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Their plots were clever, but the real world is far more Byzantine.

Real-Life Spy vs. Spy Tale Blows Away the Comic Strip

The most recent developments in cyber espionage are really worthy of writing about. Some of you may have observed that my technology commentaries have become sparser, fewer and farther between, than they used to be. That’s because I’ve written thousands of them, and I’m tired of repeating myself. The alternative is to chase the news of the day, and I’m not usually interested in that.

As a fellow analyst observed, I’m more of a technological anthropologist than technology analyst. That is, I have more distance from the aims and goals of the industry (to sell more products) than I used to. These days, I mostly just let things that happen in tech slide by, but this concurrence, this crossing of narratives, was so jarring, I just had to say something.

Two articles came out Tuesday, Feb. 11, one in the Wall Street Journal and one in the Washington Post. The opposing venues were perfect, as the two stories were perfectly symmetrical: the Post one described in intense detail a long-time program that let the CIA break encrypted communications with allies and enemies alike through a captive Swiss encryption vendor; the Journal story nearly spilled the beans about why the U.S. intelligence services were so sure that Huawei was selling equipment to international buyers with a backdoor built in. It may very well be that the CIA’s now-blown Rubicon program (it was already shut down) was how the agency knew what Huawei was doing. China never bought any of the Swiss hardware, but many of their correspondents like Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Philippines, Pakistan, Malaysia, Japan, and Indonesia did. Perhaps some interesting Huawei conversations passed through one of those countries at some point or other.

Think of it: both stories break the same exact day. Coincidence? Unlikely. This is better than the fictitious Spy vs. Spy cartoon made famous in Mad Magazine. Spies spying on each other detect that they are spying on each other. Using similar means: poisoned hardware sold with strong assurances to the contrary, networks built over time, each side seeking to gain long-term advantage over the other. It might be amusing for someone who was not a partisan, but these days nearly everyone is. We take umbrage at what they’ve done to us, while forgiving ourselves the same trespasses. It’s hard to see how this could end well (as it didn’t particularly for either White Spy or Black Spy in the comic strip).

Think of these revelations as Snowden: Part II. I’m guessing by the depth of the reporting that the Post story was probably in the works for quite some time, and the U.S. intelligence services found out about it, probably tried to stop it, and then resorted to misdirection, essentially: “Don’t look at us! They’re doing it, too!” The Journal piece looks like it was put together rather quickly, maybe even having been received in part or whole from the administration itself, who wanted anything but the spotlight shined on our national actions, showing how we mistreated even fairly close allies — like France. Maybe not entirely a plant, the Journal article did give the impression that it was essentially defending U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr’s policies. He’s the one on the warpath about Huawei.

And he may well be right. Huawei is quite likely doing exactly what our spooks say it is doing. It’s just that we did it, too, and that’s probably how we know. The problem with that stance is it leaves the high moral ground to someone other than us. You don’t win any hearts and minds with these sorts of shenanigans. “He’s doing it, too!” is not a viable long-term defense. People of other nations identify you as perfidious.

That leaves the realpolitik of all this. I imagine Barr’s thinking goes something like this: “Yes, we did it. We’re sorry/not sorry we did it. But it helped us discover that they want to do it to us, and we won’t let them. There. Interests disclosed. You may not like it, but this is the world we live in. We couldn’t get any more juice out of the Rubicon program. So, we shut it down. And we’re not happy about the CIA’s internal report reaching the Post newsroom, but this is how we’re dealing with the blowback. Write your Congressperson if you have any further questions.”

In an echo of the Ukrainian snafu, the administration is arguing, “We did it, but so what? Further, although the disclosure of our sources and methods is embarrassing, the ends of keeping America safe and sound justify the means.” Again, the problem is that our government has tried to have it both ways, which we learned first by way of the Snowden leaks and now through the Rubicon report. The only reason to accept the administration’s reasoning is if there is no alternative. And whether one exists has yet to be determined.

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Technology Analyst

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