Thursday, May 26, 2016

Whistleblower; traitor; none of the above?

An op-ed in today's New York Times argues that because former NSA contractor Edward Snowden acted in the "overriding public interest" in leaking top secret documents revealing NSA surveillance activities, he should be allowed to raise a "public interest defense" were he to return to the United States to face outstanding criminal charges for violating the Espionage Act. The author argues that "the least the law should do is take full account of the whistle-blower’s intentions."
 Snowden (not to be confused with Thoreau, Ghandi, or King)

I sometimes think I am the only person I've met who's willing to say that Snowden has done both good and harm. Undeniably, his revelations about NSA's legally dubious bulk collection programs have been of considerable public service; it forced the Obama administration to far greater openness about the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's decisions regarding NSA's secret activities, and indeed the court itself acknowledged that Snowden's unauthorized release of its earlier decisions "engendered considerable public interest and debate" and agreed that further authorized declassification of its rulings would likewise "contribute to an informed debate." The subsequent action by Congress this year to end NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection program would almost certainly never occurred absent Snowden's decision to go public.

But many of Snowden's other leaks have been reckless and gratuitous, failing to make any moral or legal distinction between legitimate and properly secret SIGINT activities—such as intercepting and deciphering the communications of foreign diplomats or terrorist military units such as those of the Taliban in northwest Pakistan—versus the legally suspect and intrusive violations of Americans' own privacy by their government at home.

At the base of all this is the fact that Snowden's intentions—which the Times writer says ought to be taken into account in considering his guilt or innocence—are, like those of all whistleblowers, more complex than they want to present. Snowden is not a traitor in the strict legal meaning of the term, but his decision to place himself under the protection of Vladimir Putin's Russia was a morally disastrous, and morally obtuse, one.

All whistleblowers are egotists, but Snowden is definitely at the far end of the spectrum.

Snowden and his collaborator Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian have sophomorically and self-righteously insisted that any monitoring of any communications by the US government is a threat to "internet freedom" and "intellectual exploration and creativity" everywhere; Greenwald has arrogantly added that anyone who justifies NSA's foreign intelligence-gathering is merely sycophantically "venerating" and meekly obedient to "institutional authority" and the "establishment elite." (Whereas he and Snowden are courageously engaging in "radical dissent" from it.)

And I have been surprised how few of Snowden's champions even feel the need to address the moral questions about his own actions and intentions. Snowden sought out his job as an NSA contractor with the deliberate intention of gaining access to documents he planned from the outset to steal and reveal. He not only violated his oath in so doing but, much worse, duped 20 of his co-workers into giving him their passwords, which he claimed he needed in connection with his duties as a computer systems administrator. Most of those co-workers whom he betrayed were subsequently fired (and presumably also lost their security clearances, thus permanently ending their careers). This personal act of betrayal bespeaks a callousness and superiority that I for one find deeply disturbing.

Civil disobedience is a moral right of all citizens in a democracy, but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King and other moral giants who understood what was at stake recognized that part of the duty of those who defy the law in the name of what they see as a higher moral calling is a willingness to take the consequences society imposes on those who do disobey the law: indeed it was to point out the evil of the law as it exists that they were prepared to do so.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trumpian Personality Disorder

"I'm not a psychiatrist, but there's something wrong with the guy."

That observation about you-know-who the other day from a former top aide to John McCain prompted me to look up the actual definition of "narcissistic personality disorder."

I'm not a psychiatrist, either, but it's pretty hard to escape the conclusion that it's not just a figure of speech when people refer to him as a narcissist.

According to the Mayo Clinic, here's how to tell if you have it:
If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don't receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having "the best" of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.
At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior.
It also notes the characteristic of "grandiosity," i.e. believing in one's greatness without any supporting evidence — an excellent example of which was Trump's remarkable insistence that even though he dodged the draft during the Vietnam War (first by claiming student deferments while serving the nation studying finance at the Wharton School, then by claiming a physical deferment, supposedly because of bone spurs on his heels), "I felt that I was in the military in the true sense," having been packed off to a military-themed prep school as a rowdy teenager.

Yes, except for that small detail about people shooting at you and trying to kill you, attending a private boarding school in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, is exactly like serving in the army in Vietnam.

Psychiatrists note that those who suffer from NPD basically have never outgrown the infantile perception that they are at the center of the universe. As Trump himself told his biographer Michael D'Antonio:

 "When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I'm basically the same. The temperament is not that different."

Out of the mouths of babes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The squarest spies on earth

Anyone who's tried to write about NSA knows that the hard part is not finding out the agency's scandals, failures, and problems: it's finding out the successes and accomplishments.

NSA still labors under the quaint idea that no one will suspect their communications are being intercepted as long as NSA refuses to discuss anything about the process, or even the results, of its activities. I've argued for years that in this day and age NSA would have nothing to lose and much to gain from greater openness, at the very least when it comes to historical material about the contributions of SIGINT to military operations and diplomacy in the post-World War II era. In my forthcoming book Code Warriors — which chronicles codebreaking in the Cold War period — I was able to mine a variety of declassified materials, directly and indirectly, to piece together the story but it was never a straightforward process. NSA continues to be its own worst enemy, refusing to declassify even 70 year old material about its breaking of archaically obsolete Soviet code machines, for example.

