James Bamford writes (Reuters), “Commentary: Don’t be so sure Russia hacked the Clinton emails”.
Long ago, I wrote one of the first three or so computer viruses. It had two parts, an injector, and a persistent payload. It had a good, helpful purpose, to extend the capability of a primitive operating system, in a time before “add-ons.” Amusingly, I was regarded as a wizard for about three weeks. Invoking mystery, it preceded what is now commonplace. Some of my other contributions may yet be floating around DoD, They will best remain nameless and unattributed.
I could write a profiling tool of the type used by the NSA, perhaps even a good one. At the most advanced level, it’s a black mathematical art. Without any compromise to national security, refer to a published Wikipedia article on entropy encoding, with this relevant paragraph:
Besides using entropy encoding as a way to compress digital data, an entropy encoder can also be used to measure the amount of similarity between streams of data and already existing classes of data. This is done by generating an entropy coder/compressor for each class of data; unknown data is then classified by feeding the uncompressed data to each compressor and seeing which compressor yields the highest compression. The coder with the best compression is probably the coder trained on the data that was most similar to the unknown data.
James Bamford probably does not have the mathematical background to understand the above. The finest legal education does not prepare for it. And it’s merely a pinch from the bag of NSA technology. It’s all secret. To disclose it is to lose it. Bamford’s rebuttal could be, I don’t need to understand it. Does he?
It’s not worth writing an article to denigrate James Bamford. The op-ed pages are inevitably populated by people whose writing is better than their thinking. And Bamford is a pretty decent thinker, which makes his article a suitable example for the educational mission of this blog. Really bad thinkers offer no educational examples.
Bamford’s article exemplifies a “thought system”-centric way of thinking. It’s as if the article contains a hidden inclusion, a “my-thought-framework.h” header file, that brings in all the macro definitions (beliefs) and code libraries (schools of thought), without being explicit about it. Writers do not customarily precede their pieces with explicit declarations, but perhaps they should, with:
- “I’m going to talk to you as a politician”
- “I’m going to talk to you like a lawyer.”
- “I’m going to talk to you as a law enforcement official.”
- “I’m from the intelligence community, and this is what we’ve discovered as truthful from our perspective.
The only customary qualifiers are the disclaimer, as in, “I have no business interest/relationship…”, and the CV, the purpose of which is to make you more credulous than would the words by themselves.
Bamford’s education is legal. The legal perspective is crucially important to the national debate about surveillance and civil liberties. But with cyber warfare he encounters the problems of patent litigation. How can a jury, or even a judge, grasp the technological intricacies of modern civilization, at a time when complexity is running away from us? Technology creates knowledge inscrutable except to the specialist at ever-increasing rate. Change is speeding up. Our minds are not.
So the first points of meta-analysis are:
- Inevitably, there are things in Bamford’s article that he does not understand.
- The lack of understanding is disguised, probably unintentionally, by adherence to the habits of thought acquired in two activities. One of these is law school, which promotes rigor according to the frameworks of common law and statutory law.
- The other activity is investigative journalism and documentary, with its own ethos. Dig. Dig with a shovel if you have one, with your hands if you don’t. Don’t stay within your intellectual comfort zone.
- All documentaries have points of view. They are deliberately tendentious. If they are viewed with critical faculty, it’s good. If swallowed whole, it’s bad.
Quoting Bamford’s article,
On October 7, Clapper issued a statement: “The U.S. Intelligence community is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.” Notably, however, the FBI declined to join the chorus, according to reports by the New York Times and CNBC.
We now have three points of view, DNI (the intelligence community), FBI (legal), and Bamford’s which is investigative. Now we can do a little triangulation.
The FBI has a very good record with cases brought and convictions resulting. To the FBI, a case that does not result in conviction is an error, damaging to their reputation. This results from a fine appreciation of the elements that result in conviction:
- An impeccable chain of evidence.
- An understanding of how “beyond reasonable doubt” plays out in the minds of the judge and jury.
- The interaction of English common law, the living tradition of law, with the above.
Distilled to the essence, the FBI’s demurral results from the unfamiliarity of the legal system with profiling tools. Every new form of evidence becomes accepted by common law by first use and expert testimony. Fingerprints entered the canon on December 21, 1911. Colin Pitchfork was convicted of murder via DNA evidence in 1987.
Since the NSA’s profiling tools have not been inducted into common law by expert testimony at trial with resulting conviction, they cannot be used to bring a case in the U.S. legal system. And to put these tools, in all their individuality, under the public microscope of the courts, would be to lose them.
The rest of the article has the clarity of a window soaped on Mischief Night. It portrays something one might call the overall picture, with the insinuation that it is more important than the NSA’s profiling tools. The picture is portrayed as murky, confusing, contradictory, and uncertain.
It results from the mindset of human-oriented investigative journalism. Abuses of power, in law enforcement and politics, tend to have broad patterns, miniature cultures, that muckraking can break wide open. It’s one of the most important traditions of the free world. But it can’t uncover the games of dueling mathematicians/hackers.
It’s well written, entertaining, and inspires suspicion, in this case, of the critical judgment of authority figures. It’s the tendentious persuasion of the documentarian. It’s digging, mainly with the hands.
The reader has a difficult choice of conclusions. One is James Clapper’s statement on October 7 of Russian culpability, based on secret technology:
The other choice is Bamford’s scooping, palm by palm, forming a qualitative picture, heaping it by the side of the FBI demurral. This is conflation, the commingling of different types of reasoning. The demurral of the FBI, rooted in our legal system, has nothing to do with Bamford’s qualitative picture.
Bamford’s article has a headline question. In his attempt to suggest an answer, he paints a soapy window picture, with a suggested interpretation. Declining to accept, we’ve dissected the logic of the article. Let’s ask another question: Why did he write it?
- Bamford has figured importantly in the national debate about surveillance. I would expect his articles on the subject to be of high quality.
- His mindset is a combination of the legal and the human-oriented, derived from the traditional tools of the political muckraker.
- His title question is the Question of the Moment. But in proper consideration, Russian culpability is a completely technical question. Would you be interested in Bamford’s opinion as to why the SpaceX rocket blew up?
- The article inspires fear of rash action, which does a disservice to our (current) leadership. Have you noticed the Obama administration overreacting to anything?
The conclusion is that Bamford wanted to write another article. Every writer has the urge to publish. He recycled his tools, attitudes, and frameworks to attack a problem just outside his domain of expertise. He is well attuned to the political process, but not to the guts of cyber warfare.
This is not a good article. I look forward to Bamford’s future contributions on the politics of surveillance, when he does his best work.