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Solving the CIA’s Mass Murder Mystery

In recent years I’ve criticized the National Security Agency, my former employer, for mismanagement and repeated failures. I’ve taken NSA to task for flawed leadership leading to low morale, and above all a habitual ignoring of counterintelligence that has led to numerous high-profile scandals since the agency IT contractor Edward Snowden defected to Moscow in mid-2013 with a trove of a million-plus classified documents.

Now that the mainstream media has finally noticed that NSA is in crisis, Admiral Mike Rogers, agency director since 2014, has announced he’s retiring soon. However, it should be noted that what ails NSA exists across our Intelligence Community to varying degrees, and its persistent shortcomings in counterintelligence are not unique.

Things don’t look much better at Langley, and CIA’s mistakes in the counterspy game have gotten quite a few people killed over the last decade. At the end of December 2009, at Forward Operating Base Chapman in eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber blew up himself and nine others: seven CIA personnel (five agency officers and two contractors) and a partner each from Jordan and Afghanistan. This was Langley’s bloodiest day in decades as well as a needless debacle. American spies were fooled by a “golden source” whom they were meeting for the first time in person: a top Al-Qa’ida operative who really was setting them up for death. This was a basic failure of counterintelligence vetting bolstered by wishful thinking.

Read the rest at The Observer …

It’s Time to Make Twitter Better

I joined Twitter five-and-a-half years ago, in the summer of 2012, and immediately found it a heady experience. Here was a place of free expression, where experts and average people could mingle and discuss issues of the day. There were high and lows; some dialogs got mired in silliness, while others led to genuine insights. Twitter was unique – and a lot of fun.

Then, in June 2013, Edward Snowden landed in Hong Kong, on the lam from Uncle Sam, and then defected to Moscow, where he remains almost five years later. As the only former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer speaking openly about that sensational case as it unfolded, I was in high demand. As it happened, a decade earlier when I was working for NSA, I predicted that due to lax agency security policies (this required not clairvoyance, merely paying attention) something very much like Snowden was bound to happen. My comments on Snowden were critical of our Intelligence Community, which had allowed this nightmare to happen.  From the outset, I pointed out that the NSA contractor turned defector was far from the pure-hearted “whistleblower” he claimed to be.

This view, now commonly accepted, was controversial in the summer of 2013, and I incurred the skepticism of Snowden’s media fans, as well as the wrath of his cultish followers. Kremlin sycophants like Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald attacked me regularly for pointing out that Snowden and WikiLeaks were dancing the Kremlin’s tune, and before long I was inundated by online trolls. Three years before Moscow weaponized its trolls to sway a presidential election, they went after me on Twitter with gusto.

Suddenly I had platoons of trolls attacking me at once. By the latter half of 2013, I was blocking dozens of harassing accounts daily – and they were reading from a Russian playbook that became familiar to millions of Americans in 2016. The full range of Kremlin trolling was on display, between ceaseless nasty tweets and doxing of myself, my family, and friends. This took a toll on me and my life, but I never considered a halt to telling the truth about Snowden and Russian intelligence to make it all stop.

I’ve had dozens of impersonation accounts set up to harass me, and I stopped counting how many trolls and bots have tried to derail my truth-telling on Twitter: many thousands by now. It’s been a bumpy ride, but over the last couple years I’ve gotten to say, “I told you so” too many times to count. I was right about Snowden, WikiLeaks, and the Russians. Even though my warnings weren’t heeded, I predicted a lot of the mess that America is in right now thanks to Kremlin Trolls, disinformation, and Active Measures disseminated via Twitter and other social media. I was Patient Zero for their online bacillus, and I survived – albeit at high cost.

I expected that Twitter would finally get its act together in the dreadful aftermath of 2016, when the White House was occupied by a man who extolled WikiLeaks, refused to admit that Russian spies and lies had harmed our country, and acted like Vladimir Putin’s asset – to use the term cited by our country’s most experienced spy-boss. Alas, I was wrong. Twitter has made some minor alterations – a few bots blocked, some notorious trolls banned – but nothing substantial has changed. Twitter remains a playground for the Kremlin Trolls, bots, and miscreants who made this promising social media forum, to cite President Trump, a shithole.

Twitter has it within its power to banish troublemakers, but they haven’t done so. Minor algorithm alterations would do away with 90 percent of the bots immediately, while serious enforcement of the so-called Twitter Rules would do away with most trolls nearly as fast. However, that won’t happen, because if Twitter admitted how many of its followers are bots rather than live humans, its already beleaguered stock price would likely plummet even further.

There is real risk here, since Congress is angry and wants reform before the 2018 midterm election, which the Russians are sure to meddle in. Twitter’s nightmare scenario is a Democratic majority in Congress in January 2019 that’s out for blood against the social media companies that allowed Kremlin Trolls to help elect Donald Trump. However, since Twitter can’t reform itself without blowing up its business model, they seem to be buying time now, not knowing what else to do.