I've thus been reading through with much interest the latest collection of leaked NSA documents courtesy of Edward Snowden, posted yesterday on The Intercept. This is the first installment of a large collection of in-house NSA electronic newsletters dating from 2003 and later, called SIDtoday (SID standing for the Signals Intelligence Directorate).

What's most interesting are the regular herograms to the workforce mentioning NSA accomplishments, particularly during the war in Iraq. They notably included the use of real-time intercepts to support special forces operations such as the one on June 17, 2003, that captured the notorious Saddam-regime official Mahmud al-Tikriti.

This is exactly the sort of information the American public never sees, and which would offer perhaps a slightly more balanced view of NSA's purpose, abilities, and value.

It's also clear from many of the newsletter items that the longstanding bureaucratic turf wars between the military services and intel agencies, and NSA's long history of red-tape ossification which dominated the story of the Cold War, have largely given way to streamlined procedures and effective technologies that have finally begun to make things work they way they should, when it comes to  getting SIGINT into the hands of the people who need it.

There are many references to National Intelligence Support Teams, which are now routinely embedded in supported forces in the field, and which can directly receive SIGINT from Ft. Meade and help interpret it on the spot for commanders. During the capture of al-Tikriti, NSA linguists were able to provide near-real time "speaker identity information" from intercepted communications, and its "Geospatial Exploitation Office" had deployed web-based servers that allowed NSA's "customers" in the field to access mapping and location data on targeted users of "Personal Communications Systems" as they were being tracked.

A far cry from the dysfunctions, dropped balls, interservice rivalries, and overloaded communications of the Cold War era.

But the newsletters also show some things will never change in NSA's culture. The most banal and innocuous statements in the newsletters are routinely classified Secret or even Top Secret, especially those that even hint that NSA is doing anything well or right.

And one can only marvel at the middle-American insularity of these squarest spies on earth, in the numerous little naive travelogues recounting the wonders encountered by deployed NSAers at foreign postings: ramen shops in Japan, fish and chips in England, rhine wine in Germany, and even the fun recreational opportunities at Guantanamo Bay (where NSA's "Liaison Officers" were supporting prisoner interrogations): "Outside work, fun awaits and opportunities abound. Water sports are outstanding. . . . they've recently added sailboat rentals, too. Surround all this water fun with a Tiki Bar and a Jerk House as well as the Bayview Restaurant. Relaxing is easy."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Parade of whores

Thrilled to discover that there is absolutely no penalty to pay for logical contradiction, abandonment of all personal integrity, and boundless displays of cupidity in the pursuit of boundless self-interest, Republican politicians who just days earlier were describing their party's fuhrer-presumptive as immoral, dangerous, and a threat to True Conservatism had an epiphany last week: if Trump can do it, so can we!

The prize goes to Bobby Jindal, ex-governor of the great state of Louisiana who back in March wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal in which he unleashed the worst, most damning condemnation of Trump in the entire True Conservative lexicon: Trump's surprising success at the polls, he revealed, was actually the doing of . . . Obama: "Let's be honest," he intoned (even then foreshadowing his coming flexible notions of what that word "honest" means): "There would be no Donald Trump dominating the political scene today were it not for President Obama."

He went on to explain that if only Obama had not been so "cool, weak, and endlessly nuanced," then people would not feel so compelled to embrace the "absurd" Trump, and his "simple" solutions to every problem. (He added that Obama had been "polarizing" by not working with Republicans to achieve Republican policy goals, such as slashing Medicare and Social Security.)

Earlier, Jindal declared that Trump "is a shallow, unserious, substance-free, narcissistic egomaniac"; "a madman who must be stopped"; he warned that "we can be the biggest fools in history and put our faith not in our principles, but in an egomaniac who has no principles."

But last week, Jindal was back on the Journal's opinion pages, boldly declaring himself to be the biggest fool in history. No, he didn't exactly put it that way. While asserting that he was completely, fully, unwaveringly, 100% "standing by his criticisms" of Trump, he said he will nonetheless support the egomaniac who has no principles because, among other things, "Mrs. Clinton will continue hindering affordable domestic energy," an argument that would do his candidate proud by being both a total non sequitur and being factually false, as oil prices are at a 40-year low, imports falling, and domestic production soaring.

But who cares about facts, contradicting one's self, and shrugging off all of the moral values that holier-than-thou social conservatives have been claiming to themselves for years? As I mentioned the other day, George Will, who has the quaint characteristic of thinking that facts and integrity matter, denounced as "quislings" those fellow Republicans of his who have been flocking to Trump's standard. But that's actually giving them far more credit than they deserve. Vidkun Quisling, the Fører of the Norwegian right-wing party that collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, was a fascist, anti-Semite, and ideological soul mate of Hitler. The evangelicals, social conservatives, Republican office holders, and party officials who are tripping over themselves to embrace the not precisely Christlike figure of Donald Trump are simply opportunists, happy to sell their birthright for whatever mess of pottage comes their way.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Profiles in cowardice

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times this week explaining the psychological immunity of Trump's followers to his bewildering series of contradictions. All politicians play this game a bit, denying inconsistency when they hedge or trim their stances, but Trump has taken it to Orwellian heights.

