It is quite possible that Kipling based Daniel Dravot, the hero of The Man Who Would Be King, on Dr Harlan. He would surely have heard of the American, and there is a strong echo, in Dravot’s fictional Kafiristan adventure (published in 1895), of Harlan’s aspirations first to the throne of Afghanistan, and later successfully to the kingship of Ghor. as described in Gardner’s Memoirs (published in 1890); whether Harlan’s story was true is beside the point. Like many passages in his astonishing career, it lacks corroboration; on the other hand it was accepted, along with the rest, by such authorities as Major Pearse, who was Gardner’s editor, and the celebrated Dr Wolff.
Josiah Harlan (1799-1871) was born in Newlin Township, Pennsylvania, the son of a merchant whose family came from County Durham. He studied medicine, sailed as a supercargo to China, and after being jilted by his American fiancée, returned to the East, serving as surgeon with the British Army in Burma. He then wandered to Afghanistan, where he embarked on that career as diplomat, spy, mercenary soldier, and double (sometimes treble) agent which so enraged Colonel Gardner. The details are confused, but it seems that Harlan, after trying to take Dost Mohammed’s throne, and capturing a fortress, fell into the hands of Runjeet Singh. The Sikh maharaja, recognising a rascal of genius when he saw one sent him as envoy to Dost Mohammed; Harlan, travelling disguised as a dervish was also working to subvert Dost’s throne on behalf of Shah Sujah, the exiled Afghan king; not content with this, he ingratiated himself with Dost and became his agent in the Punjab — in effect, serving three masters against each other. Although as one contemporary remarks with masterly understatement, Harlan’s life was now somewhat complicated, he satisfied at least two of his employers: Shah Sujah made him a Companion of the Imperial Stirrup, and Runjeet gave him the government of three provinces which he administered until, it is said, the maharaja discovered that he was running a coining plant on the pretence of studying chemistry. Even then, Runjeet continued to use him as an agent, and it was Harlan who successfully suborned the Governor of Peshawar to betray the province to the Sikhs. He then took service with Dost Mohammed (whom he had just betrayed), and was sent with an expedition against the Prince of Kunduz; it was in this campaign that the patriotic doctor “surmounted the Indian Caucasus, and unfurled my country’s banner to the breeze under a salute of 26 guns … the star-spangled banner waved gracefully among the icy peaks.” What this accomplished is unclear but soon afterwards Harlan managed to obtain the throne of Ghor from its hereditary prince. This was in 1838; a year later he was acting as Dost’s negotiator with the British invaders at Kabul; Dost subsequently fled, and Harlan was last seen having breakfast with “Sekundar Burnes”, the British political agent.
Thus far Harlan’s story rests largely on a biographical sketch by the missionary Dr Joseph Wolff; they met briefly during Harlan’s governorship of Gujerat, but Wolff (who of course never had the advantage of reading the present packet of the Flashman Papers confesses that he knows nothing of the American after 1839. In fact, Harlan returned to the U.S. in 1841, married in 1849, raised Harlan’s Light Horse for the Union in the Civil War, was invalided out, and ended his days practising medicine in San Francisco; obviously he must have revisited the Punjab in the 1840s, when Flashman knew him. Of his appearance and character other contemporaries tell us little; Dr Wolff describes “a fine tall gentleman” given to whistling Yankee Doodle”, and found him affable and engaging. Gardner mentions meeting him at Gujerat in the 1830s, but speaks no ill of him at that time.
His biographer, Dr Joseph Wolff, D.D., LL.D (1795-1862), was a scholar, traveller, and linguist whose adventures were even more eccentric than Harlan’s. Known as “the Christian Dervish”, and “the Protestant Xavier”, he was born in Germany, the son of a Jewish rabbi, and during his “extraordinary nomadic career” converted to Christianity, was expelled from Rome for questioning Papal infallibility, scoured the Middle and Far East in search of the Lost Tribes of Israel, preached Christianity in Jerusalem, was shipwrecked in Cephalonia, captured by Central Asian slave-traders (who priced him at only £2.50, much to his annoyance), and walked 600 miles through Afghanistan “in a state of nudity”, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. He made a daring return to Afghanistan in search of the missing British agents, Stoddart and Connolly, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of their executioner. At other times Dr Wolff preached to the U.S. Congress, was a deacon in New Jersey, an Anglican priest in Ireland, and finally became vicar of a parish in Somerset. As Flashman has remarked, there were some odd fellows about in the earlies. (See Gardner; The Travels and Adventures of Dr. Wolff (1860); Dictionary of American Biography; D.N.B.)