In the meantime, trolls and bots continue to proliferate and harass. Nasty online conduct by Twitter mobs lead to suicides so often now it’s barely newsworthy. I recently lost a Twitter friend to suicide after he was harassed by Kremlin Trolls and bots until he cracked, and that brought it home to me. No social media platform is worth a human life. Every tweet I send gets trolling back, often of a rancid sort, plus they harass my followers who respond to me. Since I have more than quarter-million followers, it’s clear that Moscow’s effort to make life unpleasant for me and the online community around me is as robust as ever.

Therefore, it’s time to do something about it. I’m not going to delete my @20committee account on Twitter, but I’m moving serious discussions to a private feed called @TheSpyBrief. I’ll still post some things (cat pics especially) on my public account, but if you want expert chat about intelligence and national security – which, after all, is why I signed up for Twitter in the first place – I’m moving that to a new private channel where I can effectively filter out trolls and bots, thereby allowing serious discussion again without harassment of the participants.

My new private feed is @TheSpyBrief, and I invite you to join me there by subscribing (you can only subscribe through my Premo page – clicking the Twitter “Follow” button will not work). It’s not free, but it’s not expensive either: roughly 30 cents per day. Per the hoary Internet mantra: if you’re not paying, you are the product. I’ve kept the price low so that as many people as possible will join me at @TheSpyBrief. I promise it will be fun and engaging, and all users will be able to direct message me and exchange ideas. This will be a private discussion community about espionage and national security, with no Kremlin Trolls allowed.

Any trolling will be banned without delay, and since we’ll have traceable payment information, anything that smacks of state-sponsored activity will be reported to the appropriate authorities. I’ve never minded giving away my expertise for free, but I’ve grown tired of doing so amid nonstop harassment of myself and my online friends and followers. This new platform offers a path to reasoned debate about important national security issues of the day – and none more so than espionage and the role of Kremlin spies and lies in our public life.

This is an experiment that I’m excited to try out. If it doesn’t work right, we’ll find something else that does. The dialog won’t cease, it’s too important for that. And if you don’t like it, you can cancel at any time. Twitter remains full of promise, if they ever get rid of trolls and bots. Until they do, I invite you to join me at @TheSpyBrief so we can all take part in the serious public policy discussion that America and the West need right now.

 

Mysterious Balkan Assassination Threatens Regional Peace

The always narrow and winding path to peace in Southeastern Europe hit a major obstruction this morning with the murder of Oliver Ivanović, the leader of the Serbs of Kosovo, who was gunned down in a drive-by killing in Kosovska Mitrovica. That city is precariously divided between Kosovo’s Albanian majority and Serbian minority, and Ivanović had been the latter’s political boss since the 1999 war that dragged NATO into that messy ethnic conflict.

The 64-year-old Ivanović was murdered in front of his political party’s office by a gunman in a moving car. Local media in Kosovo claim the car has been found, burned out, but as of this hour no suspects have been officially named, much less located. Shot five times with a pistol, Ivanović was dead on arrival at a local hospital.

His murder fell on the exact day that representatives of Serbia and Kosovo were set to meet in Brussels to normalize relations between them. Since the 1999 war, Belgrade has remained unreconciled to the loss of its former province—keeping Kosovo in Serbia was the issue that led to the rise of Slobodan Milošević, while its loss at the hands of NATO caused his downfall—and finally there seemed to be some hope for progress, after years of cajoling by the European Union. Ivanović’s murder has undone any forward movement on the Kosovo issue.

Already, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has denounced the assassination as an “act of terror” while convening an emergency national security meeting in Belgrade to discuss the killing and its aftermath. Predictably, today Serbian representatives in Brussels walked out of the long-awaited meeting with Kosovo Albanian counterparts in protest over Ivanović’s murder.

Read the rest at The Observer … 

Donald Trump’s Crazy Week of Crazy

As Donald Trump approaches a year in the White House, one of his gifts that is too seldom acknowledged is his fine-honed ability to make days seem like weeks and weeks seem like months, even years. As president, he has managed to jam-pack so many bizarre, jaw-dropping antics into such short periods of time—any one of which would be scandalous for any normal White House—that they blur into each other inside the news cycle and soon melt into the morass of Trumpism.

However, for the sake of future historians trying to unravel the unprecedented disaster which is the Trump presidency, let’s review the past week’s Oval Office highlights (such as they were), many of which involve President Trump’s profligate use of Twitter. As is his wont, last Saturday morning the commander-in-chief started tweeting, and even for Trump this was a doozy.

