The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Back when we sabotaged an empire

People who don't study history tend not to understand why our foreign allies and adversaries behave the ways they do. Case in point: the Soviet Union, of which the largest part lives on as the Russian Federation, ended in part because we forced them to spend down their economy just to keep up with us. They might still hate us a little for that.

One man who helped this effort, Gus Weiss, hit on the idea of sabotaging the technology that Soviet spies bought or stole from American and other Western companies. Via Bruce Schneier, Wired has a long-form description of Weiss and his plan:

This plan to feed defective technology, which Weiss says carried the operation designation “Kudo,” existed as part of a larger government mobilization in response to the Farewell intelligence across the national security community. “It was multilayered operation,” Galahad told me. According to Galahad, Weiss didn’t hold any formal leadership role in this effort; instead, “Gus did his work through his own contacts. He was a White House guy. He could get people to pay attention to his ideas. He had friends in the computer business. He had Casey’s ear.”

Galahad told me that Weiss zeroed in on the Soviet industrial sector; he wanted to gut punch the Soviet economy. Galahad recalled that Weiss was friendly with the analysts in the CIA’s Office of Soviet Research. “Let’s say the Italians were building a tractor factory for the Russians in the Ukraine—the guys in OSR would have had access to those blueprints. Gus shared his ideas and recommendations based on that intelligence to his friends at the DoD.”

Meanwhile, the government worked with private sector software companies to create doctored industrial products. They were then made available to the patent clerks and engineers in American technology and arms companies who’d been recruited by the KGB.

High up on the Soviet tech shopping list was software to regulate the pressure gauges and valves for the critical Siberian gas pipeline. According to Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, the Soviets sought the software on the open market. American export controls prohibited its sale from the US. However, a small industrial software company located in Calgary called Cov-Can produced what the Soviets wanted. As Weiner writes, “The Soviets sent a Line X officer to steal the software. The CIA and the Canadians conspired to let them have it.”

The faulty software “weaved” its way through Soviet quality control. The pipeline software ran swimmingly for months, but then pressure in the pipeline gradually mounted. And one day—the date remains unclear, though most put it in June 1982—the software went haywire, the pressure soaring out of control. The pipeline ruptured, igniting a blast in the wilds of Siberia so massive that, according to Thomas C. Reed’s At the Abyss, “at the White House, we received warning from our infrared satellites of some bizarre event out in the middle of Soviet nowhere. NORAD feared a missile liftoff from a place where no rockets were known to be based. Or perhaps it was the detonation of a nuclear device. The Air Force chief of intelligence rated it at three kilotons.”

I wonder if Presidents Putin and Trump discussed this history during any of their recent unrecorded conversations?

Russia is winning the 2020 election

Don Von Drehle argues that Vladimir Putin succeeds by weakening the West, regardless of the short-term consequences to Russia:

It’s ironic that Americans of all political stripes have contributed to Putin’s success — by failing to understand what he wants and why he wants it. His goals are not the goals of the former Soviet Union (though he has described the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as a “disaster”). During the Cold War, the Kremlin pursued the spread of communist ideology. Putin is nonideological, according to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now of Stanford University and a Post contributing columnist. “I see him as impulsive, emotional, opportunistic. Putin sees himself as the last great nationalist, anti-globalist leader.”

A unified United States, pursuing a bipartisan, pro-democracy foreign policy is Putin’s biggest fear. So, he has taken the risk of creating an operation specifically to sow discord through social media. Putin’s computer hackers look for any internal divisions and tensions that tend to erode American unity or discredit American leadership. Though he clearly favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Putin doesn’t generally favor one point of view over another; he supports whichever candidates are most divisive and amplifies whatever arguments are most bitter. Whoever is freaking out on Facebook or Twitter is a potential ally in his cause. At the State of the Union address, he no doubt enjoyed both the snubbed handshake and the ripped speech.

