Right Thing, Wrong Reasons, Deep Stupidity


Some things about Trump’s apparent disclosure of secret information.

First off, the anti-Trump faction are trying to turn this into a Benghazi!-style Big Deal. It’s not. Sure, Trump is ignorant and that’s a big deal. And he has less sense than a Beagle dog, and that’s also a big deal. However, his supporters already knew that – that was why they elected him – and none of the current kerfuffle is going to change anything.

Reading between the lines, it sounds something like that Trump told the Russians, “our Israeli friends say the bad guys are working on more energetic explosives than usual, with an eye toward producing laptop bombs that can take down a plane.”  And the Russians probably said, “Ah, thank you.” Trump probably wasn’t that articulate, but you can translate it into Trump for your own amusement.

This is actually exactly the kind of international high-level counter-terror information that you want to have shared. It’s possible that Trump’s comments will make the Russians be a bit more careful about laptops (remember: they just lost a planeful of people scattered all over Sharm El Sheik because of an ISIS bomb that was snuck onto the plane.)

This is no fucking joke people [source]

There is a lot of blatheration going on about “sources and methods” etc., and it’s disgracefully partisan and generally ignorant. This morning I was captivated in the hotel lobby for a few minutes watching an interview with Nancy Pelosi talking about what a big Benghazi!-like Big Deal this is, and I was horrified. I was horrified not by the blank credulity of the network talking head that was ‘interviewing’ her by asking her her pre-positioned talking points, but by how ignorant Pelosi appeared to be about anything to do with intelligence and counter-intelligence. As former ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee I expected better of her. I was to be disappointed. Not only was she trying to portray this as a Benghazi! Big Deal, she couldn’t even explain to the talking head what protecting “sources and methods” means and so she resorted to – lying – that’s the only word I can use – by trying to imply that Trump’s stupid leak was going to maybe get service people killed.

Reality check: when the TSA started restricting international laptops from certain companies, the cat was out of the bag and dancing across the table-top. And that’s fine. Imagine that you’ve been working on a laptop bomb and now you’ve just discovered that “oops they’re on to me” – what are you going to do? For sure, you’re not going to try to take that laptop bomb to where you can get arrested and wind up in Guantanamo getting tortured by the CIA. Releasing that information (which happened as soon as the laptop ban went into effect) may have saved lives.

More reality check: when the laptop ban went into effect, perhaps some jihadis went “shit, they’re on to us!”  And then what? Contrary to Pelosi’s stupid lies, they did not immediately shoot an American soldier or intelligence operative. They assumed that some of their communications have been compromised, or that they made a tradecraft mistake, or maybe that there’s a Mossad agent in their operation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called President Donald Trump “sloppy” following a report that he shared classified information with senior Russian officials during their visit to the White House.

Pelosi was at a CNN town hall hosted by Chris Cuomo on Monday evening as a Washington Post report circulated about Trump’s disclosure of highly classified information regarding ISIS to the Russian officials visiting the Oval Office.

She quickly addressed the report, saying, “We cannot have the president of the Untied States being casually loose-lipped about confirming something, even if it’s in the public domain, to an adversarial nation.”

“It undermines the trust that we would have with our allies,” she added. [time]

If some Russian diplomat had said “hey, there’s word some people are working on learning to fly airplanes, but not land them” before 9/11, everyone would have been thrilled to death including Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi is a lying, horrible, partisan, manipulative political weasel to be a) assuming Russia is an ‘adversarial nation’ regarding protecting citizens of any country against terrorism b) pretending the information is ‘highly classified’ when the laptop ban already effectively declassified it. If you hated the Benghazi! nonsense the Republicans were pulling against Hillary Clinton you should hate the nonsense Nancy Pelosi is dishing, too. Either she’s just a manipulating political carnie, or she’s too ignorant about intelligence to be on the Senate Artificial Intelligence committee let alone any role involving oversight of the US’ runaway intelligence community.

4 cans of tannerite shot with a rifle [source]

Furthermore, it’s a lie that this is some great new bomb-making technique that the jihadis have invented. There is a relatively small number of safe, portable, binary explosives, and it appears that the plot (which is now thoroughly aborted) involved sneaking ammonium nitrate onto a plane in a laptop, in the battery compartment, and then it was going to be detonated against the airframe at a window seat above the wing. That’s how the Russian plane at Sharm El Sheikh was brought down: a schweppes can full of ammonium nitrate [reuters] with a bit of aluminum in it (aluminum powder makes the ammonium nitrate more sensitive) – it’s sold commercially in the US as “Tannerite” [tanner]  There is no great secret intelligence being disclosed: they’re talking about a bomb-making technique that everyone has known about for ages. And now suddenly the media is promoting it as an ‘invisible’ explosive that can’t be detected: more bullshit. If you’ve ever had one of those chromatography swabs: they are very sensitive to nitrogen compounds. Ammonium nitrate would light one of those things up like a christmas tree. If there’s a secret new innovation going on here, maybe the jihadis are thinking about using a glove box and good clean-room techniques to seal the stuff into a laptop battery so they’re not walking around covered in the stuff.