The dark cloud hanging over the White House at the beginning of the new year is the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, which paints a deeply unflattering portrait of the administration. Although Wolff insists his work is factually accurate, his track record suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, his account of an idiot president, hopelessly out of his depth to the point of mental instability, who never wanted the job, surrounded by equally incompetent underlings who spend most of their time leaking on each other and back-biting, rings true to anybody who’s been paying the slightest attention to Team Trump in action. Why the White House allowed a well-known literary rapscallion like Wolff to wander the West Wing for months, unsupervised, is the obvious question here—though, as usual with Trump, there’s no point in asking normal questions of a very abnormal presidency.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Year American Hegemony Ended

The United States has been the world’s greatest power since 1945, when that mantle—half-passed from London to Washington after the First World War—firmly landed in American hands after the Second World War. Since 1991, when the Cold War ended with Soviet collapse, America has been the world’s hegemon, to use the proper term, the force whose power could not be seriously challenged on the global stage.

For 26 years now—a happy generation—America has been able to do whatever it wanted, to anyone, at any time of our choosing, anywhere on earth. Notwithstanding the decline of major sectors of the American economy, our military has covered the globe with deployments as the Pentagon has divided our planet into “geographic combatant commands” to formalize our hegemony. Our allegedly deep defense thinkers have hailed this as our viceroys enacting Washington’s benevolent imperial will anywhere we desire.

It needs to be said that plenty of the planet has been happy to acquiesce in American hegemony. While we’re hardly the pure-hearted hegemon we imagine ourselves to be, the United States appears like a relatively positive force on the global stage, compared to other options. Even among skeptics regarding America’s global dominance, few pine instead for hegemony under, say, Beijing and its Communist party bosses.

Nevertheless, 2017 gave unmistakable signs that American hegemony, which has been waning for a decade, has now ended. A new age has dawned, even though it’s still early and the sun is far from full. As commander-in-chief, in his first year in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump has ranted and raved on Twitter almost daily, with no effect save to confuse our allies about what exactly is going on in Washington. De facto, America has two foreign and defense policies: what the president says and what our national security bureaucracy does. The gap between presidential rhetoric, much of it unhinged, and actual policy toward the world grew throughout 2017.

Read the rest at The Observer…

Warning: Donald Trump Is America’s Slobodan Milošević

It’s a popular parlor and social media game these days to compare Donald Trump to various dictators. This is tempting, given our 45th president’s indulging in authoritarian habits like rage-tweeting at Federal agencies he dislikes, or showing disregard for the rule of law when it gets in his way. Americans are unaccustomed to casual flirtations with dictatorial-sounding memes like crushing CNN bloodily with Trump’s shoe, and many of them never want to normalize such conduct.

More hysterical anti-Trumpers jump immediately to Adolf Hitler, a ridiculous comparison as well as a violation of Godwin’s Law that says more about them than President Trump. Some prefer Benito Mussolini, who like Trump had a pronounced absurdist side as a dictator manqué who never accomplished much of substance. A more recent Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi, seems a better comparison, since like Trump he boasted luridly of his sexual conquests and acted like the louche, ineffectual billionaire he was. However, Berlusconi never really set out to do much of anything except gain power, whereas Trump preaches nonstop about his alleged desire to Make America Great Again.

The best comparison is one that won’t be too familiar to many Americans and is frankly disturbing. The dictator whom Donald Trump most closely resembles is Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian strongman who pushed Yugoslavia off the cliff over a quarter-century ago, unleashing wars and genocide, then died in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes. Although Milošević was front-page news throughout the 1990s, since his death he has faded from Western consciousness. Therefore, it’s worthwhile briefly revisiting Milošević, since his similarities to Trump are startling.

First, let’s get out of the way how Milošević and Trump were dissimilar. While the latter is a much-married reality TV showman who lives for the camera and can’t shut up or stay off social media, the former was a colorless Communist functionary, a private man devoted to his wife and possessing a somewhat dour demeanor. As social personalities they could not be more different.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Russia Celebrates the Grim Centenary of Oppressive Police Rule

Russia celebrated a grim centenary this week. On December 20, 1917, the newborn Bolshevik dictatorship established its secret police force to crush opposition. It received the wordy title of the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage, which got shortened to VChK. From the outset this new body was termed the more pronounceable Cheka.

Headed by Felix Dzierżyński, a hard-bitten Polish revolutionary, the Cheka cultivated an elite mystique. Its operatives, who proudly called themselves Chekists, were clad in long black leather coats as they tracked down enemies of the people for rough justice. There was a semi-religious aura around Dzierżyński, whom the Bolsheviks hailed as “Iron Felix” and portrayed as some sort of Red saint. He famously claimed that the ideal Soviet secret policeman possessed “clean hands, a cool head and a warm heart.”

The reality, Dzierżyński expressed more concisely in an interview with Novaya Zhizn in July of 1918:

We stand for organized terrorthis should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence.

From its birth, the Cheka engaged in terror against enemies, real and imagined. Mass executions were a daily affair and Dzierżyński’s men served as judge, jury and executioner of those deemed by the Bolsheviks to be enemies of progress. This included vast swathes of Soviet society. To house them all, the Cheka invented the GULAG, the vast empire of labor camps that stretched across the Soviet Union and imprisoned millions. Under appalling camp conditions, many never completed their sentences, succumbing to malnutrition and disease.

Read the rest at The Observer …