Retro-Scoping the FBI


The retro-scope appears to now be part of the investigative procedure for any incident that has political implications. Because its time-horizon goes about -10 years (with some blurry images back to -20 years) the entire current crop of politicians grew up in a time before retro-scoping existed, so they do not fear the ‘scope, nor do they fully understand it. They will.

I did a google image search for “retroscope” and look at this beauty!

Meta: Previous articles on the retro-scope [stderr][stderr][stderr]

Recently the Mueller investigation fired an agent for making a negative tweet(?) about the Trump administration. Certainly, that was a lapse of professionalism that could have (and did!) distract from the investigation, so Mueller was right to decisively shut it down. It’s not a “free speech” issue – well, technically, it is – as much as a matter of poor professional judgement. The matter – as Mueller clearly hoped – would end there. But, because it’s political, it did not. Someone engaged the retro-scope on the FBI agent involved and now the left hand is doing a “drill down” on the right hand.

Most of the rest of what I’m going to say is extrapolation; naturally, you should do your own research. Void where prohibited. Etc. But I don’t think we need a copy of Palantir to draw the dotted lines through this scenario and see what’s going on.

The story:

  1. FBI agent on the investigation into the Trump/Russia connection is fired for making a disparaging remark about the Trump administration. If you were there watching the news cycle, you might be forgiven for making the mistake many of us made, that Strzok’s comments about Trump were public. If you read the reporting it might sound a lot like Strzok was a moron like Trump, and just gassed off on Twitter. The reporting goes “blah blah blah Twitter blah FBI Investigator fired blah Twitter disparaging message blah blah.” But I cannot find a reference that says that Strzok actually said anything public. [twitter]
  2. Next, the story is “anti-Trump texts.” [abc]
  3. Now, the story is “texts between FBI agent and woman with whom he was having an affair…” [nbc] The woman is an FBI lawyer.
  4. Suddenly the woman is no longer unnamed.
  5. Finally, the actual contents of the texts are leaking into the press.

Around about midway between #1 and #2 someone pointed the retro-scope at Strzok and around about #3 they started retro-scoping and strip-mining Strzok’s circle of friends and personal relationships. Do any of you wish to wager that Strzok’s mother’s communications were not examined? Do any of you wish to wager that Strzok and unnamed FBI lawyer were using personal communication devices, and not FBI-issued communications? I.e.: that they had an expectation of privacy which turned out to be misplaced. My bet is that Strzok and his formerly unnamed friend thought that because they were part of the organization that owns and operates the retro-scope, they were off the target list. Pawns should not expect loyalty from kings.

Notice how the story has changed from what appears to have been someone disparaging Trump openly to now it’s someone’s texts with their girlfriend were disparaging of the Dear Leader?

As NBC reports:

The Department of Justice released 90 pages of text messages late Tuesday night, many harshly critical of candidate Donald Trump, that were exchanged between an FBI lawyer and an agent who was later assigned to Robert Mueller’s special counsel team.

How far back in time did those texts go? Strzok is now mentioned as having “been involved in the Clinton e-mail investigation.” Some of the texts described in the dump are exactly the sort of thing that any reasonable person would be likely to say about Trump.

One message sent by Page to Strzok on March 4, 2016, reads, “God trump is a loathsome human,” according to a transcript obtained by NBC News.

Later that year, in August, shortly after Trump secured the Republican nomination, Page sent Strzok an article on Trump’s fumbling to understand Russia’s annexation of Crimea, adding: “Jesus. You should read this. And Trump should go f himself.

The left hand just doxxed the right and, in doing so, tells us that the FBI can retrieve arbitrary text-chains going back at least a year. What are Strzok’s friend’s rights in this matter? For that matter, what are Strzok’s? I do not see any indication that Strzok was posting this stuff publicly: he was complaining to his girlfriend.

Privacy advocates have been concerned for a long time, that the intelligence community was going to build a retro-scope that would allow exactly this sort of thing: you’re working your job and someone decides to investigate the past you and the present you has no way of knowing what is happening and can only suffer the consequences. UItimately, this is going to trigger a time-war: if you want a job in government, you’d better not have ever said anything critical of government in the past.

I have always loved Big Brother. And I always will.

Palantir: “drill down into subsets of data”

Text that to your friends and family every so often. Because it’s not a matter that you’re going to have the retro-scope turned on you, but if any of your friends or your friends’ friends come to the establishment’s attention – so will you. You’re probably already fucked just because you read this blog. Don’t thank me, really, it was my pleasure.