Maybe some Mossad agent who’s embedded with ISIS dropped a note to his handler that he saw someone packing aluminum and ammonium nitrate into laptops. And maybe that agent took a look at Google news and decided his cover was blown and got the hell out of there. Or maybe it was signal intelligence. Or maybe it was just obvious – after all, ISIS did just bring down a Russian plane using that concoction.

I’m sitting here at the airport and the TV is droning… “It was completely reckless”  and “it was top secret” and I’m yelling at the departure lounge monitor so everyone is glaring at me.

Trump is an embarrassment as a human being, never mind a president. But this manufactroversy is revealing how shallow the press’ understanding is. It’s showing how manipulative and shallow the ‘opposition’ like Nancy Pelosi are. It makes me so angry and frustrated to see how openly ignorant the media are; they’re so stupid they just read whatever talking-points they get given by whoever’s trying to manipulate public opinion. And they do it because they know their consumers are so ignorant that they’re not going to question the lies that are being shoveled at them. If the Russians were thinking anything when Trump told them about the jihadi bomb intelligence it was probably, “Why are you telling us this? Our agents in DHS already told us, but we figured it out immediately after Sharm El Sheikh, you stupid child, you!”

Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies, lies, and stupid. Which is worse? I hate them all.

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The Schweppes bomb was a clever piece of work. It would have weighed about the same, and would have looked like a can of liquid on a scanner (the powdered aluminum would have been invisible against the aluminum of the can) The bomber had to pop the can top and stuff a blasting cap down it, then put it against the side of the plane and put the wires across a battery. It’s one of the reasons that US security practices don’t allow cans of liquid (and you can bet the Russians aren’t, anymore, either!) through security. And it’s one of the reasons that US security checkpoints have random nitrate swipes. The nice thing about high explosives is that most of them involve nitrogen changing state suddenly, which means you’ve got nitro-something compounds lying around that you can look for. [derek lowe]

“If some Russian diplomat had said “hey, there’s word some people are working on learning to fly airplanes, but not land them” before 9/11″ — that actually happened. If you recall, Egyptian intelligence informed the CIA that there was an operation in the wind, at least 6 months before 9/11. The CIA, because they hate the FBI didn’t share secrets with the FBI. The FBI, of course, had its own indicators about the plot, which it also ignored. If some Russian diplomat had informed President Bush a week before 9/11 and the plot had been dismantled, we’d be pointing to it as an epic success in international cooperation.

Listening to horrible lying political weasels like Pelosi saying that counter-terror information should not be shared with an “adversarial nation” means she is saying “fuck the Russians, let the terrorists blow up a few more of their planes.” Memo to Pelosi and other 2-party-systemists who want to oppose Trump: don’t do it by getting down in the gutter with him.

They tell you these lies because they think you’re that stupid. Are you?

Comments

  1. Kengi says

    They assumed that some of their communications have been compromised, or that they made a tradecraft mistake, or maybe that there’s a Mossad agent in their operation.

    I think that’s part of the reason this is a problem. By telling Iran’s biggest ally it was, in fact, the third option, a better, concentrated effort can be made to plug that security breach on their end. Perhaps with help from a major regional power with counter-intelligence assets of their own.

    That’s probably why Israel was adamant about not sharing that bit of information, even with close allies. Never mind Iran’s biggest ally.

    Where it gets worse is in Israel’s reaction to this. We may be cut off from some of their best intelligence in the near future. So yeah, this is bad. Certainly worse than Benghazi, which was a mistake only in not evacuating the embassy sooner. We (and almost all diplomatic corps around the world) tend to make the same mistake over and over, since they rightly feel they need to be in-country to properly do their job, and always try to wait until the last minute before getting out of Dodge.

  2. says

    Aluminum is a weak x-ray stopper. Look at an x-ray of an aluminum can (a simple image search will reveal many) and note that thicker features of the can block more x-rays. So no, aluminum powder in an aluminum can wouldn’t look the same as just a can.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    My understanding of the reporting on this was that the thing that really threw everyone into a tizzy wasn’t Trump saying “we’ve got an intel source that told us ISIS is working on a laptop bomb” — you’re right, that cat was already out of the bag on that one. The Big Deal here was that he said the specific city where the intel came from. Also, there was a report that the source was already nervous about sharing intel with us, because he or she (rightly) figured Washington can’t be trusted not to leak.

