NSA – National Security Agency (DoD; SIGINT/COMINT)
I haven’t written here about my specific primary career profession. But a related area is taking on increasing importance in our society – signals or communications intelligence collection as conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). I’ve been mulling this topic over in my own mind for several years, based primarily on my own professional experiences in a range of environments and a now long series of articles by good writers that have been published during that period in the New York Times. The recent case of Edward Snowden has also fueled my concerns. But I have not spoken or written about this subject except among a few close associates until now.
Below are my initial thoughts after viewing a two-part “60 Minutes” report about NSA that was aired on 15 December 2013. Granted that the TV report itself was rather cursory, NSA did, however, attempt to reach out to American citizens by allowing public cameras, including video cameras, to enter the agency’s headquarters for the first time since it was formally created over 60 years ago. The “60 Minutes” “journalist” was actually a former intelligence official, and the show had the appearance of a highly scripted and orchestrated fluff piece, so the only thing that seemed to make the report worthy of “60 Minutes” was those cameras inside the “Puzzle Palace”.
Prior to 1952, during the Korean War, the mission of NSA had been executed by the US Army Security Agency (ASA), headquartered at Arlington Hall, Virginia, as part of its signals intelligence mission during and after World War II. That mission and that agency still exist, under the not-so-perfunctory NSA umbrella but in closer direct support to deployed military forces. As CIA grew out of the Army OSS, so did NSA grow out of the Army ASA, and the Army retained its own similar missions and capabilities in both fields (HUMINT and SIGINT). I am professionally familiar with both NSA and ASA, and my mother was initially employed by ASA at Arlington Hall in the early years, moved with the newly created NSA, and eventually rose to a rather senior position in NSA at Ft. Meade, Maryland. Like all of our national intelligence agencies, both civilian and military, NSA employs a lot of pretty smart people with some highly specialized expertise. NSA, however, is a military organization that is part of the Department of Defense, but employs far more civilian than military personnel. Its director is a US military four-star general, a position that periodically rotates among senior officers (with very strong intelligence backgrounds) of the three principle military branches – Army, Navy and Air Force. (This is similar to the separate Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is heavy in strategic foreign country analysis plus human and other methods of foreign intelligence collection – all primarily focused on military aspects). The current NSA Director is articulate egghead US Army General Keith Alexander. The Deputy Director of NSA is a Senior Executive level civilian who is most likely to have risen within the agency.
I was also an inadvertent overseas participant in the series of major congressional investigations and federal court cases during the 1970s that involved some tangential retention by certain US intelligence agencies of information pertaining to “US Persons”. Those investigations, which today are all lumped under the heading of the “Church Commission”, resulted in a series of Greatest Generation laws which placed certain restrictions on the collection and retention of such information, including the Freedom Of Information Act (1966), the Privacy Act (1974), and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978) intended to protect American citizens against intrusive violation of their rights by government without specific court authority. Some of those restrictions were subsequently modified by the “Patriot” Act (October 2001) in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of 9/11/2001, and subsequently extended by Congress in 2011. (I happen to believe that some of those extensions were ill-advised.)
I am a full supporter of NSA’s foreign intelligence collection mission, but I also realize the potential for the grave consequences to the nation of such capability when used improperly, especially considering the enormous advances made in recent times with incredible computer technology coupled with the inherent vulnerability of its targets – internet via stationary landlines and a wide range of portable devices that employ open radio waves to communicate. (This includes communications via infrared, microwave and short-wave electromagnetic radio lengths.) I also know that public opinion about such things always undergoes a certain ebb and flow depending on the perceived gravity of the existing threat situation. (For example, few objected to the Patriot Act in 2001, but as the years go by without further major calamity, more and more Americans are questioning the wisdom of such relaxed restrictions on government; this thankfully is common throughout American history.) It’s important to note that NSA is essentially a machine, a very potent military machine, that is always subject to civilian political direction. It is possible for such machines to exceed the human capability to properly manage, and, even worse, the benefits are always so impressive that it’s very easy for people to completely discount the negatives. The natural human tendency is to seek the quick fixes, easy answers and short cuts, to sacrifice contemplation and caution in the interest of expediency, to justify almost any means in achieving the desired ends.
Also, senior military people can be summarily fired for not following senior civilian orders, regardless of the wisdom of such orders, and they have a very long record of keeping their mouths shut afterwards. Having surrendered many of their rights in order to serve the American people, military officers are the safest patsies in America for senior civilian misconduct, ignorance or incompetence. (And that sense of honor and loyalty follows such senior officers into retirement; most have a distinct dislike for getting involved in what they perceive as “political controversy”.)
General Alexander’s very first assertion on the “60 Minutes” show that only “less than 60” US persons were currently under directly targeted surveillance by NSA (and thus required specific court authority) was less than fully truthful. Both the NSA and CIA (and their military counterparts) routinely monitor and intercept the international communications of American government employees, military personnel and contractors at foreign postings who have certain national security clearances. Such personnel sign consent forms when taking up such foreign posts as a condition of their assignments. I myself have signed many of them, either in conjunction with foreign postings or when granted certain compartmented national security clearances. (See Footnote #1.) Since blanket consent is given (and usually forgotten) by the person subject to surveillance, no court order is required. (The surveillance is intended to protect me from foreign monitoring as well as the nation from my inadvertent release of highly sensitive classified information. Analysis of my communications may also be used to detect any vulnerabilities my activities may indicate to others.) However, it usually is the case that the people with whom those government employees, service members and contractors communicate do not sign such consent forms. (Many of those communicants will also come up during exhaustive background investigations (BI) of the people granted the clearances. However, with so many people now granted lower level security clearances, I’m not convinced that those investigations are nearly as thorough as they once were, when they were laboriously conducted by dedicated government employees with little regard to time or cost rather than by contractor companies who operate on an “efficient” profit basis. Is quality being sacrificed for quantity? Witness Edward Snowden. My periodic BIs were extremely exhaustive, conducted in parts by a variety of agencies, and were usually accompanied by psychological evaluations and polygraph examinations, but I very seriously doubt that such attention today is given to any but a very select few Americans with such clearances.)
Also, NSA, like all contemporary intelligence and defense agencies, now employs a range of non-government contractor companies to execute portions of its collection mission. I have seen nothing to convince me that these contractors are subject to the same laws and regulations as are the government agencies that contract them. Who and what they are actually doing is usually hidden behind an impenetrable mask of secrecy. These very many contractor companies, large and small, now double the actual size of the US Government, but just how accountable are they? How are they policed? Are they a way of government doing things that the government itself is prohibited from doing? It is said that the company with the government contract to develop and field a web site for “Obamacare” spent over a three year period almost $750,000,000 and still did not field something that worked, much less was secure – in the country that invented web sites in a garage. How is that even possible? (I know some smart young guys who could have done a better job in about six months for 1/100th the cost.)
