The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Who is Reality Winner?

Kerry Howley, writing for New York Magazine, profiles the "terrorist [with] a Pikachu bedspread:"

In those first months on the job, the country was still adjusting to Trump, and it seemed possible to some people that he would be quickly impeached. Reality listened to a podcast called Intercepted, hosted by the left-wing anti-security-state website the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and featuring its public face, Glenn Greenwald, and listened intensely enough to email the Intercept and ask for a transcript of an episode. Scahill and Greenwald had been, and continue to be, cautious about accusations of Russian election meddling, which they foresee being used as a pretext for justifying U.S. militarism. “There is a tremendous amount of hysterics, a lot of theories, a lot of premature conclusions being drawn around all of this Russia stuff,” Scahill said on the podcast in March. “And there’s not a lot of hard evidence to back it up. There may be evidence, but it’s not here yet.”

There was evidence available to Reality.

The document was marked top secret, which is supposed to mean that its disclosure could “reasonably be expected” to cause “exceptionally grave damage” to the U.S. Sometimes, this is true. Reality would have known that, in releasing the document, she ran the risk of alerting the Russians to what the intelligence community knew, but it seemed to her that this specific account ought to be a matter of public discourse. Why isn’t this getting out there? she thought. Why can’t this be public? It was surprising to her that someone hadn’t already done it.

The classified report on the Russian cyberattack was not a document for which Reality had a “need to know,” which is to say she wasn’t supposed to be reading it in her spare time, let alone printing it, and were she to print it for some reason, she was required to place it in a white slatted box called a “burn bag.”

Why do I have this job, Reality thought, if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless?

Reality folded up the document, stuffed it in her pantyhose, and walked out of the building, its sharp corners pressing into her skin. Later that day, President Trump fired James Comey, who had been leading an investigation into Russian election-meddling. Reality placed the document in an envelope without a return address and dropped it in a standing mailbox in a strip-mall parking lot. Court documents suggest she also sent a copy to another outlet, though which one we don’t know.

For a bad decision she made at 25, she may spend most of her productive years in prison. And in the current climate of secrecy and surveillance, it's hard to see how she can even defend herself against the charges.

Her trial is set for March.

My project in the news

The Washington Post is reporting tonight something that I've known for several weeks. My current project's customer, USMEPCOM, recently promulgated a directive to begin accepting transgender applicants into the U.S. armed forces:

The military distributed its guidance throughout the force Dec. 8. Lawyers challenging President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service, which he announced on Twitter in July, have since included the document in their lawsuits. The memorandum states the Pentagon will comply with federal court orders, now under appeal, that direct the military to begin accepting transgender recruits Jan. 1.

The policy paper was issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in Chicago, “and shall remain in effect until expressly revoked,” the memorandum said. It states that allowing transgender military service is “mandatory” and repeats a previous directive from Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said all people will be “treated with dignity and respect.”

Military recruiting personnel are responsible for inputting into databases recruits’ personal information. They should do so while using a copy of a recruit’s birth certificate, court order or U.S. passport “reflecting preferred gender,” according to the Pentagon’s new guidance.

“For the purposes of military entrance processing, the applicant’s preferred gender will be used on all forms asking for the ‘sex’ of an applicant,” the guidance said.

So, it turns out, we're writing the database mentioned in the article. In fact, our Scrum board has this story: "As a user, I can enter the preferred gender of a applicant, so that I can enroll them into the military." And the USMEPCOM directive from December 8th is attached to the card.

Months of policy disputes between the President and the Federal courts, news articles, marches, protests, lawsuits, and committee meetings has produced...one database field.

This is our crazy country right now.

If you're curious, here's the policy memo. Don't worry, you can read it: it's unclassified.

The inconvenience of being a female veteran

You might not like the military or its mission, but I can tell you it's one of the more meritocratic organizations I've ever worked with. That's great if you're a woman—until you leave, as Sarah Maples explains:

The military doesn’t just urge women, it requires them—especially if they want to succeed—to view themselves on the same playing field as their male counterparts. They are also expected to behave and perform in traditionally masculine ways—demonstrating strength, displaying confidence in their abilities, expecting to be judged on their merits and performance, and taking on levels of authority and responsibility that few women get to experience. The uniform and grooming standards work to downplay their physical female characteristics. Additionally, the expectation—explicit or implicit—is that they also downplay other attributes that are traditionally considered feminine, such as open displays of emotion. That’s not to say that gender isn’t going to be noticed or that others aren’t going to make it an issue—they will. But highlighting female characteristics is undesirable. As General Lori J. Robinson, the U.S. military’s first female combatant commander, put it: “I’m a general, a commander, an airman. And I happen to be a woman.”

