Archive for the ‘spy’ Category

In the recent case of Liam Fox and Adam Werritty, there was an issue that the news media spent an enormous amount of time and effort dancing around with innuendo, newspaper code, and carefully lawyered prose. It is a fact that the word “lawyered” is to the word “lawyer” as the word “doctored” is to the word “doctor”. Without understanding this hidden and sordid side of the issue, you would have been seriously misinformed. The matter was very sensitive, and there was an excellent chance of getting sued and probably also demonised as being deranged by shameful prejudices.

I refer, of course, to whether or not the Defence Secretary’s private office was having unprotected sex with other defence secretaries’ private offices.

It took a while to surface this at all – the Guardian let a wee squeak out on Thursday, and eventually it was the Sindy that took the plunge and surfaced it in the same way you surface a submarine, with an enormous roar of compressed air thundering into the ballast tanks under pressure while the nuclear reactor cranks up to full power. It’s a must read.

The fact that Werritty’s freebies included trips to the Herzliya Security Conference paid for by pro-Israeli lobbying groups should have been a screaming giveaway, but then, that’s what a good cover story is for. I presume that was what the Sindy eventually followed up.

I mentioned this element of the story to Daniel Davies earlier in the week. I can offer no special insight except for the enduring value of pattern recognition. This has, after all, happened before in recent memory, with really bad consequences.

Consider Mr. Michael Ledeen and the affair of the weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Ledeen, a professional neoconservative, claimed to have intelligence about Iraqi efforts to acquire uranium and various other things, which came from his contacts in Iran, some of whom were recommended to him by his contacts in Israel, one of whom, Larry Franklin, was convicted of spying for Israel in the US State Department. Ledeen believed these contacts to be renegade members of the Iranian secret service. (He had never visited Iran, and I think to this day never has, and he doesn’t to the best of my knowledge speak Persian, so how he would have known is beyond me.) The CIA, for its part, believed that this was partly true. They just disagreed with the “renegade” bit. But Donald Rumsfeld had deliberately decided to ignore the CIA, so Ledeen’s intelligence was accepted. However, that wasn’t the end of the story. At some point, the Department of Defense became suspicious and called in its own Counter-Intelligence Field Activity to investigate.

At this point, a thick curtain of secrecy was drawn down on the story, even if we did eventually get the Phase IIA report. Whatever CIFA found out, Ledeen was able to introduce the famous forged documents on uranium from Niger, which seem to have come from the Italian secret service, as being Iranian information with Israeli approval, and this was used in the even more famous dossier.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if old blogging chum from way back in the day, 2004, Laura Rozen hasn’t also had this thought, as she was instrumental in digging into the whole Ledeen affair and she’s too smart to miss it. Also, hilariously, she and Spencer Ackerman had the honour of being targeted by Ledeen’s mates in Silvio Berlusconi’s intelligence service with a scurrilous smear-campaign. I should probably hat-tip the lady’s Twitter feed.

Note the elements of the story. Ledeen is a semi-official adviser with special, privileged access to policymakers. He is outside the formal requirements of government service, but has access inside it. He is seen to have special access to an important ally, and therefore to be trustworthy. A third party observed this, and took advantage of it to introduce information (or rather, disinformation) into the policymaking system. Does anybody see a pattern here? Similarly, Werritty was offered privileged access from outside the government firewall because he was ideologically congenial. It seems that this was considered acceptable because the influence exerted came from a country considered friendly. But then, there were the rogue Iranian intelligence agents, or were they just ordinary Iranian intelligence agents?

In May 2009, Mr Werritty arranged a meeting in Portcullis House between Mr Fox and an Iranian lobbyist with close links to President Ahmadinejad’s regime. In February this year, Mr Werritty arranged a dinner with Mr Fox, Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, and senior political figures – understood to include Israeli intelligence agents – during an Israeli security conference in Herzliya, during which sanctions against Iran were discussed. Despite Mr Werritty having no official MoD capacity, an Israeli source said there was “no question” that Mr Werritty was regarded as anyone other than Mr Fox’s chief of staff who was able to fix meetings at the highest levels, and was seen as an “expert on Iran”.

Well, at least Werritty actually went to Iran. Unfortunately this is the worst of the story, as it seems he was going round encouraging Iranian dissidents, or people he thought were Iranian dissidents, and promising them British support. This is really incredibly, shamefully irresponsible – he could have got people killed, and it cannot be ruled out that he did, although it’s also quite possible that the whole affair was just a massive exercise in bullshitting and wanktankery.

Probably he really believes that he was in contact with the opposition. I’m fairly sure Ledeen doesn’t think he’s an Iranian agent either. This is where this classic Onion article comes into play. As I said at the time, why *do* all these Iranian agents keep sucking Michael Ledeen’s cock?

It is all reminiscent of Bruce Schneier’s thoughts on what happens if you create a backdoor into some computer system, so people like us can get in and out without anyone noticing. The problem is that once you do that, it immediately becomes the biggest security threat to the system as anyone else can use it too. Once this new interface to the MoD was created, with Werritty accepting connections from the wider Internet and forwarding them to Fox, of course it attracted dubious actors. Hence the parade of various people trying to sell aircraft spares and dodgy encryption software to the military or to get someone’s knighthood expedited.

For my next trick, what parallels do you see between Werritty’s role with Liam Fox and those of Andy Coulson and Neil Wallis with No.10 Downing Street and the Metropolitan Police (and of course the Conservative Central Office) respectively? Remember that both of them were at various times funded by third parties. Further, is it not interesting that the same key Conservatives who defended Coulson to the bitter end – George Osborne and Michael Gove – also tried to save Liam Fox? (Jonathan Freedland seems to have sensed something here – check out the reference to “Cheneyite Tories”.) And is it not even more interesting that George Osborne actually recommended Andy Coulson for the job? And is it not completely fucking outrageous that William Hague, Atlantic Bridge board member and Foreign Secretary (I think this is the right order of precedence), dares to claim that proper Cabinet government is back in the midst of this berserk threat-chaos?


