During the 1950s, US lawmakers and government officials claimed that since homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and shameful, communists would threaten to expose gay and lesbian US government employees if they didn't agree to spy for the Soviet Union.
"Sex Perverts in Government Said Weak Link as Spy Prey," read one headline at the time.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy declared, "Homosexuals must not be handling top secret material."
But a new documentary, The Lavender Scare, explores how US officials actually became blackmailers and extortionists as they tried to root out gay men and lesbians from the ranks of the civil service. An executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower, signed 60 years ago this Saturday, touched off what the filmmakers describe as "a witch hunt" that ended the careers of thousands of people, who were threatened with public exposure if they didn't quit their jobs. But unexpectedly, the purge also set in motion a protest by a few individuals that helped start the modern LGBT rights movement.
From a national security perspective, it's remarkable how this whole paradigm has flipped. Today, in a society that's vastly more accepting of gays and lesbians, people are considered more trustworthy and less prone to blackmail if they're out of the closet. People who have nothing to hide are harder to turn. I've never heard of someone being asked during a background check whether he or she sleeps with men or women. But over the years, many intelligence officials have remarked to me how, when they began their career, being gay or lesbian was dangerous, but that it's just no longer the case. (An exception: If you're an intelligence officer serving in a region that regards homosexuality as a crime, you'd probably keep your orientation private.)
You can watch a trailer for the film here. The producers are running a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the production. Full disclosure, a close friend of mine, who has written for The Washingtonian, is an executive producer. But even if he weren't, I'd be drawing attention this movie. This period in history is remarkable for the confluence of human rights, national security, and Cold War paranoia.
The protagonist of Alex Gibney's new documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks is ostensibly the Australian hacker Julian Assange, who founded the anti-secrecy organization and published the biggest trove of leaked classified documents in US history. He's not exactly a sympathetic character in Gibney's eyes. Assange's story comes across as a cautionary tale about narcissism, and the filmmaker ultimately concludes that WikiLeaks/Assange (they are one in the same) has become the very embodiment of the thing it set out to destroy: An autocratic regime that survives by cult of personality and, irony of all ironies, secrecy.
Gibney would have made a good film had he only offered that persuasive argument--which Assange's supporters will doubtless see as an unfair hack job by a documentarian who never even interviewed his subject. (More on why not here.) But Gibney went further than I'd expected by deeply and, at times, touchingly exploring the secondary character in this global power-drama, who turns out to be the real star of the show: Army Private Bradley Manning, the young man accused of providing WikiLeaks with thousands of classified military reports and diplomatic cables.
The film is hugely sympathetic to Manning, who, since the movie was finished, has pled guilty to misusing classified material. Gibney argues that even if Manning committed a crime, the fact that some of the government's own assessments have found no great national security harm came of the disclosure should mitigate Manning's punishment. Manning's detractors will doubtless see that as as the conclusion of a biased filmmaker, who set out to turn a criminal into a martyr for public transparency and accountability.
The funny thing is, that's the character I thought Assange would turn out to be in this movie. Instead, it's Manning whose struggle to expose secrets seems most genuine and complex, and most significant for national security policy. After all, Assange was the recipient of the secrets. Manning is the one who let them loose, and exposed unacceptable weaknesses is the military's own security regime in the process.
Gibney makes extensive use of instant messages that Manning exchanged about his disclosures with the hacker Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the authorities and, in the film's final moments, regrets having done so. Manning tries to explain why he would risk violating national security and his own freedom to tell the world about what he believes are grave injustices carried out by the US government.
"i...care?" Manning writes.
Gibney flashes this portion of the text on screen at various points, and he makes a motif of Manning's other personal struggles, including with his gender identity and his inability to fit in with his peers and his fellow soldiers. Manning says he is extremely isolated. Feels entirely alone. The release of the documents is a way to change the world for the better and to imprint himself on it--to matter.
Manning seems like an accidental radical. A smart computer geek who never quite fit in with his peers--too weak, too effeminate, maybe just too smart--but who finds himself in a position to bring important matters to light. Assange, however, seems to be in the game to fuel his own ego. He craves credit, even adulation, for bringing the mighty security state to his knees, but he pays no mind to the consequences. He tells us that he would even release information about how to make a deadly weapon that could kill innocent people.
