Defining Deviousness Down

by John Holbo on June 2, 2004

I think Michael Rappaport is straining to find the silver lining in this intelligence cloud.

Consider this an open thread about this important story, with optional special reference to the question: is it a source of consolation if it turns out the whole spy game is usually just seeing how many clowns you can cram into a riddle, wrapped in a question, locked inside an enigma?



squiddy 06.02.04 at 11:06 am

I have to wonder why Chalabi has yet to be decared an unlawful combatant and shipped to Gitmo… actually, no I don’t.


Kieran Healy 06.02.04 at 12:00 pm


bq. In any event, that the United States _had_ Iran’s secret code, at least for a while, gives me more confidence in our intelligence agencies than I have had for some time.

“Or, in the light of these embarrassing reveleations, will have for the forseeable future,” he did not add. Talk about point estimates of confidence.


q 06.02.04 at 12:05 pm

_American officials said that about six weeks ago, Mr. Chalabi told the Baghdad station chief of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security that the United States was reading the communications traffic of the Iranian spy service, one of the most sophisticated in the Middle East. According to American officials, the Iranian official in Baghdad, possibly not believing Mr. Chalabi’s account, sent a cable to Tehran detailing his conversation with Mr. Chalabi, using the broken code._

Maybe Mr-Iranian-official-in-Baghdad is being paid by the CIA already.
Maybe Mr-Iranian-official-in-Baghdad doesn’t exist.
Maybe the US can only work out the codes if the Iranians reset their codes, which they will now that this story has been released.
Maybe the Iranians set Chalabi up to prevent him becoming President of Iraq.
Maybe the US set Chalabi up by telling him of the reading of the communications traffic of the Iranian spy service.

Sounds like a job for James Bond, a beautiful Ukranian Spy and a rogue Angel in a variation of the three envelopes problem.


Scott Martens 06.02.04 at 12:09 pm

Actually, this story leads me to suspect that Chalabi is being set up. Consider an alternative version of the same story. The Baghdad section head of the Iranian intelligence service begins to suspect that the US has their codes figured out, perhaps because of some variation on this, or perhaps because of some bungled CIA burglary on an Iranian embassy in the third world, or some other CIA asset that turned out not to be such an asset.

So, he says to himself, what can I send out that is sure to get an American response? Why not claim that Chalabi, the Pentagon’s favourite son, is an Iranian agent, and that the US is really doing our bidding by invading Iraq? I bet that’ll piss the CIA right off. I bet they go totally ape and rush out to arrest Chalabi.

And the CIA falls for it.

Now, I don’t know if anything like this actually happened, but it seems rather more plausible to me in light of the high reputation of the Iranian intelligence service and the demonstrable incompetence of comparable American services in Iraq.


chun the unavoidable 06.02.04 at 12:36 pm

If by “high reputation,” you mean that they’re a group of uncommonly murderous thugs who nearly got themselves and a large number of their countrymen eradicated (Richard Clarke’s book details the apparently quite serious war-planning the U.S. was doing after the Khobar Towers bombing, and I hope you don’t really think the Libyans blew up that plane), then I’d have to, as a committed egaliatarian leftist thinker, agree with you.


Scott Martens 06.02.04 at 12:50 pm

Chun, I didn’t say they were nice people, just that they aren’t fools.


chun the unavoidable 06.02.04 at 1:20 pm

Vide supra “nearly got themselves and countrymen eradicated…”

And here’s a question for committed leftist egalitarian intellectuals: would you have supported a U.S. invasion of Iran in 1996 or 1997?


pepi 06.02.04 at 1:20 pm

“Chun, I didn’t say they were nice people, just that they aren’t fools.”

Eh, that most definitely applies to the CIA too. I tend to find the ‘incompetence’ excuse hard to take when it’s about any intelligence services, actually. It’s a handy excuse, though.

Another maybe to add to q’s list – maybe the CIA always knew Chalabi could not be trusted – or for any reason never liked him and never wanted him to govern Iraq – but because he was the darling of some others in the administration they just wanted to get proof he was not reliable, or create a situation after which he’d become totally untouchable anyway (all previous proof of that having failed). So maybe it’s more a matter of conflict within the US government than between the US and Iran?

Whatever it is, it’s not funny.


Matt McGrattan 06.02.04 at 1:30 pm

I always find media stories about code-breaking pretty hard to take.

Anyone, including the world’s intelligence services, has access to ‘unbreakable’ codes in the form of public-key encryption.

Now it’s either true that public-key encryption (with keys of large enough length) is, to all practical intents and purposes, unbreakable in which case any intelligence agency NOT using a system of equal or better strength is grossly incompetent. OR, public-key encryption is not as safe as believed and it seems that is implausible given current state-of-the-art mathematics.

If it were true that the NSA was able to break public-key encrypted messages in a useful time frame I hardly think that is the sort of information they’d want to get out.


chun the unavoidable 06.02.04 at 2:00 pm

Yeah, it’s so easy for diplomats to keep private keys private.