Let’s talk sheep dip. No, not drinking the stuff.

Sheep. Being dipped. In sheep dip

Spooks have another couple of uses for the word. One means to fix the admin when you borrow people or equipment from the real world. Another, and the one we’re interested in, is to arrange things so it’s not obvious to other people how you got hold of information. Typically, if you have a secret source of information you want it to stay secret. But there’s no point having the secret source if you don’t act on it. All the fun of secrets is telling other people about them, after all.

So you’ve got a problem – how do I make use of the secret without letting slip the bigger secret of how I got it? The answer is sheepdipping.

Here’s a second world war example. As basically everyone knows, the British had broken the Germans’ primary radio cipher, taking advantage of work Poland and France had begun earlier and eventually creating an industrial system to pull in radio traffic, break it, translate it into English, analyse it, and distribute reports based on it. In the process, Bletchley Park as good as invented the computer. It was a priceless source of information. So much so that serious precautions were needed to avoid giving the game away.

The answer was to make sure that you found out the information you already had from the code break before you did anything about it. So, once the ships and soldiers were already on the move, a reconnaissance plane would go out or a patrol would be pushed forward to look in exactly the right place. As well as disguising the real intelligence source, this was also an opportunity to check that the source was right.

So why are we indulging in ENIGMA kitsch? Well. The Sun denied vehemently that it got access to the medical records of Gordon Brown’s son. Actually it didn’t, quite. It denied that they were the source of the story they printed, and hid behind the PCC about the tax files and the bank account and his lawyer’s notes and God knows what else. But they found somebody who says he told them all about Brown’s son out of the goodness of his heart. As God will be his judge. Yeah, he really said that. Everyone say “Awww.”

He really said it; it’s in the Sun. Anyway, he swore an affidavit.

Here’s the sheep dip, though. Imagine if you’re a sweaty ‘bloid hack who’s just been listening to the chancellor’s voicemail. But, unlike the rest of them, you read books. What are you going to do? Take the risk of using the illegal secret surveillance as your source? What if some bastard with a Web site and a grudge goes through years and years of stories and pulls all the ones that are single sourced to conversations on the phone? You’re smarter than that.

So, you look up somebody who might be able to give you the story you’ve already got. This shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve already got more than enough information. That way, you’re covered. And you get to check the possibility that the whole thing is a nightmarish trap. And there’s a chance that they might provide some more juicy details if correctly handled.

The sheep goes into the dip, and comes out cleansed of its ticks and blowflies and worrisome legal problems, ready to be fattened up, shorn of its valuable fleece, and finally roasted and served with red-top jelly.

Alternatively, a slightly less underhand version. So this bloke walks into a bar. No.

So this bloke walks into a newspaper office. And he says to the barman…I’ve got this incredible story about Gordon Brown’s sick kid because mine’s as sick and I go to the same support group or clinic or whatnot. And you punch the conniving, insensitive Nosey Parker in the mouth and throw him out in the street. Right? I mean, who behaves like that?

No. This is a newspaper, dammit. You’re not going to turn a chance like this away. But there’s a problem. If his motives really are as nice as he makes out, what’s he doing hanging around the News International building? Perhaps it’s all bullshit. He’s taking you for a ride. Newspapers attract enough crazies as it is; look at the comments threads. Throw around money for stories into the bargain and you’re going to be beating them off with a side-handled baton, like the printers’ union pickets. It’s Brown’s kid because he knows that will get your attention. Hey, you’d prefer Ulrika Jonsson’s. But he’s probably crazy and crazy people like politicians.

So you need to check on him. Quick. And because you’ve got a human source, you don’t need to mention whatever you do to check up in the final story. Into the dip goes the sheep. Baa.

In my life I’ve had the pleasure of cleaning out not just a sheepdip but a cattle dip. It’s a long job. My advice is to drain off as much liquid as possible – keep checking the filter on the firepump – and then pressure-blast it with boiling steam. Accept no substitutes, and watch your feet.

I think most of my readers also read Patrick Lang’s blog, but I think this guest post is the best thing yet written on the Taliban/SIS/McChrystal/Petraeus fake sheikh affair. Really, there’s a great movie to be made here – the multiplicity of motives, the ironic contrast between the absurd story and the deadly serious interests and emotions that drive it forward, the eternal ambiguity of the relationship between the manipulator and the manipulated.

The ISI comes out of it as being dastardly clever, but in a deeply futile way. They succeed in preventing a dangerous outbreak of peace and sanity, but what have they gained? The wars grind on, the butcher’s bill ticks up, the fantasy of a Pakistani empire of trucks and pipes across the Hindu Kush is as far away as ever, the Indians continue with their industrialisation across the other border.

The Americans come out of it as being well-meaning but naive. After all, they only get into this story because they want peace. So does the real Taliban leader. They both share a sort of big, stupid nobility.

The British do almost as badly as the ISI; not only do they end up being the dupes of the piece, they do so without the saving grace of having good intentions. They’re as naive as the Americans but more underhanded. SIS gets involved purely as a way of sucking up to the Americans and putting one over its real enemies, GCHQ, Her Majesty’s Forces, MI5, and the main-line Foreign Office diplomats. The Government is desperately keen on the project for similarly base reasons – to suck up to the Americans, to grab at an opportunity to solve its problem in Afghanistan, and of course to embarrass the Labour Party. Of course, it would have been a brilliant political fix had it come off – but the master manipulator is not Bismarck but William Hague.