Furthermore, NSA continually makes the case that it only collects and exploits communications metadata, rather than communications content (although it certainly has the ability to collect and store content if it wishes). The problem with this argument is that metadata is far more revealing than is the actual content of communications. What people actually DO is always far more important to government police agencies than what they SAY. People can say literally anything, and most do, but what they actually do, where they actually go, what their communication patterns actually are, with whom and when and where they communicate, is specific ACTION that reveals far more than mere words. Super-computers love metadata much more than they like to search for key words. Computer analysis of metadata using extremely sophisticated software, especially when joined with a very wide range of other non-intelligence databases (such as banking or credit card records, airline and hotel reservations) reveals irrefutable things that even the parties involved often don’t realize and can easily lead to behavior prediction with a very high degree or probability, to knowing what a person will do before they do it or even articulate (or even consciously decide) the intention of doing it. This is powerful stuff indeed.
Key military and intelligence partnerships that were forged during World War II and the early days of the “Cold” War continue today, most especially with the English-speaking countries of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, i.e., CANUKUS and ANZUS. These treaties, now well over a half century old, established extremely close ties among the five member countries in some very secret military and intelligence endeavors, endeavors which have been modified, broadened and strengthened over the years. In many ways the dividing lines are now simply non-existent. This is also the case with entities in each country charged with communications (or signals) intelligence. NSA has extremely close partnerships with counterpart agencies in each of the other four countries, such as GCHQ in Great Britain, and many of their efforts are even funded by the US taxpayer through NSA. Taken together, the five partners can be viewed in the area of communications intelligence as one huge global apparatus, with NSA orchestrating the overall effort. Anything in the realm of communications intelligence which those other four countries have, NSA also has.
In some case, domestic laws governing the activities of these various national agencies are a little different, so that what one partner cannot do legally under its domestic laws can usually be done by another partner, and often with NSA funding. So you have to be careful when thinking about “foreign” in this subject. If NSA is prohibited from targeting US Persons, GCHQ is not. The beauty about intel cooperation among English-speaking US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is that it’s all one big family, with each member of the family benefiting from different rules affecting other members. Everyone has the same full deck of cards, but each plays the game according to their own rules. What’s illegal for one member can be perfectly legal for another member. So it’s easy to play the shell game. If country “A” can’t collect and store certain data, country “C” can. (It’s a logic thing: If the US is prohibited from targeting and retaining information on American citizens, Great Britain certainly is not, and vice versa. So “compliance with the law” becomes entirely meaningless; citizens of each country are, in effect, handed an infant’s pacifier.)
When the ostensible justification for all the intelligence collecting that you’re doing is a deadly war with Islamic militant extremism using terrorism even in Kansas City that poses a grave threat to the nation’s security, and thus warrants targeting the entire US population, why in the world would you want to waste huge resources going after utter nonsense overseas that presents zero threat? The answer seems to be no more intellectually discerning than, “Because we can.” And, once you have that asinine thought process, you can go literally anywhere. And if you’re also storing all that information in gigantic fields of supercomputers, some creepy bureaucrat years later can go back in and mine it for any nefarious purpose he or she can conjure up. Every member of East Germany’s Stasi or the Soviet KGB, both now long gone, given such all-knowing capability, would have already arrived in heaven. Some would say that the same could be said of the FBI’s former director J. Edgar Hoover. Just why did we wage the “Cold” War again? Just so we could subject ourselves to the same self-imposed government tyranny?
“Build it, and they will come.” Once it’s there, it is absolutely guaranteed that some bureaucrat will eventually decide to use it, for whatever purpose he or she wishes.
Also, based on public pronouncement by US intelligence officials in recent times, NSA’s mission has been gradually drifting into areas that appear to have less and less to do with clear national defense, and more and more to do with areas of criminal activity – which presents further problems and conflicts for a military organization, legally prohibited as it is from engaging in domestic police enforcement functions outside the military itself. Unfortunately much of this drift is due to our enemies’ own strategic intentions.
Official statements over the past couple of years increasingly bring in to NSA justification arguments words and phrases that place international criminal activity, or suspected activity, side-by-side with foreign military (or “terrorist”) activity – indicating that someone, certainly not Congress, has given NSA an added global law enforcement mission. NSA is an element of the Defense Department, but listening to NSA talk about some of the things they are doing, you’d think they are equal arms of Interpol and the FBI on matters that appear to have absolutely nothing to do with military “defense”. And, if they can pursue criminals under a “defense” umbrella, they can easily ignore US constitutional protections, even for those innocently peripheral to any “bad” activity. Such surveillance and collection activity targeting suspected American criminals without a specific court-issued warrant, would never stand up in the Supreme Court, but if no one can prove it because it’s all so “secret” and even officially denied, then no one can challenge it in court. That is the Ultimate Police State Power and harkens back to the way the Stasi operated in communist East Germany. (Just contemplate what could now be done with a Nixonian political “Enemies List” or J. Edgar Hoover’s hunt for communists behind every civil rights group. It’s no wonder that many Germans, Chancellor Merkel included, are so upset by the American “thinking” about this subject. Germany today has privacy laws even stronger than those in the US, and the Germans take those laws far more seriously than do Americans. Merkel and a third of her countrymen grew up under the very incessant all-knowing and all-controlling oppression of the Stasi police state, so she and they are intimately familiar with such things. The US expended truly astronomical resources over 45 years to keep such powers out of western Europe and finally end such practices throughout the Soviet bloc, and now we are embracing them ourselves? Hello? Is there anyone in there?) I am no longer even confident that the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, created to handle secret government surveillance requests, can’t become anything more than a rubber stamp for government, staffed by political appointee judges. How is it possible to challenge or appeal a FISA court decision that no one knows about?
Where is the public defender, fully expert in US constitutional law and fully knowledgeable of NSA methodology, who argues very aggressively on behalf of American citizens before any blanket “warrant” is authorized by this secret court? Are any of the court’s past decisions ever revisited in an adversarial legal setting? Does the FISA court’s authority extend also to commercial contractors doing work on behalf of NSA’s mission? What mechanisms are in place to police NSA’s methodology and practices, including with that massive data on American citizens stored “off-site” in super-computers?
What do you actually do with the information? How is it actually employed? If you use such intelligence to identify and locate non-US-Person criminals, but are fearful of revealing it or the intelligence personnel who provided it in an open courtroom, then often you are left with only one alternative – to just kill those so identified. In such cases, summary execution is preferable to involving a justice system, i.e., committing murder is “better” than taking prisoners – the same God “rationale” used with armed drones. Some people will go to any lengths to protect intelligence “sources and methods” and capabilities. (I have known such information to have been withheld in the past that could have saved the lives of American soldiers.) Pretty soon a whole society has slid down that proverbial “slippery slope”, and literally anything becomes “justifiable”.