The title of Gibney's film comes from one of his interview subjects, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who describes the business model of the US intelligence community as, "We steal secrets." It's hard to escape the conclusion that Gibney sees Assange as a kind of thief. Or at the very least, a resident of the moral gray zone that's also inhabited by the CIA. Hayden essentially argues, We steal because it keeps people safe. Assange could amend that for WikiLeaks: We steal because it keeps people honest. Gibney doesn't conclude whether either end is justified by the means. But that central tension holds the film together, and it brings you right back to Manning and his decision.
Some viewers will bristle at the suggestion that WikiLeaks' global campaign of radical transparency is, at base, simple theft. Is what Assange does, receiving secret information and publishing it, fundamentally so different than what journalists do? As a journalist, I wished Gibney had made more of an effort to address that quandary. But that could take another film.
I think it's enough that We Steal Secrets asks us to consider all these questions through the story of one deeply troubled and conflicted young man, who may spend the next several years of his life in prison. Gibney doesn't excuse what Manning did. But he tries to understand why he did it, in a far more human way than others who have tackled this story.
If you've been watching the nearly non-stop coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, you've seen a parade of alleged terrorism experts on the major networks and cable outlets. If you've seen Phil Mudd's face, however, you've seen the genuine article.
Mudd was the deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and, later, the first-ever deputy director of the National Security Branch at the FBI. He left government in 2010, and now he's out with a new book that is part memoir, part inside look at the United States' hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist.
Takedown: Inside the Hunt for al Qaeda starts with Mudd, in 1984, driving up to the gates at CIA headquarters to answer a help-wanted ad he heard about through a family friend. "I have my resume here," Mudd told the guard through a rolled-down car window. (Not having seen the ad himself, Mudd didn't have an address to mail his application.) A month or so later, he writes, he came home to a message on his answering machine from a guy who only gave his first name. Mudd "knew instantly, despite my ignorance about intelligence, national security, or Washington itself, that this was the CIA."
Mudd's book is not a story of clandestine operators and special forces, but of the people who try to "connect" those proverbial dots about nascent, ambiguous terrorist plots, and who ultimately played just as vital a role in taking down Osama bin Laden as their gun-toting colleagues. The book is meant to evoke empathy for the pain-staking, frequently confounding work of what some have compared to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box.
Of the CIA's failure to stop the 9/11 attacks, Mudd writes, "It is not that reasoned intelligence analysis could not have pieced together such a story; we learned a painful lesson about understanding this adversary that day. But no one could have believed the scenario that unfolded with enough conviction to take the kind of action needed to fight this threat--global military and intelligence operations, along with diplomacy--that came to convulse the planet."
Mudd's memoir will feel at home alongside operations-focused accounts of the CIA's war in the shadows, not because it's full of breathtaking adventures from the field, but because it's steeped in a particular culture and ultimately has the ring of authenticity. Mudd explains how the agency crafts the President's Daily Brief in such a way that it sounds more like a daily newspaper than a top secret intelligence document. But that's what you'd expect from someone whose job was to talk to top policymakers about classified material. For Mudd, this was a matter of routine, and while the significance of his line of work was not lost on him, it perhaps didn't seem as novel or enthralling as it may sound to an outsider.
There are some pretty harrowing war stories in the book. Mudd was part of a small CIA team that went to Afghanistan to help overthrow the Taliban, when the agency "took the gloves off," as Cofer Black, then the director of the Counterterrorist Center, liked to put it. But the book makes its most valuable contributions to the bin Laden story when we see Mudd trafficking in information--the most powerful currency in Washington--obtained from many parts of the vast intelligence system. He takes you deep into the confusing process of sorting all those puzzle pieces and explains that murky process in a clarifying way.
There's an intriguing and still ambiguous Russian connection emerging in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings. Specifically, it involves the Russian government's interest in Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his potential connection to terrorist groups, as well as a curious offer of assistance in the investigation that came directly from Vladimir Putin.
The Associated Press reports this afternoon that "the Russian FSB intelligence security service told the FBI in early 2011 about information that Tamerlan was a follower of radical Islam " Tamerlan died in a shootout with police Friday morning, and his brother, Dzhokhar, was captured last night.