This incident indicates a Rubicon was crossed some time ago; we all know it was but this is a “canary in the coal-mine” moment: if you get involved in certain things, you will be retro-scoped for ideological purity, and you will be doxxed, prosecuted, fired, or publicly broken if you don’t come up clean.

The Rubicon I refer to is not a normal river, though: it’s more like the Worm Oroborous, that consumes itself. Because in order to get cleared into the privileged elite that can use the retro-scope, you’re going to get retro-scoped, too. If you want to join the left hand, you’re going to be investigated by the right hand, and then you’re going to investigate the right hand in its turn. Bruce Schneier and I were on a panel one time and someone asked “How far can the intelligence state go?” I remember Bruce made a sensible answer, as he is wont to do, but I said, “you divide everyone into ‘evens’ and ‘odds’ and assign them each to surveil the other.” Bruce then sensibly pointed out that that was extremely inefficient and unworkable. I said “that has never bothered them before.”

A handful of computer security specialists, and all of the privacy advocates, have been waving red flags about this for a long time. The retro-scope amounts to another mechanism for aggregating the control of power (i.e.: power over power) into an increasingly small number of little hands. Put differently, it is a way of magnifying political leverage. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a pretty cool series of books that were a parable about what can happen if you aggregate power too much: it begins to attract some very ugly people, indeed. It is a consequence of the nature of power. Decades ago, I read a novel by M. J. Engh entitled Arslan [am] and it left me so unsettled that I really have not thought about it since I read it; it’s the story of a future in which somehow (which is never explained to us) an ultra-nihilist tin pot dictator is promoted to absolute global hegemony. It’s like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roy without the slightest shred of humor or kindness. It is a disturbing book, and that’s its point. When we read books like Arslan or The Lord of The Rings or Ubu Roy or 1984 we see writers’ best efforts to warn us about why we really, really, don’t want to aggregate the reins of power too efficiently.

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Minor ops trivia: My “to do list” got blown to pieces by me being stuck in bed for a week thanks to Hermann the kidney stone. Everything is running on full burners now, but I’m scrambling a bit to catch up with work commitments, personal commitments, and my “TO DO” list. So I may be a bit catch as catch can for the next lifetime.

Here’s a fun meta-problem: how many of Marcus’ friends have to agree (offline) to act in such a way as to make me appear to XkeyScore to be the focal-point of a plot? And, if my friends have such a bad sense of humor, how can I survive the attack? Clearly, the best defense is to kill off all my friends before they can try such a thing – fortunately I don’t have many friends so it won’t be hard.

Comments

  1. says

    I saw an article about the texts this morning, and didn’t click. I didn’t want to know, because it’s just another neon sign declaring we can’t get jack shit done, ever, because distractions over minor shit OMGBBQ!!11!

    So what if someone said something disparaging about the Tiny Tyrant? They are hardly alone. Would this be a big effing deal if he had been praising the idiot?

  2. Ogvorbis wants to know: WTF!?!?!?! says

    (Cross posted from the current Political Madness thread on Pharyngula)

    So, if Strzok were a Trump-lover who, just to pull a wild example out of my arse, worked in the New York City office and, say, leaked some internal FBI memos that were, out of context, damaging to Hillary Clinton, would the congressional GOP be up in arms? I wonder if anyone on Mueller’s team texted any messages of support for Trump to their loved ones or family? Or is it only supporters of the center (there really ain’t much of a political left remaining in the US) who get retro-reamed?

  3. Owlmirror says

    Recently the Mueller investigation fired an agent for making a negative tweet

    Was Peter Strzok actually fired? The articles you link to, and the Wikipedia page all say reassigned/dismissed from the Russia probe. Not the same thing as losing his job altogether.

    Still, it is disturbing that “the DOJ turned over 375 partially redacted text messages between Strzok and Page” (WikiP).

    How far back in time did those texts go?

    “The messages were sent between August 2015 and December 2016.” (WikiP)

    But that’s probably not how far back they looked. . .

  4. says

    Owlmirror@#3:
    You are correct: not fired. “Reassigned with extreme prejudice” might be a good term for it. His career’s over. I was inexact to say he was fired.

    I hope he blows any whistles he’s got. But what he does with what’s left of his career should be his business…

    I’m not even sure on what legal principle they can go back and check to see if you’re ideologically sound. There could be a fascinating lawsuit here, with a droolicious discovery process!

  5. says

    Caine@#1:
    So what if someone said something disparaging about the Tiny Tyrant?