The fake sheikh, meanwhile, is a classic example of the Pinocchio/Hauptmann von Kopenick theme – the puppet of bigger forces who becomes a power in his own right. Without his successful performance, of course, none of the many expectations curling around the tale have a hope of happening. His agency is real, and his character expands to fill the role. The fact that the whole project is an exercise in theatre is interesting in itself – a film within the film. The actors in the film are, of course, puppets of the script and the direction, and it is a work of fiction. The enduring purpose of the theatre and the cinema, however, is that works of fiction have real influence on their audiences. Like the fake sheikh.

After all, the grocer of Quetta (not a bad title) is the only character in the drama who successfully pursues his interests. He gets some interesting time off away from his bazaar stall, and even gets rich. You could play this as the ordinary man who succeeds in making fools of the powerful who insist on involving him in their schemes, or perhaps as a microcosm of all the people who are getting rich off the continued war, Mother Courage rather than Kopenick. Alternatively he could be killed off, casting the whole thing as an utterly bleak tragedy. However, arguably the classic in this vein is The Third Man and that sticks with the tragicomic.

So we’ve discussed GCHQ and broad politics and GCHQ and technology. Now, what about a case study? Following a link from Richard Aldrich’s Warwick University homepage, here’s a nice article on FISH, the project to break the German high-grade cypher network codenamed TUNNY. You may not be surprised to know that key links in the net were named OCTOPUS (Berlin to Army Group D in the Crimea and Caucasus) and SQUID (Berlin to Army Group South). Everyone always remembers the Enigma break, but FISH is historically important because it was the one for which Bletchley Park invented the COLOSSUS computers, and also because of the extremely sensitive nature of the traffic. The Lorenz cyphersystem was intended to provide secure automated teleprinter links between strategic-level headquarters – essentially, the German army group HQs, OKW and OKH, the U-boat command deployed to France, and key civilian proconsuls in occupied Europe. The article includes a sample decrypt – nothing less than AG South commander von Weichs’ strategic appreciation for the battle of Kursk, as sent to OKH, in its entirety.

Some key points, though. It was actually surprisingly late in the day that the full power of FISH became available – it wasn’t enough to build COLOSSUS, it was also necessary to get enough of them working to fully industrialise the exploit and break everything that was coming in. This was available in time for Normandy, but a major driver of the project must have been as a form of leverage on the Americans (and the Russians). The fate of the two Colossi that the reorganised postwar GCHQ saved from the parts dump is telling – one of them was used to demonstrate that a NSA project wouldn’t work.

Also, COLOSSUS represented a turning point in the nature of British cryptanalysis. It wasn’t just a question of automating an existing exploit; the computers were there to implement a qualitatively new attack on FISH, replacing an analytical method invented by Alan Turing and John Tiltman with a statistical method invented by William Tutte. Arguably, this lost something in terms of scientific elegance – “Turingismus” could work on an intercept of any length, Tutte’s Statistical Method required masses of data to crunch and machines to crunch it on any practical timescale. But that wasn’t the point. The original exploit relied on an common security breach to work – you began by looking for two messages of similar length that began with the same key-indicator group.

Typically, this happened if the message got corrupted by radio interference or the job was interrupted and the German operators were under pressure – the temptation was just to wind back the tape and restart, rather than set up the machine all over again. In mid-1943, though, the Germans patched the system so that the key indicator group was no longer required, being replaced by a codebook distributed by couriers. The statistical attack was now the only viable one, as it depended on the fundamental architecture of FISH. Only a new cypher machine would fix it.

The symbolic figure here is Tommy Flowers, the project chief engineer, a telecoms engineer borrowed from the Post Office research centre who later designed the first all-electronic telephone exchange. Max Newman, Alan Turing’s old tutor and the head of the FISH project, had shown Flowers a copy of On Computable Numbers, which Flowers read but didn’t understand – he was a hacker rather than a logician, after all. He was responsible for the shift from electromechanical technology to electronics at Bletchley, which set both Newman and Turing off towards their rival postwar stored-program computing projects.

Another key point from the book is the unity of cryptography and cryptanalysis, and the related tension between spreading good technology to allies and hoping to retain an advantage over them. Again, the fate of the machines is telling – not only did the FISH project run on, trying to break Soviet cypher networks set up using captured machines, but it seems that GCHQ encouraged some other countries to use the ex-German technology, in the knowledge that this would make their traffic very secure against everyone but the elect. Also, a major use of the surviving computers was to check British crypto material, specifically by evaluating the randomness of the keystreams involved, a task quite similar to the statistical attack on FISH.

Finally, FISH is exhibit A for the debate as to whether the whole thing has been worthwhile. What could have been achieved had the rest of the Colossi been released from the secret world, fanning out to the universities, like the scientists from Bletchley did themselves? Max Newman took racks of top-quality valves away from Bletchley when he moved to Manchester University, and used them in the very first stored-program, digital, Turing-complete computer; Alan Turing tried to do the same thing, but with a human asset, recruiting Tommy Flowers to work on the Pilot-ACE at NPL. (Flowers couldn’t make it – he had to fix the creaking UK telephone network first.) Instead, the machines were broken up and the very existence of the whole project concealed.

On the other hand, though, would either Newman or Turing have considered trying to implement their theories in hardware without the experience, to say nothing of the budget? The fact that Turing’s paper was incomprehensible to one of the most brilliant engineers of a brilliant generation doesn’t inspire confidence, and of course one of the divides that had to be crossed between Cambridge and GPO Research in Dollis Hill was one of class.