The FBI released a statement yesterday that sheds more light on this exchange between the FSB and US law enforcement.
" in early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups."
The statement doesn't identify the foreign government, but the AP and other news organizations have confirmed with US officials that it was Russia.
In response to the request, the FBI checked government databases and "other information" looking for so-called derogatory information, according to the statement. Generally, derogatory information is a piece of intelligence, such as a phone record or a monetary transaction, that connects the individual in question to a known or suspected terrorist or group. In Tsarnaev's case, the FBI looked for "derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel and history plans, and education history."
This is a fairly extensive search, and it suggests that US law enforcement did more than a cursory scan of information for any connections Tsarnaev may have had to terrorist groups or fundamentalists. The FBI also interviewed Tsarnaev and unspecified family members. "The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011," the statement said.
So far, pretty straightforward. But here's where things get curious. On April 16, one day after the bombing, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly offered his country's assistance in the investigation. In a note posted on the Kremlin Web site, Putin condemned the attacks and said Russia “would be ready to provide assistance” to US investigators.
This offer of assistance came three days before the FBI publicly identified the suspects and noted their Russian/Chechen roots. Did Putin know, or have some reason to suspect, who the bombers were, or that they had a connection to his country?
It would not be unthinkable, or in some cases even unusual, for the head of a foreign government to offer condolences and assistance in the wake of a terrorist attack. And this was the most significant and high-profile attack on American soil since 9/11. But US-Russian relations are frosty right now amidst talk of a '"reset." Is this Putin making a first step towards better relations? Was he preemptively trying to cover himself knowing that a Russian connection in the bombings would emerge?
On Friday, President Obama spoke with Putin and "praised the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on counterterrorism, including in the wake of the Boston attack," according to a White House statement.
Since the bombing, US officials have reportedly been looking at Tsarnaev's travel records and have found that he traveled from JFK International Airport to an airport near Moscow on January 12, 2013. He returned to JFK on July 17. It is not yet clear who Tsarnaev met with while he was there. Officials have reportedly found no connections with terrorist groups during that visit. But if Tsarnaev was "radicalized" or received any special training, perhaps in bomb making, investigators will want to know more about what he did while he was in Russia, and who he met with. Presumably, Putin's offer of assistance will come in handy as US investigators try to answer these questions.
The uncle of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev pleaded with the fugitive suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings to turn himself in to authorities and repent for his crimes.
"If you're alive, turn yourself in and ask for forgiveness" from the victims and their families, Ruslan Tsarni said at a press conference from his home in Montgomery Village, Maryland. Tsarni's brother is the father of Dzhokhar and his brother, Tamerlan, who died in a shootout with police outside Boston earlier this morning. The FBI has identified both men as the only suspects in the marathon bombing.
Tsarni said his family shared the grief of the victims and their families who have allegedly suffered at his nephews' hands. "I'm ready to kneel in front of them begging their forgiveness," he said.
Tsarni told reporters he had not seen his nephews until December 2005, but he spoke to
them their father three months ago and didn't detect any signs that they planned to engage in acts of terrorism. If he had, "I'd be the first one to hand them" over to authorities, Tsarni said.
Tsarni said that his nephews were born in Kyrgyzstan and immigrated to the United States in 2003. He said they were granted political asylum and that they had never been to Chechnya. Early reports have described the Boston Bombers as Chechans. Tsarni said he was "ethnic Chechyan" and a Muslim.
Tsarni said his brother no longer lives in the United States, and that he exercised "little influence" over his sons. He said he didn't think his brother had schooled his children in fundamentalism.
Tsarni was at pains to distance himself from his brother's side of the family, calling them "losers" who were resentful of other members of the family who had more successfully assimilated to life in the United States.
"I respect this country. I love this country," Tsarni said. "This country which gives chance to embody else to be treated as a human being."
A man claiming to be the uncle of the two alleged Boston Marathon bombers gave an interview to a CBS News affiliate this morning saying that his brother lives in suburban Washington, in Montgomery County. It wasn't clear whether this Maryland man is the suspected bombers' father or another uncle.
Public records indicate a potential relative of the suspected bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, living at a house in Montgomery County. Calls to the house by The Washingtonian were not answered.
