Category Archives: Intelligence

Did the government get it right with Petraeus?

Commentators from both within the intelligence community (IC) and critics of the surveillant state have been unusually aligned in expressing shock that General David Petraeus has only been given a hand slap of a plea deal considering what classified secrets he leaked. Writing in the Daily Beast, Justin Miller and Nancy Youssef provide previously unknown details on what Petraeus gave to his mistress and biographer, Paula Broadwell:

While he was commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus “maintained bound, five-by-eight inch notebooks that contained his daily schedule and classified and unclassified notes he took during official meetings, conferences and briefings,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina writes in a statement of fact regarding the case.

All eight books “collectively contained classified information regarding the identifies of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings… and discussions with the president of the United States.”

That’s about a definitive list of precious “sources and methods” as you could wish to see enumerated. It’s not clear how much of this was classified (not all discussions with the President are classified) but by Petraeus’ own admission, it included codeword-level material, or TS//SCI (eg., TK, SI etc) usually described as “above top secret.” Codeword TK for example refers to Talent/Keyhole or spy satellite imagery which is so secret we’re not even allowed to know the capabilities of the cameras that take the pictures.

Marcy Wheeler, a well known expert in surveillance issues, didn’t hold back:

As a supine Congress sitting inside a scaffolded dome applauded Benjamin Netanyahu calling to reject a peace deal with Iran, DOJ quietly announced it had reached a plea deal with former CIA Director David Petraeus for leaking Top Secret/Secure Compartmented Information materials to his mistress, Paula Broadwell.

Not only did he affirmatively give these materials to non-cleared personnel, but he kept them in an unlocked drawer and a rucksack in his home. Petraeus also lied to the FBI about possessing classified material. Pretty bad opsec. China and the North Koreans could have saved a whole bunch of money just by hiring a couple of guys to break into his house. (Of course this is the guy who shared his Gmail login with Broadwell and left her messages in a draft folder so they supposedly wouldn’t be sent over a network, a dodgy practice familiar to both teenagers and terrorists.)

As numerous people have pointed out, this could be pretty bad for morale in the IC because of the premium placed on IC members to protect secrets. Naval War College professor John Schindler, who has labeled Edward Snowden a traitor, was left to tweet out examples of men who had died to protect classified intel:

(“Norks” is a pejorative slang term for North Korean.)

Just as critically, others have pointed to the unequal treatment meted out to others who either leaked far less sensitive and classified information, or who were also charged with lying to the FBI. These include Barrett Brown, John Kiriakou, and Jeffrey Sterling, who faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly leaking details of a busted CIA operation to the author and journalist James Risen. (See his book State of War for details of Operation Merlin.)

Given the inequality in these sentences, that is, the lack of justice, we might well join in with the widespread condemnation not just of the sentence Petraeus received but of the man himself. Usually reliable IC defenders have been conspicuously silent (Overt Action, a blog run by former IC personnel, has not even mentioned the case except to denounce a leak that the FBI were recommending his indictment in February, this despite running frequent overviews called the Week in Intelligence–the latest was yesterday–of IC matters.) The Republican controlled Senate and House intelligence committee personnel have not defended Petraeus, despite the fact he was once touted as a Republican presidential candidate (the American Spectator compared him to Eisenhower). The silence, as they say, is deafening.

Yet there is a case to be made that it is not Petraeus who received the injustice, but rather Sterling, Brown, Kiriakou and even Risen himself (who was subpoenaed to reveal his source–presumed to be Sterling–before having the case against him dropped). The case depends on two assertions, first that there is a massive culture of over-classification, and second that it is very hard to prove harm in general is directly caused by leaks. (Specific leaks, such as the fact that Kim Philby was a Soviet double agent with access to the Venona project and told Moscow about it, are perhaps easier, though often you’re working with hypotheticals–the Soviets might have stopped re-using one-time pads anyway…).

Over-classification has been an issue even prior to 9/11 when then Senator Patrick Moynihan wrote his classic book Secrecy. (Moynihan was ironically one of the prime movers behind the declassification of the Venona project.) The Secrecy News blog at Federation of American Scientists by Steven Aftergood is dedicated to all the myriad ways over-classification is rampant.

There are of course secrets worth protecting (how to build a nuclear trigger is one that comes to mind). But Petraeus did not give classified material to a hostile or foreign agent, no harm has been cited to national security (Broadwell published none of the information according to the plea deal itself), even in the official statement of facts, and the documents were not formally classified (they were his own notes). Perhaps there is a case to made for sensible reaction to leaks–especially when they take the form of whistleblowing–rather than automatically reaching for the Espionage Act. Perhaps the government got it right? This case is a kind of test of what harm we think occurs when there is disclosure (unauthorized or not) of classified material. It is of course not an easy case of all protection is good/bad, all disclosure is good/bad, but of what reaction to disclosure should be, and on what grounds. The reaction and punishment here may offer better choices.