He has repeatedly announced diametrically opposed positions on issues on successive days, sometimes denying he ever said what he said before, but sometimes simply acting as if there is no contradiction in his contradiction.

In late March he said that women who receive abortions should be punished.

A few days later he said that doctors who perform abortions should be punished, not the women who have them.

Then he said that the current laws on abortion had settled the matter of the legality of abortion.

Then he said that as president he would change the law, to ban abortions.

Then he said that his original answer about punishing women was actually "a great answer" to what had been just "a hypothetical question" and that "as a hypothetical question you give a hypothetical answer, and I didn’t see the big, big, huge deal.”

All clear?

As Michael Lynch noted in his article, Trump's strategy of brazenly thumbing his nose at even being held accountable for what he says lets people hear what they want to:

Walking a comment back says you are taking responsibility for what you’ve said. Blatant contradiction puts the responsibility back onto the shoulders of the listener. If I simply deny what I earlier affirmed and act as if nothing has happened, then you are left having to decide what I really meant. And psychology, as well as common sense, tells us that human beings are prone to “confirmation bias.” That is, we tend to interpret evidence so that it conforms to what we already believe.
But there is something more deeply disturbing about the willingness of so many to drink the Kool-Aid —now including the daily growing parade of GOP whores willing to abandon any scruples in jumping on the Trump bandwagon — that can only reflect a profound erosion of once widely held values in American society regarding personal integrity, honor, and mature conduct expected of those in public life.

It is not just Trump's contradictions but the deep personal flaws revealed by them— the cowardly evasions, the shifting of blame to others, the whining about being treated "unfairly" — that would once have disqualified anyone from public office on the grounds of defective moral character.

When caught saying something particularly obscene or horrifying, Trump has repeatedly behaved like a shifty child, claiming he was just repeating what someone else said. When pressed about his absurd lie that he can't release his own tax returns because the IRS is auditing them, he said he would not "overrule his lawyers." How's that for manfully taking responsibility? When it looked like he might be beaten by Ted Cruz in the primaries, all he could do was pout like any five-year-old we all have known about how "unfair" it was that he could not automatically get his way.

To be fair, a few conservative opinion leaders have taken unwavering stands and made it clear that no short-term advantage to their party could ever justify supporting a man so manifestly un-American in his commitment to the values of our country; so crudely thuggish in his attitudes toward women, the disabled and downtrodden, and members of other religions and races; so personally bankrupt in his own private moral character. George Will, who knows enough history to recognize a pivotal moment in the rise of political evils when he sees one, went so far as to say that history will remember which side Republicans were on when faced with the choice between "honorably recoil[ing] from Trump" or becoming "Republican quislings."

And Michael Gerson, who still has a lot to answer for from his time as George W. Bush's White House speechwriter, and whose sanctimoniousness and pomposity I admit I always cordially despised from the time we were briefly colleagues together at U.S. News, gets credit too for perhaps the clearest and most morally forthright condemnation of Trump, and his brutal vision of the world, that I have seen from any writer across the political spectrum.

But as Paul Ryan's smarmy talk about "unity" showed following his meeting with Trump this week, when faced with a real chance to take a stand on the side of American values, morality, and democracy, most Republican leaders will reliably be on the side of the quislings and craven opportunists.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Japan and the atomic bomb

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran a story about President's Obama's planned visit to Hiroshima, revisiting the question of whether the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb on Japan. The article quoted a prominent revisionist historian:

“The top American military leaders who fought World War II, much to the surprise of many who are not aware of the record, were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary, that Japan was on the verge of surrender, and — for many — that the destruction of large numbers of civilians was immoral,” Gar Alperovitz, a leader of the movement to revise the United States’ own historical accounting, wrote last year in The Nation.

The Times today published my short letter responding to this point:

