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“Under Andropov, the KGB grew noticeably in political power, in personnel, and even in the number of buildings its occupied . . . Andropov was probably not deliberately pursuing any evil goals and was not attempting to create a police state; more likely, his actions were simply a question of gaining administrative turf . . . However, nothing constructive could have come out of this. Growing bureaucratic structures always search out activities to occupy their energies, and when they don’t find them, they invent them.”

Georgi Arbatov
The System: An Insider’s Life in Soviet Politics

Please follow me below the fold to read analysis of this week's Washington Post story on General Keith Alexander.

Earlier this week the Washington Post treated us to an in-depth profile of Gen. Keith Alexander, the military commander charged with running the world’s most omnivorous spy agency.

And when I say “treat,” I mean it in roughly the same sense that the old Pravda used to “treat” its readers to accounts of the latest triumphs of Soviet tractor production:

His successes have won accolades from political leaders of both parties as well as from counterterrorism and intelligence professionals who say the NSA chief’s efforts have helped foil dozens of terrorist attacks.
The editorial flavor also is captured quite well by the headline on the story:
For NSA chief, terrorist threat drives passion to ‘collect it all,’ observers say
When you think about it, a headline like that also would have fit easily into the old Pravda—with only a few minor alterations:
For KGB chief, counterrevolutionary threat drives passion to ‘collect it all,’ comrades say.
A Paper Divided Against Itself

To be fair (perhaps overly so) not all of the Post’s story is written in a prose style that wouldn't have looked out of place in a Moscow news kiosk circa 1953. About a third of the way through, the tone changes abruptly, into something that almost—if you squint your eyes hard enough—resembles journalism:

“He is absolutely obsessed and completely driven to take it all, whenever possible,” said Thomas Drake, a former NSA official and whistleblower. The continuation of Alexander’s policies, Drake said, would result in the “complete evisceration of our civil liberties.”
The effect is bizarre, but I think it also accurately reflects the Post’s schizoid approach to the NSA spying story—in which CIA made guys like Walter Pincus feel compelled to trash competing journalists for reporting the same story that received a banner headline on the Post’s front page.

These days, it seems like the Washington Post needs a psychoanalyst almost as desperately as it needs . . . well, everything else.

Alexander the Conqueror

But what interested me most about the panegyric portion of that Post story was the specific example chosen to illustrate Keith Alexander’s shining contribution to the global war against the reactionary bourgeoisie Islamic terrorists:  

In late 2005, as Iraqi roadside bombings were nearing an all-time peak, the National Security Agency’s newly appointed chief began pitching a radical plan for halting the attacks that were killing or wounding a dozen Americans a day. . .

The unprecedented data collection plan, dubbed Real Time Regional Gateway, would play a role in breaking up Iraqi insurgent networks and significantly reducing the monthly death toll from improvised explosive devices by late 2008.

This is clearly a case of what the military calls “firing for effect.” Which is to say, after flinging a number of PR rounds in its counteroffensive against the evil Goldstein Snowden—most of them duds—the NSA has zeroed in on the time-honored “support the troops” mantra as its most promising propaganda target of opportunity.

The PR logic is understandable: Rather than trying to prove the utility and constitutionality of a Byzantine system which scoops up the communications data (and/or content) of millions of Americans based on a 51% probability that they are not, in fact, Americans, go out and find the worst enemy imaginable—shadowy Al Qaeda-linked insurgents in a country most Americans have learned to despise—and focus on the NSA’s allegedly ingenious efforts to stop them from killing and maiming our heroic soldiers.

This is interesting on a number of levels (most of them wholly unintended):

  • It suggests the NSA is aware that it doesn’t hold a strong position in the war for public opinion, as indicated by the abrupt swing in the polls away from a pro-surveillance, do-whatever-it-takes-to-keep-us-“safe” mentality.
  • It highlights the Siamese Twin connection between U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns abroad and the metastasis of the domestic surveillance regime—which, with a nod to an earlier era, we could reasonably call the “bringing the war back home” effect (also potentially in play with the use of drone technology).
  • It shows, once again, that combat operations are the national security state’s natural PR comfort zone—the area where it feels best able to justify its demands, including its insistence on maximum secrecy (loose lips sink ships) and a minimum of democratic accountability.

Put all those points together, and it’s easy to see why the NSA would much rather talk about its past “successes” in Iraq than its current strategic campaign to “collect it all” at home.

As a bonus dividend, the NSA’s information operations specialists (what the non-militarized world calls “flacks”) may suspect the agency’s critics on the Senate Intelligence Committee are less familiar with the details of its Iraq War spying record than they are with the finer points of STELLAR WIND, PRISM, MAINWAY, MARINA ad nauseam, and are thus less likely to call them out on any Clapperesque “mistakes.” (But that’s pure speculation on my part, obviously.)