At the same time, Putin went to work on other vulnerable pieces of the Western alliance. By enabling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics, he helped to send millions of refugees fleeing to Europe. When xenophobic nationalist movements flared up in reaction, the Russians poured on the gas via social media. Russia’s unseen hand wasn’t the only factor in the European backlash. But now the European Union may be coming apart.

These efforts would have been toxic even if Clinton had made a better case to voters around the Great Lakes and won the election in 2016. But the fact that Putin’s hackers went all-in for Trump, who won the electoral college with just 46 percent of the vote, turned a Russian win into a rout. The election itself became a cause of further division. Russia’s role became a new wedge issue, the doubt that keeps on festering.

I've no doubt the US and Western Europe will survive Putin's passive-aggression. Ultimately, the fundamentals are on our side. But remember, Putin's goal isn't to win, exactly; it's for us to lose. And in that respect he's succeeding.

Two big 20th anniversaries today (and a centennial)

We typically think of January 1st as the day things happen. But December 31st is often the day things end.

On 31 December 1999, two things ended at nearly the same time: the presidency in Russia of Boris Yeltsin, and the American control of the Panama Canal Zone.

Also twenty years ago, my company gave me a $1,200 bonus ($1,893 in 2019 dollars) and a $600 suite for two nights in midtown Manhattan because I volunteered to spend four hours at our data center on Park Avenue, just so that Management could say someone was at the data center on Park Avenue continuously from 6am on New Year's Eve until 6pm on New Year's Day. Since all of the applications I wrote or had responsibility for were less than two years old, literally nothing happened. Does this count as an anniversary? I suppose not.

And one hundred years ago, 31 December 1919 was the last day anyone could legally buy alcohol in the United States for 13 years, as the Volstead Act took effect at midnight on 1 January 1920.

I'm DD tonight, but I will still raise a glass of Champagne to toast these three events.

Photo by Harris & Ewing - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Link

Feeling insecure? Blame these guys

The Post reported today that a simple review of phone logs shows how the president and his stooges left themselves open to Russian espionage by using insecure cell phones:

The disclosures provide fresh evidence suggesting that the president continues to defy the security guidance urged by his aides and followed by previous incumbents — a stance that is particularly remarkable given Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign for her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state.

The connection to the Ukraine campaign is also troubling because of how Moscow could exploit knowledge that Trump was secretly engaged in efforts to extract political favors from the government in Kyiv.

Trump and Giuliani have effectively “given the Russians ammunition they can use in an overt fashion, a covert fashion or in the twisting of information,” said John Sipher, former deputy chief of Russia operations at the CIA. Sipher and others said that it is so likely that Russia tracked the calls of Giuliani and others that the Kremlin probably knows more now

“Congress and investigators have call records that suggest certain things but have no means whatsoever of getting the actual text” of what was said, Sipher said. “I guarantee the Russians have the actual information.”

Ordinarily I'd chalk this up to stupidity. But GOP strategist Rick Wilson sees something far darker:

The traitors deliberately ignore the reporting, counsel, and warnings of the intelligence community when it comes to Russia’s attacks and Vladimir Putin’s vast, continuing intelligence and propaganda warfare against the United States.

The traitors — be they United States senators like John Kennedy and Lindsey Graham or columnists from the Federalist, Breitbart, and a slurry of other formally conservative media outlets — repeat the Kremlin-approved propaganda messages and tropes of that warfare, word for word.

It’s not simply treason by making common cause with a murderous autocrat in Russia, or merrily wrecking the alliances around the world that kept America relatively secure for seven decades.

Their betrayal is also to our system of government, which as imperfect — and often downright fucked up — as it is, has been remarkably capable of surviving.

And if you can’t spot the treason yet, you will soon enough. That’s the thing about spies, traitors, and those who betray their country — they rarely stay hidden forever.

We need to get this administration out of office in 2021, and help the American people understand the danger their sympathizers represent. If only we still taught civics in schools.