To the Editor:
The assertion that Japan was about to surrender has been a staple of revisionist criticisms of the atomic bombings. The claim is largely empty.
Even though Hirohito and his military leaders were fully aware by the fall of 1944 that military defeat was inevitable, the emperor exhorted them again and again to fight to the death.
The United States Army chief of staff, George Marshall, later concluded that the bombings’ effect was more psychological than military: It allowed Hirohito, fanatically obsessed with honor and imperial destiny, to “surrender without losing face.”
Leesburg, Va.
The writer, a military historian, is the author of “Air Power.”
Here's some additional context, from my book "Air Power." The most significant point is that Japan's notion of ending the war peacefully was so far removed from anything approaching "surrender" that it was delusional. Japan was simply not on the "verge of surrender," but rather at the behest of their emperor was prepared to commit national suicide rather than ever willingly capitulate. I've highlighted a few key points in boldface:
It would prove convenient for decades afterwards, convenient to both the defeated Japanese and the victorious Americans, to adhere to the story that Emperor Hirohito had been a remote, passive figurehead who bore no responsibility and no guilt for Japan’s military actions during the war. The truth was different. As his biographer Herbert P. Bix found from an exhaustive examination of Japanese documents that became available only after Hirohito’s death in 1989, the Emperor asserted strong control over both overall war policy and specific military operations—often with disastrous consequences for Japanese troops and Japanese civilians alike. Far from agonizing over his people’s mounting suffering as American forces pressed relentlessly on toward the Japanese homeland, far from advocating surrender once Japan’s defeat had become a near certainty in the fall of 1944, the Emperor exhorted his commanders again and again to fight to the death. He saw his people’s willingness to sacrifice their lives in the tens or hundreds of thousands, millions even, as proof of what he called “our imperial destiny.” As far as the Emperor was concerned, dying for the Emperor was the greatest virtue that his subjects could aspire to.
Many of them agreed. On New Year’s Day 1945 the Emperor inspected the special ration packets being prepared as the last meals for the “special attack forces,” young men who had volunteered to fly their gasoline- and explosive-laden planes into Allied ships, and troops, and bombers. There was no shortage of enthusiastic volunteers. The name kamikaze given to the suicide forces meant “divine wind,” an allusion to the miraculous typhoons that, in Japanese legend, twice in the thirteenth century arose to repel the invading Mongol fleet. . . . To Hirohito they were the supreme manifestation of the superiority of the Japanese spirit of sacrifice and honor. During a briefing on the battles raging near the Philippines in early January, the Emperor astonished his military aide by twice rising and bowing deeply when his aide mentioned one of these “special pilots.”. . .
In [1945] April Hirohito, blaming his ministers for the continuing military failures, brought down the Japanese government. A new cabinet agreed to put out feelers to the Russians for mediation to help end the war. But the new cabinet’s vision of “peace” was so far from the Allied terms of unconditional surrender that any retrospective criticisms of the supposed unwisdom of that inflexible Allied policy were probably beside the point. The new Army Minister, Korechika Anami, insisted that since Japan was still holding territory it had conquered, Japan had therefore won the war and any peace treaty must acknowledge that fact. “Concurrently,” Bix notes, “the controlled press waged a daily die-for-the-emperor campaign.”. . .
To Americans, to the world, the atomic bomb was a weapon so powerful that no sane person could possibly continue to believe that further resistance was possible. Yet the atomic bombs killed considerably fewer people than had LeMay’s months of conventional firebombing. The new weapons had fallen on two provincial cities far from Tokyo; indeed, the principal reason Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets was that almost all of Japan’s other major cities had been burnt to the ground already, and making charred debris bounce, it was thought, would constitute an inadequate demonstration of the new weapons’ awesome destructive power. But the result was rather the same, since most Japanese had not even heard of the atomic bombings by the time of the Japanese surrender, much less were they pressing their government to capitulate because of them. If the Emperor had told them to fight on, the Japanese people would no doubt have fought on.
The Japanese Army certainly still wanted to fight on. A cabinet meeting summoned to discuss the Hiroshima bombing the following day was cancelled because the Army representatives didn’t show up: they claimed to have “more pressing business.” Hirohito himself vacillated and procrastinated on issuing a surrender statement to the very end, even after the second bomb was dropped on August 9. “Obviously,” noted Bix, “Hirohito sought to justify his decision to surrender by citing the dropping of the atomic bombs.…Whether the emperor and his advisers ever really believed that, however, is unlikely.”
Years later George Marshall would be one of the first to recognize what had happened: “There is one point that was missed and that frankly we missed in making our plans,” Marshall admitted. “And that was the effect the bomb would have in so shocking the Japanese that they could surrender without losing face.” Japan’s leaders had known at least since spring, and probably for a full year, that, militarily, their situation was hopeless. . . . If destroying an entire major city from the air in a single night were enough to make a country surrender, Japan should have surrendered a couple of dozen times already. The timing of the Japanese surrender in the wake of the atomic bombings said more about the peculiar thrall of the Japanese nation—and its leaders in particular—to a nationalistic ideology of honor and supreme self-sacrifice than it said about the logic of victory through air power.

One other very important point: Alperovitz's assertion that "top American military leaders who fought World War II . . . were quite clear that the atomic bomb was unnecessary" is an extraordinarily misleading and out-of-context statement. All three services did indeed try to argue that they each could have won the war without the bomb: the Navy claimed that its blockade of Japan would have starved Japan into submission. The Army confidently asserted that MacArthur's invasion plans would have succeeded in occupying and defeating the home islands. And even the Air Force was wary of giving the bomb too much credit, lest it undermine their broader claim that strategic air power won the war, with or without the new weapon: the Air Force took pains to point out that 210 conventional B-29 raids could have delivered the same explosive force as one atomic bomb.
So yes, they all claimed the bomb was "unnecessary," in the sense that the war could have been won without it. Yet Alperovitz ridiculously fails to go to the next question and ask, At what cost? The naval blockade would have taken months or more and would have killed more Japanese civilians than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs did. An invasion would likewise have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, and also taken until 1946.
The historical record is in fact manifestly clear that nothing short of months more of fighting — and untold civilian and military deaths — would have led to Japan's defeat absent the atomic bombings.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

SIGINT revisionism

My review in the Wall Street Journal last week of Max Hastings's new book about intelligence in World War II, "The Secret War."