George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.
April 13, 2015
February 13, 2015
Published on 12 Feb 2015
This week, well over 1 million soldiers are on the advance everywhere in Europe. General Hindenburgs tries to beat the Russians once and for all at the Masurian Lakes. Austria-Hungary is fighting the Russians with German support in the Carpathian mountains and on the Western Front the Champagne offensive is still going.
January 12, 2015
The Soviets consciously followed the Gramscian prescription; they pursued a war of position, subverting the “leading elements” of society through their agents of influence. (See, for example, Stephen Koch’s Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the Seduction of the Intellectuals; summary by Koch here) This worked exactly as expected; their memes seeped into Western popular culture and are repeated endlessly in (for example) the products of Hollywood.
Indeed, the index of Soviet success is that most of us no longer think of these memes as Communist propaganda. It takes a significant amount of digging and rethinking and remembering, even for a lifelong anti-Communist like myself, to realize that there was a time (within the lifetime of my parents) when all of these ideas would have seemed alien, absurd, and repulsive to most people — at best, the beliefs of a nutty left-wing fringe, and at worst instruments of deliberate subversion intended to destroy the American way of life.
Koch shows us that the worst-case scenario was, as it turns out now, the correct one; these ideas, like the “race bomb” rumor, really were instruments deliberately designed to destroy the American way of life. Another index of their success is that most members of the bicoastal elite can no longer speak of “the American way of life” without deprecation, irony, or an automatic and half-conscious genuflection towards the altar of political correctness. In this and other ways, the corrosive effects of Stalin’s meme war have come to utterly pervade our culture.
The most paranoid and xenophobic conservatives of the Cold War were, painful though this is to admit, the closest to the truth in estimating the magnitude and subtlety of Soviet subversion. Liberal anticommunists (like myself in the 1970s) thought we were being judicious and fair-minded when we dismissed half of the Right’s complaint as crude blather. We were wrong; the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss really were guilty, the Hollywood Ten really were Stalinist tools, and all of Joseph McCarthy’s rants about “Communists in the State Department” were essentially true. The Venona transcripts and other new material leave no room for reasonable doubt on this score.
While the espionage apparatus of the Soviet Union didn’t outlast it, their memetic weapons did. These memes are now coming near to crippling our culture’s response to Islamic terrorism.
In this context, Jeff Goldstein has written eloquently about perhaps the most long-term dangerous of these memes — the idea that rights inhere not in sovereign individuals but identity groups, and that every identity group (except the “ruling class”) has the right to suppress criticism of itself through political means up to and including violence.
Mark Brittingham (aka WildMonk) has written an excellent essay on the roots of this doctrine in Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. It has elsewhere been analyzed and labeled as transnational progressivism. The Soviets didn’t invent it, but they promoted it heavily in a deliberate — and appallingly successful — attempt to weaken the Lockean, individualist tradition that underlies classical liberalism and the U.S. Constitution. The reduction of Western politics to a bitter war for government favor between ascriptive identity groups is exactly the outcome the Soviets wanted and worked hard to arrange.
Call it what you will — various other commentators have favored ‘volk-Marxism’ or ‘postmodern leftism’. I’ve called it suicidalism. It was designed to paralyze the West against one enemy, but it’s now being used against us by another. It is no accident that Osama bin Laden so often sounds like he’s reading from back issues of Z magazine, and no accident that both constantly echo the hoariest old cliches of Soviet propaganda in the 1930s and ’40s.
Another consequence of Stalin’s meme war is that today’s left-wing antiwar demonstrators wear kaffiyehs without any sense of how grotesque it is for ostensible Marxists to cuddle up to religious absolutists who want to restore the power relations of the 7th century CE. In Stalin’s hands, even Marxism itself was hollowed out to serve as a memetic weapon — it became increasingly nihilist, hatred-focused and destructive. The postmodern left is now defined not by what it’s for but by what it’s against: classical-liberal individualism, free markets, dead white males, America, and the idea of objective reality itself.
Eric S. Raymond, “Gramscian damage”, Armed and Dangerous, 2006-02-11.