WillieStyle 06.02.04 at 2:12 pm

Matt McGrattan,

The Times story suggests that the keys were stolen not broken.


Jeff Doyle 06.02.04 at 3:55 pm

The suggestions that the keys were stolen is almost certainly disinformation. (I am not an expert on cryptography, but if I am not mistaken, the private key would not have left Iran.) It is possible that the Iranians underestimated the required key length… Or that we have penetrated an internal Iranian virtual private network…


liberal japonicus 06.02.04 at 6:12 pm

Just like the good old cold war days. The Iranians could be saying that they know that we know because they know that if we know, we will think that they know, but then they may not so we don’t really know, you know? Thank god we have Condi there to figure all this out, I knew those Politburo watching skills would be needed somewhere!

And of course, this is the spread of the ‘we aren’t as bad as Saddam’ meme. Hey, our spycraft isn’t as incompetent as the Iranians! Some other up and coming candidates.
-Hey, we have a better energy policy than Khazakistan!
-Hey, less problem with voter intimidation than Myanmar
-You may have us beat in missles, but we make more refrigerators (whoops, already used that)


Lance Boyle 06.02.04 at 7:00 pm

It seems like the hinge is Chalabi tips off the Iranians, and never stops to think they might use the broken code to talk about him tipping them off, with, in.
So how likely is that?
Vermin of Chalabi’s ilk are crafty, duplicitous, and cunning. He’s survived in a cess pool of intrigue, right out in front of the pack, for years, moving millions of dollars and vital information around and among the heaviest players on the hottest firelines of the Middle East. But he’s so dim-witted as to not imagine the Iranians might not believe him?
Or he just never thought about it.

Flash his face and name on the screen. Then flash “HATE! HATE! HATE! HATE!”
So, how do you feel about Ahmed Chalabi today?


Jerry 06.02.04 at 8:25 pm

Enigma. Ha. Well, I wish I could laugh.


Giles 06.02.04 at 8:42 pm

I’m inclined to believe that this soory lacks legs: I mean if the US had hacked Iranian intelligence then this kind of contradicts the earlier story that the Iranians had duped the Americans into Iraq through Chalabi.

Which is probably the intention; I expect it is more likely to be a story spun by someone in the CIA to excuse one of their failures – or possibly even someone in the Iranain intelligence spinning to excuse the failure of the Sadr uprising.


peter ramus 06.02.04 at 8:55 pm

Being credulous I’m commonly at a loss in those seemingly paradoxical moments when presented with the Theban or Cretan who always tells the lie and the Theban or Cretan who always tells the truth at some junction in the road, and then asked to form the proper question to elicit the desired direction from both of them at once.

All the spy game wrappings of enigma riddle mystery so familiar to the casual reader of genre fiction make me stumble back over the truth motive of Thebans or Cretans and whatever it was I was supposed to ask them all over again.

It is apparent now that the US unlocked Iranian diplomatic code and found a message there sent back from Baghdad to Tehran.

It’s not customary for such knowledge to become widely shared. Isn’t it best practice never to verify such truths at all, even when the facts in a particular case are rubbed in by all the usual media? As a general rule, a CIA spokesman, reached for comment, declines.

Of course it’s acknowledged that, being an agency of spies, the CIA must preserve a certain institutional level of enigma in its dealings, so the formality of the spokesman’s officially phrased silence on the matter is of no great moment.

Even Iran, linchpin of a famously imagined axis of evil, using all the faulty powers at its disposal to analyze the shape of the world, might come to suspect in time that the US, using the well-funded resources and technologies of the CIA for its own good reason, might move to intercept reserved Iranian communications. This is certainly not a bad guess, considering the tendency of any spy agency to be engaged in just such activities by charter.

Little help the Iranians will get from CIA spokesmen in seeking a definitive confirming answer to this question, although there are all the time-honored countervailing methodologies of double-dealing at their disposal to elicit a good guess.

One way, borrowed metaphorically from the ancient waterworks, is to introduce some stain or taint into the presumably closed container of the pipe, and look for its appearance outside. Thus, as a formality, an equivocal message might be sent from time to time by diplomats to see if the duplicity inserted into their reserved communications is reacted to by suspected eavesdroppers.

In the example, the CIA intercepts the Iranian message this message is being read by the CIA. This message may be what the Iranians know directly, or may cleverly represent what they hope to discover by its revealed reception.

The CIA in turn, presumed eavesdroppers on Iranian messages, is sufficiently advanced as an agency, from what little I can make of it in the conventions of genre fiction, to understand the uses of duplicity as well, and in a perfect world, has the acuity and staff necessary to recognize the possibly false knowledge contained in the communication for what it is. As a matter of routine the agency may go so far as to check out such a message in some detail before recommending any action that may substantiate the (perhaps only cleverly proposed) truth of it.