Bottom line: excellent on HUMINT, shaky on SIGINT.


by Stephen Budiansky

Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2016

Any historian who hopes to tell the true story of secret intelligence operations, even from the distant past, quickly discovers that he is up against two formidable obstacles.

First is the Kafkaesque system of government classification. Not only do U.S. intelligence agencies routinely refuse to declassify material from 70 or more years ago, they have taken to reclassifying and removing from the National Archives some previously released World War II-era files.

The other problem is that spies are professional, if not congenital, liars.

In the introduction to his sprawling, revisionist-tinged history of espionage, cryptanalysis and partisan warfare in World War II, British historian Max Hastings quotes the cautionary words of Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked for the British secret service during the war. Intelligence work, Muggeridge said, “necessarily involves such cheating, lying, and betraying that it has a deleterious effect on the character. I never met anyone professionally engaged in it whom I should care to trust in any capacity.”

The field of intelligence history accordingly “generates a vast, unreliable literature,” Mr. Hastings notes. The years after World War II brought a spate of memoirs recounting daring escapades behind enemy lines, many of which existed only in the writers’ imaginations but which still shape perceptions about the role of the spies and saboteurs of America’s Office of Strategic Services, Britain’s MI6 and Special Operations Executive, and the French Resistance.

The ensuing decades did little to correct the balance. “One immensely popular account of Allied intelligence”—the 1975 book “Bodyguard of Lies” by British journalist Anthony Cave Brown—is “largely a work of fiction,” Mr. Hastings concludes.

Revelations beginning in the late 1970s of the long-held secret of secret of “Ultra”—the World War II cover name for intelligence derived from the breaking of high-level German and Japanese codes—were likewise riddled with inaccuracies and overstatements. Whenever I give a talk about World War II codebreaking I am invariably asked about the thoroughly debunked but apparently indestructible myth that Churchill deliberately sacrificed Coventry to German bombers in 1940 to safeguard the secret of Britain’s success at breaking the German Enigma cipher.

Adding to the difficulties of separating reality from fantasy and legend is that a good many covert schemes that really were hatched by the wartime spy agencies (not to mention their Cold War successors) seem so far-fetched as to defy credulity, leaving one with the feeling that those in charge of intelligence got their inspiration from reading spy novels.

The breathless claims about secret missions that changed the course of World War II have engendered a scholarly backlash of late: Mr. Hastings at the outset makes the provocative suggestion that Allied intelligence may have had no effect at all on the outcome of the war. He quickly adds that “this seems too extreme a verdict.” But he goes on to make an insightful argument that, at least when it came to spies on the ground, the treachery and deceit that formed the core of their being usually neutralized any effectiveness they had.

The innate paranoia, lack of accountability and sheer incompetence of spies and spymasters of all nations make for often hilarious reading. Just what was the Russian agent, installed in a tiny firm in Belgium trading in imported trench coats, supposed to glean from his circle of second-rate business contacts? How was a German spy dispatched to Ireland supposed to advance the interests of the Third Reich, armed with a knowledge of the country that consisted in its entirety of a lecture from a fellow German who was a Celtic folklore enthusiast?

Surveying the sorry tales of agents’ misadventures and ineptitude, Mr. Hastings concludes that, for most World War II spies of all nationalities, their “only achievement in foreign postings was to stay alive, at hefty cost to their employers, while collecting information of which not a smidgeon assisted the war effort.” The Russian spy Anatoli Gourevitch recalled that he received endless training in secret inks, contact procedures and other bits of tradecraft—while being told next to nothing about how to actually gather intelligence. Even the notoriously cheap Russians lavished money on their networks of agents, who not unsurprisingly proved adept at spending it on luxury hotels, fine meals and a seemingly endless stream of inevitably blond mistresses. The 13,000 men and women employed by the Americans had so much cash to throw around that rival secret services complained that they drove prices on the local bribe market through the roof whenever they arrived in town.

The deeper irony that Mr. Hastings points to is that, in a business so filled with suspicion and unreliable agents, those rare spies who did succeed in delivering valuable information were almost always disbelieved. The “Oslo Report,” an anonymous document dropped at the British legation in Norway in 1939, detailed practically every German secret weapon program. It was dismissed by Whitehall as an obvious plant. (It was not.) Stalin repeatedly scorned intelligence reports from well-placed agents—and from Ultra, personally relayed by Churchill—that Germany was going to attack the U.S.S.R. in June 1941. “Misinformation,” he curtly declared. Stalin’s fears of betrayal and intrigue likewise led him to order scores of his own top intelligence officers shot and contact dropped with thousands of foreign informants branded “fascist stool pigeons.” After the war, one German source encountered his former NKVD handler in Vienna, and despaired at the thought of all the secrets he could have shared. “Where on earth were you all through the war?” the German asked. “I was General Kesselring’s personal orderly!”