I do not write this to defend Petraeus and think he still got off too lightly. He held the TS//SCI in a non-secure location outside government premises, even delivering them into the possession of his biographer at one point, rather than in his residency’s SCIF as required, reintroducing the burglar scenario. (Compare the recent revelation, or really more widespread realization since this was already known, that Hillary Clinton used a private email address while Secretary of State and ponder what vulnerabilities this possibly introduces, not least immunity from FOIA and transparency. This seems a bigger case to me.)

Ironically, defendants can now cite this case (or try to; since it is a plea deal that never went to court it might provide something less than a true legal precedent) insofar as their cases follow the facts of this case to reduce their own sentences. This is something the government may come to regret, although perhaps we may see it as a better approach than blanket secrecy.

Late addition: after I had drafted but just before I published this I read this piece by Eli Lake which makes some of the same points.



A company I’ve recently become interested in is AeroVironment.

Their stock has recently recovered from a down-turn last year. As of this writing they are at 31.16 a share.

They manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones and have been in business since 1971. Their founder, Dr. Paul MacCready, perfected the first human-powered controlled flight, the Gossamer Condor.

More soon.

Big Data, intel, and finance

Interesting story in the New York Times on how intelligence capabilities are being repurposed for financial risk assessment. Involves people previously at Palantir, one of the most interesting and enigmatic intel companies.

There were plenty of parallels between the two worlds, but instead of agencies, spies and eavesdropping satellites, finance has markets, investment advisers and portfolios. Both worlds are full of custom software, making each analysis of a data set unique. It is hard to get a single picture of anything like the truth.

And in much the way Palantir seeks to find common espionage themes, like social connections and bomb-making techniques, among its data sources, Mr. Lonsdale has sought to reduce financial information to a dozen discrete parts, like price changes and what percentage of something a person holds.

Surveillance costs–new study

Shortly after the Edward Snowden revelations began in June 2013 I wrote a Commentary for Society and Space open site on the costs of security.

One of the issues I addressed had to do with the economic and other costs of surveillance:

What does the US actually pay? One attempt at an answer to this surprisingly difficult question was recently provided by the National Priorities Project (NPP). Their estimate was that the US national security budget was $1.2 trillion a year.

A new report by the New America Foundation has further explored the costs of surveillance in terms of lost business opportunities to US companies, US foreign policy and cybersecurity:

  • Direct Economic Costs to U.S. Businesses: American companies have reported declining sales overseas and lost business opportunities, especially as foreign companies turn claims of products that can protect users from NSA spying into a competitive advantage. The cloud computing industry is particularly vulnerable and could lose billions of dollars in the next three to five years as a result of NSA surveillance.
  • Potential Costs to U.S. Businesses and to the Openness of the Internet from the Rise of Data Localization and Data Protection Proposals: New proposals from foreign governments looking to implement data localization requirements or much stronger data protection laws could compound economic losses in the long term. These proposals could also force changes to the architecture of the global network itself, threatening free expression and privacy if they are implemented.
  • Costs to U.S. Foreign Policy: Loss of credibility for the U.S. Internet Freedom agenda, as well as damage to broader bilateral and multilateral relations, threaten U.S. foreign policy interests. Revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance have already colored a number of critical interactions with nations such as Germany and Brazil in the past year.
  • Costs to Cybersecurity: The NSA has done serious damage to Internet security through its weakening of key encryption standards, insertion of surveillance backdoors into widely-used hardware and software products, stockpiling rather than responsibly disclosing information about software security vulnerabilities, and a variety of offensive hacking operations undermining the overall security of the global Internet.

These may end up being upper bounds of the costs (and consequences), but they are very helpful in identifying what is at stake here. I haven’t read the whole report yet, but the executive summary is here (pdf).


NGA has plan for total “Map of the World”

John Goolgasian, NGA

According to the NGA, one of the most popular sessions at the recent GEOINT 2013* (held over from 2013) conference was one which offered a total “Map of the World:”

But what is it?

Map of the World is the foundation for intelligence integration, said NGA Director Letitia A. Long in her keynote address at the four-day event.

The clue lies in this statement:

Twelve different data views will make up Map of the World and nine of them are online now, including maritime and aeronautical.