December 17, 2014
Published on 6 Dec 2014
This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. The Internet is on Fire
Mikko is a world class cyber criminality expert who has led his team through some of the largest computer virus outbreaks in history. He spoke twice at TEDxBrussels in 2011 and in 2013. Every time his talks move the world and surpass the 1 million viewers. We’ve had a huge amount of requests for Mikko to come back this year. And guess what? He will!
Prepare for what is becoming his ‘yearly’ talk about PRISM and other modern surveillance issues.
September 14, 2014
In The Register, Kelly Fiveash sums up the latest information from Edward Snowden:
An NSA and GCHQ surveillance programme — dubbed Treasure Map — grants US and British spooks access to the networks of German telcos such as Deutsche Telekom, according to a new stash of leaked documents from Edward Snowden.
Der Spiegel published the latest revelations today. However, Deutsche Telekom reportedly said it had found no evidence of such tampering on its system.
“We are looking into every indication of possible manipulations but have not yet found any hint of that in our investigations so far,” a spokesman at the company told Reuters.
He added: “We’re working closely with IT specialists and have also contacted German security authorities. It would be completely unacceptable if a foreign intelligence agency were to gain access to our network.”
The Register sought comment from the telco, but it hadn’t immediately got back to us at time of writing.
The Treasure Map programme was described by Snowden as “a 300,000 foot view of the internet” in a New York Times story published in November last year.
September 9, 2014
In the Guardian, Julian Borger updates the situation in Estonia after the kidnapping of Eston Kohver by Russian forces:
The Estonian intelligence official seized by Russia thought he was going to meet an informant in a secluded spot on the border as part of an organised crime investigation but instead walked into an FSB trap, according to Estonian security sources.
Eston Kohver went to the arranged meeting at 9am on Friday in woodland near the village of Miikse, about five miles north of the official Luhamaa border post. He had armed backup in the form of Estonian security officers nearby but they were unable to react in time because of the use of flash grenades and because their communications were jammed.
By the time they realised what has happening, Kohver had been dragged into the woods on the Russian side of the border by a group of gunmen.
Kohver is now in Moscow where he is awaiting formal charges. Russian media have suggested he could be accused of spying; a pistol, a recording device and €5,000 in cash were displayed on Russian television as evidence.
Estonian security sources confirmed that all the items were Kohver’s but said it was entirely routine for him to be carrying them. The recording device and the cash were intended for the informant he thought he would be meeting.
September 6, 2014
Russia appears to be willing to test the patience of all of its European neighbours, as Estonia lodges a formal complaint that one of their intelligence officers has been captured by Russian FSB troops on Estonian territory:
A strange incident near the Russian-Estonian border on Friday ended with an Estonian intelligence officer in Russian custody and the two countries trading sharply contradictory allegations about what happened.
Estonia’s president and prime minister, among other officials, said the officer had been kidnapped at gunpoint from their territory and forced across the border in a blatant violation of sovereignty. The Russian Federal Security Service said the officer was in Russia and engaged in a clandestine operation when he was detained.
The episode threatened to heighten tensions between Russia and the NATO alliance, to which Estonia belongs, at a time when relations are already severely strained over the conflict in Ukraine. It came just two days after President Obama gave a speech in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, pledging that NATO would defend the Baltics against Russian aggression and suggesting that any attack on them would lead to war with the West.
Although the intelligence officer was apparently detained around 9 a.m., the Russian security service, known as the F.S.B., did not acknowledge the incident until Friday evening, when it issued a statement to three Russian news agencies.
Senior Estonian officials, including the director of the country’s Internal Security Service, held a news conference in the late afternoon, saying the officer had been abducted after unknown assailants set off a stun grenade and jammed communication signals. At the time of his capture, the officer was investigating a criminal case in the area of Luhamaa, Estonia, a little more than a mile from the border with Russia, officials said, according to Estonian news reports.
Update, 7 September: The Interpreter‘s Ukraine Liveblog included this information today.
Eston Kohver, an Estonian intelligence officer who was, according to Estonia, abducted and taken across the border to Russia yesterday, has appeared in Moscow, where he is being detained. The Estonian authorities reported that smoke grenades were used and that there were signs of a violent struggle. In addition, it was reported that communications signals in the area were jammed at the time of the reported abduction.
Meanwhile the FSB claimed yesterday that Kohver had been arrested on Russian territory, in the Pskov region.