The author nonetheless shows that, alone among the belligerent powers, the Soviets succeeded in penetrating the upper echelons of its enemies (and allies), notably with the famous spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo and the atomic spies in the United States, Canada and Britain. The ideological attraction of communism outweighed even Stalin’s boundless paranoia.

Mr. Hastings offers an equally sharp and skeptical argument about the value of sabotage and resistance operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. He suggests that Churchill had no illusions that his 1940 mandate to the newly formed Special Operations Executive—to “set Europe ablaze”—was going to accomplish much in the way of tangible military objectives; his aim was rather to boost British morale at a time when there were few other means for striking at Hitler and, rather more cold-bloodedly, to provoke savage Nazi reprisals against the civilian populace in occupied countries that would stoke hatred of the occupiers and deter collaboration. “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church!” Churchill thundered at one cabinet meeting when the effectiveness of this policy was questioned. While paying tribute to the genuine courage of many Resistance fighters, Mr. Hastings is frank in judging its chief value as establishing “a legend of popular insurrection” that helped revive “the self-respect of Europe’s occupied societies after 1945.”

The author is less persuasive when he tries to bring this same skeptical sensibility to the story of Ultra. To be sure, in Britain, where his book was first published, there continues to exist a popular belief that “Ultra won the war”—that Hitler and his generals could scarcely make a move on land, sea or air without the codebreakers at Bletchley Park knowing ahead of time. Mr. Hastings is correct in pointing out that the interception and decipherment of enemy traffic was never complete, that Allied cryptanalysts struggled to keep up with changing code systems, and that the Germans in particular scored significant cryptanalytic coups of their own, especially during several periods when the Nazi U-boat commander Karl Dönitz was receiving decoded messages giving the sailing times and routes of Allied convoys crossing the Atlantic.

But Mr. Hastings reveals many gaps in his understanding of the codebreaking process, and this undermines the soundness of his judgments. His explanation of how the Enigma cipher was broken and the role of Alan Turing’s electromechanical “bombes” is marred by errors and confusion. Notably, he misses the point of why the bombes were needed in the first place: not because codebreakers had been struggling to achieve results using “raw brainpower,” as he asserts, but because the earlier (quite effective) manual system that the Poles had worked out to recover the Enigma’s daily key settings was rendered useless in May 1940 by a change in German operating procedures. The bombes were needed to implement the far more elaborate and exhaustive computational search procedure that Turing devised to crack this new complication.

The mistakes Mr. Hastings makes in discussing the codebreakers and their work suggest an impatience with the subject and a cursory reading of secondary sources. He consistently misstates the name of the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service; he writes that in 1942 the U.S. Navy’s codebreaking headquarters “shifted out of Washington, to Mount Vernon Academy in Virginia,” getting both the name of the school and its location wrong (it was in northwest D.C.); he offers such mangled definitions of cryptologic terms like “depth” that knowledgeable readers will quickly conclude he is out of his depth.

This becomes a particular problem when he tries to launch sweeping conclusions off a shaky base. The author belittles the contribution of Ultra to the land campaign, offering as evidence the fact that Bletchley read less than 50% of German army Enigma traffic. What matters, however, is what 50% was being read, and during the North Africa campaign Bletchley was continuously deciphering virtually all of the messages sent over Erwin Rommel’s main Enigma network. The decrypted messages allowed the British commander Bernard Montgomery to learn in advance of the planned German offensive at Alam el Halfa in August 1942—and to meet it with a devastating ambush of mines, artillery and air strikes that saved Cairo and allowed British forces to regain the offensive.

Ultra also helped British forces wage an extremely effective interdiction campaign against Rommel’s vital supply lines across the Mediterranean. The British knew not only what supplies Rommel was short of but what specific ships were carrying essential stocks of fuel, ammunition and other materiel. From July to October 1942, British bombers and submarines sank 47 Axis supply ships, 44 of them directly as a result of Ultra intelligence. By the end of the campaign, Rommel’s tanks were literally running out of fuel. It was one of the most effective uses of Ultra of the entire war.

Mr. Hastings is also dismissive of the U.S. Army’s success in reading Japanese army codes. He devotes some 20 pages to the well-known story of the Battle of Midway and the U.S. Navy codebreakers’ success in uncovering Adm. Yamamoto’s plan of attack, but he gives less than a sentence to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s equally effective use of decoded Japanese army signals to bypass Japanese troop concentrations in eastern New Guinea in April 1944. MacArthur was able to land his forces unopposed at Hollandia Bay, hundreds of miles west of where the Japanese expected the blow. That strategic coup led to the capture of New Guinea six months ahead of schedule, allowing the invasion of the Philippines to begin in October 1944 rather than the following spring, as planned.

