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If I Had a Hammer

by on June 28, 2013

                  “If I had a hammer……….”

                                     By Marco M. Pardi

In 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary emerged onto the folk music scene with a song by this title.  They vowed to hammer out warning, danger, justice, and love.  By just a few years they preceded national concerns over military contracting procedures through which items, such as $5.00 hammers were routinely purchased for upwards of $175.00 each (1960’s dollars). But was – and is, the military really this stupid?

Implementation of military procurement procedures normally follows strict protocol.  This is tedious, and about as interesting as dried wallpaper paste. Nonetheless, hammers were bought at stunning mark-ups, as were many other items.  Re-election nervous politicians and vapid journalists hammered out claims and stories.  Details, and especially reasons, were often deemed too arcane for a public shifting from the “Who, what, where, why and when” of traditional journalism to the evolving organism we have come to know as “television sound bite”.  And, history is a casualty of expedience.

Today, the American defense inventory includes 16 intelligence agencies.  Most of the public is unaware of this number; they are not all regularly featured in “spy movies”.  The American public is also largely unaware of how these entities are funded, perhaps casually dismissing that housekeeping chore as just more line items on the daunting Federal Budget document that threatens hernia to anyone foolish enough to try “picking up a copy”.  The interesting part of this is that the budgets for the established major players, such as CIA and NSA are simply not to be found in any open access documents.  The budgets for the other agencies are safely buried within the much larger overall budget documents relating to the services or departments of which they are a part.  One would have to know the budget code in order to perform the micro-surgical excision of those numbers from the body of the budget as a whole.

The budgets for the CIA and the NSA have been heavily classified from the start.  The reasons for this are simple and straightforward, no games are being played on the American taxpayers. If budgets were publically disclosed analysts in hostile agencies could readily parse out very reliable staffing and operational capability estimates.

It might be instructive to note that, only since the advent of the U-2, the SR71, and various satellites has the United States been able to compete for even rudimentary intelligence information. For example, up through the 1950’s anyone with a few dollars could easily acquire area maps of the United States, including geological survey maps, aviation maps, nautical maps, railway maps, and common road maps.  Most of these maps clearly delineated restricted zones, often with an explanatory legend. At the same time, even simple road maps were not publically available in the Soviet Union. If you did not know where you were going, you did not go – even if you could acquire the internal travel permits to do so.  Contrast the few dollars in the U.S., no questions asked, to the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars required to obtain similar information through HUMINT (Human Intelligence) from inside the Soviet Union.

The research and development costs of aircraft and satellite systems were funded from various classified sources, including the agencies which would use them.  And how did the money migrate from the taxpayer to the accounts from which this R&D money was drawn?  $175.00 hammers, and other such items ordered by the thousand.  The publically available line item disclosed the taxpayer cost, not the amount going to the hammer store. A chain of intermediaries drew “overhead costs” as the requisition made its way to the purchase officer in contact with the hammer provider. This isn’t to say the provider always and only got the normal wholesale (or perhaps retail) dollar amount Joe the Carpenter would have paid. But it is to say the provider never saw anything like $175.00 for a $5.00 hammer. The overhead costs were merely ways to siphon off funds into “black budgets”.

Another broad and misunderstood cost area has to do with operations, but not the operations many people envision when this term is used.  The public mind seems almost entirely engaged with the information gathering side of intelligence work, the so-called “spying”.  There seems to be no understanding that a complete intelligence program is as much devoted to shaping opinion as it is to gathering opinion.  Pursuant to this mission, operational costs mount as foreign journalists, politicians, entertainers and community activists are recruited,  front businesses are opened and staffed, and various academic institutions, non-profit charities, non governmental organizations, and country liaison offices are enlisted and/or opened.  Intelligence “community” insiders only half joke when they refer to USAID (United States Agency for International Development) as “a wholly owned subsidiary of the CIA”.  Indeed, the agency owns and funds a large variety of activities around the world.  However,  what is true for the American agencies/activities, often operating in frankly hostile and often costly environments, is even more true for the hostile intelligence services operating at a fraction of the cost in the almost Utopian openness of the domestic American landscape.

Enter the Counter-Intelligence divisions of the various American agencies. Although it may sound exotic and dramatic, counter-intelligence, particularly before the advent of the technology cited earlier, was and is often a plodding, methodical and tedious process of determining and investigating a number of factors.  It is also one of the least understood and least appreciated aspects of intelligence work, leading to accusations of “witch hunt”, paranoia, and over reach in the areas of privacy. It is the process of identifying and thwarting attempts by hostile services to gather intelligence.  As such, it must by its mission examine all possible points of entry into American society and the institutions through which that society functions and preserves itself.