When many women leave the service, they expect that being a woman in the civilian community will be easier, but that isn’t always the case. They have to prove their abilities all over again, earn their place at the table again. As veterans, they’re not afraid to prove themselves. They proved themselves in boot camp. They proved themselves at tech training. They proved themselves every time they arrived at a new duty station. They have plenty of practice proving themselves. They can prove themselves one more time. The difference, this time, is that the individuals on the other end are not prepared for them to do so.

On active duty, women were my support network, a situation encouraged both by our small numbers—approximately 15 percent of the active duty force is women—and by the military’s emphasis on teamwork. My experiences with civilian women, however, have not always been as friendly. Other women veterans have also reported negative experiences with civilian women, ranging from lack of understanding and inability to relate to cold shoulders.

Complicating matters is that, while I and other women veterans make efforts to assimilate, we are often reluctant to completely lose the identity we developed in the military, particularly if it means assuming traditional gender roles. The idea that the male standard is the normal one has become so ingrained during service that women veterans don’t realize they’ve absorbed the spoken or unspoken message that adding “female” to something diminishes it.

It's an interesting read. I wonder how it applies to other societies? I'd be especially interested to learn about how Israeli and British female veterans are treated. (Very differently, I'd wager.)

The MAVNI program

My current project involves military enrollment, so I am following the story of the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program, recently suspended by the Pentagon:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday that he supports reactivating a program designed to attract foreign military recruits who agree to serve in exchange for fast-tracked U.S. citizenship.

Speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, Mattis said the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program, or MAVNI, was suspended a year ago and additional security measures were put in place to guard against “espionage potential” among U.S. military recruits born in other countries. Those new regulations left the program paralyzed, ending a reliable stream of high-quality troops.

“We are taking the steps obviously to save the program, if it can be saved,” Mattis said. “And I believe it can.”

The MAVNI program has produced more than 10,400 troops since 2009 — personnel who possess language and medical skills deemed vital to military operations and in short supply among U.S.-born troops. The military continues to process those who enlisted before the program was suspended.

It may seem odd that people who enlisted over a year ago still require processing, but this is pretty normal. The Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP) affects nearly all applicants as military needs and space in Basic Military Training (BMT) and advanced schools are both limited. People who enlist can take up to 545 days to ship.

Also, an interesting bit I just learned, if an alien enlists in the DEP and then drops out before shipping to BMT, that person is forever ineligible for US citizenship (8 USC 1426). Also see 8 USC 1429 for how to become a naturalized citizen through military service.

Saving you the trouble of a FOIA request

I have some clarity now on what I can and can't say about the project I'm working on. In short, it's not classified (though the data we deal with is personally-identifiable information–PII—and private health information–PHI). My security clearance is "public trust," the lowest level, and in fact the only level that someone with a clearance can disclose. Also, the contracts for this project are publicly available through FOIA.

So, I'm free to discuss this project in a way that I've rarely been permitted before. Now, I'm not allowed to post photos of, or taken on, military bases, and it's a bad idea but not necessarily prohibited for me to discuss individual people. (Which is a shame, because a week ago I got a tour of the Pentagon that included the 9/11 memorial, which really moved me. I will try to obtain permission to post photos, but it doesn't look likely I can.)

Here's the story.

Technically (and I never thought I would be one of these), I'm now a defense contractor. My client is the Defense Digital Service, a franchise of the United States Digital Service. President Obama formed the latter to prevent debacles like the HealthCare.gov rollout, which funneled $50m to Accenture and produced something a well-run start-up could have produced for a tiny fraction of that amount. The former (my client) reports directly to the Secretary of Defense's office, and, as a civil service agency, is not subject to White House interference.