    So somebody who is possibly highly placed in ISIS was actually on our payroll, or an ally’s payroll, and feeding us information at personal risk. Best case scenario is that they clam up in the future — which means that, yes, lives are in danger due to the information they won’t give us. Worse case scenario? Well, some of the cities in the ISIS sphere are also in territory that Assad can get at, and anything Russia knows we can assume Assad also knows. It’s not inconceivable that Trump’s leak of the city may cause our source to end up dead.

    There’s also the chilling effect that any future assets that the CIA attempts to recruit are going to say “How do I know the US president isn’t going to spill the beans about me?”

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    RE #3: Aluminum is indeed a poor X-ray blocker, relative to most other metals. X-ray stopping power scales nicely with the number of electrons (approx = atomic number Z). In X-ray research, beryllium is used for “X-ray transparent” windows, aluminum is used for attenuation, and heaver metals (“high Z” lead, molybdenum, etc.) are used for blocking the beam.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    “Used for attenuation” – you use a reasonable thickness of aluminum to cut beam intensity by a certain fraction (thickness and fraction will be dependent on X-ray wavelength). You increase the thickness (perhaps by folding over the foil) to cut even more. A fancy attenuator might have a whole series of Al sheets of varying thickness to match the required degree of attenuation, mechanized to flip the required assortment of Al sheets into the beam.

    So definitely you would be able to tell an empty Al can from a can filled with Al powder.

  6. says

    georgewiman@#3 and Reginald Selkirk@#6:
    How much different would an aluminum can with some fine aluminum powder in it look from an aluminum can with tonic water in it? And would airport security notice?

    For obvious reasons, it’s hard to get details about some of this stuff, and there are some accounts of bomb plots that sound outright implausible. (e.g: nobody is going to walk around with concentrated hydrogen peroxide in their carryon, nobody is going to make TATP in an airplane bathroom sink, etc) It’s semi-plausible that someone might sneak a block of ammonium nitrate/aluminum in a laptop battery, but it’s not very plausible that they’d sneak ammonium nitrate in the battery, powdered aluminum in their shoe, and mix it in the bathroom. Even sensitized, the stuff isn’t that sensitive, you could hit it with a hammer (but I wouldn’t) Airport screeners are on the lookout for anything that looks like a blasting cap, and that’d be the biggest problem to get onto a plane with. Remember, most of the bombing incidents in the 70s and 80s used the then- relatively available plastic explosives like Semtex. Nowadays savvy travelers know not to even try to get on a plane with marzipan, sculpey, bath salts, silly putty etc.

    Anyhow, the Russians almost certainly improved their security after Sharm El Sheikh – that can oughtn’t have gotten on the plane in the first place – and it wouldn’t have under American security screening for exactly that reason. It makes sense that someone might try to put a bomb in a laptop but it’s also obvious: remember when they used to have you turn your laptop on so they could see Windows? This has been going on for a long time, fortunately laptops got smaller.

    When the US announced it was not allowing laptops on planes from certain origins, whoever was working on laptop bombs would have immediately known their operation was blown, and would have known it a couple weeks before Trump’s stupid blathering. Anyone who was in cover in any organization plotting such bombings would have either had good enough cover to be OK, or would have gotten out of town a couple days before the new rule went into place.

    I’m not trying to minimize what a troglodyte Trump is. He ought to be used for a pinata. But the opposition media that are hopping up and down about this like it’s a great big intelligence leak – they’re exaggerating it for effect.

  7. jrkrideau says

    24 brucegee1962

    You want to explain that?

    Well, some of the cities in the ISIS sphere are also in territory that Assad can get at, and anything Russia knows we can assume Assad also knows. It’s not inconceivable that Trump’s leak of the city may cause our source to end up dead.

    The source may end up dead, but that’s a function of the US press yelling loudly and alerting ISIS that they have a mole.

    What conceivable reason would Iran, or Russia or even Syria have for killing someone spying on ISIS? One of the above might want to turn them but surely decent intelligence from within ISIS is valuable even if it is only going to the Americans since there is some dim change the US might share it with Russia, etc., under certain circumstances.

    After the war is over (in the sweet by-and-by) the asset might have reason to worry.

    There’s also the chilling effect that any future assets that the CIA attempts to recruit are going to say “How do I know the US president isn’t going to spill the beans about me?”

    Exactly. I’d suggest applying to other governments as a better career move. And asking that your employer never mention anything you do to the US gov’t. Which by now is probably happening anyway.

    Trump, probably, has done more damage to international intelligence sharing in half-an-hour than anyone would have thought possible. Even the rest of the “Five Eyes” are going to be jittery.

  8. says

    brucegee1963@#4:
    The Big Deal here was that he said the specific city where the intel came from. Also, there was a report that the source was already nervous about sharing intel with us, because he or she (rightly) figured Washington can’t be trusted not to leak.