While terrorism has been much of the American focus, particularly since 9/11, societal conflict is potential or actual along several fronts. These mainly are: Military; economic; political; and, infra-structural. Infra-structural here refers to the greatly increasing points of entry and vulnerability of societal fundamentals such as the electric and natural gas power grid/routing system, the electronic banking system, and all forms of electrically coordinated transportation systems.  But of course, all of the fronts are dynamically inter-related.  Bombs at marathons are certainly tragic and initially confusing. But they are localized.  However, access to any substantial electronic portal could be broadly disastrous and result in widespread major casualties and dramatic change in American life. 

Do electronic intrusions work?  One word: Stuxnet. Readers may recall the self-destruction of over 1,000 centrifuge tubes in the nuclear facility in Iran. The computer based controls went haywire and the tubes spun out of control. The culprit turned out to be a computer worm now known as Stuxnet. No one admits to authoring this worm, but examination disclosed a crucial problem: the in-built TTL (Time To Live) function failed to auto-destruct the worm after it had done its job.  A TTL function can easily be visualized in the same way as a telomere, a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences at each end of a chromatid, which protects the end of the chromosome from deterioration. As the telomere ages it shortens, eventually triggering a function similar to cell apoptosis.

Since the TTL failed, the Stuxnet worm has been available to unknown numbers of computer experts around the world who can tweak it with logic bombs, trapdoors and Trojan Horses pre-set to trigger on command. Thousands of probes daily seek breaches in American computer systems and networks, many probably looking for an entry point for a modified Stuxnet variant. These probes originate from overseas and from inside the U.S.      

The rapid growth of electronic technology to detect intrusion attempts has so far been successful in identifying and stopping incoming electronic attempts to penetrate and affect the fundamental systems mentioned. Attempts to protect commercial, military, and political secrets have not proven as successful.  However, in the methods to counter intelligence efforts and to “harden” electronically vulnerable targets, many factors must be considered. These include, but are not limited to:

1. Human reliability.

2. Likely targets, including vulnerable people.

3. Target vulnerability.

4. Cost – benefit analysis of risk mitigation.

5. Containment and First Responder capability.

6. Ability to identify a “return address”.

And many more. All of these are regularly “gamed” in spontaneous drills and exercises.  The operant caveat throughout the system is, “We have to succeed all the time; they only have to succeed once.”

The hyperbole, the anguished expressions, and the solemn but outraged tones passing for commentary about recent disclosures of intelligence methods glaringly announce that the sources of this consternation and angst have lots of internal empty space with which to amplify their cries.  Several fine histories have been written about the two stand-alone agencies mentioned above.  None have been widely read; fantasy feeding fiction (“spy thriller” is an actual name for the genre) prevails on the best seller lists.  A select few of the histories closely examine the in-fighting and seemingly interminable philosophical battles waged within the agencies and with the administrations to whom they answered; these are books a Constitutional Scholar would love.  

Yet, with all that has been published within a highly lucrative genre of spy thrillers, there seems to have been no discussion of the legal basis upon which “spy actions” rest. The 1978 Supreme Court case, United   States v. Choate ruled that the Postal Service may record “mail cover” – the to and from addresses on the outside of the envelope (not the contents) and hold that information.  Having been handed into the Public Domain, the sender surrenders all right to the information in the same way that all right to privacy is surrendered in putting your garbage out on the curb (public street).

The 1979 Supreme Court case, Smith v. Maryland established the same point regarding telephone calls (and, by extension other forms of electronic communication carried or transmitted over public airways or telephone company lines and facilities). All to and from identifiers may be kept by the carrier; content is open only subject to court order.

Our intelligence services work 24/7 in concert with allied services around the globe. Various forms of intelligence can be collated to identify communications nodes which, if demonstrably active in the context of a significant event or in the use of a suspected terrorist or hostile service, should immediately bear scrutiny to determine the extent of the metastasis, no matter where it reaches. As these ganglia are being traced, information sufficient for a warrant presentable to the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court is assembled. At every step along the way internal affairs officers and inspector general staff oversee the process and demand the logic.

All of this supposed conflict and concern seems to be recent, “post 9/11”, arising from the “Patriot Act”, etc.  The fact is, there’s nothing new here. In 1928 then Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson closed the State Department code breaker office saying, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” Historians have argued the significance for later events, but the underlying issue of secrecy in a free society never went away. One of the key texts, and required reading for Intelligence Officers ascending beyond mid-management was published in 1985. Secrecy and Democracy: The CIA in Transition by Admiral Stansfield Turner, DCI (Director Central Intelligence) 1977-1981.