My client's customer is the Military Enrollment Processing Command (MEPCOM), headquartered in North Chicago, Ill. This joint command runs the country's 67 Military Enrollment Processing Stations (MEPS) and enrolls everyone who joins the U.S. armed forces in the enlisted ranks. (They also provide services for some officer candidates, but my project doesn't apply to those folks.)

Our company will be upgrading the software that MEPS use to track applicants from the time recruiters drop them off to the time they enter basic training. The current software launched in 1996 and functions only because a dedicated group of people up at MEPCOM keep it running with spit and duck tape.

We've got five months to produce a pilot program that shows how we can overhaul the entire process. We're working closely with MEPCOM, the Baltimore MEPS, and the Air Force, because if you're going to do a pilot project you really want that service to be involved. (Rimshot!)

In the end, we're going to produce software that helps kids who want to serve the United States do so without losing bonuses, or getting shut out of health care, or getting told they can't serve because of a technicality someone should have caught early. Software that helps the dedicated civil servants who work in MEPS across the country do their jobs better. Software that helps every American taxpayer by solving these real problems at a fraction of what the government would have spent 10 years ago. (In fact, they did. In the early 2000s another firm spent 5 years and tens of millions developing a replacement that completely failed.)

In the coming months, I'll post what I can about this project, and about the people we're helping. By "what I can," understand that I'm going to clear some of the information I post with DDS, MEPCOM, and in some cases, the Air Force. Since my client is the U.S. Government, I literally have a First Amendment right to post anything I learn on my blog; but I recognize that just because something is available through a FOIA request doesn't mean I should publish it. To wit: This project touches real people, many of them smart teenagers in bad situations who have lost their best shot at getting a better life because of bad software. And that pisses me off. But each situation raises a complicated interaction of privacy concerns, which the law as written may allow me to disclose, but basic human decency obligates me to protect.

Also, the kids who we'll be helping by and large don't care about who's running the government. They love their country. They want to give something back. Or maybe they just want a good job. It doesn't matter. In the past week, I've seen four swearing-in ceremonies, in each of which a group of teenagers pledged to serve the United States and our Constitution, knowing that when they come back in a few weeks, they'll be shipped off somewhere and asked to do things both boring and horrific for four to eight years. It's really moving to see that. Even the officers who do 20 or 30 of these ceremonies each week feel it.

This is going to be one of the most impactful projects I've worked on. And it's really, really cool.

Firehose

I've learned more in the last week about the U.S. armed forces and how they enroll new members than I can recount. (I mean that in several senses.) Our team were at the San Antonio MEPS before 6am and stayed until almost 11; later this afternoon, we're heading to Lackland AFB to watch Air Force recruits getting off the bus for basic training.

First, though, I need to nap. We left our hotel 15 minutes before the nearest Starbucks opened and couldn't locate an open fast-food joint on the way to Fort Sam Houston. Also, the USO volunteer—the person with control over the Keurig machine—didn't arrive until 8. Oh, the madness.

More about this later. We're still sorting out what we can and can't post on social media (no photos, no personally-identifiable information, but some details about the project). For now, I just have to assimilate all of this information and come up with a minimally-viable product outline by next week. Fun!

Strangest office building I've ever been in

Imagine the largest office building (in land area) you've ever been in, add a small shopping mall, four food courts, and the security that demonstrates exactly how silly and ineffectual airport security is, and that's the Pentagon.

I'm in a little island that's like an anti-SCIF (Secure Compartmented Information Facility). We're in the one unclassified office in the ring, complete with unclassified Internet service, and because of that, behind two steel doors and in a Faraday cage. And it's literally the only place we're allowed to take pictures, which is sad because every hallway in the building is a museum exhibit. It's weird.

That, and we can't go to the bathroom without an escort, makes this a very strange day indeed.

Also, it's like an ongoing pop quiz in uniform insignia recognition. And I'm still having problems with upper enlisted ranks.

Home tomorrow, after a visit to a military facility outside Baltimore.

Existence proofs and military robots

Via Bruce Schneier, an essay on how the fact that something appears in nature means it can exist, and what this means for military robots:

In each of the [Planet Earth II] documentary’s profiles of monkeys, birds, and lizards, I saw what technologists refer to as an “existence proof.” Existence proofs are the simplest way to resolve an argument about what is technologically possible. Before 1900, people argued whether building a human-carrying powered airplane was possible. In 1903, the Wright Brothers ended the debate with an existence proof. As I watched Planet Earth II, I saw existence proof after existence proof of technological capabilities that, applied to warfare and espionage, would make global militaries and intelligence agencies significantly more powerful – but also significantly more vulnerable.