Consider that we are led to believe that we are engaged in a global unconventional war against a very smart and very adept enemy (or enemies). I do not refute this, since it is a logical consequence of our enemies, if they are real, being faced with the world’s single conventional super-power. A single conventional super-power, by definition, cannot be defeated by existing conventional means. The only way to realistically challenge a single conventional super-power is unconventionally. (It’s a logic thing.) But the bigger and as yet unanswered question is why anyone would want to challenge it, why those others are enemies. Are they simply logically reacting to what we do? This is a far more difficult question than its “chicken or egg” appearance would imply.) Unconventional warfare uses all methods possible, including terrorist and criminal activity — to get the other side to defeat itself. This particular enemy (or enemies), as we are told, is doing a truly excellent job of this against us, forcing us to progressively build our own prison, from airports to the “Patriot” Act, and NSA is doing an excellent job of blurring the lines so as to seemingly justify anything.
But it’s very difficult for the objective outside citizen observer to verify any of it. How much of the “threat” is simply “fanning fear for profit” or for increased government spending? The publicly observable evidence as reported in newsprint actually speaks to the contrary – as though a lot of law enforcement is now engaged in very questionable induced enabling and entrapment activity. On the surface, many court cases trying accused “terrorists”, including Americans, don’t seem to stand the “smell test”. One of the hallowed principles of American jurisprudence for the past century is the “fruit of the poisoned tree” concept. This principle holds that if the source of the original evidence or the evidence itself is illegal, then anything obtained from it, or as a direct result of it, is also illegal, i.e., inadmissible in court. But if constitutionally illegal secret surveillance was the original source or “evidence”, and this is never admitted in open court, then how can anyone defend themselves against it? It is not enough for the government to simply say, “Trust me.”
Once you have, in a truly massive super-computer complex, the size of which literally boggles the rational mind, detailed communication data on virtually every American extending over many years, it’s a fait accompli. It exists. It’s there. “Build it, and they will come.” Regardless of the original intent, regardless of how selectively it was used in the beginning, it’s still there, and still extremely inviting to a wide range of interests that have nothing to do with why it was created. And those interests WILL find a way to circumvent most safeguards. Sooner or later it will be mined for other data that may exist in the content of those communications. Eventually it will be used against previously identified suspected criminals in no ways associated with terrorism. From there, it will be used to look for suspected types of criminal activity among everyone, i.e., “fishing expeditions”. (I suspect that both of these cases are already employed; police agencies will always aggressively pursue any avenue available that has not been specifically ruled illegal, and those avenues will rapidly become universally accepted practice without regard to the broader consequences to the innocent population at large. It is natural human predilection for such practices to inexorably drift into ever more areas of ever further removed interest.) Then the most likely uses will be to go after political opponents, then supporters of political opponents, and then members of opposing political parties. From there it can go virtually anywhere any bureaucrat or politician wants to take it. No American is then “off limits”. The uses have “evolved” and “grown”, and all citizens one day wake up to discover they have willingly constructed their own national prison, their own all-knowing and all-controlling police state, that there are now “officials” who know everything about everyone and can use that information any way they wish. Both Stalin’s communist police state and Hitler’s nazi police state were in the beginning willingly endorsed by their own populations, as defenses against some perceived external threat. Anyone who thinks this cannot happen in America is just incredibly delusional.
The statement is often made that so far there is no evidence of abuse of this system, but that statement is just not accurate. In the first place, it assumes that any and all instances of abuse would become publicly known, which is an absurd assumption. In the second place, the FISA court has, in fact, on a number of occasions directed NSA to reign in its practices because they went too far in violating private citizens’ freedoms. And it has been reluctantly revealed in open criminal court that the initial information leading to an investigation was the result of such communications intercepts – which violated the Constitution’s protections against illegal governmental “search and seizure” without first defending the search based on specific “probable cause” before an independent judge. In other words, in America, the initial reason for a police investigation must result from a lawful act which provides reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, not from a government mining private communications for whatever might turn up. The government has to know precisely what it’s looking for before it goes looking for it, legally. Communications data alone might be used as prima facie evidence of guilt, forcing a defendant to try to prove their innocence, i.e., to prove a negative – which violates the Constitution’s protection of “presumed innocent” until the state proves guilt beyond a “reasonable doubt”. But the state’s investigative path in proving guilt must be lawful at every step along the process; interject an illegal act anywhere in that process, and everything that follows from that illegal act is also illegal – if the fact of that first illegal act becomes known.
When you employ an extremely potent investigative tool in total secrecy, then you have jeopardized a whole plethora of constitutionally protected legal principles and citizen freedoms, and not just the “right of privacy”. You have negated the very reason why the United States exists, why it was formed in violent and intellectual revolution against a monarchy that was free to make up its own rules at will to completely oppress its own population. As an Irish-American, I can think of nothing more reprehensible.
The alarming experience of the past ten or twenty years in America makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for the objective citizen to place in their government the degree of trust such shadowy activities absolutely requires. My own trust in my government has never been lower in my rather lengthy lifetime, and now we even have domestic drones on the horizon. (How long will it be before they, too, are armed?) Add them to ten million surveillance cameras, face recognition technology, DNA data bases, license plate readers, Facebook profiles, etc., and you’re standing there naked under the fascist floodlight bracing for the coming electroshock. It’s obvious that political ideologues in government under the Obama Administration were able to get the IRS to go after organizations that take an opposing political view – after both parties spent obscenely record-breaking sums on the 2012 political campaigns. In December 2013 the Washington Post reported that, according to a former top FBI official (Marcus Thomas), the FBI can secretly activate any computer’s webcam and view a room without turning on the indicator light. (I guess that makes the FBI the ultimate creepy voyeur, right beside NSA.) Add such things to the “Patriot” Act, Gitmo, “rendition”, remote controlled assassinations directed from the Oval Office, blatant lies about Benghazi and ‘Obamacare’, the Justice Department going after reporters’ sources, etc., and it all begins to scare the hell out of any rational American.
If blatant Lying is now the government’s main game, just what is Truth?
It’s even scarier when you realize that apparently our “special” women in very senior positions throughout our government incredibly cannot be held accountable for their irresponsible or incompetent actions or inactions. Conversing with some of these people is like trying to communicate with zealots who lived their whole lives in a tightly closed society ruled by a single overarching dogma, not unlike that under Soviet communism. Most of it has firm roots in extremist “feminism”, where the whole construct is based on a million rights without responsibilities, where the sole objective is unquestioned privilege hiding behind the mask of “equality”, and the rise of a new unassailable nobility class – in America! It’s a whole different thought process based on a whole different set of premises, and the whole construct together simply does not facilitate, much less tolerate, alternative ways of viewing things. Even the history is altered, fiction presented as fact. Under this extremist self-serving dogma, truth is irrelevant; perception is everything. And the perception is totally shaped by the intolerant dogma, certainly not by objective intellectual analysis of actual facts. Sometimes I feel like I’m not even talking to a human, but rather to a thoroughly programmed machine automatically reciting mindless platitudes. How is that even possible in America?