Like Montgomery in North Africa, MacArthur used intelligence about Japanese supply convoys—revealed in the Japanese army’s Water Transport Code, broken in June 1943—to wage a withering air-interdiction campaign that caught the Japanese ships just as they arrived in port. By 1944, employing IBM punch-card equipment and rooms full of specially built electromechanical memory units and analytic machinery, the U.S. Army’s codebreaking center at Arlington Hall outside of Washington was automatically decoding more than 2,500 Japanese army messages a day. Arlington Hall often read Japanese messages hours before their intended Japanese recipients did. This casts doubt on Mr. Hastings’s mildly chauvinistic assertion that “the most innovative codebreaking technology of the war was devised at Bletchley Park.”

Mr. Hastings gravely overstates his case when he asserts that signals intelligence “was useless, unless sufficient force was available at sea, in the sky, or on the ground.” Throughout the war, codebreaking was a source not only of battlefield intelligence but of technical and scientific intelligence (Ultra decrypts identified critical new U-boat technologies and the location of the German rocket facility at Peenemünde) and counterintelligence (Ultra provided the definitive proof in spring 1943 that the Germans were reading the Allied convoy code, leading to the rapid implementation of a replacement system that remained unbroken for the rest of the war). Codebreaking was also essential in deception operations for the Torch landings in North Africa in 1942 and D-Day in Normandy two years later, providing assurance that the enemy was indeed taking the bait.

The truth is that Ultra staved off disasters in the war’s first years that might have been fatal—at Midway, at Alam el Halfa, in the Mediterranean and in the Battle of the Atlantic. When the British and Americans could not bring decisive force to bear, Ultra was a force multiplier. While some correction of the “Ultra myth” is still needed, Mr. Hastings takes revisionism far beyond what the evidence bears.

“The Secret War” covers much familiar ground, but the decision to combine what are in fact only tangentially related subjects in one narrative may have been a mistake. There is little that connects codebreaking, spies, sabotage, resistance movements and deception operations in World War II other than the fact that they were all secret. As a result the book reads more like a ramble than a purposeful journey. But there are certainly interesting byways, especially on those excursions where the author is a reliable guide.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

This is the guy your Founding Fathers tried to warn you about

The only ray of amusement to be found so far in Trump's political ascendancy has been supplied by those conservative thinkers and Republican Party leaders who are now frantically trying to disavow responsibility for the fact that "The Party of Lincoln," as they always reverently call it whenever it has done something particularly awful or embarrassing, is about to nominate for President of the United States a man with no experience in government, diplomacy, or military affairs; a complete disdain for knowledge about foreign or domestic policy; an appalling record of ethical bankruptcy, manipulative narcissism, and the invention of false and character-assassinating accusations in his personal and business dealings; a refusal to ever take responsibility for his errors and failures; and a crude worship of thuggery, intimidation, and even violence in pursuit of his own ends.

I'm still trying to figure out what it means when New Hampshire Republican senator Kelly Ayotte says she will "support" but not "endorse" Trump: does that mean she will vote for him, but does not think anyone else should? It brings back fond memories of comedian David Frye's famous parody of Nixon, explaining his role in Watergate: "As the man in charge, I must accept full responsibility, but not the blame. Let me explain the difference. People who are to blame lose their jobs. People who are responsible do not."

Meanwhile, some conservative opinion writers have been busy issuing pseudo–mea culpas in which they confess their failure to have understood or properly appreciated the "anger" and "populism" that drives the phenomenon of "Trumpism," as if it were all some mysterious and spontaneous natural force.

In case we have forgotten, these are the same people who for years have been shamelessly attacking the very foundations of democracy whenever they saw a partisan advantage in so doing: Trump is no more than the inevitable outcome of a culture on the right that has for years been willing to go places that would have horrified the Founding Fathers (whom they so piously profess to revere).

The framers of the Constitution saw one of the greatest threats to the survival of a republic in the rise of demagogues who, playing on the "passions" of the masses, could all too readily amass totalitarian power. The great question they wrestled with was how a government of the people could secure the services of disinterested men of seriousness, learning, wisdom, and experience to lead their nation.

They had no illusions about the fragility of the democratic "experiment," as Americans frequently referred to their young nation in its first century of existence. The framers had all studied the history of Greece and Rome, of monarchies and republics; they knew that there was an inevitable tension between the rough and tumble of democratic politics and the seriousness of governance and policymaking; and while they tried to incorporate into the Constitution mechanisms to dampen down the expression of popular passions and limit the powers of would-be tyrants, they knew that ultimately the success of self-government — especially in a large and diverse society — depended on a tenuous social compact of self-restraint, a free press to provide a check on the truth, a body of leaders and statesmen who made government and diplomacy their sober profession, and a generally agreed respect for the legitimacy of the electoral process and for the rights, views, and common humanity of the other side.

Each one of these cornerstones of democracy has been systematically undermined by the American conservative movement in recent years.