    Exactly. We should not be shocked to learn that there are people at FBI who are able to figure out that Trump is a felch-troll.

    The ironic expression “political correctness” implies that there is a cultural revolution-style party ideology with commissars that oversee and punish speech that is disloyal to the official version. It’s not ironic cool anymore.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Some of the texts described in the dump are exactly the sort of thing that any reasonable person would be likely to say about Trump.
    One message sent by Page to Strzok on March 4, 2016, reads, “God trump is a loathsome human, …”

    Do you think a lot of people would call him ‘human’?

  7. komarov says

    Hang on. So saying bad things about Trump, the current US president, is sufficient reason to be reassigned to the back corner of the broom closet. So therefore saying* bad things about Obama, at some point US president, should be sufficient reason for the same treatment.
    So, logically speaking, not only should every federal employee and active politician (including Trump) be broomcloseted,** we should also be treated to a few years worth of personal and private messages between them and anyone unfortunate enough to be associated with them. It would be a peaceful revolution fit for the 21st-century. The only downside: It’s the government overthrowing the government. So there are no plucky Rebels with the Will Of The People on their side who can step in and take their place. There might be a bit of a power vacuum.

    Oh, wait, I just remembered that politics are immune to logic, and now I know why.

    *Future, present or past tense is clearly not an issue.
    **There might be a smallish group of people who expressed no dislike of any US president or were at least smart or fortunate enough to make their remarks outside any logged realms. But I’m confident something scandalous would stick to them as well.

  8. John Morales says

    komarov:

    Hang on. So saying bad things about Trump, the current US president, is sufficient reason to be reassigned to the back corner of the broom closet.

    I think the problem is the perceived prejudice from someone officially investigating Trump.

    Had he remained, the right-wing noise machine would have had a field day with that talking point, and I reckon Mueller wants to give as few reasons as possible — whether real or perceived — to dispute whatever findings eventually result.

  9. komarov says

    I had no idea real talking points were required and believe the right-wing noise machine can organise its own field days without the assistance of actual scandals or catastrophies. *cough*e-mails*cough*

    At any rate, that should still leave several committees, agencies and whatnot on the proverbial hook thanks to the apparently many, many, many Benghazi-investigations. Gods forbid any of those people were ever critical of the then-president and his administration, perhaps even going so far as to having a personal opinion. (Let’s invade everybody’s privacy and find out….)

  10. John Morales says

    komarov,

    At any rate, that should still leave several committees, agencies and whatnot on the proverbial hook thanks to the apparently many, many, many Benghazi-investigations.

    Sure — but the tu quoque approach is the big picture; Mueller is not acting on behalf of any party, he seems to me to be focused on his specific remit.

    Anyway, I hope you get I was noting this is not some arbitrary case of lèse-majesté, but rather a specific pre-emptive response the applicable circumstances.

  11. John Morales says

    … which brings me to #4.

    His career’s over.

    A simple declarative statement, but not a fact.

  12. oldmanbynow says

    For all of these comments, not one acknowledges the main point of Marcus’s essay: the horrific leverage involved in “total knowledge” of a person’s life. Now they can take not only you, but your family and friends, at any time.

    In Brave New World and 1984, complete order derives from that kind of control, because there is one authority. As horrific as that situation appears, it is less frightful than the alternative, wherein three or four conflicting and competing authorities wield that power in rotation. Such a circumstance was familiar to mid-sixteenth century (Tudor) Englishmen, who never knew whether their Catholicism or Protestantism would be a virtue or a death-sentence, depending on the confession of the next monarch. It was a real torture scenario: all you can do is scream, “2+2 is whatever you say it is,” but even that will not satisfy the powerful; because now they have Julia in the next room, as well, thanks to your emails. And the “powerful” change every two or four years.

    And the more you hide, the more of a target you make of yourself. While it’s not a good situation, people of our age needn’t worry, because we are weak and will be dead soon. And young people don’t need to worry, because people our age will have scraped the globe clean of every good thing. Have you tried to buy decent fish lately? And to get it, they’re killing the last right whales….

  13. chigau (違う) says

    oldmanbynow #12
    Did you really read Brave New World and 1984 as similar and/or equivalent visions of TheFuture?
    ’cause, they are kinda different…

  14. oldmanbynow says

    @chigau #13
    What might have led you to believe that I had read them as equivalent visions of the future?