It’s possible because these women ideologues have never been challenged, because our cowardly “men” have never forced these creeps to defend their idiotic nonsense in the context of ALL of us. And that is just stupid.
Of course, there is a theory widely held in certain Washington circles that all that NSA electronic surveillance, especially that conducted on key figures and leaders among our “friends and allies”, is now needed to compensate for gross naivety, ignorance and incompetence among today’s CIA, State and White House personnel. After all, with so many affirmative action women devoid of responsibility now rising to the top of the American foreign affairs and intelligence communities, they need all the secret help they can get, even if it’s just the usual juicy girly gossip. This is especially true when you consider that over 70% of those we now have representing the world’s super power and her taxpaying citizens as appointed ambassadors are just vote-buying “special” women and political campaign contributors with no previous experience in diplomacy or intelligence, and often even no prior knowledge of the countries in which they “serve”. (And the one thing they know the least about is the US military that provides them all their hyper-inflated power.) Just consider how easy if was for the President of France (Sarkozy) to sucker four of those American women in very high places (Clinton, Power, Rice and Albright) into engineering the unprovoked eight-month bombing campaign against Libya. None of those women had an inkling that Sarkozy’s chief motivation was to conceal the fact that he had illegally accepted $68 million in surreptitious re-election campaign funds from Libya’s leader, a fact that could very well send him to prison – unless Qadhafi was eliminated (which, of course, thanks to American bombs, he was, in a sewer). That Libya, entirely predictably, is now a dysfunctional playground for Islamic militant extremist bad guys seems irrelevant to such women showing off all their unchallengeable “power”.
President Obama recently decided to keep a single US military general in charge of both NSA communications collection and “cyber warfare” – which will make this general, in the world we all now occupy, the planet’s most powerful “bureaucrat”, able to do anything and go anywhere against anyone, with impunity. Everyone is hoping that this general officer will, as usual, be totally apolitical, but they also know that senior military people are the only people who can be summarily fired for not following verbal civilian orders without fear of them complaining, or talking. That makes the American general officer essentially a politician’s puppet, for whatever that politician’s motives are. (In February 2014, the President nominated Navy Vice Admiral Michael Rogers to replace Army General Alexander as head of both NSA and Cyber Command. After a career so far of 30 years, Admiral Rogers has a solid background in cyber weapons.)
As with wars that now begin and end inexplicably without Congressional authorization, without a very clear statement from the people’s elected representatives that they fully support the military activity, with this evolving NSA mission we are also wandering into very dangerous deep waters, also without a very clear understanding by, or approval of, the American people. And I, for one, am definitely not convinced that those doing the wandering are capable of the objective intellectual discipline and altruism needed, much less have earned the degree of trust required. (Just consider the colossal mess that government has made of “Obamacare”, directly impacting one-sixth of the US economy – after three years of preparation the greatest example of governmental deception and incompetence in American history, a direct consequence of handing “entitled” people great power and responsibility somehow devoid of accountability. Then consider the colossal messes they have made of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of our entire foreign affairs, of our entire K-12 “education” system.) Those calling the political shots are never going to earn my trust (or my respect) when they clearly demonstrate to me that they totally lack at least enough experience to know what they are doing and do little more than take credit for the accomplishments of others and shifting blame for their own failures. I know exactly what I am doing, and the consequences, and I am fully accountable for my actions; why should I trust or respect those who at a minimum are unwilling to also accept full accountability for their actions, their decisions? (And American women who do nothing but sit on their self-constructed thrones making double-standard demands of everyone else ad nauseam, while expecting “someone else” to pay the costs of their own choices, need to know that they earn only my contempt, my disgust.)
Someone needs to figure out ways to have a lot of this NSA stuff constitutionally tested in the Supreme Court, before it’s too late, before we find ourselves languishing in our own prison. And we need to hand to that general officer at NSA some powerful ability to say “No” to politicians who seek for their own self-serving motives to cross the lines laid down in our Constitution. Someone needs to speak truth to power and demand the proper checks and balances, and accountability, for such truly enormous power. It’s one thing to have a completely novice civilian as Commander-in-Chief of a powerful professional military that knows exactly what it’s doing and operates out there in the open, quite another to have such a person direct a powerful professional surveillance machine still evolving that operates only invisibly in the darkest shadows.
The potential for such a capability, once established, to increasingly be used for ever more nefarious purposes, by any bureaucrat who decides to do so, is inherent in the capability itself. “It exists; use it!” Professional American foreign intelligence activities are both honorable and necessary. But in order for the people, American citizens, to support those
activities, they need to be absolutely certain that those activities are not being, and will not be, used against them, that there are clear and proper legal mechanisms in place to ensure their fundamental rights are not, and will not be, discounted by their government, that they can defend themselves in court on an equal footing with an enormously powerful and all-seeing government apparatus.
Otherwise, we are no longer America, and thus no longer worthy of defending.
Few things are as stupid as Americans railing against what they perceive is being done by Vladimir Putin in Russia while ignoring the far more dangerous things being done right at home in the US.
It all makes you wonder just why the Greatest Generation sacrificed so very much to fight World War II and the fifty-year “Cold” War … just so their spineless Baby Boomer children could piss away so easily their own freedoms. I am a life-long intelligence professional, a career ground soldier. I will work on behalf of my nation against foreign armed militant enemies wherever they are, and I will gladly accept whatever assistance in that endeavor my professional partners can provide. But I will not subvert who I am or what I stand for, or shame my country, by turning my skills against citizens of my own country, no matter what some desk jockey twit says I should do. I am better than that. And, in America, such tactics simply invite the very activity purported to be opposed. Tyranny always reaps what it sows; just ask all those who have found themselves on the opposite side of America’s armed forces over the past 238 years. No one should ever blacken that record.
What makes any of us so “special” that they can force all of us into the same prison they want to keep themselves “safe”? Our society now is all about quick fixes, short cuts and easy answers – with very little real thought into any of it. We now even start and wage wars that we don’t really care how they end, as long as they don’t involve “me”. We even have huge portions of our population that don’t even care about what kind of country they leave to their own children, as long as their government gives them whatever they want for themselves now. We have whole generations of aging citizens who never even bothered to put in place the early intelligent adjustments and capabilities, including enough of their own children, to pay for their own later burgeoning birthright entitlements. We have tens of millions of immigrants streaming in expecting to be handed gratis what our ancestors built with truly massive amounts of their blood, sweat and tears, what many of us have been paying for at great personal cost for our entire lives. This is America. It is not just another of those societal failures all those immigrants left behind. America demands much more of its citizens in order to maintain all that it offers, but half of us now sadly contributes almost nothing to our society except whiny demands on others. Perhaps such a people deserve to end up with the hell they allowed to evolve. But what about those few of us who DO care about such things, who have been their whole lifetimes willing to put their lives on the line for something far greater and far better? Do we sit idly by as huge herds of grown-up children trash it all for their own immediate infantile gratifications?