Many people may lay it aside after a few pages. There are no “shoot-’em-ups” in it. And, it asks people to think first and feel later, unlike the egregious ethics displayed by the Administration in office during 9/11.

The problems are real. The problems are now. But they are not the problems career hungry journalists are touting. They are the problems which arise from unreliable people, hired as outsourced contract labor, slipping into positions which afford them opportunities to gather and then disseminate information which puts all of us at great risk.

The journalists have so far been silent, as they were in the Valerie Plame case, on the likelihood of cooperating human casualties around the globe as hostile services hunt and purge through their ranks for anyone seen to have allowed the penetrations that one person named Snowden claimed to have happened.

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer the Snowdens and others of his ilk out of positions in which poorly vetted technicians can allow poorly informed personal opinions to do great harm to the integrity of professionals and to the safety of the country at large.     


From → Uncategorized

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks for a glimpse into a world I new nothing about but is so important to our daily lives.


  2. Thanks, Mary. This seems to be stirring some thoughts and emotions in other venues. Marco


  3. *knew*
    I wish there was an edit option for comments posted.


  4. I have that option here. I’m not really versed on options elsewhere, but had to request a block on one very abusive kid on Google+. Dana nailed him as well.


  5. Rose Palmer permalink

    Classified information, Need-to-know, Personal reliability, National security; these were thoughts and phrases common to my household during our years serving in the American military, both here and abroad. The very freedom we fight to maintain is often the cause of our greatest danger; the wrong word or action may end in tragedy.
    While we were stationed in Germany, a young man was seduced and then murdered for his ID card and vehicle. Flashing said card at the gate, his killers drove the car, loaded with explosives, onto the base, and then simply walked away. Needless to say, the car exploded…. I wish I could report that this was the only incident during our years there, but sadly, it was not.
    The subject is security and the multitude of agencies, both foreign and domestic, whose mission is to maintain it for the rest of us. I’m not sure I can be said to be actively happy to be “spied on”, but I guess I’d rather the government know all of my nothing than miss someone else’s something which might endanger us all.


    • Thank you, Rose. You rightly point out, from experience, that there are people who are intent on harming others. I think that much of the current dismay is driven by career hungry journalists trying to be the next Woodward and Bernstein (who were thoroughly duped about the Watergate “break-in” and wound up being shills). I hope you will tell us more (what you can) about your experiences. Marco


    • Dana R. Seiler permalink

      Rose, I too hope you can share more and I appreciate your comments.

      Although I do not have personal experience, I think what I do possess is common sense, something I feel is needed for this entire topic. Critical reasoning skills aside, I wouldn’t think it takes a genius to know the government is not “spying” on each of us, particularly those who have or do nothing of interest. Not only that, as it pertains to Edward Snowden’s criminal actions, I think what he did was extremely wrong. I’ve been accused of “parroting” someone’s views, but I had not read a single opinion (not even Marco’s) before I arrived at my own conclusion. At the time, I had read only the basic facts surrounding Snowden’s circumstances and his fleeing to China. Once the story really unfolded, I was even more shocked to find out many laud him as a hero and a whistleblower. He is nothing of the sort to me.

      I have faced what I consider a degree of persecution from those in the field of anthropology (on some message boards elsewhere) because of my firm convictions. They don’t seem to have much common sense, and I think what they are spreading is nothing but fear, ignorance, and their own propaganda. Few, if any, are even willing to consider an opposing (and correct) view – significantly one from years of experience. I tried to refer them to this particular article of Marco’s, but I doubt more than one or two read it out of potentially 20,000 or so people.

      I thoroughly agree with your comment …”I’d rather the government know all of my nothing than miss someone else’s something which might endanger us all.” This is basically what I said on the other message board. I consider it my civic duty to provide what I can to help maintain safety and security. My phone numbers and emails are pretty boring, and wouldn’t “turn up” anything, but I certainly have no problem with the NSA or CIA or any other federal agency seeing with whom I’m in contact, or whatever else is needed to keep us free from harm another moment.

      Thanks again, Rose.


  6. Rose Palmer permalink

    Dana, like you, I feel there is nothing about my life which would draw the attention of anyone; and so I have no fear of the government actively spying on me. I’m sure we all know people about which this would not be true.

    Oh, the stories I could tell: my husband gives me permission to tell this one.

    During the year in which Marco and I knew each other, my husband was stationed at a “communications” site on a mountaintop in Turkey. It required a Top Secret clearance with full background check for him to be there, and the exact location was not on his orders. This site has since been decommissioned, but it was a part of world-wide security at the time.
    During long, often boring, shifts in the radio room, the personnel would sometimes amuse themselves by keying a silent microphone and watching the sails of the local “fishing boats” turn their direction. Imagine their surprise when they were wished a Merry Christmas over local (read Russian) radio, naming each of them along with rank and serial number.