So, Richard Aldrich’s book on GCHQ. This looks like it’s going to be another in our occasional series of multi-part book reviews that nobody reads, as the book is nothing if not comprehensive. (It’s a mere Laundry-esque 666 pages in paperback.) Apart from being packed with good things, like paper and words, as Spike Milligan said about his autobiography, I think it’s undeniable that this is the best factual account of British signals intelligence you’re likely to get. It practically bursts with detail and is clearly the fruit of an enormous effort of primary research, and a fair bit of the secondary kind too. If you want to know about the continuation of the First World War crypto effort into the inter-war era, the construction of the Hong Kong over-the-horizon radar site on top of a sheer cliff thousands of feet high and the number of Land Rovers the RAF Regiment lost over the edge, or exactly how many index cards Special Branch found in Geoffrey Prime’s private database of young girls, it’s here. This is in itself quite an achievement, given how much of this stuff remains classified.

Of course, what everyone wants to know about is the intelligence special relationship with the US and the other Commonwealth nations. You will not be disappointed. Aldrich argues that we’re unlikely ever to find a smoking document, even after the release of what was described as the UKUSA agreement earlier this year – the terms of the alliance were repeatedly renegotiated, and its content is spread over many different documents. In fact, it might be more interesting to think in terms of the technical documents. He makes the excellent point that the alliance consists, in practice, of a set of shared operating procedures and technical standards, rather like the Internet, with the distinction that here everything is secret. Rather than gaining access to the IETF by making your work public, you gain access to the tribe of SIGINT by submitting to ever greater secrecy, in a sort of masonic career of increasingly complex rites. Crucially, wherever the documentation goes, the internationally agreed security requirements go with it. This, of course, has an impact on parallel technological decisions, but I’ll come to those later.

This tribal nature – and in many ways it is tribal, with different agencies’ membership in the relationship stemming from their alliance with the founding couple of Bletchley Park and US Naval intelligence – has important and counterintuitive effects on the politics of SIGINT. For example, the tribal leaders have frequently been keen to help their kin succeed in developing new technologies, extracting more funds from national budgets, and securing their secrets from their common enemies. On the other hand, they have also been very keen to prevent them from developing relationships that bypass the central alliance, and to restrict the degree to which they can secure their own traffic against the “level one agencies”, GCHQ and NSA. All tribes, however, are in part mythical, and the status of the leader derives in part from the consent of the led.

In the early 1970s, for example, Henry Kissinger ordered the NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office to cut off intelligence sharing with Edward Heath’s government (Heath’s GCHQ director was, among other things, in the process of negotiating a special link between the Joint Intelligence Committee and the French equivalent). The British were horrified, but it’s telling that the NSA itself was very suspicious of the move and took steps to undermine it – it seems that information kept reaching Britain via sharing with Canada and Australia. When the Yom Kippur war broke out, Heath retaliated by refusing to let SR71 reconnaissance flights land in the UK or at Akrotiri, and imposing conditions on U-2 operations from the UK, specifically that the imagery from them could not be shared with Israel.

In the 1980s, the Reagan government imposed a similar “cut-off” on New Zealand to protest their refusal to let US warships call without saying if they were carrying nuclear weapons. The New Zealanders were unexpectedly unimpressed, which was at least in part explained by the fact that the other alliance partners continued to pass information to them, and also by the fact that the New Zealand GCSB was a major analysis centre for traffic from Asia. Notably, GCHQ was collecting French traffic on their behalf as part of the Rainbow Warrior inquiry.

Over the years, the power-relationships within the alliance shifted with the varying scarcity of different resources. To begin with, in the heroic days of Bletchley Park, the UK had a strategic advantage based in its extremely scarce knowledge of cryptanalysis and computing. As the importance of computing and bulk data processing in general grew, this shifted towards the US; they had more money, and their own technology was improving fast. The result was that the Commonwealth partners essentially traded collection for analysis – we had territory, relationships, and collection platforms that the Americans didn’t. That included some hideously dangerous overflights, submarine missions, and covert actions around the edge of the Soviet sphere of influence. Again, if you want to know what it was like sailing an old submarine into Polyarnyy harbour in 1959 without asking, it’s here.

This oversimplifies; in fact, however much money the Americans threw at the problem, they didn’t break the Soviet high-level ciphers between Black Friday in 1948, when the USSR carried out a forklift upgrade of their whole crypto network to end the VENONA codebreak, and the late 1970s. Information had to come, instead, from new forms of collection, targeting networks that weren’t encrypted because they were thought to be secure, and by studying the electronic signatures of new weapons. As a result, the inter-allied playing field had a structural skew towards the British, who specialised in forward collection and in ELINT, building up an enormous library of Soviet radars and emplacing microwave listening stations in unlikely places. However, it’s unlikely that this was realised at the time – it was all too obvious that Fort Meade was filling up with more and more computers, and it’s not clear how honest they were about their successes or failures. There was a sort of technical cultural cringe on the British side.

The other new field was of course space. Starting in the late 1960s, the US began to collect much more of its signals intelligence from satellites, invulnerable to the political turmoil down below. However, this brought about another twist in the political relationship. The Americans had ELINT and COMINT satellites, the allies didn’t. But when the RHYOLITE satellites, originally intended to spy on missile telemetry, started to pull in more and more data from the new microwave telecomms backbones, the NSA was forced to rely on its allies to deal with the mountains of data. That meant, among other things, a momentous step – intelligence sharing now included readout, letting the allied agencies point their dishes at the satellites and receive the stuff directly. (Incidentally, this is the purpose of Menwith Hill – it slurps intercept material from satellites and passes it to Cheltenham.)

At the beginning of the 1980s, then, the alliance was undergoing the sort of integration process that the founders of the European Union hoped to see. Rather than painful negotiations in high politics, technical interworking would result in a natural binding together. The system was evolving from the original hierarchical structure into a flatter network, with much greater interdependence. The Americans seem to have been aware that control was slipping away, and made efforts to assert traditional rights, for example by trying to impose the lie detector as part of the common security rules, which even Margaret Thatcher considered illiberal and unscientific. Some tribal practices didn’t translate. The New Zealand cut-off was part of this, as was its failure – among other things, what was to happen about the New Zealanders seconded to Canada and the UK, and the Canadians and Brits in New Zealand? What would the US customers for Korean traffic processed at GCSB say when it ceased to arrive?