I have spent a lifetime dealing with the deadly and crippling consequences of oppressive government all over the world, secure in the belief that the same could never happen in my own country. Now I am no longer so confident in that belief, or that our “leaders” are up to the grave task at hand. We definitely and urgently need senior people in our government who have proven themselves able to think strategically far beyond themselves about the greater adverse consequences to America as we craft a logical long-range path to fend off and de-fang our enemies – and then sell that strategy confidently to the American people. Fundamental to America is that minimal government is employed by the people, all of the people, to function on their behalf, not the reverse, and not just by and for select portions of the people.
The “Cold” War is over, and the Greatest Generation is almost gone, but we don’t seem to have nurtured the type of brilliant and altruistic thinkers needed to take us forward with the full and well-earned trust of thinking American people. On the contrary, what we are doing is becoming increasingly scary as the public’s trust in incompetent and misleading and self-serving government naturally erodes by leaps and bounds. (See Footnote #4.)Unaccountable emotional nonsense serving “me” is never going to do the job. The threat posed by a few crazies with home-made bombs vanishes in the shadow of powerful enemy nuclear weapons able to eradicate humanity in a day. The Greatest Generation never once fanned fear for cheap financial or political gain, and never placed American citizens in a prison. Government then just went about quietly doing the job as best it could to carry out the purpose for which the taxpayers funded it. Americans today look like whining infants, afraid of the dark and needing mommy to come running to their rescue. The towering Greatest Generation makes us all look like cowering little girls pining to slink back to the womb … all of which is a rather pathetic commentary about a people who proudly proclaim to all the world at every sport and community event that their flag proudly waves “… O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty or safety.” – Benjamin Franklin.
(See also “The Constitution And The Military”, posted separately.)
Footnote #1: Some Basic Intelligence Concepts.
In the intelligence business, just as in military operations in general, there are two sides to the equation: offensive and defensive, with some carefully controlled overlap when appropriate. The main problem with both the US military and US intelligence in recent times, is that those calling the shots like to believe that the same people can do both jobs, play defense and offense, at the same time, and that this is “cost effective”, therefore “desirable”. It’s the same rationalized nonsense that leads women to think they can “have it all”, do two things at once – as long as “someone else” bears the costs of both things done not nearly well enough. No one would expect a top winning football team to do this, but it’s perfectly acceptable, i.e., cheaper, for endeavors that have far more gravity.
Offensive (collection) intelligence seeks to determine information about foreign entities deemed necessary to defend the nation in all contingencies, usually by identifying and capitalizing on weaknesses and vulnerabilities to defeat such enemies. (This broad “defend” umbrella includes ensuring that the US military can execute any mission it is handed anywhere in the world today, even when the actual “defend” aspect is rather nebulous, and includes defending friendly others from their enemies and executing major humanitarian missions. Taken together, such military missions require an extreme degree of knowledge about our world as it actually exists, not as we would prefer to believe it exists.) Defensive (counter-) intelligence seeks to protect similar information about us which in the hands of others would undermine our own nation’s ability to protect itself. Each side of this equation requires different approaches, methodologies, disciplines and expertise. Over time, the military experience had shown that it is best to have intelligence people specialize in one or the other side of this equation and exchange select personnel and methodology only when characteristics of the case at hand warrants it. (A person, for example, who knows how to acquire protected information about others is also likely to know how others might try to acquire similar information about us which we are trying protect.)
There is a wide range of “platforms” available to America to acquire (collect) the needed protected information (and to defend (counter) our own protected information). Almost all of these platforms involve various technical methodologies (people employing remote machines), usually on a highly advanced level. When all of these technical platforms fall short or need verification, the laborious and often risky human intelligence (HUMINT) collection platform is employed.
The human intelligence (HUMINT) collection activity employed can be overt, covert or clandestine. Overt could be as simple as buying and studying publications by a known foreign expert available on the open market, having a US military diplomat simply ask host country officials for the needed information, debriefing a defector or interrogating a prisoner of war, i,e., both sides know the information has been transferred and between whom. Covert could be something like having a trained agent or a special operations team surreptitiously obtain a device such as a secret weapon or computer, i.e., the owner knows the protected information has been transferred (lost) but does not know for certain by or to whom it was transferred. Clandestine is obtaining the protected information without the knowledge of the owner knowing it has been transferred, such as via a foreign officer recruited as an agent to obtain and transfer the information in place over time; in this case the owner of the protected information does not know that it has been transferred, much less to whom. (A variation of both covert and clandestine can also be inducing a key person to defect after acquiring the needed information surreptitiously, i.e., the owner knows a major breach has occurred but is not certain what information has been transferred (and perhaps even to whom).) Note that collection ends with a defection or acquisition, but may continue indefinitely if a trained in-place clandestine agent is employed.
It is also possible to employ these human intelligence collection methodologies to realize a variety of other objectives in support of the overall mission, for example to surreptitiously replace an enemy’s valid critical data with doctored data that is not valid, to supply parts via third parties intended for the manufacture or repair of military hardware that have been designed to fail at a critical point, to secretly insert viruses or breaches in computer or communication systems, to emplace semi-permanent covert “listening” (monitoring) devices in critical locations, etc.. The possibilities with human intelligence (HUMINT) collection operations are limited only by the imagination, daring and professionalism of the experts employing them. However, since there is an enormous risk difference in employing humans versus machines in inherently very dangerous endeavors, the covert and clandestine HUMINT collection discipline is considered the “last choice” alternative. (On the battlefield, at the tactical level, all available methodologies are employed in concert equally, with the human discipline inherently assuming the greatest risk to life.)
Footnote #2. Irish Spooks. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” is a 1963 “Cold” War spy novel, the second by very knowledgeable British author John le Carré. It is considered one of the best and most literate of the spy novel genre, and so is the movie staring Richard Burton that is based on the novel; both the book and the film have long held top places on my “favorites list”. In the story, the West Berlin office of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is under the command of Station Head Alec Leamas, a morally burnt-out Irishman with eighteen years service (1943-1961) as an operations man, mostly in West Berlin. After his last East German double agent is shot while returning to West Berlin, Leamas is recalled to London. There is a scene in the opening of the story in which Leamas is waiting on the West side for his over-due agent to cross through the American Checkpoint Charlie, and Leamas is nervously pacing about, accompanied by a CIA man. Since I also served many years as an American operations officer in Berlin, I know that this is one of the few implausible scenes involving a le Carré story. No American or British operations officer would expose himself to the well-lit stage that was Checkpoint Charlie, and most especially when an agent was scheduled to return via that route. Their presence in the vicinity would have been detected immediately by the other side and automatically signaled them to significantly heighten their alertness. If the other side didn’t shoot the agent before he crossed back over, they could have simply followed him to his contact, and killed or identified them both, making any further operational use by either person problematic at best. Nevertheless, Burton plays the Irish operations officer better than any other actor could; his man is completely human and fully three-dimensional to the end, in one of the most thankless jobs there was.
