Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Gentlemen Do Not Read One Another's Mail"

     It was sententious nonsense when Harry Stinson said it in 1929, when he yanked the State Department's share of funding for the U. S. Government's first official cryptographic effort (and arguably, one of the first super-secret Bureaus: the Cipher Bureau operated behind a front as a legitimate commercial-code business.  The NSA got those sneaky-pete genes more-or-less legitimately).

     Stinson was quick to recant in deed if not word when the U. S. got kicked into WW II; the military had never given up.

     In the real world, "gentlemen" have been verifiably reading one another's mail since the late 1500s.

     You'll excuse me if I find the current flap about NSA peering over the shoulders of world leaders -- even ones with whom our government is pinky-swear BFFs -- a few centuries late and staggeringly naive.

      In the eyes of the jaded spooks of Britain and the Continent, the intelligence services of the United States have long had a reputation for unsubtlety despite super-1337 electronic-spying skills; their latest missteps have been something of a return-to-standard, as Elint merges with Humint as the smartphone in your pocket turns into an untrustworthy constant companion and their need for ever-better geekery outstrips the number of men and women who will keep even the most dire of secrets.


Jim said...

Anyone who can quote Stimson might enjoy a cipher character kicking around between the wars.

Herbert O. Yardley was a cryptographer who got crosswise with the U.S. establishment, cozied up to Japan, and would up back in allied service. He claimed he made most of his money playing poker.

It's in his "The Education of a Poker Player" which also includes a lot of 20s-30s black-box stuff and some funny, gossipy material from Chaing Kai-Shek's WW2 thug-ring in Chunking.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Yardley was a hoot.

He was also an extremely self-aggrandizing hoot who tended to overstate his role in things. But he does tell a rollicking tale.

Chas Clifton said...

Ambassadors have always gathered intelligence (the king's new mistress!), and leaders have sought to learn what other leaders are doing.

But secretly scooping up the communications of another nation's citizenry en masse is something new, I think.

LCB said...

They (and we) are all spying on each other and everyone knows it. But the leaders have to "stand up" to the American bully for image sake.

Windy Wilson said...

Chas Clifton, only with regard to volume and ease of action. Otherwise it's similar in concept to the difference between someone walking past a house and smelling a meth lab vs walking past a house with a "sniffing machine" that smells a meth lab whose odors are too faint for the human nose to detect.

What LCB said. The USA has the NSA and a number of spies yet unnamed, Israel had Pollard, The USSR had Willy Brandt's right-hand-man, someone had Eddie Chapman, and then there's Mata Hari, whom the apologists had before the had the Rosenbergs.

Windy Wilson said...

As an aside, I had always heard that quotation attributed to some unnamed member of the British Home Office before WW I.
But then everyone wants to have said the really trenchant quotes. Take "Golf is the attempt to put a small ball into a slightly larger hole using implements totally unsuited for the purpose." Everyone from Winston Churchill to Mark Twain to Woodrow Wilson (!?) are said to have said that.

Anonymous said...

Chas: Nope. France, 1590s. Mail-reading. Literacy wasn't as widespread, of course.

Ken said...

What amuses me about the whole flap is that the claque calling itself a free and independent press is arguably more outraged over NSA's surveillance of Angela Merkel than it is of NSA's snooping into the business of thee, me, and themselves.

Tam said...


"But secretly scooping up the communications of another nation's citizenry en masse is something new..."

Only the ability is new (and not as new as most people think, probably.) The intent has been around forever.

I don't think that we would have cared if the cables we tapped in IVY BELLS carried civvie communications as well as .mil: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Ivy_Bells

Ritchie said...

Great Leaders need their enemies. Only in greatest extreme do they actually attempt to destroy them. "I'll huff and puff and see you at the next G20."

Able said...

As I've said elsewhere, just what information would you get from tapping sundry Premieres/Presidents/Chancellors/Prime-Ministers cellphone that you couldn't get long before, in more detail (and accuracy), from other sources? (if you wanted to know what was going on would you listen in on O or VJ?)

If you assume that Merkel was having clandestine conversations with Putin, or discussing the next budget on her cellphone I hate to disillusion you.

No, this would only gather after the point details and ... 'personal' dirt.

Oh but 'everybody else will be doing it'! I'd be very doubtful about that, ministries, military, industry yes, the president, not so much. But now? The 'no targeting of heads of state' gloves are off - you really want to go there? After all it's not as if the O has anything to hide that a release of could cause him to face 'pressure' now is there?

There's a difference between monitoring your companies competitors and noting whether a colleague is talking to them, and breaking into her house, rummaging through her underwear drawer (to see if she like silk French knickers), reading her diary (to see if she has said anything less than complimentary about your chat-up lines and body-odour) and, when caught, claiming you were only doing so to make sure she wasn't thinking of leaving you or trying to sell that special recipe.