Interestingly, the US seems to have found continental Europe more interesting as a result. They made efforts to cooperate more closely with West Germany, while the Germans for their part were organising a new European alliance, and the UK was developing close links with the Mitterrand government’s intelligence chief (while also helping the New Zealanders get information on his agents).

Yet another shift, possibly even more important than the end of the Cold War for the tribe, was now approaching – the end of the microwave network era and the dawn of widely available strong cryptography. Arguably, what is now scarce is code-breaking of any kind, again, and intelligence analysis; computer power has never been cheaper, while mass collection is much less practical outside one’s own borders. In fact, pharaonic proposals like the Intercept Modernisation Programme may be better understood as a sort of atavistic harking back to the microwave era or even to the high Cold War’s tunnels under Berlin and Vienna.

However, it’s certain that they ain’t going away. One thing that SIGINT has which other forms of intelligence don’t is that it works, it produces physical output, yer actual primary-source documents – every day, as well as the formal, all-source intelligence reports on particular topics, the prime minister is also sent a wedge of selected quotes from the raw traffic. It’s the world’s most classified blog! Thatcher’s civil servants referred to it as Comic Cuts (in the 1950s and 1960s, similar files were known as Blue Jackets or BJs – another way to make the president feel special, I suppose…), but she lapped it up, like they all do.

Daniel Davies once remarked that secret information is a drug – it alters your perception of reality and makes you feel superior to other people – and that it isn’t usually considered wise to make important decisions on drugs. Here’s the problem; whether or not the raw matter is actually useful, whether it’s typical or misleading, whether GCHQ is breaking a lot of the target’s traffic or none of the circuits that matter at all, it’s incontrovertibly present. They will produce something rather than nothing.

In our next thrilling instalments: GCHQ and technology, overseas outposts, internal surveillance, and the future…

This BBC Radio 4 documentary about the British nuclear deterrent and the people who operate it is absolutely cracking. Not surprisingly, the man behind it is none other than Professor Peter Hennessy (can we call him Henn-dawg yet?).

One of the things that stands out is the amount of desperate psychological coping going on. The forms vary; the RAF V-Force crews of the 1960s, who were not only expected to carry in the warheads themselves but also very likely to ditch the aircraft somewhere beyond, also had to taxy the Vulcans out for every mission past the school playground. Their wives were more than familiar with the desperate QRA launch scenarios; it seems remarkable that anyone could put up with that.

One day at RAF Cottesmore, the public-address speakers, which were wired directly to the Bomber Controller telebrief feed from High Wycombe, went click just as a group of families visited, and everyone ran like hell to the flight line without even waiting for the voice from headquarters, still less saying a word. We’re talking about 1950s telecoms and electronics here – it must have gone click ten times a day.

A different style from this barely contained hysteria was reserved, indeed still is, for the top civil service and since 1969, the Royal Navy submariners; here, they deal with a much slower and more considered form of killing and dying. It’s a neurotic rather than a hysterical scenario: what can I tell them? what will they think? am I doing the right thing?

Was, for example, Denis Healey doing the right thing, in the High Wycombe bunker during 1960s transition to war exercises as one of the Prime Minister’s deputies for retaliation, when he repeatedly pretended to give the authorisation to scramble the V-force – although in fact, he had decided that should it come to that he wasn’t going to launch? (Keighley Man Saves The World.)

Interestingly, James Callaghan, despite the conventional wisdom, was very clear that he would certainly have pressed the button – or rather, his half of the button. One thing that seems to be clearer in the memory of the top officers Hennessy interviews than has been in the past is the duality of civilian and military control – as no civilian can give a military order, the PM or the deputy can only authorise, not order, the launch. (You thought our constitution was weird? Wait ’til you see our nuclear command authority.)

There is a logical AND gate – rather as NATO shared weapons are subject to the dual-key arrangement between NATO and the host-nation, and Soviet ones were to split control between the military (for the aircraft or missile) and the Communist Party/secret police (for the warhead fusing), UK nukes are subject to a dual-key arrangement between the civilian and military authorities. Another of Hennessy’s interviewees, Lord Guthrie, the Chief of Defence Staff who read Tony Blair in on the nuclear files, made clear that he thought this was very much a real constraint on both parties.

An odd feature of the whole thing was the repeated suggestion that, had the UK been devastated by Soviet missiles and the deterrent not been used, the remaining subs or aircraft might have been turned over to Australia. This would have been a challenging redeployment for the V-Force, to say the least, although they did exercise Far Eastern deployments. Of course, the submarines would have had no such difficulty. In this weird way, the last remnants of imperial feeling were to be saved from the ashes, and the deterrent’s true role – to maintain credible independence from the United States – would be maintained under a slightly different flag.

Ah, the Americans. They have a sort of shadow presence in the whole thing. One thing that the broadcast makes clear is that yes, there is a UK national firing chain as well as the NATO SACLANT one. They visit the cell in the Navy’s bunker at Northwood which handles the link between the Government and the extremely-low frequency transmitters – two crypto officers independently authenticate the message from the Cabinet Office and retransmit it via multiple redundant routes. They each need codebooks from two safes, neither of which can be opened at once, and which are permanently monitored by armed Marine Commandos. We hear a simulated authentication; interestingly, the crosstalk suggests that there is a specific distinction between a NATO and a UK national signal.

But each submarine, as she collects her load-out of rockets from King’s Bay, Georgia, also picks up an American shakedown crew for the test launch down the Eastern rocket range from a spot off Cape Canaveral, and the actual handle the submarine Weapons Engineering Officer pulls is the butt end of a Colt .45.