In the British HUMINT system, MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service or Military Intelligence/ Section 6) is concerned with foreign intelligence collection, and MI5 (Security Service or Military Intelligence/Section 5) is the counter-intelligence (CI) arm. Probably to confuse the matter, many of le Carré’s stories have a distinctly counter-intelligence (MI5) flavor, but are nevertheless carried out by MI6. I believe that such clouding of such fundamental matters in popular entertainment has led to a gross misunderstanding of the very real differences between collection and CI that has settled into the popular mindset, even within the broader intelligence community itself. This is indeed unfortunate; there should always be two distinct sides to the HUMINT house – one offensive and one defensive. They each involve distinct thinking, approaches, expertise and methodology. Once you start mixing them up, things tend to go south rather quickly.
One aspect that has led to a clouding of the differences between clandestine collection and counter-intelligence in recent times is that the former is very considerably more difficult and time-consuming for the operator. Compare these two approaches to a foreign target who has been identified as someone with access to information you require: (1) You walk up to the person flashing your smile and say, “Hi, I’m Joe Schmuck from Des Moines. I work for a small high-tech company that is developing nanotechnology applications. Let’s be friends.” (2) You walk up to the person flashing your badge and say, “Hi, I’m Captain America from the richest and most powerful government on the planet. I work for US intelligence, and I have a spy offer you can’t refuse.” Clandestine collection people employ a range of cover identities, which usually have no official government aspect at all, while counter-intelligence people use their badge and credentials (B&Cs) that inherently place the full force of the US government right there with the operator. To succeed, the first approach requires special talents, patience, expertise and finesse, while the second approach can be executed by just about anyone in a couple of minutes. But the second approach also sacrifices an enormous amount of development of the relationship and assessment of the target person and renders the operator immediately vulnerable to being identified to others as a “secret” agent, precluding any further contact with the target person. In collection activities, that badge often becomes a big crutch used to hide a range of shortcomings on the part of the operator and immediately introduces weaknesses that will continue to plague the relationship – if the person agrees to cooperate. The very first act was to remove a great deal of “clandestine” from the equation and place it into the semi-covert realm, where it is very likely to remain. (This same aspect applies to CIA personnel posted as “diplomats” to US embassies or diplomatic missions abroad in a “declared” status, i.e., their true positions and functions are formally revealed to the host government.) Almost always, the first thing a target sees in his mind when presented with a badge is US government dollar signs, Fast Big Bucks, for which he will tell you any silly story you want to hear. A possible relationship with Joe Schmuck – the American offers little more than a potentially mutually beneficial relationship over time.
(Note: Under US law, all intelligence (and police) personnel approaching “US Persons” MUST identify themselves and display their B&Cs; this is not the case with “non-US Persons”. “US Persons” include those residing in the US without US citizenship. For the record, I have never broken this law, and I have never displayed my B&Cs. I rely on my own capabilities, recognizing their limitations, and I do not shame my country.)
Footnote #3. Rendition. Then there’s this Baby Boomer crap:
Poland: Exploited by our chief ally (summary by The Week)
Gazeta Wyborcza, 1 February 2014, by Pawel Wronski
It looks as if Poland’s leaders really didn’t know what was happening at the CIA “black sites” here after 9/11. But that makes their complicity even more reprehensible. A report last week by The Washington Post revealed new details about the secret CIA prison on Polish territory, where detainees such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were tortured with water-boarding. It would be one thing if Polish authorities had grappled with the ramifications of the al Qaida threat and the needs of our ally and then made the tough decision to allow these interrogations. “I might be the first to justify the decisions the authorities took.” But that’s not what happened. Instead, in exchange for a paltry $15 million, allegedly stuffed into cardboard boxes and delivered to Polish intelligence, Poland “simply made a piece of Polish territory available to the United States, not knowing what it would be used for.” Our ally then chose to use our nation to do something it could never do on its own soil. Poland’s excuse for throwing away its “reputation as a defender of human rights and promoter of freedom and solidarity” is truly pathetic: “Sorry,’’ our leaders are saying. “The Americans made fools of us.” ((End.))
Americans and their bags of cash. It’s all short cuts, easy answers and quick fixes, zero brains required, zero strategy, zero ethics, zero thought to tomorrow, zero consideration of the “unintended consequences”. Remember when America’s Greatest Generation threw all they could for a half century at holding off the brutal excesses of Soviet communism and trying to excise it at least from Eastern Europe? They even came out of retirement to show their Boomer kids that Poland was the key to ending the very long and enormously costly “Cold” War. Can anyone today tell me why? Those with a functioning brain can easily add to the above item with a long list of similar stupidity over the last twenty years. And Americans now spend all their time wagging their sanctimonious little finger (from the putrid gutter) at others. Who teaches our young such self-involved idiocy? I maintain that it was American “feminism” that taught us all to be totally incapable of seeing the board from the other side, but maybe it was just our truly deplorable public schools.
Footnote #4. German Indignation And American Clumsiness. After two incredibly stupid CIA spy fiascos in Germany, the German government in July 2014 ordered the CIA Chief of Station (COS) in Berlin to leave the country as “persona non grata”. Such an action has never before been undertaken by an American ally. The fact that it happened in which since 1945 has been (after the four English-speaking countries mentioned above) the safest working environment in the world for CIA people is simply astounding. Cooperative liaison relationships between US and German intelligence has long been among the closest in the world; if the US ever wished to know something, the US needed only ask. (Note: Protocol between the American and German intelligence services since 1945 has also stipulated that if one is approached by a loose cannon member of the other, that the other service be notified via appropriate counter-intelligence channels. The thinking behind such practice is that an insider going off the reservation with such questionable allegiance is also likely to approach other foreign services – and do far greater damage to both US and German intelligence. In two recent known cases in rapid succession, the CIA in Germany failed to follow this very long-standing, and sensible, protocol – and clandestinely employed the German government employees.) What’s going on? The following is a very widely held perspective within Germany during the summer of 2014:
The spies who didn’t love us
Deutsche Welle Opinion, by Volker Wagener, 10 July 2014
Eavesdropping on the chancellor, spying in the intelligence service and defense ministry – the US’s desire to know everything is alienating its friends. This is bad news, but it can’t be changed.
Germany and the US – a special relationship. After the war, the Americans were the friendly liberators: they brought chocolate for children, nylon stockings for ladies, and democracy for everyone. Money flowed from the Marshall Fund, bringing about an economic miracle in our war-ravaged country. The US later protected us and our eastern border. Again: a special relationship, but by no means a normal one.
This history is certainly part of the reason for the uproar over the NSA spies in Germany. Washington has given us Germans so many good things – so we are offended and outraged when our former benefactors turn into perpetrators. We expect systematic spying from the Russians and Chinese. They’re not part of our political family, after all. Germans would be surprised if Russia and China were not interested in our political and economic plans and deliberations.
