So this is a technical little tale of some nerds doing nerd things and the pointy-headed managers that got in the way. It is a tale of heroic engineers and shiftless bureaucrats, of efforts stymied by infighting, of the eventual recriminations and fingerpointing that inevitably occur when problems have been buried for too long. There’s a lot of gadgetry and technical terms but from a lay perspective, like Michael Lewis at his best. Except -
So okay. The author is Eric Haseltine. He didn’t really hit his stride until he became the head of Disney Imagineering in ’92 and I say that about a guy who was director of engineering at Hughes Aircraft really he went from air-to-air missiles to virtual reality and Mickey Mouse and then George W Bush hired him to take over as director of engineering at the NSA. We’ve also got a forward from Michael Hayden, the director of the NSA under Bush and the director of the CIA under Bush and Obama. So the nerds and pointy-haired managers are kinda high-level. Like, the infighting was between the Secretary of State and the director of the CIA and it took an executive order from Reagan to sort shit out.
And it’s kinda odd when a bunch of top-shelf spooks (like, report-to-Congress spooks) write books with passages that go something like “Although the content of that conversation is still classified, declassified cables and public disclosures indicate that my buddy and his other buddy probably talked about this” particularly when the subject is the State Department having their head up their ass when it comes to Russian technology and embassies.
A little background: ‘member Watergate? People got snippy after Watergate ‘cuz, like, the Watergate burglars were “ex”-CIA. So in a big cleaning-house move the CIA put together a list of all the nefarious shit they’d done for the past 20 years that got partially leaked to the New York Times which was not a good look which poured gasoline on the fire of the CIA’s own mole hunt which led in turn to the CIA being effectively gutted. And into that, throw the US Embassy in Moscow into the mix, which was being bombarded by microwaves, which the CIA couldn’t figure out why, and they were seeing their “assets rolled up” (Soviet informants being arrested and shot) and they couldn’t find the bugs.
So here’s the CIA. Sucking. Literally failing to predict the fall of the Shah in Iran. Carter has emphasized signals intelligence over cloak’n’dagger spy shit and they are a fail whale. And there’s every reason to believe that the embassy is bugged to fuck but they can’t find it so they throw a hail mary and go okay fiiiiiinnnnnne your weird little NSA tweakers can come look but guhhhhhh you’ll never find annnnnnnnnythinnnnnggggggg and within 24 hours it’s
so yeah that weird mouse-scratchy noise your secretary heard? It’s a secret tri-band antenna manipulated by ropes in a secret blind chimney pointed at the ambassador’s office right now but they can totally aim it and actually while we were pulling it out they were stabbing at us with iron spikes and by the way holy shit this is technology we’re totes jealous of because it never would have occurred to us to try this it’s fucking genius hey wait give that back -
At which point the CIA got the State Department to issue an official memo forbidding them from investigating anything ever again.
And there things sat for six fucking years.
‘cuz the thing is? If there’s a bug and you can’t find it and the NSA can, you lose face to the NSA. And if there’s a bug and you prevented anyone from finding it then you lose face to everyone. But if nobody can find the problem then do you really have to do anything about it? I mean, the NSA came in here with their crazy-ass theories but they never actually demonstrated what was happening to meeeeeeeeeeeee (just my buddies but never mind about that) until you have to go to Reagan and stake the reputation of the entire goddamn agency on figuring out how the KGB was doing it once they hauled 22 fucking tons of office equipment away in the middle of the night.
So how’d they do it? That’s worth a post of its own:
Bottom line? The Soviets created a keylogger that they snuck into 30 typewriters (the Americans found 16) that was not only undetectable by the Americans for a decade or more, the Americans were so arrogant that once they had an inkling it was there they shined it on for six years before doing anything.
The timing of the publication is interesting. This is basically a bunch of spooks going “so about that Cuban Embassy.” But more than that, the point they make is that the Soviets never faced any blowback because the Soviets never face any blowback and really, the American intelligence community is its own worst enemy because whenever shit like this happens the primary result is intramural warfare and finger-pointing. Haseltine makes the point that if the Russians didn’t want us to know they’d hacked the election, we wouldn’t know they hacked the election. That if they didn’t want us to know it was them poisoning Sergei Skripal, they wouldn’t have used an agent so readily traceable to them. And that really, the best thing we as a country can do is band the fuck together and recognize that the outer enemy is always worse than the inner enemy. What’s really interesting is according to Haseltine, Security 101 in Russian textbooks isn’t “use a strong password” it’s “protect yourself from magnetoacoustic penetration” because the culture of KGB eavesdropping is so ingrained in radio frequency penetration that anybody you’re ever likely to encounter in any sort of black-hat situation comes from an 80-year history of it.
And I don't know about you, but when the former head of technology at the NSA writes a book that says the Russians are way the hell ahead of us but we're too busy fighting each other and it's signed by the former head of the NSA and the CIA...
...I mean fuck.