    Trump’s so stupid that stupid people complain when people say Trump is one of them. Of course, he should not have said that. However, whoever the source was that provided that information, would have left town before TSA published their new rules. That was where the risk assessment about sources and methods was made, and if there was even a human source at all they would have been protected before TSA changed the rules.

    For the sake of argument I’m going along with the prevailing story that there was a human source and that it wasn’t some other kind of intelligence. It could be that the jihadis didn’t see the tiny camera in the corner shelf that watched them disassembling laptops and hauling around bags of ammonium nitrate. Or it could be that one of the jihdis was looking online for how to make a glove-box. There are so many possibilities. And, of course, the jihadis involved in the plot started scrambling around as soon as TSA changed the laptop rule – they probably left wherever they were in a hurry and are trying to walk back the cat to see if it was one of them, or a supplier, or what. Odds are they will never figure it out.

    Also, there was a report that the source was already nervous about sharing intel with us, because he or she (rightly) figured Washington can’t be trusted not to leak.

    I don’t believe that was the primary source. I believe that the claim is that the intelligence apparatus that had the information (presumably this would be Mossad) was on the fence about whether or not to share the information, because they know Washington sucks. And they’re right. But if it was Mossad they’ve probably already killed that group of jihadis. One very high probability is that the ammonium nitrate and laptops were found with a bunch of dead jihadis, “aha, that’s what they were up to!”

    The question of national intelligence services sharing information is always tricky. As I mentioned before, SAVAK told the CIA about a plot involving airlines well before 9/11. Usually intelligence services share information like that on the assumption it’s going to be blown, because there’s no reason to share it otherwise. The details? Yeah, they probably won’t share those again. Maybe it was a test to see how stupid Trump is. I’m shocked that anyone would wonder about that, though, seriously.

    So somebody who is possibly highly placed in ISIS was actually on our payroll, or an ally’s payroll, and feeding us information at personal risk.

    It is a huge assumption to think there’s a mole in ISIS. It’s vastly more likely that, if there’s a human source at all, it’s someone peripheral. (think about how they finally tracked Bin Laden as an example) As I said, it could be a microphone. Or the guy who smuggles ammo. Or the source of the laptops. Or the source of the ammonium nitrate. It is extremely common to throw a head fake when a source is burned. Mossad has even been known to set up someone else as a source: let’s say you want that ammonium nitrate supplier dead: tell Donald Trump “ha! the guy who supplies their ammonium nitrate is one of ours!” and the poor guy’ll never know what hit him because Trump is such an idiot he’d tweet it. Meanwhile the real source’s cover just got better. (if you want examples of how that works out, read the story of Gerald Bull and the Iraqi supergun and how Mossad used him to trawl a bunch of Iraqi secret agents out of the woodwork then rewarded him with 2 .22 bullets in the head and they killed the Iraqis) We’ll never know and ISIS will probably never know and Trump will never know.

    yes, lives are in danger due to the information they won’t give us

    And lives are out of danger due to the change in laptop carry-on policy.

    This isn’t that easy, and I think you’re accepting the ‘party line’ a bit too readily.
    I believe that the opposition party line is hugely overstated, to the point where they are pretty much lying outright. And it’s believable enough that, when you watch the talking heads go “someone might die!” yeah, but think about it a bit more carefully. Trump’s an embarrassment to all primates, but this whole kerfuffle is predicated on the Mossad being stupid enough to personally trust Trump. If you think about that for a second, you ought be laughing your ass off. It’s way more plausible that the Israelis played Trump and that Pelosi and the opposition are playing you. Think about it.

    It’s not inconceivable that Trump’s leak of the city may cause our source to end up dead.

    It’s not inconceivable, it’s merely very very very very very very unlikely.

  9. says

    jrkrideau@#8:
    Trump, probably, has done more damage to international intelligence sharing in half-an-hour than anyone would have thought possible. Even the rest of the “Five Eyes” are going to be jittery.

    I wish. I’m afraid that what’s going to happen is the intelligence apparatus is going to draw a curtain of silence around Trump, and do whatever the hell they want, which is what they always do, and stop asking for authorization or oversight at all. That’s pretty much already the state of affairs, unless we are willing to believe Obama’s control over the apparatus was so good that they asked him permission before they tapped Angela Merkel’s phone, etc. Nonsense: they do whatever they want.

    Note: I am not saying that there’s a “deep state” – it’s more like an out-of-control armed and dangerous independent militarized bureaucracy with a huge covert budget. A “deep state” would be an improvement.

  10. EigenSprocketUK says

    when the TSA started restricting international laptops from certain companies

    Be fair: the ones from Dell-istan do have good battery life.

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