April 22

WACKY FILMS OF THE WEEK: What is it about the CIA that inspires such goofy film ideas? Could it be that the real-world stories former Agency officers are telling Hollywood are too boring?  This week’s installment of Crazy Intelligence Agency films include: “Criminal,” which the LA Times describes as “half science-fiction tale, half espionage thriller.”  The film stars Kevin Costner as “Jerico Stewart” (because no one in a motion picture today sports a normal name – like: “Kevin.”)  The film apparently tells how the CIA’s London Station Chief failed to write down everything he knew about some diabolical plot before he died – but the Agency figures out how to transplant the dead COS’s memories into the mind of a criminal.  Exactly why they chose a criminal as the recipient is unclear – but that is the beauty of science fiction.  It doesn’t have to make much sense.  Or if you are looking for something a bit different, there is a forthcoming flick called “For All Eyes Always” – which imagines that the CIA has created its own reality TV show. Why? According to the trailer – “In a time of widespread distrust of our government, the CIA created a fully transparent reality show to win back the faith of the nation….”   Yeah, that’ll work.  Amateurs get to play secret agents – all on camera.  Sure, the missions aren’t likely to be too successful – but think of the savings in training costs – and pensions.

CULTURE CLASH: Arguably, the British invented modern governmental intelligence collection in the last century. Our transatlantic cousins have always sported a special James Bond-like style when it comes to espionage.  The same may be said for their counter-intelligence.  According to the Mirror newspaper in the UK, “MI5 and MI6 may be speaking to “friendly” liaison intelligence officers in the US” and elsewhere to see if foreign intelligence services (like the Russian FSB) have been observed trying to blackmail the British Culture Secretary.  The Mirror says this chap, John Whittingdale, has been associating with a “former erotic actress, the daughter of a Soviet military officer and a dominatrix.” The story fails to explain just what kind of secrets “the culture minister” might have that would be worth stealing. BBC Two Newsnight carried a statement from Whittingdale calling this “an old story” and saying that his Match.com dates never had any influence on his Culture Secretary duties. What a relief.

POLY GONE? Speaking of security – we learned from an item in the Federation of America Scientists’ “Secrecy News” that there is a new report out from the Congressional Research Service which, among other things, speculates that the Intelligence Community may phase out the (never popular) polygraph testing  in exchange for “continuous evaluation” – which would involve ongoing automated monitoring of “financial, criminal and other databases.”  This would come as a relief to many IC members who view the polygraph as “voodoo science.”  And hopefully this “continuous evaluation” would alert folks if you should accidentally hook up on Match.com with a dominatrix whose Dad was a Soviet-era general.

THE CORE OF APPLE’S ARGUMENT:  On Tuesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a lengthy hearing on Encryption Technology and Law Enforcement.  The event featured two panels.  The first had reps from the FBI, NYPD, and Indiana State Police who all agreed that end-to-end encryption, which shuts out law enforcement from catching terrorists, rapists, and child molesters, is a bad thing.  They were followed by an industry and academia panel, which included the general counsel of Apple, the CEO of cyber security outfit RSA, and a couple other wonky types, all of whom agreed that giving the government the metaphorical keys to the crypto lockbox puts all the non-terrorists, non-rapists, and non-child molesters at risk. It seemed that little progress was made in bridging the difference at the end of the hearing.  Bruce Sewell, the Apple lawyer, firmly denied allegations that his company had turned over source codes to the Chinese government (while admitting they had been asked for them).  Apple prides itself on doing things differently, which perhaps explains this photo of the industry panel being sworn in with everyone except the Apple rep hold up the requested right hand.

THE AMERICANS: by  Mike Sulick

Spoiler Alert:  If you don’t want to know (yet) what happened in the most recent episode of the FX series, “The Americans” – stop reading now.

 The Americans: Season 4, Episode 6

In Episode 6, lead characters on both sides of the Cold War divide flout the rules by acting on their own without informing their superiors. Who needs that silly bureaucracy anyway? Playing by the book only stifles dramatic tension.