This was paranoid, voyeuristic and hell we 'can' do it and nobody bothered to think 'whether' we should or 'why'.

Tam said...


If you think MI6 isn't eavesdropping on Merkel AND Obama, well...

I love you, man, but don't be naive.

Able said...


I think you'll find 'our' preference is for HUMINT, your fixation is SIGINT alone - still why would we bother since all your (currently under discussion) stuff goes through Scarborough and then the Doughnut anyway.

Zero? Why bother, his handlers are more 'informative' surely. Tempora is linked to PRISM so you already 'let' us listen but we, despite PC lip-service, still have a little thing called profiling so our aim is mainly elsewhere.

It's amusing how much of CESG is related to keeping your lot confused though (but then we 'are' the most hated enemies of your current regime aren't we? ;-) ).

Roberta X said...

Able: Traditionally, yes -- a bit like your lot and the French, really, though with the added advantage that we don't have to learn a complete other language (the extent to which we're monolingual is difficult to convey). ;)

Able said...

Ah! you mean we're, as we say, your Spanner?

Why didn't you just say that?


Tam said...


"I think you'll find 'our' preference is for HUMINT, your fixation is SIGINT alone"

*cough*ZimmermanTelegram*cough* ;)

Tam said...

(For those not getting the reference, the Zimmerman Telegram was not intercepted by an old Eton boy who'd gone native in Cablestan, earned the trust of the Cables, started dressing all in gutta percha, and spoke fluent Cablese, but by, you know, some boffins tapping our cable.)

Able said...


Er, no not tapping 'your' cables 'the enemies'. That some ostensibly friendly persons decided to chat about attacking the US - well, you mean you didn't want to know about that?

If we'd been tapping all your internal calls especially the private lines of El Presidente and FDR then the comparison would be valid. As it is, not so much.

The difference between a company noticing calls between a competitor and a member of staff through the switchboard, and bugging all private staff phones in case they call a competitor. No?

Roberta X said...

Exactly how many spies, you two, can dance on the head of a poisoned needle? 'Cos I'm wantin' to know and you seem just the team to find out.

Tam said...

I'll just leave href="http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/demands-for-uk-to-explain-g20-bugging-1.1432493">this here. ;)

Roberta X said...

...And what Briton wouldn't welcome his country being taken to task in an article in the Irish Times, ey?

Fire. Gasoline.

Able said...


Er whose data did Snowden leak again? :-)

So the UK and the US (and I'll guarantee Canada and Australia too) were listening in to the conversations of 'hostile' nations (China, Russia, Saudi, etc. who were doing the same thing but Mr Snowden failed to mention that) in the midst of decisive negotiations? Call me shocked. As to our EU 'partners'? They are a worse enemy than the rest put together, check the German attempts to destroy the City of London in favour of their own bailiwick as an example.

I was, sort of, waiting for you to use the Google/Yahoo hoovering thing. On that score, you might be surprised how many transatlantic Gloucestershire accents there are - ie. 'we' aren't doing it, you are using joint facilities, just like Merkel.


Ireland? Oh, you mean the country that fought and killed for independence from Britain ... so that they could subsume themselves in a European superstate and fund development with money taken from Germany and ... Britain. ;-)

Like there (well at least when a Rep is in power) our own press is 'more' likely to be critical of every aspect of our country than any foreign press, the Irish Times article was a beacon of nuanced journalism in comparison.

Able said...


Rereading my waffle, I should have qualified it with:

'Allegedly' bugging negotiations is the equivalent of standing next to the buffet, so you can 'accidentally' over-hear them, when your competitors are discussing how best to screw you at a trade conference. Merkel was breaking into their hotel room to check their underwear. (industrial/economic/national interest vs. personal/blackmail/voyeurism).

Roberta X said...

"Any sufficiently pervasive spying is indistinguishable for voyeurism."

Able said...

Roberta's Three (NSA) Laws

1. When a distinguished but elderly politician states that they may be spying, he is almost certainly right. When he/she states that they aren't, he/she is very probably lying through their back teeth (with their fingers crossed).

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible spying is to figure out what juicy tit-bits the back-room geeks would like to know about their favourite actress, then assume that they’ve already found that out about everybody else for the politicians.

3. Any sufficiently pervasive spying is indistinguishable for voyeurism.

Does the fact I've read all your posts and own some binoculars and a tux mean ... Just call me Able, Able 003⅓.

And I'm not pervasive (my doc gave me some cream)just slightly eccentric and besotted (Hey, at least I have good taste).