    There is little point in paranoia for most of us, but never imagine for a moment that what you see is all there is to be seen.


  7. Andrew permalink

    Take a look at this…


  8. Thanks for the information, Andrew. I am familiar with much of it, having spent 6 years in the military, four of which were in a combat unit during the Viet Nam ordeal. I’ve also read the books cited, and many more, and known several of the key players.

    One can make the case that this material supports the development of a more precise Intelligence Community, not a heads-in-the-clouds community. Marco


  9. Andrew. Thanks again for your contribution although it may not have had the effect you presumed. I assume you noticed that the actions cited in your contribution occurred mostly prior to the inception of the surveillance methods which were the central point of the blog. Again, that seems to validate the efficacy of the methods.

    I am no apologist for religion, but neither do I excoriate the Catholic Church for burning heretics in the Middle Ages or for their complicity in the forcible conversion of Croatian Orthodox and the deportation of Jews during WWII. In fact, I daily exchange thoughts with a Cistercian (Trappist) monk who is a close friend.



  10. On the face of it, a reasoned piece. Certainly critical of any system which pays on paper $175 for a $5 hammer and keeps buying them. And of a ‘secret service system’ that behaves like a 7/11 in franchising out the most confidential activities.

    It stops short of real critique of the CIA itself, indicating that some within the CIA think USAID a 100% CIA activity — which might or might not be so. As you Marco were active in the Vietnam War, you will be fully aware of the non-sanctioned actions of the CIA, particularly in the undeclared US involvement in the war in Laos, much of which was financed by a budget intended for USAID to win ‘hearts and minds’ through development. That budget — which in current $ would be in the trillions — was used to move 700,000 people (a quarter of the population at the time) to protect them from Vietnam. It was also used to feed many of those people for periods of up to10 years. These actions were not specifically authorised by Congress but were supported by an American taxpayer who knew nothing about the details but generally opposed communism. Those taxpayers were not informed that following the movement of the population in Laos, an area larger than Florida was subject to round the clock carpet bombing, using cluster bombs that remain active today, impeding development and agriculture, and killing or maiming farmers who receive little medical attention and no compensation. The bombing continued every six minutes for 9 years. During this time Air America and other franchises made a lot of money from the opium trade. Should it be a surprise that if the core is rotten, it’s franchises will act like cowboys?

    As for recording senders and receivers of communications. There were good reasons for that. Mail went missing and might be traced this way. Anybody stealing it was/is subject to the harshest punishment. With electronic mail, contents do not disappear when stolen, but they are stolen. The CIA and its franchises are either the principal thieves or are incompetent and should be ousted. And somebody should pay back the missing $170 on each hammer — at today’s $.


    • Thank you, Robert. Particularly since Bush/Cheney I’ve been quite concerned with the very rapid growth of what many of us consider “mercenary” outfits, such as BlackWater, and money driven contractors, of which there are several. The push to “shrink government” while facing magnifying world issues has had dire consequences, with inevitable blow-back on the agencies which are the most vulnerable targets of public ire.
      By the way, through a PASA (Participating Agency Service Agreement) I was carried as a USAID GS13 for 5 years. Meeting with a USAID Officer in a particular country, I was amused to discover he was a former COS (Chief of Station) in a SouthEast Asian country with which I am sure you are familiar. The upside was: he was not a contractor.
      Hopefully by now, people have come to realize that their mundane e-mails and telephone calls are not being read or listened to. Perhaps some people live rather drab lives, and were momentarily thrilled at the thought that they could be so important.


  11. Thanks Marco. Most people do indeed lead lives of quiet desperation and if the security services are intent on catching the one in a million who do not, I think their resources and the taxpayers money (some of it mine) might be spent more responsibly.

    My intention was not to criticise USAID per se. In some places they do provide genuine development programmes (Indonesia for one). Even in Laos during the war years until 1973 and after, some in USAID were sincerely involved in development. However, having lived in Laos 73-5 and coming back with the UN 1980 and being here more or less continuously since (and loving the place), I have to say it is extremely difficult to reconstruct any of the development projects except for:

    — a suburban town 6 kms from the centre of Vientiane built on the US model with nice houses and paved roads and telephones, electricity and water that worked — with the departure of the last US advisers and USAID in 1975, this suburb provided handy accommodation for senior members of the victorious forces — and has long served as Party Headquarters. The three most prominent revolutionaries chose not to live there. Souphanavong had the Presidential Palace. Kayson, the brains behind the Party, lived in a humble simple house rather than among the ghosts of the departed. Faydang lived among fellow Hmong in the centre of town. Perhaps USAID’s most significant contribution was to provide a ready-made home for the Party the CIA was fighting. Nice irony.

