Monday, 02 January 2017 14:48

US Intelligence vs. Russia: History long, so are the politics

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Alisa Esage Shevchenko is young, doe-eyed, and pretty, at least in the picture The New York Times claims to have culled from her Twitter account. Fortune magazine published a different photo of Alisa, a few years back, that showed a blonde twenty-one-year-old. In that picture, she is a model-thin, svelte, beauty

Part misfit, part mishacker, a business woman in the past and maybe in the future, is how Ms. Shevchenko describes herself on a separate page, titled “Hello Stranger,” that the Times said belongs to her. Besides the Twitter account Alisa has a Facebook page and, possibly, a LinkedIn account. It would not be surprising, given this affinity for social media, to find out that she’s, also, one of Donald Trump’s nearly 18 million Twitter followers.

According to the Obama Administration, Alisa is one of the most dangerous women in the world to democratic institutions, though she carries no gun. It doesn’t matter. The delicate fingers in the Times’ photo would be out of place on a Kalashnikov. What earned this woman a spot on the President’s dishonorable list, despite having been credited, previously, by the U.S., for help in security preservation, is how those fingers can manipulate code. For a rudimentary sample of the kind of analytical work she does see:

ZorSecurity, also known as Esage Lab, a company Shevchenko founded, since shuttered is, presumably, barred as is she, from entering the U.S., or doing business with anyone here, due to the 2016 election hacks she is accused of aiding and abetting. Shevchenko professes anger at the accusations that she, vehemently, maintains are false. Fortune magazine agrees and thinks Obama is blaming the wrong girl, even if Alisa is involved with a loosely organized hacking co-op that, it says, is dedicated to “peace and love.” Fortune revealed that it has used Alisa as a trusted “white hat hacking” resource and expressed doubt that she provided any technical research, or developmental help, to Russia's chief intelligence agency, the GRU, during the DNC debacle. In fifty years, when the applicable reports are declassified, we may know for sure. Absent more compelling facts, however, its still guesswork, just as Trump has said.  

Cyber War, more properly, could be called “Soft War.” The Russians are its current superstars. Soft war consists of purloined, and or manipulated code. By whatever name it’s called, however, the concept is nothing new. The British, traditionally, have excelled at it, too, as have the Israelis. During WWII the British, working out of Bletchley Park, cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code using a machine invented by Alan Turing. Ironically, Turing, died young, broke, and bitter.   

In the 1950’s, the case of Alger Hiss demonstrated just how vulnerable America’s secrets could be. Hiss, a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and a State Department factotum, was accused of being a Soviet spy. Another highly placed government functionary, Whittaker Chambers, Hiss’ longtime friend, corroborated Hiss’ treason. Chambers had gone Red, himself, but came back in from the cold. The Red Scare of the 1950’s produced such a national hysteria that even Hollywood blacklisted some of its brightest lights.

Hiss, eventually, was convicted of committing perjury, for lying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, when secret papers his lawyer had hidden in a pumpkin, years before, were revealed. Other sensitive material, destined for the Russians, was matched to his typewriter, a Woodstock, Serial No. 230099. Richard Nixon, then a freshman Congressman from California, pounced on Hiss and jump-started a career that ended only when he was caught because he’d bugged himself in the Oval Office.

Ever since the Russian Revolution, in October 1917, America has distrusted the Russians. When the Russians changed sides in the Second World War, abandoning the Nazis to fight on our side, many Americans grew sanguine about Russia’s long-term intentions. Franklin Roosevelt was deathly ill at Yalta, some say too ill to properly handle a gloating Stalin. His successor, Harry Truman, however, was suspicious, from the start, that Soviet spies had been using code-breaking technology to glean America’s greatest secrets, including plans for the atomic bomb.

To meet the threat Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 that established the CIA. It was wise because a fearful game of cat and mouse was being born. That conflict peaked during the Cuban Missile Crisis that ended only when JFK didn’t blink. When Mikhail Gorbachev instituted Western friendly policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika" people relaxed, again. More economically motivated than militarily, the policies allowed the USSR to save billions on the arms race while we continued spending. What Russia did not stop, however, was spying. The years that followed presented their own challenges, for American defense contractors, in particular.

On December 17, 2004, President George W. Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act that further refined America’s intelligence operations. In 2011, many intelligence and enforcement functions were consolidated and placed under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is, now, the third largest agency in the U.S. government with a budget of $98.8 billion and 230,000 employees.


Many people recall well-publicized intelligence failures, especially those that originated overseas. Few, however, learn about its successes except for big events, like the killing of Bin Laden. No doubt, the CIA was poorly utilized during Viet Nam and shouldered a disproportionate amount of blame for errors made by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. It lost prestige fell, further, when it was revealed that the Watergate burglary crew contained CIA veterans.

Reagan, also, misstepped when he ordered the CIA to assist the Contras in Nicaragua. It can’t be overstated, however, that the executive branch decides where clandestine services are directed, not the agencies themselves. Bush and Cheney found weapons of mass destruction because they wanted to, not because of faulty intelligence as reported. Intelligence is fact based, policy isn't.

What is real, however, is the danger from analysts, soldiers, and contractors, such as Daniel Ellsberg, Eric Snowden, and Chelsea Manning, who convince themselves that patriotism requires disclosure of facts they feel have been ignored, or suppressed, in the pursuit of official policies perceived to be in contravention of law, fact, or decency. The designation of these whistleblowers as patriots, or traitors, will be affixed by history. What is not in doubt, however, is that when intelligence gets mired in political calculus, its effectiveness is wasted; and, a secret is a terrible thing to waste.     

Last modified on Monday, 02 January 2017 14:55
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