This, along with Goolgasian’s involvement, indicates that it is probably related to, or draws from, the work of the World-Wide Human Geography Database Working Group (WWHGD). I’ve written about Goolgasian on this blog before.

The WWHGD is a government-private contractor (Booz Allen Hamilton are the provided contact points and presumably run it) group that is seeking to:

The WWHGD Working Group is designed to build voluntary partnerships around human geography data and mapping focused on the general principle of making appropriate information available at the appropriate scales to promote human security. This involves a voluntary “whole-of-governments” national and international approach to create a human geography data framework that can leverage ongoing efforts around the world to identify, capture, build, share, and disseminate the best available structured and unstructured foundation data.

Here are the data they’re looking at in these layers:

The inclusion of things like land ownership maps directly on to the arguments of Geoffrey Demerest, who was a key player in the Bowman Expeditions. You can judge for yourselves about the set of information here. Personally I think it’s way too rigid and a-historical (what about a history of foreign intervention in an area, or standards of living and well-being?).

But even beyond that it reflects a belief in the efficacy of totalizing indexes. We heard something about this at the AAG, and Brad Evans and Julian Reid have a discussion about it in their new book Resilient Life.

The article continues:

“Through a single point on the Earth, the Map of the World will present an integrated view of collection assets from across the community, mapping information for military operations, GEOINT observations, and NGA analytic products, data and models,” said Goolgasian.

Worth keeping an eye on.

Psychologist behind torture and interrogation speaks for first time

James Mitchell, one of the people who designed the CIA interrogation program of prisoners after 9/11, has broken his media silence. In a remarkable interview at the Guardian he provided a robust defense of his actions:

“The people on the ground did the best they could with the way they understood the law at the time,” he said. “You can’t ask someone to put their life on the line and think and make a decision without the benefit of hindsight and then eviscerate them in the press 10 years later.”

The Guardian’s headline is actually “CIA torture architect breaks silence to defend ‘enhanced interrogation'” which highlights that they are one of the few major media outlets to use the word “torture.”

I found the comments very instructive (very little love for this guy). But what about this one, given that we’ve just come from an AAG where the organization’s role was criticized:

And this war criminal still holds a professional license to practice psychology and destroy even more lives.

The American Psychology Association must be staffed with similar thinking war-criminal wanna be’s. They refused to rebuke his anti-ethical behavior.

Plenty to think about there.

DNI Clapper: press coverage “inaccurate”

DNI Clapper labeled press coverage of the Snowden affair as “inaccurate, misleading and incomplete” at the GEOINT 2013* meeting today:

He also repeated his position that Snowden is not a whistleblower:

USGIF Chairman Stu Shea Steps Down After 10 Years of Service – USGIF News – USGIF

Changes at USGIF. The new Chairman is Jeffrey K. Harris who is described by USGIF here:

Former director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and undersecretary of the Air Force, Jeffrey K. Harris has contributed to U.S. national security in both government and industry for 35 years. He has fostered new technologies, programs, and capabilities that have contributed significantly toward keeping our nation secure.

Harris is retired from Lockheed Martin, where he was a corporate officer and served as president of Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space, as well as president of Lockheed Martin Special Programs. Prior, he served as president of Space Imaging, the first company to provide commercial high-resolution satellite imagery.

Before entering the private sector, Harris served in federal leadership positions, including Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space, director of the NRO, and associate executive director of the Intelligence Community Management Staff. In all of these capacities, he provided direct support to both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence.

USGIF Chairman Stu Shea Steps Down After 10 Years of Service – USGIF News – USGIF.

Feinstein and the CIA

Following this morning’s “bombshell” speech on the floor of the Senate by Dianne Feinstein, Kevin Gosztola at FDL has an excellent write-up here. If you want to know why this is a big deal (after all DiFi is an unremitting friend of intel) you should read that piece.

I would especially echo Gosztola’s comments pushing back on those calling her hypocritical. If you can’t give credit for when someone does something right, and does so with verve and conviction, then I doubt you’ll ever give credit and just isolate yourself on the margins.

It’s also worth noting that DiFi plans to release this month at least some of the CCSI report at issue here.

NGA’s “Map of the World” not exactly open

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), America’s biggest geography spy agency, has posted an invitation on its media PR page to hear about its “Map of the World” project.

If you’d like to know more about this, the NGA starts off by noting:

Collaboration with industry and academia is critical to the NGA mission, our customers and our strategic partnerships.

Thinking of signing up to learn more? Maybe not:

Except for a one-hour unclassified information session, this event is limited to U.S. citizens holding top secret clearances.

Remember we pay the NGA at least $4.9 billion per year. It seems “industry” and “academia” can only take part by becoming part of the intelligence community.