But it’s an entirely different story when it comes to our American friends, who are supposed to share our values. We expect them to cooperate and to ask us questions. But they don’t. They treat friend and foe alike: They want to know everything, and they go about procuring information in much the same way as they do in Havana and Pyongyang. US spies are here, and active. It’s just that we never looked for them. This realization makes us angry because we didn’t expect it – and because we can’t do anything about it. How naïve of us!
It’s true, of course, that the human category of friendship does not exist in the relationship between states. States have interests. They pursue them using all means at their disposal. They take into account that they will violate laws and risk political damage. And that’s exactly what has happened.
The exposure of a US spy in the German intelligence agency (BND) and an informer in the German defense ministry is proof of two things. Firstly, that this kind of snooping is both brazen and politically short-sighted as well as foolish. Washington could satisfy its thirst for knowledge differently. If you have been collaborating with an ally, working side by side for so long, you can simply ask questions if there’s something you want to know. One may not always want to disclose every last detail. But it’s hard to imagine that Germany would refuse to share everything they know with their closest partners when it comes to fighting terrorism, for example. ((This is true.))
Secondly, the US doesn’t seem to have exerted any restraint in spying on its foster child Germany. It verges on paranoia. Washington is deceiving its allies with its behavior – at a time of tremendous challenges in other areas. Russia is trying to conquer parts of Ukraine, and the Middle East is once again in flames, to name only two of the current hot spots.
9/11: The turning point
The US is practicing power politics as if there were no tomorrow. ((It’s all about “me” and “now”; damned the kids who have to follow us.)) It has long since begun to lose its 20th century status as the world’s leading nation. Not taking this into account only deepens the divide between appearance and reality. The German government ought to be warning its friend against adopting an excessively hubristic foreign policy. ((Many in Germany fear an ignorant American foreign affairs team may be trying to start WW III with Russia over Ukraine – right when there are far more important global challenges.))
Much of the scope and style of current American spying activities certainly have their origin in the September 2001 terrorist attacks. And yes, some of the masterminds were based in Hamburg, in northern Germany. A certain degree of mistrust towards Germany has since been an integral part of the American psyche – of the collective psyche. ((The CIA in 2002 accepted intel provided by Germany that turned out to be false, but Germany had also at that time advised CIA that there was considerable doubt about the veracity of the information. The CIA ignored the warning and used the intel to partially justify the invasion of Iraq. A major problem that the CIA has today with almost all of our friends abroad is a woeful lack of knowledge of past history; the kids don’t seem to care one bit about anything that happened before their own miraculous arrival on the scene, or why it happened.))
But this is no justification for all the activities that are currently infuriating the German chancellor and trans-Atlantic experts, as well as the ordinary man on the street. Spying on the German parliament’s NSA investigation committee was, quite simply, a stupid move. There are so many easier ways to procure relevant information: by consulting committee members and journalists, for example. ((Germany has a very vigorous and free press.))
The US should stop behaving like the proverbial bull in a German china shop, and fast. Germany’s means of counterattack are limited, because the country lacks the necessary instruments of power. But in the medium term the US already risks the emergence of strong anti-American sentiment – and that in a country that owes it so very much.
— (end editorial)
((The Americans view “the terrorist enemy” in terms of individual people and groups – which is just simple-minded. “The enemy” is an extremist ideology. In this sense, it is just like communism, and Nazism, but without a state sponsor. The absence of a state sponsor makes “the enemy” enormously more difficult to combat. It places incredible importance on our like-minded friends and allies. The LAST thing we should be doing is alienating them. The FIRST thing we should be doing is reinforcing the friendships our Greatest Generation left us – while making and solidifying NEW like-minded friends and allies – including, especially, Russia. Otherwise we will NOT prevail.))
A major part of the problem is also that both the US and European countries are rapidly changing in their demographic compositions. This dramatic change is forcing changes in their political outlooks. Western countries are really no longer the same counties they were just thirty years ago, say in 1980, but they are constrained by “politically correct censorship” in discussing, much less addressing, the real problem head-on. The simple truth is that all these countries have been forced to compensate for self-imposed societal weaknesses by importing really huge numbers of Third World immigrants. Western society is now firmly based on an unsustainable construct, an illusion itself built by nothing but propaganda. Native-born citizens refuse to lower their many lucrative government entitlements, and even childishly keep demanding more, while also refusing to have and raise enough of their own children – future working taxpayers – to pay for those entitlements. Third World babies (or “families”, i.e., women willing to have and raise them) are now the West’s most important import.
To meet that absolutely critical need, the US has relied very heavily on Hispanic immigrants, both legal and illegal. (This explains the current child flood from Central America; fewer and fewer Mexicans are coming, so our government has to dig further south for the critical resource that will keep our society viable. The only alternative is to lower the humongous and burgeoning costs of our entitlements – which no one wants to do.) European countries, however, have relied very heavily on Muslim immigrants – at a time when the greatest external threat to the West comes from Muslim militant extremism. The absurdity of “politically correct censorship” makes it impossible to address the real problems – inadequate native birthrates (along with the systematic destruction of the traditional family unit) and new enemies hidden among us – so everyone now has to dance around on the far edges – so that NONE of it makes sense.
Europe was able to build its socialist states by shifting really huge resources from the defense portion of its budgets to citizen entitlements – safe in the knowledge that the US would pick up its slack in defense. And the dumb Americans obligingly stepped up to its responsibility via a powerful military and placing Europe under its umbrella, and not just in Europe, but throughout the world. Just “NATO”, for example, is STILL over 80% American, in money, personnel and equipment, when it should be below 40%. But the US is now following the same domestic path that the Europeans followed generations ago, first by once again firing many hundreds of thousands of soldiers (no unions) and dumping them on the street and then shifting the “savings” to citizen entitlements. (The same was done after Vietnam and the “Cold” War; naïve Americans think they can just pull a competent military force comprised of “someone else” out of a hat box whenever they need one. The usual political tactic is to make huge cuts in defense, but not in taxes, and then shift hundreds of billions of dollars from defense into entitlement programs, which then CAN’T be cut.)
The problem with this lunacy, of course, is that once there is little or no capability in American defense, there is no “someone else” left standing anywhere in the world to pay the bills, take the blame and do the hard stuff for “special me”. There is nothing out there that will fill the vacuum created by a withdrawing American military. (This is mainly a product of our own arrogance, an absurd belief that we alone could play World Cop.) This American withdrawal opens wide the doors to any and all lunatic extremism in an increasingly dangerous world. This current war with Islamic extremism has only just begun, and already we, and the Europeans, are trying very hard to lose it – mainly by reveling in narcissism (and denial). And all just to buy the dependency votes of many tens of millions of whining women and their clones.