The message at hand refers to a drunken American, surely a likely enough detail from the soured perspective of Iranians, and a nicely verifiable fact from the perspective of the CIA, who using the usual procedures might be expected to rule out the vast majority of drunken Americans from their investigation and focus on the relatively few of them remaining who may have spoken far too freely to the controversial scoundrel Ahmed Chalabi. Of course, even then, considering the squad of them Mr. Chalabi has had access to over time, it may prove difficult solve the mystery of the truth value of the message this message is being read by the CIA by pinning the revealed secret on the proper drunken one of them.

Often, in a bold stoke of overriding policy, the riddling out of such questions may prove irrelevant to the real world designs of the US, and a full examination of the issue put aside, as the recent matter of the famously inexistent WMD’s of Iraq so forcefully demonstrated, the truth value mooted in that case by a policy favoring the quick move for the jugular instead, whatever the evidence. Truth is never the sole arbiter of policy, whatever people may say.

So if policy dictates that Mr. Chalabi is seen off the stage at this particular juncture (Mr. Chalabi whose own antic uses of the truth value of messages has become such a byword recently) then no matter how protestingly he may rush back out to command his space there, it will be a necessary complement of policy to offer up to him progressively more convincing raiments announcing the completion of his role, much as James Brown might find himself bedecked by those conniving to see him off stage on a good night, and under the influential direction of those responsible for carrying out such policy, to usher him firmly and finally away.

As for the truth, well, whatever, as the Thebans or Cretans or even I (as a matter of policy credulous as ever) agree.


John Quiggin 06.02.04 at 11:38 pm

The hall-of-mirrors effect in the Chalabi case is just another example of the fact that espionage is mostly useless.


mitch 06.03.04 at 1:28 am

I think this must be a clue, although I’m still not sure how to interpret it: The two guys who were first quoted, by name, as supporting the idea that the INC was an Iranian front, and that the Iraq war was the fruit of Iranian disinformation, were retired intelligence officials Larry Johnson and Patrick Lang. They have also supported Oklahoma journalist Jayna Davis in her attempt to establish the proximity of a former Iraqi Republican Guardsman to Timothy McVeigh on the morning of the bombing. Their theory seems to be that there were Iraqis involved, but that the overall operation was directed from Iran.


IXLNXS 06.03.04 at 6:17 am

Wow who woulda thought we had bad intelligence?

The left.

Anyone with a brain.

The Right Wing Media.


robbo 06.03.04 at 3:42 pm

Scott Martens, that’s an interesting theory that the message implicating Chalabi could have been Iranian disinformation. Mike Rappaport seems to have come to the same conclusion in the Update to his post.

I hope America’s spies know that internal Iranian messages they intercept may not mean what they seem to say. It would be patriotic for you to contact the NSA and run your disinformation theory past them before this gets out of hand.

I have my own theory — totally unproven — that not everyone in the US government is interested in giving the public the straight scoop on matters like this. That is, they might “spin” the story to achieve results they consider favorable, the truth be damned. Remember, you heard it here first!


Matt McGrattan 06.03.04 at 3:56 pm

Yeah, it’s so easy for diplomats to keep private keys private.
Posted by chun the unavoidable at June 2, 2004 02:00 PM

The strength of of public key encryption is that it doesn’t rely on keeping the key used to encrypt the message private. The head office can give all the field offices copies of its public key which they use to encrypt. That public key can fall into the hands of anyone and it makes no difference.

Only the private key can be used to decrypt the message and as this comment below by Jeff Doyle points out:

“The suggestions that the keys were stolen is almost certainly disinformation. (I am not an expert on cryptography, but if I am not mistaken, the private key would not have left Iran.)”

Re: the private key never leaves Iran – It doesn’t even need to be on a computer that’s connected to any kind of network as long as there’s some way of getting the encrypted text onto the machine [and that can be done in various old fashioned ways].

The suggestion that the key-length might be an issue is I suppose a valid one. Assuming the NSA has access to some kind of super-duper prime number factoring machine or a new kind of algorithm. But one would assume any half way decent intelligence service would choose a key length allowing for that – by choosing one vastly longer than conceivably crackable.

Of course this is all meaningless speculation given the nested layers of elaborate bullshit being generated by all sides involved with this story. It’s no doubt massively more likely that any information would just be bought, the old fashioned way.


pepi 06.03.04 at 4:13 pm

Whoops, Tenet just resigned. I’d like to see the silver lining in that too?


h. e. baber 06.03.04 at 11:36 pm

I’m curious: who’s next? Bush jettisoned Chalabi, then Tenet, then Chalabi denounced Tenet as the person who was really responsible for the Iraq debacle. Now Bush will wait a bit to see if dumping this ballast is enough to keep him afloat. If it isn’t–and it won’t be–who goes next? Not Rumsfeld I’ll bet. Probably some military person though “that nice lady general” as my husband calls her has already been dumped. Besides the prison scandal is only the icing on the cake.

Will Bush be able to find another good sport to sacrifice who, like Tenet, promises not to write any “kiss and tell books”?

Comments on this entry are closed.