Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Magician's Assistant

In stage magic, the pretty assistant often serves to misdirects the audience's attention away from what the magician is really doing during the illusion.

When the story about Mark Snowden first broke, it felt like we were being made to look at one thing instead of what was really going on.  The documents he revealed showed the NSA spied on Americans.  Perhaps unnerving but hardly surprising.  J. Edgar Hoover was notorious for keeping secret files on anyone and everyone he perceived as a threat.

The fact that the NSA had spied on German Chancellor Angel Merkel is not as surprising as it it disappointing.  Keeping tabs on your allies has always been part of the foreign affairs games.  According to CBS News,  the NSA also spied on Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Brazilian President Dilam Rousseff.  They are naturally pissed off but with the Mexican drug cartels and the 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil, intercepting information from those countries isn't shocking just politically awkward.

The trouble with spying is you never know what you are going to find out.  Especially in the post 9-11 world of hunting the next Osama bin Laden, the NSA and CIA have a remarkably unrewarding task for figuring out which nobody is the next somebody.  They are looking for a needle in a haystack by treating every piece of hay as though it were a needle.  Hence the need to collect this huge volume of data on allies as well as enemies a like.

But something about Snowden still bugs me.  In 1985, a former Navy communications specialist John Walker made the news for having been a Soviet spy.  Unlike Snowden, Walker did not divulge lists of information but rather the cryptological keys for encrypting US military communications.  According to former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, "the information Walker gave Moscow allowed the Soviets "access to weapons and sensor data and naval tactics, terrorist threats, and surface, submarine, and airborne training, readiness and tactics." U.S. Naval Institute

John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, stated in an interview that Walker's activities enabled the Soviets to know where U.S. submarines were at all times. Lehman said the Walker espionage would have resulted in huge loss of American lives in the event of war.

Walker's treachery gave the Soviets that same advantage the US had as a result of cracking the Enigma cypher…the Soviets knew how to decrypt our secure communications.  Further by having the actual cryptological keys meant they could break future codes that were based on similar algorithms.  The US intelligence system would have to create a completely different set of cryptological keys that were not based on anything Walker had shared.

Thus far, it appears that Snowden did not leak any cryptological information.  He did divulge some third parties and methodologies but this is part of the spy game.  Eventually the other side figures out how you are finding out about their information.  The President's call yesterday for tighter restrictions on NSA activities almost seems like closing the barn door after the horses are out.

I was pondering all of this when I came across an interesting post from Jon Rappaport.  He posts the 36 day timeline of Snowden's arrival in Hong Kong to his arrival in Moscow.  Why was the NSA unable to neutralize his laptops via radio signals (which we now hear the NSA can do to any computer even if not connected to the Internet)?

I tend to agree with Rappaport, what if the information Snowden released was a plant?  Perhaps either to create false trails or cause a target to respond differently.  It would explain a lot that just doesn't seem right.

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