In all, however, it was a story of people in an insane situation working hard at staying sane.

After the show, I looked up some news and saw this. Jamie Kenny deals with it here, but the facts are worth repeating. Some random just rang up Mr 10% and claimed to be the Indian foreign ministry, and threatened war. Pakistan responded by increasing air force readiness; fighters were placed on combat air patrols. We don’t know what happened with the Pakistani nuclear weapons, which are delivered by aircraft; did the F-16s load up and move to the runway’s end?

Pakistan apparently believes it really was the Indians; the Indians claim it was some maniac with a telephone. The Pakistanis also say it came from a phone number at the Indian foreign ministry. This is fairly meaningless – not many bulk SIP carriers, and not that many old fashioned telcos, check or filter the Caller Line Identification strings, and software like the Asterisk free IP-PBX will let you send whatever CLI you like. After all, the head of the Islamic Students’ Movement of India is supposedly a geek.

The answer to this is of course the one the MI6 station chief in Moscow in 1962 used when the secret signal he gave Oleg Penkovsky for use in the event he learned of a nuclear attack came down the phone: do nothing. The crisis was on its way down; Penkovsky had been missing for days, and was presumably in the hands of the MVD. Therefore Frank Roberts decided to ignore the signal. Few feedback loops of such criticality can’t do with some more damping.

An interesting document was turned up in the course of the row about John Brennan, the CIA officer who was the Obama team’s original choice as intelligence chief before he was dropped as being insufficiently opposed to torture, under a volley of criticism from the blogosphere. (“Opposition was mostly confined to liberal blogs,” said the NYT.) Here’s an interview he did with PBS television.

[INTERVIEWER]:Just before 9/11, in that summer and the spring, how hard was Tenet pushing on the terrorism threat?

[BRENNAN]:I think he was pushing at every opportunity he had. … George and [former CTC Director] Cofer [Black] were very much of a mind-set that we can’t sit back and wait; we need to do things. We need to do things in Afghanistan. We need to go after Al Qaeda. We need to ratchet up the pressure on the Taliban.

George took several trips out to Saudi Arabia and other places to try to gain support from the Arab states to try to put pressure on the Taliban to give up bin Laden and others. George would knock on any door. He would pursue any course. I think what he was trying to do, prior to 9/11, was to make sure the administration was focused on that.

[INTERVIEWER]: And were they?

I think they were aware of the issue. I don’t think they, in fact, appreciated the seriousness of it, because I think they were trying to get their ducks in a line on a number of fronts to include Iraq prior to 9/11.

You heard the guy – they didn’t appreciate the threat from Al-Qa’ida because they were busy ginning-up a war with Iraq. And who was responsible for this?

[INTERVIEWER]: When did you get the first hints … that there was this movement in the direction of Iraq …?

[BRENNAN]: The train started to leave the station before the election of 2000, with the neocons putting things out. There was a real focus that we needed to do something about Iraq. It was gaining momentum and strength. And with [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi and [former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard] Perle and others feeding those fires, I do think they just had a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of doing something like that.

They’re very outspoken and vocal about the need to take action. It’s easy to execute; if there is criticism that is being made of this administration, [it] is that the decision to take action is only part of the challenge. It’s the follow-through; it’s the strategic planning afterward. Those areas really need to be paid attention to, because the U.S. military [has] no problem as far as just decimating the Iraqi army, but the people like Chalabi and the other neocons, and people like [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith, who I think has a very superficial understanding of some of these issues — I don’t know how much time Doug Feith has spent in the Middle East or in Iraq, but it’s a very, very complex society.

Miaow. So catty you could throw him a ball of wool!

[INTERVIEWER, talking about Paul Pilar and the Iraq NIE]: He told us that … even at the time, he wasn’t aware about how politicized it was, but he was — especially as he looks back on it, especially around the “white paper” — really embarrassed, I think is the word he used at how faulty it was. Did it feel that way at the time, or does it just look that way in hindsight?

[BRENNAN]: At the time there were a lot of concerns that it was being politicized by certain individuals within the administration that wanted to get that intelligence base that would justify going forward with the war.

[INTERVIEWER]: Could I ask you who?

Some of the neocons that you refer to were determined to make sure that the intelligence was going to support the ultimate decision.

Ah, I see. The facts were being fixed around the policy. The intelligence was being, ah, sexed up. Recognising this ought to be the criterion of seriousness for anyone seeking a post in the intelligence/foreign policy complex, or indeed anything else. That Brennan does so and says so openly is a very strong mark in his favour, as is this:

That’s where the issue of maintaining an independent intelligence organization is so critically important, because departments have certain policy objectives and goals. If you have a department such as the Department of Defense that controls the intelligence function as well, there is a great potential for that intelligence to be skewed, either wittingly or unwittingly, in support of policy objectives.

Yes. Yes. Which is also why it’s important to maintain a independent career-path there, like it is in the civil service. I was very surprised to learn that had Brennan been appointed, he would have been a rare bird as a career spook in charge of The Community. Mind you, the three best MI5 chiefs – Guy Liddell, David Petrie, and Martin Furnival-Jones, in my opinion – were respectively an army officer, a cop, and a professional spook, so British experience doesn’t necessarily corroborate this.

Clearly it was right to drop him; but it worries me that getting rid of the neocons and torture fans will require people who are a) clued-in about the intelligence service, b) committed to cleaning up, c) ruthless bureaucratic thugs, and if possible d) personally untainted.