Taming the Sunni Triangle

Leaving the propaganda war aside for a minute, what about the real one? Were the NSA and its rookie chief really as successful in dealing with the IED threat as the Post’s hagiography suggests?

That someone or something was successful, at least in Iraq, is not in dispute, as this chart from the Center for Strategic and International Studies illustrates:

After peaking in the spring and summer of 2007, the number of IED attacks in Iraq tumbled sharply over the following year, then continued a more gradual decline as the Obama administration began to withdraw the troops. But nothing I’ve read, then or since, adequately explains this miraculous pacification.  

True, the time line nicely overlays the so-called surge—the temporary increase in the number of boots in the sand ordered up by the Cheney Administration in 2007 in a last ditch effort to appease the neocon politburo (i.e. the American Enterprise Institute and the editorial board of The Weekly Standard).

But even the official pro-surge story (one part steadfast resolve of George W. Bush, War President; one part counterinsurgency brilliance of Gen. David Petraeus; and one part civic “awakening” that turned the Sunni Triangle against Al Qaeda) was and is completely vague on how those epic virtues halted the IED epidemic.

Congressional experts were also baffled:

Investigators from the House Armed Services Committee looked at metrics...used to demonstrate success and found: “It is impossible to demonstrate which of the specific initiatives and programs are effective and to what degree.”
When Wired magazine approached the Pentagon official directly responsible for beating the IED threat and asked him for his explanation, his answer was, almost literally, “beats me.”
The number of improvised explosives is falling dramatically in Iraq.  And even the Pentagon’s chief bomb-fighter isn’t exactly sure why. “I wish I could tell ya,” says retired General Montgomery Meigs in an interview.
It’s barely possible, I guess, that Meigs was misinterpreted, and was actually signaling that he couldn’t talk about the hush hush secret NSA spying effort that saved his bacon—a variation, in other words, on the old “if I told you, I’d have to kill you” joke.

But if that’s the case, then the NSA’s secret was exceptionally well kept—especially at a time when everybody in the U.S. national security complex (and his or her brother) was desperately looking for a way to either escape blame for the Iraq fiasco or take credit for making that fiasco less total than it could have been.

Humint, not Comint

As far as I can tell, the truth (it occasionally slips out around the edges) about the abrupt collapse of the IED threat is that it was bought and paid for, as Petraeus and the U.S. Army adopted the ancient imperial remedy of bribing your enemies to go kill someone else for a change.

Or, as one foreign policy maven put it at the time:

The Sunni insurgency, with a few exceptions, has largely left the field, and is now providing local security under negotiated arrangements with us.
One of the fruits of this purchase, it seems, was a much more robust haul of human intelligence from local informants, who now had both a financial incentive to rat out recalcitrant insurgents and a measure of social protection from their revenge:
About 8,500 tips came in September of 2006; by May [2007], the number had peaked at more than 24,000.  In August, the figure was approximately 19,200.  Similarly, the number caches found—about five per day in September, 2006—jumped to more than 20 per day in May.
The implication, in other words, is that the U.S. Army pacified (at least temporarily) the Sunni Triangle using the same low tech tools, i.e. cash and street-level informants, that the FBI used to crack the KKK in Mississippi—or that the Baltimore Police Department uses to try to keep tabs on local drug dealers.

Mission Creep in Cyberspace

Whether high tech surveillance (The Wire with teraflops) actually played a useful role in the IED suppression campaign is a question that may even get an honest answer some day. Who knows? It might be hiding on one of Ed Snowden’s laptops.

I strongly suspect that answer is no. If I had to guess (which is what the surveillance state’s cult of secrecy constantly forces us to do) I’d say that Gen. Alexander most likely invented a role for the NSA to play in a dirty little neocolonial war that offered relatively little scope for the agency’s wizardry, but that had, at least temporarily, overshadowed the global Al Qaeda communications dragnet that is its forte.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and the Washington Post is right, and Gen. Alexander, Hero of the Motherland, and the NSA, Sword and Shield of the Party national security state, single handedly won the battle for the Sunni Triangle by collecting the metadata on every single cell phone call made in Iraq—including the ones that detonated the bombs. Stranger things have happened in spook history.

But I think it’s more likely that the NSA’s role in Iraq, like its current megalomaniacal ambitions to “collect it all,” everything and everywhere, and stash it away in the Utah desert, is simply proof of the old Japanese saying: to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  

When the hammer being wielded is one that would make the old KGB (and the new FSB) green with envy, and the nails are the private communications of the entire world—with residents of the good old USA just a percentage point of probability away from being lumped in with all those perpetually threatening foreigners—a little less enthusiasm for the job might not be such a bad thing, especially from Gen. Alexander.  

Originally posted to billmon on Mon Jul 15, 2013 at 09:11 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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