The looming train wreck of the Soviet illegals’ operation with Martha continues in this episode as the FBI’s Stan Beeman and his partner Aderholt grow more convinced of her espionage. After reviewing her file, the two agents assess her lonely existence and her supposed affair with a mysterious married man and conclude something is amiss. Not only have they failed to inform their supervisor about all of this, but they have also continued to conduct an unauthorized investigation of a U.S. citizen. 

Philip, sensing that Martha will soon be discovered, decides on his own to whisk her away to a KGB safehouse, where she will hide until she’s exfiltrated to the USSR. To compound his insubordination, Philip tells Gabriel at the safehouse that Martha has seen him without his disguise -– so, if they don’t exfiltrate her, she could be arrested and compromise Philip. Gabriel is none too pleased with Philip’s rogue behavior, and Moscow Center won’t be either.

Martha, who has been in a state of primordial self-delusion since she met Philip, finally realizes that life as she knew it is over and she’ll never go home again.

Philip’s action, ironically, accelerates Stan’s investigation of Martha. She calls in sick but isn’t at home when Agent Aderholt checks. Once the two agents gain access to her apartment and love nest where she met Philip, they’re convinced she’s the mole. They discover Philip’s alias, “Clark Westerfeld,” and traces on the name surface an aged male in Idaho and a lawyer in Atlanta who conceivably could be her mysterious lover.

Meanwhile, Philip is trying to reassure Martha all will be fine. While she’s asleep, Gabriel tells Philip he has to meet biowarfare source William, who has just signaled for an emergency meeting to pass another toxin that causes tularemia, a particularly nasty bacterial disease. Philip balks since he wants to stay with Martha, but Gabriel essentially tells him that, if he doesn’t meet William, the Soviet Union could be annihilated after a U.S. first strike. A bit overly dramatic, but Philip relents and obtains the sample.

Nailed it: Once Stan Beeman and his colleague trace the “Clark Westerfeld” identity to an Atlanta lawyer, they move to check him out, but Stan also orders FBI offices to investigate death certificates with the name. The KGB, in fact, frequently used the names of deceased, especially foreign babies and toddlers, to fabricate false personas for their illegals. The practice wasn’t unique to the KGB and has been used by criminals of every stripe. Fans of Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal may recall that the assassin hired to kill French President DeGaulle combed a cemetery in a small English village and found the gravestone of a deceased infant whose persona he assumed to obtain a passport and other valid identity documents.

Failed it: So many great spies, so many meetings, what to do? While it makes for great dramatic conflict, Gabriel’s dispatch of Philip to meet William doesn’t make operational sense. Like any good intelligence service, the KGB protects its agents. In this case, they have one who has just learned her life is over and has to be exfiltrated, yet she is left alone with Gabriel, who she has just met. Philip’s wife Elizabeth has already met William and is perfectly capable of obtaining the new specimen and thus allowing Philip to stay with an understandably distraught Martha. This operational mistake leads to dire consequences. When Martha awakens from her valium and wine induced nap and finds Philip gone, she storms out of the safehouse. Gabriel pleads with her to stay and trust him but, as she notes, he’s a stranger. And then she’s gone. Gabriel is supposedly an experienced illegal, but maybe his operational judgment was affected by that glanders poisoning he suffered from the pilfered specimen in a previous episode.

Failed it… still:  After operating without authorization, Stan and Aderholt tell their supervisor Agent Gaad the bad news – Martha calling in sick, not at home, searches of her apartment and love nest, an alias name—all the indicators that she might be the mole. Gaad is stunned, so stunned, in fact, that he never asks why they didn’t tell him before about their suspicions and why they didn’t get proper legal authorization to investigate a U.S. citizen and fellow employee, especially his own secretary.

“CONTINUOUS EVALUATION” DEAD DROP STYLE:  Don’t forget to regularly examine your mental database – and send to us any nuggets worth including in upcoming editions of The Dead Drop.  You can reach us at:  [email protected].