to coordinate the work of the 16 major U.S. intellgence agencies, possesses no power to do so and is frequently ignored by them. But his staff numbers in the thousands, and they hold forth from a new, 500,000-square foot office building.
  • The degree of duplication in the national security world is chilling. “Each large organization [engaged in counterterrorism] started its own training centers, supply depots, and transportation infrastructure. Each agency and subagency manned its own unit for hiding the identities of undercover employees and for creating cover names and addresses for them and for their most sensitive projects. Each ecosystem developed a set of regional and local offices.”
  • Duplication of effort runs so deep that there are three separate lists of “High Value Targets,” one each for the CIA, the Pentagon, and the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (the people who killed Bin Laden). And “at least thirty-four major federal agencies and military commands, operating in sixteen U.S. cities, tracked the money flow to and from terrorist networks.”

The depth and quality of Priest and Arkin’s research is unexcelled, and their writing is brisk and easy to read. The book benefits from the straightforward, first-person approach Priest adopted. It’s written largely from her point of view, with Arkin’s contributions as a researcher noted in the third person.

Dana Priest has reported for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. She won the George Polk Award in 2005 for reporting on secret CIA detention facilities and the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for uncovering black sites prisons. Her exposure of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital helped the Washington Post win another Pulitzer in 2007. She deserves another Pulitzer for this illuminating book.

Bill Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence in 1974 to 1978 and had worked as a consultant, political commentator, blogger, activist, and researcher for a number of progressive organizations before teaming up with Priest to write the widely-acclaimed series of Washington Post articles on which this book was based.

For my review of a book on a related topic, see When it comes to national security, do you really get what you pay for?

A thriller that delivers both excitement and insight about the war in Afghanistan


A review of The Shadow Patrol, by Alex Berenson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

 The cottage industry in spy thrillers encompasses a wide range of quality, from those that offer up cheap thrills with one-dimensional characters facing off in unreal circumstances to those, many fewer, that rise into the realm of literature, illuminating the human condition. The finest of the lot, such as Graham Greene and John Le Carre at their best, stand with other exemplars of modern fiction. Alex Berenson’s writing doesn’t quite measure up to them, but it comes close. His most recent novel about the adventures of soldier-spy John Wells, The Shadow Patrol, explores the tragic dimensions of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, from which no one leaves ennobled.

John Wells has left the CIA and his long-time love, his agency handler, Jennifer Exley, and is living in rural New Hampshire with Anne, a local cop. When his old CIA boss, Ellis Shafer, asks him to return to action in Afghanistan, where he spent so many years undercover inside Al Qaeda, Wells leaps at the chance. The agency’s Kabul station is in crisis. A Jordanian physician, having established a credible cover as an ally, has murdered the CIA’s top brass in the country by setting off a suicide vest. Now, in addition to the chaos that results when replacements for the top officials prove unequal to the task, reports have surfaced that the station has been penetrated by a Taliban mole. Wells’ assignment, to learn the identity of the mole, brings him and the CIA into conflict with the hierarchy of the Special Forces and eventually into a one-on-one test of wills with a Delta sniper who holds the key to the mole’s identity.

Returning years after his last visit to Afghanistan, Wells finds the country, the war, and the agency, all profoundly changed by the billions of U.S. dollars spread about the countryside and the years of unrelenting killing. Cynicism and greed have spread throughout the country like a virus.

When Wells checks into the CIA station in the capital, a senior officer tells him, “First off, understand the strategic situation’s a mess. We’re playing Whac-a-Mole here. First we had our guys in the east, and the south went to hell. Now we’ve moved everybody south, and the east is going to hell. And by the way, the south isn’t great either. This quote-unquote-government we’re working with, it’s beyond corrupt. Everything’s for sale. You want to be a cop? That’s a bribe. Five to ten grand, depending on the district. . . to become a patrolman. You want to be a district-level police chief? Twenty, thirty thousand. At the national level, the cabinet jobs are a quarter million and up.”

While there’s nothing in this monologue that we haven’t learned from news reports and the numerous nonfiction books about the war, this matter-of-fact informality drives home the point more clearly than any “objective” report could do. In fact, Alex Berenson was a New York Times reporter before he turned to full-time writing. As a reporter, he covered the occupation of Iraq, among other big stories, and he brings a reporter’s instinct for news and the value of obscure details to make a story come to light. In The Shadow Patrol, the intimate conversation and inner dialogue of American troops highlights the mind-numbing reality of war much more clearly than any nonfiction account could possibly do.

One of the most revealing passages in the book comes in the course of Wells’ conversation with the same CIA official who spoke of the corruption caused by the influx of U.S. dollars. Wells has asked “So how many officers do you have?”

“We’re close to full strength now. Six hundred in country.”

“Six hundred?”

“But you have to remember, only a few are case officers. More than two hundred handle security. Then we have the coms and IT guys, logistics and administrative . . . and the guys at the airfields, handling the drones. Fewer than forty ever get outside the wire to talk to the locals. Of those, most are working with Afghan security and intelligence forces. If you’re looking at guys recruiting sources on the ground, it’s maybe a dozen. . . . The security situation is impossible. Only the very best officers can work outside the wire without getting popped, and even then only for short stretches.”

This is today’s CIA.

Berenson has devoted significant effort to researching the agency, the reality of the war in Afghanistan, the heroin trade, the art of the sniper, and other elements in this clever and compelling story. The Shadow Patrol — the sixth in Berenson’s John Wells series — is a superb contemporary thriller that delivers both an exciting tale and down-to-earth reporting on the Afghanistan war.

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