Dead Drop is not reporting the address. Police have requested that reporters and the public not report the tactical positions of law enforcement officers hunting for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who remains at large and is considered dangerous. His brother, Tamerlan, was killed earlier this morning in a shootout with police.
A DC local news helicopter appears to be hovering over a house in suburban Maryland, and a photo sent by a reporter on the scene shows police blocking off the street leading to the house.
The FBI has released photos and video of two men described as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings and has asked for the public's help locating them. FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard DesLauriers emphasized during a press conference that no detail was too small, and that these are the only two men the FBI considers suspects at this point. The public was urged to disregard other photos at this point and to call 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324), prompt #3 with information.
Officials did not say whether they think the suspects are part of a known terrorist group, whether foreign or domestic. A press conference in Boston this afternoon was short on details of the investigation. The man in the white cap, DesLauriers said, is believed to have put down a backpack that contained one of the two bombs.
It's obviously too early to say definitively who these men are or how they may or may not be connected to an organized group. But three former CIA officers who I spoke with this morning--before these photos were publicized--cautioned against ruling our a foreign connection at this early stage. The former officers were in Washington to talk about their role in the upcoming HBO documentary Manhunt, about the CIA's search for Osama bin Laden--in which they all played key roles. I'll have more on the movie in a few weeks. I asked them to give me their read on the unfolding investigation in Boston.
They all thought that it was premature to say this is not the work of al Qaeda or some foreign terrorist group. Just because this attack doesn't fit AQ's previous signatures doesn't mean the group hasn't changed up the playbook. And just because there were apparently few, if any, warning signs or chatter in the run-up doesn't mean that the attack must have been planned by a domestic terrorist group.
"My fear has always been that al Qaeda would go low-tech and tactical," said Marty Martin, who was in charge of the operational hunt for bin Laden after 9/11. Martin worried that the group would move away from its trademark spectacular attacks that cause mass casualties (blowing up buildings and airplanes) towards assaults on soft targets, such as shopping malls, that might result in fewer deaths but still end up sewing panic and confusion, and that are easier to plan and harder to interdict. The finish line of the Boston Marathon, Martin said, is a very soft target and a very high-profile one.
When bin Laden was alive, al Qaeda tended to favor bigger, large-scale attacks. But now that he's dead, the strategy may have shifted, noted Cindy Storer, an analyst who was part of the CIA "sisterhood" following bin Laden's trail in the 1990s. Martin added that an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's long-time no. 2, is now in charge of the group, and that Egyptian terrorist groups have historically used the lower-scale, tactical attacks like the one in Boston.
Nada Bakos, a former CIA targeting officer who tracked al Qaeda in Iraq, also urged people not to over-generalize al Qaeda. There are multiple variants and offshoots. Might the Boston attack have been executed by a group that hasn't shown up on the radar yet? Al Qaeda and its affiliates have also successfully recruited westerners and others who might draw less suspicion and have an easier time entering the United States, she said. Indeed, the group has made no secret of its desire to do so.
Everyone cautioned they were just speculating, but their insights were nevertheless instructive. For instance, despite some commentary that the attack must be the work of amateurs because it didn't kill more people and involved improvised bombs, all three former officers said the attack reflected a high degree of skill, and possibly some significant training. For starters, the attackers--they didn't know how many there were this morning--built two bombs that went off as planned. That's not as easy as you might think. Building an explosive device that works as intended it not as simple as following a recipe on the Internet. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square car bomber, couldn't do it. Neither could Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber who tried to blow up an airplane mid-flight.
Second, the attackers were able to "infiltrate, execute, and exfiltrate," as Martin put it, meaning they got to their target, planted and set off the devices, and then got away without being caught. Martin called that "disconcerting." Pulling off this kind of mission isn't easy, and the fact that investigators are coming up short on leads lends credence to the idea that the attacker may have been trained in how to avoid detection. Martin speculated that they might have used disguises like wigs or hats, which would make them harder to find now. (In the photos, both men are wearing ball caps. One is wearing sunglasses.)
Even though the signs don't point to a traditional al Qaeda attack, that doesn't mean it was planned at home or is the work of a lone-wolf. We could be witnessing something new, or a variation on an old strategy.