Germany’s socialist state wasn’t built just by relying on the US military; it was also built by relying on US intelligence. (A 10 July 2014 opinion editorial published in Die Zeit, one of Germany’s biggest and most respected newspapers, was remarkable in its vitriol, its anger at its own government over the American spy scandals. The writer felt that ordering the CIA Chief of Station (COS) to leave was nothing but cosmetics, that the government should have thrown out hundreds of NSA machine people busily sucking up every private detail about all German citizens and storing it all in its many acres of super-computers. (NSA, in fact, has turned over a major listening post in Bavaria to the German BND, but with some residual NSA participation.) The article indicates the extreme political pressure that Chancellor Merkel and her government are now trying to survive. Unfortunately, the criticism applies to almost all political parties in Germany, for decades hell-bent on buying as many emotional girly dependency votes as possible.
At least the recent spy scandals have forced Germany to face some harsh truths, that she has built a comfy society – which is no longer master of its own fate, its own freedoms. The wide-spread anger in Germany is very similar to the Republicans’ extreme frustration with an inept and dictatorial Executive Branch in the US – ALSO fervently building its own socialist state. Who are WE going to blame when there’s no one left to blame, to pay the bills, to do the hard stuff for “special me”? What will WE do when there’s no one left to protect and defend US? (I, for one, believe we have already crossed that bridge; this is based on the incredible stupidity and dogmatism of those we now call “leaders” in both politics and government, political party immaterial.) And German citizen anger, of course, also applies to American citizens. We are watching the systematic construction of our very own Stasi. Just imagine THAT power in the hands of an Executive Branch like we now have – an Executive Branch that “thinks” just like NSA. To paraphrase Nancy Pelosi: “Laws, the Constitution, Rights are whatever WE say they are.” And no one anywhere mentions those irritating responsibilities…
Footnote #5. Learning Languages. My professional specialty from the very beginning back in the 1960s has always been HUMINT – clandestine human intelligence collection in foreign environments in support of strategic special operations. In 1970 my managers in Washington sent me to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey California to learn German. Seven months later, and comfortably speaking conversational German, I understood why the school was then widely regarded as the best foreign language school in the world, routinely imparting to select military and civilian students in the US government a fluency in any of more than fifty different languages. DLI recruited and hired almost exclusively native-speaking professors and associate professors born and raised in countries where their particular language was spoken. These remarkable people would then teach their country’s culture and history while using a phonics-based approach to simultaneously teaching the language. Almost completely immersed in the language, students rarely heard or used either English or “rules of the language”. Instead, it was all about what “sounded right”, through extensive use of nothing but the way the spoken words sounded when strung together. Rather quickly students developed a “sixth sense” for the language and just “knew” what sounded correct, what flowed naturally, and what didn’t. Understanding why this was so was irrelevant. After students were comfortable in the natural “rhythm” of the language, had inculcated its natural “music”, and had unknowingly mastered an impressive vocabulary along the way, they could then learn a few basic grammar rules that helped them understand idioms and certain unusual quirks. The institute was frequently visited by observers from among America’s best universities to learn the secret of DLI’s success. I didn’t realize how much I had learned until I hit the streets of Berlin soon thereafter and never skipped a beat with the natives. I was amazed at how solid was my foundation, how easy it was to rapidly build on that foundation and comfortably grow as a knowledgeable human.
About a dozen years later I was again sent to DLI, this time to master Czech. Based on my previous experience, I approached the assignment with considerable enthusiasm. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my enthusiasm was misplaced, that things had changed at DLI, and in very big ways. In the interim the school had been taken over by the National Security Agency, and NSA was not interested in actually conversing with anyone in their own language. NSA was only interested in listening from a distance – in collection via signals intelligence (SIGINT) means. NSA people thus were strictly two-dimensional; they listened to others speak the language, remained alert for certain key words, and then translated into written English what they heard. It’s doubtful that any of them would ever actually meet a native speaker of the language, much less actually engage in a two-way conversation with such a person. So now the school imparted a lot of information in English, had long vocabulary lists to memorize, a whole separate section where military terminology was to be committed to memory. It was incredibly boring, suffocating. A year later they handed me a graduation certificate, but I knew very little more than I did when I started, and I certainly did not have the skills I needed to engage with actual Czechs in their own world. In the interest of expediency, and to the exclusion of any other objectives, NSA had single-handedly ruined one of America’s very best skill-teaching institutions for its own myopic and short-sighted wants.
So my bosses sent me to China, where everyone wanted to learn English. I would spend subsequent years trying to learn useful conversational Czech on my own.
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) traces its roots to the eve of America’s entry into World War II, when the US Army established a secret school at the Presidio of San Francisco to teach the Japanese language. (The Presidio then was still a military installation at the western foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the very few Army installations throughout the world that had a nice location.) The school’s original mission was heavily influenced by requirements for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), mainly in Europe, for talented military people fluent in the culture, history and languages of foreign countries. DLIFLC classes began in November 1941 with four instructors and 60 competitively selected students in an abandoned airplane hangar at Crissy Field. During the war the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS), as it came to be called, grew dramatically. More than 6,000 graduates served throughout the Pacific Theater during the war and the subsequent occupation of Japan. (Competence in one or more foreign languages was considered an “additional qualifier” for Army personnel, an adjunct to the person’s primary military specialty, but those qualifiers were absolutely critical for a tiny few specialties like mine.) In 1946 the school moved to the Presidio of Monterey, was renamed Army Language School, and expanded rapidly in 1947–48 during the Cold War, recruiting heavily from the large pool of post-War refugees and displaced people. Instructors, including native speakers of more than thirty languages and dialects, were recruited from all over the world. Russian became the largest language program, followed by Chinese, Korean, and German, with smaller programs in fifty other languages. In subsequent years, service command of the school, and its other branches, switched back and forth between the US Army and US Air Force, but around 1980 the NSA became the secret driving force behind the school’s mission with influence that came with funding. At least in many languages, HUMINT’s needs lost out to SIGINT’s money. The school, now churning out two-dimensional human extensions of machines, rapidly lost its esteemed reputation. On the last day of classes, NSA bureaucrats would emerge from the shadows to have young impressionable student graduates perfunctorily sign NSA secrecy documents and begin processing into the world of NSA (or service elements such as the Army Security Agency (ASA)). (Finding the presumption of these bureaucrats that there was no more useful requirement in the real world beyond human extensions to their computerized machines incredibly small-minded, I declined.)
(In 2017 Mark Seidenberg’s “Language At The Speed Of Light” was published. It attempted to demystify the process by which children learn to read. The research he describes concludes, for example, that a phonics-based approach to language learning is best and suggests that a wide embrace of the “new” research could significantly boost student achievement. Of course, such things were well-known to the Greatest Generation, even without the “new” research, but then, everything the Greatest Generation knew was thrown in the trash can by their “brilliant” Baby Boomer children – forcing everyone to wait a full half century to rediscover what was once common knowledge. Most of the “new” social science research I read about today was in my college text books fifty years ago.)