  15. oldmanbynow says

    Oh, I get it. Because I point out that both regimes are authoritarian, totalitarian, and stable within the ambit of their governance, you think that somehow I have missed the differences in the novels. Back at you: did you really read those visions of the future as completely different? ’cause, they are kinda similar.

    If you give any thought at all to those futures, you will see the point at once: Huxley’s main mission, indeed, in writing Brave New World: that totalitarianism can be approached from different pathways, and enforced with different tools, but that it tends to lead to the same end result, which is a sacrifice to perfected stability, however it is achieved: the suffocation of art, the death of creativity, and the end of human progress that arises from a broad, free experience of both the pains and pleasures of a complete life.

  16. jimmf says

    In a previous post, you asserted that you can be accused at any time of anything. So it’s true and we all know it. Even worse is the thought that the retroscope is going to become editable (probably already is) or at the very least corruptible, because only the right people need to be convinced of your guilt and that can be worth a lot.

  17. says

    jimmf@#16:
    In a previous post, you asserted that you can be accused at any time of anything. So it’s true and we all know it. Even worse is the thought that the retroscope is going to become editable (probably already is) or at the very least corruptible, because only the right people need to be convinced of your guilt and that can be worth a lot.

    I don’t think the retro-scope will become editable. It doesn’t need to be.
    There is another topic I have not written about, regarding this topic – mostly because it depresses me too much. I suppose I shall now have to. I’ll try to do that in the next week or so.

  18. Owlmirror says

    Here’s a fun meta-problem: how many of Marcus’ friends have to agree (offline) to act in such a way as to make me appear to XkeyScore to be the focal-point of a plot? And, if my friends have such a bad sense of humor, how can I survive the attack? Clearly, the best defense is to kill off all my friends before they can try such a thing – fortunately I don’t have many friends so it won’t be hard.

    Thought 1: There is nothing your friends can do to you that you are not willing to do for yourself, freely and with enthusiasm. Why talk about how your friends might take pot-shots at you when you already have smoking holes in your feet?

    Thought 2: Why limit your massacre to your friends? If you include your family, you can throw yourself on the mercy of the court that much more.
    “Your honor, please have compassion for my wretched situation, for I am but a friendless orphan . . .”

  19. says

    Owlmirror@#18:
    “Your honor, please have compassion for my wretched situation, for I am but a friendless orphan . . .”

    … it was those darned social justice warriors… *gasp*

  20. Marissa van Eck says

    This may be the answer (or part of it) to Fermi’s Paradox: all the aliens let their technology get ahead of their moral development, and 1984’d-or-worse’d themselves out of existence.

  21. brucegee1962 says

    So a guy who lives in DC, the most partisan city in the nation, said something partisan? Mercy save us! Next thing you know, someone might even claim that Kenneth Starr didn’t like Bill Clinton, or something ridiculous like that. Pass the smelling salts.

  22. John Morales says

    Marissa van Eck, highly implausible.

    VR is a much better “answer”. Solipsistic hedonism, who would turn that down?

    (Computronium FTW!)

  23. John Morales says

    Alternatively, principle of mediocrity.

    We (humanity) certainly can neither communicate nor colonise the galaxy (big swathe of spacetime) and you despair that we ever shall. I say “meh”.

  24. says

    Marissa van Eck:
    This may be the answer (or part of it) to Fermi’s Paradox: all the aliens let their technology get ahead of their moral development, and 1984’d-or-worse’d themselves out of existence.

    I pretty much agree; with the modification that Fermi’s Paradox also tells us that Einstein was right about the speed of light being an asymptotic maximum for energy cost/speed. If superluminal travel is flat out impossible, then we are stuck in deep time. Every civilization that arises builds its equivalent of the Hubble, then the Webb, and then goes, “oh, shit.” Because we’re all stuck like flies in amber and we’re so far apart that we’ll never even hear each others’ dying screams – the lifetime of civilizations being too short and the lightspeed distances too long, the odds that any civilizations will overlap in the same light-cone are too small, and get smaller all the time as the universe expands.

  25. says

    John Morales@#23:
    Alternatively, principle of mediocrity.

    It’s not “dark energy” – it’s mediocrity. The baryonic universe as we know it is just a thin surface froth atop a gigantic heaving sea of dark mediocrity.

  26. John Morales says

    Phew. Now that I shan’t have a lot of comments in a row, I take the opportunity to apologise to van Eck @23 for the apparent attribution of a POV, which is is not justified.

    (The “you” should be “some”, and I realised that as soon as I had posted. I sort of expected a correction for that)

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