Regarding intelligence and independence, meanwhile, this blog has often said that one of the main reasons why the UK got involved in all this is that we don’t have an independent reconnaissance satellite capability. Out of the major powers in Europe, the UK, Spain and Italy went to the war; neither the UK nor Spain has an imagery satellite, and Italy launched one jointly with France a few months after Iraq. France and Germany both have their own synthetic-aperture radar sats, and didn’t go to the war. Poland, Romania, et al have large armies but no recce capability and they went.

But perhaps this isn’t as significant as it used to be. It appears that The Guardian is the first newspaper to become an independent space-faring power. Seriously.

From a vantage point 423 miles above the Earth, the lawless waters of the Gulf of Aden appear tranquil and the 330-metre-long ship sitting low under a £68m cargo looks like a tiny green cigar floating on an inky ocean.

These pictures, taken by a satellite commissioned by the Guardian and hurtling over Africa at four miles a second, show the Sirius Star, the Saudi supertanker which 12 days ago became the biggest prize ever seized by the Somali pirates who have claimed the Gulf of Aden as their hunting ground.

I love the “commissioned by the Guardian and hurtling over Africa at four miles a second” bit. That’s incredibly science-fiction, and in a good way – Arthur C. Clarke would be delighted. This has been possible for some time; who else remembers poring over’s IKONOS or DigitalGlobe shot of the day in the bullshit-rockin’ autumn of 2001? But as far as I know, this is the first attempt by a media organisation to acquire overhead imagery on an operational timescale. Hey, it’s Tim Worstall’s worst nightmare – Polly Toynbee in spaaace!

What might have happened or not happened had somebody tried this earlier is a very interesting question. Of course, finding the Sirius Star is a fairly easy challenge – we know where to look, she is a huge and unambiguous target, and she is nicely contrasting with the sea in a part of the world where the skies are usually clear. We still need SAR capability of our own, quite possibly more than we need Trident, and IKONOS won’t sell you that.

Here’s an interesting question about the finally-released Senate Intelligence Committee Phase II report about the use of intelligence on Iraq. The “Shorter” for Phase II A is quite simply that “yes, it was all bollocks”, and specifically that it was all bollocks in the same way it was in the UK – caveats were removed, possibilities upped to certainties, dissent suppressed – with certain well-known exceptions that were complete nonsense. Phase II B deals with the infamous meeting in Rome between top-of-the-barrel rightwing nutcase Michael Ledeen, convicted spy Larry Franklin, all-purpose crook and bullshitter Manuchar Ghorbanifar, plus two Iranians, one of whom Ledeen claimed to be a disaffected Iranian spook on the run, but who may just have had a similar name (another man involved turned out not to exist, and another described as “an information peddler”, and an unknown number of spies from “a foreign government”. What a bunch.

The report should by rights be the final blow for Ledeen’s credibility and reputation, in so far as such things exist – it makes clear that he misrepresented the people present so that the Department of Defense would handle the meeting rather than the CIA (this was important because the CIA considered Ghorbanifar a liar and probably an Iranian spy), and that he also didn’t say that yer man was coming. Nor did he mention the others, because any involvement with Italian officials would have required the permission of the State Department, which presumably considered them all to be a bunch of nutters. Despite much black ink, it is clear from context that the “foreign government” was Italy.

Further, it reveals that US Army counter-intelligence agents suspected he was being used by Iranian intelligence, but that the investigation was killed off on instructions from Stephen Cambone after one month. That’s all impressive enough, and much as we all thought. But what I want to know is precisely where the British government comes in?

You may recall that the famous document that was meant to show Iraq buying uranium from Niger originated with the Italian secret service, and then appeared in yer dossier, just in time for the Americans to start using it in public speeches. It has long been suspected that the meeting in Rome was somehow involved in this exercise in policy-laundering, or rather bullshit-laundering. So how did the thing get from Italy to the UK? Well, there was Harold Rhode, also at the meeting, who made it to the December 2002 Iraqi opposition conference in London. That may give us some idea. Now that’s what I call the exigencies of the service – you’ve got to meet gems like Ledeen, Ghorbanifar, Chalabi, and Nick bleeding Cohen, plus every other Decent out of hospital at the time. It’s hell in the diplomatic, as Harry Flashman so wisely said.

It would be interesting to know if/when any of the other members of the Rome Secret Dining Club visited Britain between then and September 2002. As Mick Smith points out, the war is not over – the Defence Intelligence Staff just got post-Huttonised.

Crack BBC journo Peter Taylor’s film The Secret Peacemaker, about Brendan Duddy, the man who maintained secret communications between the IRA leadership and the British government from the early 70s to 1993, was a cracker; it provided rich detail about the practicalities of ending the war, the missed opportunities of the first ceasefire, and moreover it conveyed something of the weird atmosphere. Secret meetings with spooks and terrorists were held in a Thatcherite DIY conservatory, and it struck me that most media coverage of Northern Ireland was always urban; intellectually, I knew there had to be countryside, and that due to its latitude and geography it would look vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t prepared for it looking quite so much like the moors. And the killer detail is surely that Duddy knew Martin McGuinness from when he delivered fish to his dad’s chip shop.

But rather than the mood music, a real point which nobody picked up on: here’s something from Taylor’s summary of the film, as published in the Guardian.

But one of the great mysteries of the peace process remained. Who did send the famous “conflict is over” message? I pointed out to Duddy that if he didn’t send it and McGuinness didn’t send it, that only left “Fred”.

Duddy was protective of the man he had come to admire. “I don’t want to say, as he’s a wonderful, honourable man.” The message was written in pencil in a hotel room in London. “It seems to me that message was to encourage the British government to actually believe dialogue was possible,” Duddy said. But the revelation of the messages and the unauthorised March meeting also marked the end of “Fred”. The government was appalled at how he had exceeded his brief, disobeyed instructions and almost brought the prime minister down. “Fred”, in Brendan’s words, was “court-martialled”. As he said goodbye, he gave Duddy a farewell present, a book inscribed with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: “One day it will be good to remember these things.”

