Monday, February 10, 2014

First look at FirstLook

Drone-bird. AeroVironment, June 2011.
But before I get to Omidyar, Greenwald, Scahill, and what appears at first sight to be a $250-million WordPress blog (sorry, I stole that crack), I'd like to call everybody's attention to a truly important story that is not getting covered enough: about some really bad, no good, horrible practices developed by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan under Generals Petraeus and McChrystal, apparently covered in Mark Urban's Task Force Black (2010) and subsequently blogged in a fine post at Truthout by Gareth Porter.

It seems the Joint Special Operations Command had been using a technique for developing and attacking presumptively terrorist targets by cell phone metadata: they'd take the known number of an Al Qa'eda or Taliban operative and, through social network analysis, work out a supplementary list of targets whom they would then mark out for attack. Only they weren't doing it right:
Traditional intelligence analysis of an insurgent network would have involved verifying the identities of those individuals who had visited the location or communicated with others associated with the network to assess the nature of the relationship. From the beginning of the new McChrystal-Flynn system, however, the emphasis was on speed of collection rather than on such careful analysis of the data. Urban recalls that McChrystal and Flynn introduced the concept of "F3EA" - "find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze." That meant that they aimed at obtaining new data from each raid that could be used to add to the target list for future raids - often within hours of the previous one.
They weren't even bothering to find out who the numbers belonged to; they were essentially targeting not the people but the phones, and then killing the people who carried them in ground attacks, with the targeting done by drone aircraft—this got started before they took up using the drones as bombers to carry out the attacks as well. It resulted, obviously, in the killing of a lot of people who were noncombatants but merely kept the numbers of insurgent Big Guys in their contact lists (there are a million reasons, most of them completely innocent, for knowing the number of a Big Guy), and may well have been the main cause of the pervasive "collateral damage" better known as murder of civilians that has done so much harm to the worldwide reputation of Americans over the past ten or twelve years as well as being, you know, a bad thing in itself beyond the political repercussions.
Pas de Drone. US Army.

I'm really embarrassed that I didn't know about this when it came out two and a half and three years ago. It is, as I say, a really bad thing. Whether or not the current practices are improved since Porter's September 2011 post or Urban's research published 2010, now that Petraeus and McChrystal have gone as it were to grass, I don't know, but the ongoing dramatic decrease in the numbers of drone strikes, plus the fact that NBC News has just learned about the collateral damage problem (hey guys, better late than later), suggests that things may well be getting better.

Anyway, as I was about to say, the efforts of Pierre Omidyar to become the Tina Brown of the Paranoid Party have already begun bearing fruit in the form of a (so far) one-article magazine, The Intercept, with a shocking exposé by Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill of—oh wait, did I give it away?

It's not that they haven't done their own research, because they clearly have, not dependent on Urban in any way. They've got nearly 4,000 words of it, not to mention a striking headline,

The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program

gorgeous stock photo of a drone flying apparently over the moon (I love doing stuff like that too!), screenshots of excellent mockups (redacted so as not to reveal something or other) of authentic secret documents that are not PowerPoint slides, and much much more, devoted to just one awful corner of the story, the use of cell phones as bombing targets (for which see in particular the Dana Priest article of last July, with a buried lede that has been excavated by fastcompany).

But they are kind of a day late and a dollar short (or three years and $250 million, if you like), and in suggesting that it's a big revelation that the NSA does secret sigint work for US forces (that's its statutory purpose), or in characterizing the stupid idea of reducing casualties by using drones instead of ground troops as an "assassination program", they have done the story a disservice. They are incorporating it into the myth of how NSA metadata has evil magic powers that will destroy our privacy and send Barton Gellman to the Gulag, but if anything, it provides evidence that US intelligence has been not doing enough surveillance: replacing humint with sigint wherever they can, doing things on the cheap (theoretically: in fact, not so much) and keeping personnel out of harm's way.

Indeed, if they would ever do truly enough intelligence, we would have been out of Afghanistan eight or nine years ago, and never in Iraq at all, and the things going on in Yemen would not be going on. But that's all another matter.

Jon Schwarz happened to mention the heroic I.F. Stone the other day and it reminded me of how Stone worked, before Google, just reading publicly available materials at a messy desk, invariably producing a better analysis than the CIA could with all its agents and handlers and computers and dirty tricks. In trying to adopt a kind of MI6 tradecraft of joes and dead drops as tools for journalism (and even calling the thing "The Intercept"), Greenwald and his colleagues show, I think, that they have learned the wrong lesson: How to be as wrong as the intelligence agencies are.

Izzy Stone in his office, 1966. Photo by Rowland Scherman/Getty.

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