Interfax reports that Russia’s state-owned Channel One announced today that the Lefortovo Court has approved Kohver’s detention on suspicion of espionage.
Here is video from Russia’s Ruptly news agency showing Kohver being taken out of a car and into a pre-trial detention centre (known in Russia as SIZO). The footage also shows a display of the items that the FSB has claimed that were found on Kohver including 5,000 euros in cash and a Taurus pistol.
July 7, 2014
In the Telegraph, Allan Massie reviews the boozehound “Cambridge Five” who spied for the Soviet Union:
So the Mitrokhin files from Soviet Intelligence reveal that they were wary and critical of some of the Cambridge spies. Burgess and Maclean were unreliable drunks – Burgess careless in looking after files he had removed from the Foreign Office for copying, Maclean given to speaking rashly when in liquor. As we used to say as prep-school boys: “Tell us news, not history.” All this has been known here for a long time. It would be astonishing if it wasn’t equally common knowledge in Moscow, where, one might add, alcoholism was scarcely unusual among members of the Soviet Politburo. The Cambridge spies flourished long before the days of “Only mineral water, thanks” at lunchtime.
Nobody is, even now, quite sure how much damage the Cambridge spies did, though Philby’s responsibility for the deaths of agents smuggled into Albania and other Soviet bloc countries is well established. Arguably they were less important than the “Atom spies”, scientists Klaus Fuchs and Alan Nunn May. They were less highly valued by their masters than Melita Norwood, “the granny spy”. Working as a clerk for a company whose work contributed to the making of the atom bomb, she passed on innumerable scientific and technical documents of great use to Soviet industry. Her controllers described her as “a loyal, trustworthy and disciplined agent”. “Trustworthy and disciplined” were adjectives they would never have applied to Burgess and Maclean, while even Philby wasn’t granted the highest honour, “Hero of the Soviet Union”, perhaps because his masters in Moscow were never absolutely sure where his loyalties lay. The suggestion that he may even have been a triple, rather than merely double, agent, has been floated. Melita Norwood on the other hand was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Soviet Labour, and given a Soviet pension to ease her retirement in Bexleyheath.
For years after Burgess and Maclean decamped in 1951, it was said that Burgess had no need to do so, because there was no evidence against him and he wasn’t even under suspicion. Maclean’s case was different; he was about to be interrogated. Philby, who had learned of this, told his friend Burgess to tip him off. Burgess was about to be asked to resign from the Foreign Office, but this was because of a number of scandalous drunken episodes when he was attached to the Embassy in Washington. He was in greater danger of prosecution as a homosexual than as a Soviet spy.
May 30, 2014
High praise indeed for French espionage operatives from … former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates:
Former spy and defense department secretary Robert Gates has identified France as a major cyber-spying threat against the US.
In statements that are bound to raise eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic, Gates (not Bill) nominated French spies as being number two in the world of industrial cyber-espionage.
“In terms of the most capable, next to the Chinese, are the French – and they’ve been doing it a long time” he says in this interview at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Rather than a precis, The Register will give you some of Gates’s (not Bill) words verbatim, starting just after 21 minutes in the video, when he answers a question about America’s recent indictment of five Chinese military hackers.
“What we have accused the Chinese of doing – stealing American companies’ secrets and technology – is not new, nor is it something that’s done only by the Chinese,” Gates tells the interviewer. “There are probably a dozen or fifteen countries that steal our technology in this way.
“In terms of the most capable, next to the Chinese, are probably the French, and they’ve been doing it a long time.
March 23, 2014
The fraudulence of Wilson is now admitted by all save a few survivors of the old corps of official press-agents, most of them devoid of both honesty and intelligence. No unbiased man, in the presence of the revelations of Bullitt, Keynes and a hundred other witnesses, and of the Russian and Shantung performances, and of innumerable salient domestic phenomena, can now believe that the Doctor dulcifluus was ever actually in favor of any of the brummagem ideals he once wept for, to the edification of a moral universe. They were, at best, no more than ingenious ruses de guerre, and even in the day of their widest credit it was the Espionage Act and the Solicitor-General to the Post Office, rather than any plausibility in their substance, that got them that credit. In [Theodore] Roosevelt’s case the imposture is less patent; he died before it was fully unmasked. What is more, his death put an end to whatever investigation of it was under way, for American sentimentality holds that it is indecent to inquire into the weaknesses of the dead, at least until all the flowers have withered on their tombs. When, a year ago, I ventured in a magazine article to call attention to Roosevelt’s philosophical kinship to the Kaiser I received letters of denunciation from all parts of the United States, and not a few forthright demands that I recant on penalty of lynch law. Prudence demanded that I heed these demands. We live in a curious and often unsafe country.