You don't have to be a super-spy to know this

I found myself actually shocked at one piece of testimony in yesterday's impeachment hearing:

A U.S. ambassador’s cellphone call to President Trump from a restaurant in the capital of Ukraine this summer was a stunning breach of security, exposing the conversation to surveillance by foreign intelligence services, including Russia’s, former U.S. officials said.

The call — in which Trump’s remarks were overheard by a U.S. Embassy staffer in Kyiv — was disclosed Wednesday by the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr.

“The security ramifications are insane — using an open cellphone to communicate with the president of the United States,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room and a former chief of staff to the CIA director. “In a country that is so wired with Russian intelligence, you can almost take it to the bank that the Russians were listening in on the call.”

Republicans, who used to bang the drum on security issues so loudly you could barely make out the words they were actually saying, do not seem to have noticed this event. Which shocks me even more.

Own goal to Erdogan and Putin

I don't know how much closer to shooting someone on 5th Avenue the President needs to get to show people he does not have American interests at heart. His abrupt withdrawal of our forces from Syria comes awfully close:

U.S. forces, caught unawares by the move, began a hasty and logistically problematic retreat; at one point American troops found themselves deliberately “bracketed” by Turkish artillery fire—pinned in position and wholly reactive to the movements of a foreign state’s force, one set in motion by their own commander in chief. This may have been the first time any nation that houses U.S. nuclear weapons—there are an estimated 50 thermonuclear air-drop warheads at Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey—targeted U.S. troops with its own army.

Since then, U.S. forces on the ground are in anguish and “ashamed,” witnessing atrocities and abandoning allies to potential Turkish war crimes. The Kurds, having seen Trump almost pull this last year, had asked their American partners’ help in planning for a post-U.S. scenario by aligning with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers. The U.S. had said no, assuring the Kurds it would not abandon them. After all, Trump had publicly bragged last year that he’d singlehandedly stopped Erdogan from going in before; “I called him and asked him not to do it, and he hasn’t done it,” he said in June. But Erdogan did it. And he told Trump that he was doing it.

Like so many others who have covered Trump and his coterie of dullards, I have often been caught up in questions of whether despots have blackmail leverage over Trump or offer him favors; of whether he recognizes his kind or he’s an easily influenced idiot. Motives would be wonderful to pin down—after we stop the serial arsonist from starting fires. What’s happening in Syria shows that it doesn’t matter whether Trump is a dope, weak bluffer, toddler-in-chief, serial abuser, narcissist, pathological liar, or mob grifter. It doesn’t matter if he’s been recruited as an agent of a foreign government. It makes no difference whether he’s evil, stupid, or a madman.

You don’t need a psychological sketch to understand the events in Syria, just the bare and obvious truth: Because Trump is president, people are being murdered before cameras, the world is more unsafe, and American promises are worth less than the cursed, disembodied presidential account that they’re tweeted on.

Putin must be tired of all the winning.

What's Ukraine got to do with it?

Hard to believe that I visited Ukraine more than 10 years ago, but not hard to believe that it keeps coming up in US politics. Julia Ioffe explains why:

Whenever Ukraine appears in our news cycle, it is talked about as if it’s a simpler place than it is. The political dynamic gets reduced to neat binaries—the forces there are either pro-Russia or pro-West; leaders are either corrupt actors or laudable reformers; the good guys versus the bad guys. But that framework belies the moral complexity of the place, which is why it pops up in our domestic political scandals in the first place.

Ukraine would like America and Europe to think of it as a promising young democracy, the good little country struggling to fend off the gravitational pull of evil Russia. There is a lot of truth in that. But it is also an oligarchy where a very small number of people control the country’s natural resources, a legacy of its Soviet past. Around each of these people is a clan vying for influence, resources, and political power. They sponsor media outlets and politicians. Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, for example, has promised to fight corruption but is also closely linked with one of the country’s most powerful oligarchs.

Ukraine pops up in our domestic political scandals because it is in the middle of a tug-of-war between Russia and the West, and because Westerners go there to enrich themselves doing questionable work. But in our minds, it is a small country somewhere over the horizon, full of people with funny Slavic names. Ukraine is much easier to think about if we cram it into our own political dichotomies, even if that distorts what’s really happening on the ground. The problem in doing so, however, is that we become unwitting participants in someone else’s games.