When I read this I double-took; did he really just say “the conflict is over” was actually sent by an MI5 agent exceeding his authority? You what? It was what I think of as an Embassy Phew, after the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent where Comrade Ossipon finally gets clued-in to the fact Verloc has always been a stool pigeon for both the plod and the Russians. Police! Embassy! Phew! The political equivalent of the sensation of a cricket ball not quite hitting your head.

You would have thought that this was front-page stuff; “Fred” ended the war in Northern Ireland and nearly disposed of John Major, at one stroke of his pencil, whilst also precipitating the interrogation of Duddy. Frankly, he deserves a knighthood for the first two out of those three; he may of course have got one. But there are some pretty gigantic constitutional issues here, no? I mean, did the spies deceive the prime minister? As usual, the limits of British political discourse are that it stops as soon as you get to the question of power.

Alternatively, it’s possible that the message was given to “Fred” by a third party; it’s certainly not impossible that he had other Republican contacts, a back channel to the back channel. Or perhaps, as it seems that whatever the facts about the message, it accurately described the IRA leaders’ thoughts, an intelligence source in the IRA clued him in? (If it was the near-legendary Freddie Scappaticci, you’d be forgiven for suggesting it was more of a back passage than a back channel.) After all, it would be surprising, had he simply made it all up, if the results had accurately matched the IRA’s intentions. That suggests strongly that if the message wasn’t received from someone, it was composed with extensive knowledge of the IRA leadership’s thoughts; which begs the question of exactly what the word “message” means.

Presumably “Fred” was required to report on what was said at the meetings as well as what the IRA told him to pass on; it’s not impossible that a text which contained his opinion of their intentions, or a summary of the conversation, was taken for a verbatim message. In which case, it’s possible that the IRA deliberately signalled its content to him in order to stay plausibly deniable; a virtual back channel within a channel. At which point, the brain reels.

Well, who saw that one coming? China blasts an old weather satellite with an MRBM. There’s a lot to say about this, but here’s one of the most important things. One of the classic examples of cooperation in an adversarial relationship is the understanding between the US and the Soviet Union, and then everyone else, that nobody would try to extend their sovereignty into low earth-orbit. John Lewis Gaddis devoted a whole chapter of The Long Peace to this idea. Originally, it wasn’t clear that satellites could actually orbit without the permission of states they passed over. But, even though it was soon obvious how useful they would be for spying, the superpowers tacitly agreed to tolerate each other’s sats.

Partly this was because it was clear that, without a cut-off point, it would be extremely annoying to get anything done in space. Partly it was because satellite reconnaissance was seen as a useful precaution against surprise attack, and hence a stabilising influence on superpower politics. So, although both sides researched the possibilities of shooting down satellites, and both the US and USSR carried out successful tests, they quietly agreed to put up with the other side’s birds in time of peace. (There’s a good post here at about their ASAT program.)

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 added to, but was really just built on top of, this tacit understanding. It’s important to understand that US (or anyone else’s) complaining about the Chinese is not an argument that “We own space”, or rather, it isn’t one with that particular “we”. The existing position is that anyone who can get to space can use space, and this includes a lot of military or related activity. But all agree not to interfere with each other’s satellites. This is actually quite a good solution.

Many of the things civilians want to do in space are indistinguishable from things the military would like to do in space – the telecoms industry’s activities up there are not very different from military signals operations up there, scientists and cartographers carrying out photographic surveys and some forms of Earth-monitoring are not very different from military intelligence personnel doing photo-reconnaissance, GPS and GLONASS are used by all kinds of people.

This way, all the users are catered for with a degree of security. “We” own space, where the “we” is the community of space users. It’s rather like the high seas. Anyone trying to destroy satellites is effectively enclosing the commons, especially given the debris problem. Whichever way you cut it, it’s an act aimed at changing the status quo in space, and not in a direction I think anyone needs.

It’s also worrying exactly how it was done. The Chinese seem to have used a bloody big rocket fired directly into its path, like a huge SAM. They don’t seem to have told anyone beforehand. Now, firing a bloody big rocket on a ballistic trajectory is an act that can be dangerous. There are longstanding arrangements under which any state that is going to let off a bloody big rocket tells everyone else first. This is because if it goes high enough, it will be detected by early-warning radars looking for ballistic missiles. (The launch will also show up on the US’s Defence Support Program infrared satellites.) A rocket that can put a satellite into orbit can also be at least an MRBM.

That’s not good. In this case the launcher wasn’t big enough to be an ICBM, but it would have been big enough to target India or Japan or parts of Russia. I think all can agree that unacknowledged ballistic missile tests are not a boon to humanity.

Why would China want such a capability? It’s well known that the US armed forces love satellites, for intelligence, communications, weather forecasting, and navigation. A lot of these are in low earth-orbit, like the one the Chinese rocket smashed. There’s clearly a show of strength going on here, but the foxing question is why they found it necessary to do it in the way they did. There’s no point signalling a capability secretly. It’s impossible to do something in LEO secretly, anyway, as all kinds of governments and research organisations from many countries observe it routinely and their data is available on the Net, which is how the news of the hit got out.

The Americans are presumably being put on notice that their LEO constellation can be held in jeopardy. There’s another point, though – satellites are a field in which new countries are rapidly gaining capabilities. Taiwan, for example, rents a share in an Israeli satellite. Nigeria is working on one. It makes sense, I suppose, for the Chinese to keep ahead of states nearer to being peers than the US.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the UK is one of few comparable states that has no satellite capability of its own. You might remember this post and the difference of opinion on Iraq between the countries without satellites, and France, which has its own. Surrey University and Astrium in Stevenage are good at making them. Arianespace are pretty good at launching any satellite someone will pay for.