H.L. Mencken, “Roosevelt: An Autopsy”, Prejudices, part 2, 1920.
Published on 20 Mar 2014
Remy updates the Alanis Morissette hit for a certain senior senator from California.
Approximately 2 minutes.
Written by Remy. Video and animation by Meredith Bragg. Music performed, produced, recorded, mixed and mastered by Ben Karlstrom.
For full text, links, downloadable versions and more, go to: http://reason.com/reasontv/2014/03/20/remy-isnt-it-ironic.
A Senator lady
Got the news one day
The country’s being spied on
by the NSA
So she went out defending
on each TV set
but when she found out she’d been snooped on
she got all upset
And isn’t it ironic?
I mean, don’t you think?
It’s like you’re at Chris Brown’s
and there’s punch in the fridge
or if The Bachelor
passed a geography quiz
Learning Ted Kennedy
happened to be good at bridge.
And who would have thought?
Senator, this may surprise you
and the irony bites
but Congresspeople ain’t the only ones
with 4th Amendment rights
It’s like a minimalist
who does their laundry
or if Woody Allen liked to watch
Kids in the Hall
it’s like FDR
got locked in a Honda Accord
a cheap healthcare plan
that you just can’t afford
If Oscar Pistorius
really hated The Doors
and who would have thought?
I heard the government
is sneaking up on you.
Life has a funny, funny way
of calling you out
calling you out.
March 12, 2014
In Mother Jones, David Corn shows the state of play between the Central Intelligence Agency and the senate committee that is responsible for oversight of the CIA:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, took to the Senate floor and accused the CIA of spying on committee investigators tasked with probing the agency’s past use of harsh interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture) and detention. Feinstein was responding to recent media stories reporting that the CIA had accessed computers used by intelligence committee staffers working on the committee’s investigation. The computers were set up by the CIA in a locked room in a secure facility separate from its headquarters, and CIA documents relevant to the inquiry were placed on these computers for the Senate investigators. But, it turns out, the Senate sleuths had also uncovered an internal CIA memo reviewing the interrogation program that had not been turned over by the agency. This document was far more critical of the interrogation program than the CIA’s official rebuttal to a still-classified, 6,300-page Senate intelligence committee report that slams it, and the CIA wanted to find out how the Senate investigators had gotten their mitts on this damaging memo.
The CIA’s infiltration of the Senate’s torture probe was a possible constitutional violation and perhaps a criminal one, too. The agency’s inspector general and the Justice Department have begun inquiries. And as the story recently broke, CIA sources — no names, please — told reporters that the real issue was whether the Senate investigators had hacked the CIA to obtain the internal review. Readers of the few newspaper stories on all this did not have to peer too far between the lines to discern a classic Washington battle was under way between Langley and Capitol Hill.
So here we have the person assigned the duty of guaranteeing that the intelligence establishment functions effectively and appropriately, and she cannot get information about how the CIA meddled in one of her own investigations. This is a serious breakdown. And by the way, Feinstein has still not succeeded in forcing the CIA to declassify her committee’s massive report on the interrogation and detention program.
Here is how she summed up the current state of play:
If the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted. But, Mr. President, the recent actions that I have just laid out make this a defining moment for the oversight of our intelligence committee. How Congress and how this will be resolved will show whether the intelligence committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation’s intelligence activities or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee.
What Feinstein didn’t say — but it’s surely implied — is that without effective monitoring, secret government cannot be justified in a democracy. This is indeed a defining moment. It’s a big deal for President Barack Obama, who, as is often noted in these situations, once upon a time taught constitutional law. Feinstein has ripped open a scab to reveal a deep wound that has been festering for decades. The president needs to respond in a way that demonstrates he is serious about making the system work and restoring faith in the oversight of the intelligence establishment. This is more than a spies-versus-pols DC turf battle. It is a constitutional crisis.
March 10, 2014
Bruce Schneier on the odd linguistic tic of how we describe an act depending on who the actor is:
Back when we first started getting reports of the Chinese breaking into U.S. computer networks for espionage purposes, we described it in some very strong language. We called the Chinese actions cyber–attacks. We sometimes even invoked the word cyberwar, and declared that a cyber-attack was an act of war.
When Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA has been doing exactly the same thing as the Chinese to computer networks around the world, we used much more moderate language to describe U.S. actions: words like espionage, or intelligence gathering, or spying. We stressed that it’s a peacetime activity, and that everyone does it.
The reality is somewhere in the middle, and the problem is that our intuitions are based on history.
Electronic espionage is different today than it was in the pre-Internet days of the Cold War. Eavesdropping isn’t passive anymore. It’s not the electronic equivalent of sitting close to someone and overhearing a conversation. It’s not passively monitoring a communications circuit. It’s more likely to involve actively breaking into an adversary’s computer network — be it Chinese, Brazilian, or Belgian — and installing malicious software designed to take over that network.
In other words, it’s hacking. Cyber-espionage is a form of cyber-attack. It’s an offensive action. It violates the sovereignty of another country, and we’re doing it with far too little consideration of its diplomatic and geopolitical costs.
February 6, 2014
At Techdirt, Glyn Moody explains why the EU is insane not to demand that the negotiations with the US government over TAFTA/TTIP be made fully public:
On the one side is the US, on the other, the 28 nations that go to make up the European Union. Because they have differing views on the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations, it’s necessary to pass around many documents conveying information about the current negotiations, and seek to obtain some kind of consensus on future EU proposals and flexibilities.
In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, security will doubtless be much better than during the Copenhagen Summit, when supposedly secret messages were sent using unencrypted emails. But it only needs one weak link in the European Union’s security chain — somebody who forgets to encrypt his or her message, or who leaves it on a system that has been compromised — and the NSA will be able to access that information, and pass it on to the US negotiators, just as it did in Copenhagen.
The key point is that there is a profound information asymmetry in the TAFTA/TTIP talks. Although the spy agencies of the EU countries will doubtless be trying their best to obtain confidential information about US negotiating tactics, it will be much harder than it is for the US to do the same about EU positions. That’s because the NSA is far larger, and far more expert than the EU agencies. GCHQ is probably the nearest in terms of capabilities, but is so closely allied with the NSA in other areas that it probably won’t be trying too hard so as not to annoy its paymaster.
This more or less guarantees that the US will know everything about the EU’s negotiating plans during TAFTA/TTIP, while the EU will remain in the dark about the US intentions. That not only undercuts the European Commission’s argument that releasing documents is not possible because they must remain secret during the negotiations — they won’t be — it also gives the EU a huge incentive to insist on full transparency for the talks. That way, the EU negotiators would be able to see at least some US documents that currently are hidden from them, whereas the US would gain little that it didn’t already know through more dubious means.
January 15, 2014
In Wired, Felix Salmon explains that “Quants don’t know everything”:
By now, nearly everyone from the president of the United States on down has admitted that the National Security Agency went too far. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the rogue NSA contractor who has since gained asylum in Russia, paint a picture of an organization with access to seemingly every word typed or spoken on any electronic device, anywhere in the world. And when news of the NSA’s reach became public — as it was surely bound to do at some point — the entire US intelligence apparatus was thrust into what The New York Times recently called a “crisis of purpose and legitimacy.”
It was a crisis many years in the making. Over the course of three decades, the NSA slowly transformed itself from the nation’s junior spy agency to the centerpiece of the entire intelligence system. As the amount of data in the world doubled, and doubled again, and again, the NSA kept up with it — even as America’s human intelligence capability, as typified by old-fashioned CIA spies in the field, struggled to do anything useful with the unprecedented quantities of signals intelligence they had access to. Trained agency linguists capable of parsing massive quantities of Arabic- and Farsi-language intercepts don’t scale up nearly as easily as data centers do.
That, however, wasn’t the computer geeks’ problem. Once it was clear that the NSA could do something, it seemed inarguable that the agency should do it — even after the bounds of information overload (billions of records added to bulging databases every day) or basic decency (spying on allied heads of state, for example) had long since been surpassed. The value of every marginal gigabyte of high tech signals intelligence was, at least in theory, quantifiable. The downside — the inability to prioritize essential intelligence and act on it; the damage to America’s democratic legitimacy — was not. As a result, during the past couple of decades spycraft went from being a pursuit driven by human judgment calls to one driven by technical capability.