I realized Hollywood has it all wrong. The future of military robotics doesn’t look like The Terminator. It looks like Planet Earth II.

Imagine a low-cost drone with the range of a Canada goose, a bird that can cover 1,500 miles in a single day at an average speed of 60 miles per hour. Planet Earth profiled a single flock of snow geese, birds that make similar marathon journeys, albeit slower. The flock of six-pound snow geese was so large it formed a sky-darkening cloud 12 miles long. How would an aircraft carrier battlegroup respond to an attack from millions of aerial kamikaze explosive drones that, like geese, can fly hundreds of miles? A single aircraft carrier costs billions of dollars, and the United States relies heavily on its ten aircraft carrier strike groups to project power around the globe. But as military robots match more capabilities found in nature, some of the major systems and strategies upon which U.S. national security currently relies – perhaps even the fearsome aircraft carrier strike group – might experience the same sort of technological disruption that the smartphone revolution brought about in the consumer world.

The next war won't look anything like the last one. (Then again, it never does.)

Just to clarify...

The President can't actually change military policy with a tweet:

This morning there is news that there will – for now – be no change in the US military’s policy toward transgender service members. The news comes in the form of a letter shared with members of the press from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford.

On its face this is no more than a statement of military command protocol and the chain of command. The President is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, with vast powers that position grants him. But the President does not and cannot just dial up the head of Central Command and order a war. There is a specific and statutory chain of command. Under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act....

There’s process and there’s law and there’s the President. The person of the president does not trump the other two.

So for now, the military can remain open to anyone who is fit to serve. Let's see if the president actually orders the change through channels.

Our most impressive weapon system is obsolete

Navies and naval strategy fascinate me. For 4,950 of the last 5,000 years, if you wanted to project military power fast and hard, you sent your navy. But even during the great naval battles of World War II, engineers had developed missiles and airplanes that could destroy just about any naval vessel anywhere, except (crucially) submarines.

Today, the U.S. Carrier Strike Group, with its 7,000 sailors and aviators supporting the largest military ships ever built, can put 90 deadly aircraft within striking range of any point on earth within 48 hours. If you see an aircraft carrier in international waters off your coast—and you will see it, because it's huge—you might adjust your foreign policy.

But note that aircraft carriers aren't the deadliest or most effective weapons systems we have. The deadliest are our nuclear ballistic missile submarines, each of the 14 containing up to 200 nuclear bombs that they can deliver to any point on earth. And to date, no other country has developed effective means of detecting and eliminating them. That's why they're our ultimate deterrent: strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons, and our submarines will end you.

Aircraft carriers, as previously noted, are quite obvious to everyone. And their attack range is less than the strike range of Chinese missiles. Which makes one wonder, what are they for anymore? Bloomberg has more:

For several years, the Pentagon has “admired the problem” of how long-range enemy missiles affect its carrier fleet but has avoided tough decisions about how to increase the fleets’ aircraft range and provide for more unmanned aircraft, said Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a nonprofit think tank. Meanwhile, the Navy’s strike range from its carrier wings has actually dipped by 50 percent, below 500 miles, according to Jerry Hendrix, another CNAS analyst.

Last year, the they recommended scrapping the Ford-class carriers after the Kennedy’s completion and boosting the Navy’s offensive range with a greater reliance on unmanned aircraft, including a long-range attack platform. The Navy’s submarine fleet would also grow to 74, from 58, under the author’s recommendations, which reflected a 2 percent annual increase in Pentagon funding.

Despite these strategic shortcomings, there’s still a political reality to wrestle with: The Navy’s largest ships remain politically untouchable. The carrier retains a mystique throughout the military and Congress; it’s an 1,100-foot giant that’s become a uniquely American symbol of dominating military power.

So, there it is. The incentives are wrong, and they're for fighting the last war. It's like when Germany built the Bismarck or when France built the Maginot Line.

But yeah, let's cut Medicaid and build another carrier!