    — a bowling alley, possibly the most expensive in the world, built by a Lao general with USAID money as a ‘cultural centre’ 4 kms out of town (still there but empty)

    — a large Pepsi-Cola factory nicely situated out of town on the river. It was reportedly the largest heroin factory in the world (but I have no evidence of that apart from the complete absence of Pepsi Cola until 1973). Along with Beer Lao, a major revenue earner for a government the US listed as Marxist Leninist until Obama changed category

    One of the oddities of the Second Indochina War (in Laos) is that its history has not, as usual, been recorded by the victors but by the losers ~ a problem that relates to literacy rates , lack of translation and publishing facilities in the Lao language, and an amazing freedom of the printed word (in English), which means all books on the war from the defeated side and its financiers are openly on sale. But I must say none has won any hearts and minds.

    The most surprising thing to me (a non-American) is that the USA doesn’t seem to mind throwing its money away on projects which seem to serve little purpose other than to alienate its allies.


  12. Gary permalink


    This posting can be summarized as “people, look at what a tough job the government has and let’s be more sympathetic to it, because it means well”.

    On the one hand, I fully understand the need to build a reliable electronic database of useful intelligence information and that to do so may require the current vacuum cleaner approach. I don’t fault a government whose responsibility is to protect its citizens from foreign and domestic threats doing its best to live up to that responsibility. On the other hand, we need to pay attention to the question of accountability. When everything gets stamped “top secret”, “for your eyes only”, “classified” and all these other phrases designed to hide information, how do we hold the people who hold us in the palm of their authority to account?

    I think the standard response of “I have nothing to hide so why should I worry” is a dangerous frame of mind for a people who allegedly support a liberal-democracy. It is a short step from democracy to fascism eg.., the persecution of anti-war sympathizers by Woodrow Wilson and the internment of the Japanese by FDR. Look at the number of celebrities who adore Obama who suggested the U.S. Constitution should be suspended to allow him the authority to carry out his programs. Both the Soviet communist state and the Italian fascist state were openly admired by different influential people in the U.S. because “they got things done”. This is code for maginalizing or eliminating people who express a different point of view.

    The flip side of this kind of thinking is that if the authorities arrest you or harrass you then you must have done something wrong. On one occasion I was in a jury pool and waiting with the others to be called into the courtroom to be vetted by the lawyers (it was a criminal case). One fellow with whom I was conversing had covinced himself without even knowing what the case was about or hearing or seeing any evidence that the accused must be guilty because the police arrested him. That guy got picked, I did not.

    And it only takes a tiny bit of misinformation or disinformation to ruin your life or make it very difficult, I have read the stories of several people who have discovered themselves on the U.S. “no fly list” for no apparent reason and without any recourse to have it investigated or appealed. I have seen several stories of people innocent of drug trafficking getting long prison sentences because their drug dealing friends used their car or telephone in the commission of an offence, without their knowlege. This latter issue may be more a case of draconian and unfair drug laws, but remember that these laws were passed under the rubric of “the war on drugs.”

    By the way, I am just raising a different point of view here, I have no good answers to the question of how to attain accountability.

    With respect to Snowden, I am not one of those who consider him a hero by any means. He breached his contract and he should be prosecuted. However, other than drawing public attention to large scale snooping and attaching cute computer program names to same, did he actually disclose any information that wasn’t already known (perhaps not by the public at large) and did such information disclosure lead to the unmasking of spies or other clandestine operations? I thought his breaches were generally harmless as far as specific classified information. Assange and Manning did far worse. Although, strangely enough, I was somewhat comforted by the Wikileaks, particularly those of the various U.S. ambassadors. They gave me the impression that they had their heads screwed on the right way.


    • Thank you, Gary. I’m very glad to have your commentary. Your well informed perspectives are quite valuable and I hope to see them as often as you care to provide them. You raise historic and current perspectives which we should all consider. Marco


  13. Dana permalink

    Marco, my comments were full-blown essays. I can only laugh a little and shake my head.
    Eager, enthusiastic, and more than a tad egotistical. You created a monster! Or together we created one?

    Oh Mary, here come the tears. How I miss her.


  14. Thanks you, Dana. I’m glad this portal is still open and this particular piece still has merit. We miss your excellent analyses, which were never too long. As well, we miss Mary but know she is poking and prodding as we write.


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