Julia Ioffe is one of our best reporters on post-Soviet countries. She's right: the more private American citizens muck about in Ukraine, the more we're going to get sucked into post-Soviet politics.

Pile-up on the Link Highway

I was busy today, and apparently so was everyone else:

I'm sure there was other news today. But this is what I have open in my browser for reading later on.

Loose lips sink ships

Remember back in May 2017, barely a couple of months in office, when the president bragged to the Russian Foreign Secretary about some intelligence we'd developed on ISIS in Syria? That disclosure resulted in a dangerous and expensive mission to exfiltrate one of our highest-level assets within the Russian government:

The decision to carry out the extraction occurred soon after a May 2017 meeting in the Oval Office in which Trump discussed highly classified intelligence with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. The intelligence, concerning ISIS in Syria, had been provided by Israel.

The disclosure to the Russians by the President, though not about the Russian spy specifically, prompted intelligence officials to renew earlier discussions about the potential risk of exposure, according to the source directly involved in the matter.

At the time, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo told other senior Trump administration officials that too much information was coming out regarding the covert source, known as an asset. An extraction, or "exfiltration" as such an operation is referred to by intelligence officials, is an extraordinary remedy when US intelligence believes an asset is in immediate danger.

Weeks after the decision to extract the spy, in July 2017, Trump met privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg and took the unusual step of confiscating the interpreter's notes. Afterward, intelligence officials again expressed concern that the President may have improperly discussed classified intelligence with Russia, according to an intelligence source with knowledge of the intelligence community's response to the Trump-Putin meeting.

Knowledge of the Russian covert source's existence was highly restricted within the US government and intelligence agencies. According to one source, there was "no equal alternative" inside the Russian government, providing both insight and information on Putin.

So is he a Russian asset or just a useful idiot? What difference does that make, anyway?

About that Russian ship playing chicken

On Friday (Thursday evening in the US) the Russian destroyer Vinogradov maneuvered to within 30 meters of the USS Chancellorsville in the Philippine Sea:

According to Cmdr. Clay Doss of the U.S. 7th Fleet, the Chancellorsville was recovering its helicopter while maintaining a steady course when the Russian ship came from behind and “accelerated and closed to an unsafe distance” of about 50 to 100 feet.

“This unsafe action forced Chancellorsville to execute all engines back full and to maneuver to avoid collision,” Doss said in a statement. “We consider Russia’s actions during this interaction as unsafe and unprofessional.”

The Russian statement, however, said the U.S. cruiser “suddenly changed directions and came within 50 meters [164 feet] of the Russian destroyer.” Russia, which stated that the incident took place in the East China Sea, said its ship was forced to perform an emergency maneuver and warned the American ship of inadmissible actions.

According to a senior US Navy Surface Warfare Officer with whom I spoke, the Chancellorsville was "flying limited maneuvering and Hotel," meaning they had flags on their mast signaling to other ships in the area that they were unable to maneuver freely because they were recovering a helicopter. The Russian crew had no doubt that the American ship would continue in a straight line at low speed no matter what the Russians did. (The officer declined to be identified because the Navy did not authorize our conversation.)

When I asked about the forbearance of the Chancellor's skipper, the officer replied, "I know what I would have done," adding that the rules of engagement allow any military asset to take defensive action, including using lethal force, without waiting for orders if there is an immediate threat.

"Back in the Cold War, the Soviet navy behaved very professionally, since no one wanted to destroy the world because a 19-year-old kid turned the boat the wrong direction by mistake," the officer continued. "We all kept in our lanes. But in the last few years, they've gotten reckless."

The conclusion: the Russian captain, obviously acting under orders from much higher up, deliberately provoked the US warship in a "saber-rattling" maneuver.

Fun times. I think I liked the Soviet navy better than this new Russian one.