Decency and self-restraint. The issue is not "civility," a kind of namby-pamby word that implies politicians just aren't balancing tea cups on their knees properly. The issue is that earlier generations of American political leaders — and most ordinary Americans, too — never forgot the nearness of the abyss, and the role of society's leaders in steering their own followers away from it; they understood the special duty of Americans as members of the world's greatest democracy to uphold what we used to quaintly call "American values"— which meant fair play, respect for the views of others, and renunciation of the street-brawling tactics of extremism. The only reason Trump can say and do things that would have instantly disqualified any presidential candidate of a generation ago — inciting violence and ugly ethnic hatreds, mocking critics for their physical disabilities or lack of female pulchritude, calling anyone who disagrees with him "morons," "dummies," "sick," or suggesting they should be "fired like dogs" — is that this kind of talk has become absolutely routine in place of serious political argument on the right. To listen to talk radio or conservative bloggers, the  other side is not just wrong: they have "taken over" or are "destroying" the country; they are an alien force whose election victories are not just a disappointment, but illegitimate. Huey Long, the next closest thing to a would-be dictator in American political history, knew that you didn't need policies to win elections if you just riled people up. Riling is just about all that the conservative movement has done for the last decades, desensitizing and coarsening the language of politics while undermining the values that are the sine qua non of electoral democracy — including the rather basic requirement to accept the fact that one's side is not going to win 100% of all elections or get 100% of what it always wants.

Qualifications and expertise. The same conservative apparatchiks who are now appalled by Trump brought us Sarah Palin, the most spectacularly uninformed and unqualified candidate for vice president in the nation's history; have spent years deriding as "elitist" anyone who brings any real knowledge or expertise to government; and have succeeded beyond perhaps their wildest expectations in tarnishing government service altogether (while glorifying the making of money in business, not coincidentally). We've seen for years the hypocritical spectacle of Republican career politicians running as "Washington outsiders"; Trump is simply the logical end point of a process that has systematically derided the idea that you need to know anything, possess any relevant experience, or even be competent to serve in government.

Respect for the rule of law and the commonweal. It used to be called patriotism to put the interests of the nation ahead of personal or partisan gain. Harry Truman did not hesitate to incur the wrath of organized labor by calling out the army to seize control of railroads and steel mills shut down by union strikes; Dwight Eisenhower did not hesitate to incur the wrath of social conservatives by calling out the army to quell resistance to the court-ordered end to school segregation. By contrast tea party Republicans in Congress, Ted Cruz most spectacularly, have been willing to risk destroying even the financial credit and global standing of the United States to gain political attention and stir up party zealotry. Several Republican congressmen have expressed support and sympathy for acts of violence against the IRS and federal land managers. They have all been deliberately playing with fire, inciting blind anger above respect for democratic institutions and the working of government, irrationality and impossible goals above realism and compromise. Trump's supporters who express glee at the idea of their candidate's "blowing everything up" in Washington are again just following this line of abysmally irresponsible politics to its logical consequence.

An independent press. I was amused — well not amused; appalled at the combination of historical ignorance and ideological zealotry — seeing recently the advertisement for a Texas gun show that featured a picture of a gun and a Bible and words to the effect that these were the first two things that totalitarian governments come for. In fact, the first two things totalitarian governments come for are absolutely invariable: an independent press, and intellectuals. The reason is simple: you can't succeed in brainwashing the public with nonsensical propaganda if a bunch of smarty-pants journalists and professors are around to point out your foolishness. A generation or two ago, a candidate so full of contradictions, half-baked ideas, and flat-out ridiculous proposals as Trump would have been reduced to a laughing stock by objectively critical reporting in the press. The digital media age has of course done its share of diluting the influence of the serious media, but the conservative movement's cynically calculating vilification of the "mainstream media" would make any dictator proud in the results it has achieved, freeing them from the pesky problem of being held to account for their words and actions. Trump has exploited this to a tee, parading the reporters covering his rallies as veritable perpetrators to be booed and derided by the crowd, ensuring that his followers shrug off anything unfavorable that is reported about him, no matter how true, as simply another instance of media "bias."

The laws of arithmetic. The "establishment" Republican Party has not only largely eliminated the need to worry about the press pointing out the absurdity of its proposals, notably its manifestly false claim that tax cuts do not increase the deficit; it has also largely freed itself from having to take the laws of arithmetic seriously, either. The accounting tricks that have become routine in its budget proposals (such as not even bothering to count tax cuts in calculating officially projected budget figures) have so corroded the integrity of the policymaking process that reality itself has become a fungible political commodity. It's been awfully hard for Paul Ryan to criticize the fantastical unreality of Trump's bald assertion that he will pay off the entire national debt of $14 trillion in ten years while cutting taxes by $10 trillion over the same period and dramatically increasing military spending, when Ryan's own "serious" congressional budgets are full of arithmetical solipsisms of their own.

To date, anti-Trump conservatives have blamed Trump's rise on (I am not making any of these up), Barack Obama's coolness and nuance; a conspiracy by the media; liberal political correctness and elitism; dissolute hillbillies who are addicted to prescription painkillers, for which they have only themselves to blame; "anger" (that's a useful catch all); the erosion of social values that liberals and the 1960s are, of course, responsible for; and the refusal of leftists to use the term "Islamic terrorism." It could not, of course, be Republicans who are responsible for Trump being the Republican nominee, could it? Perish the thought.