Sunday, August 4, 2013

Thoughts on Snowden

From the moment that that masterpiece of modern media trivia probably now known as “The Snowden Affair” (movie rights being negotiated – unfortunately Tom Hanks already made a movie about living in an airport)  hit the pages and screens of the world’s media machine, one thought has been uppermost in my mind about this incident.

“He’s a traitor” you are probably thinking that I am thinking. 

That would be strike number one: you are wrong. 

“He should be shot” you are probably thinking that I am thinking.

That would be strike number two: you are wrong.

“I really couldn’t give less of a fuck” you are probably thinking that I am thinking.

That would be close, but, strike three: you are essentially wrong.

Assuming that your life is so bereft of meaning that you could have read this post this far, and that there might be any possibility that you could have any interest in what I might have been thinking about Snowden, I will tell you.

What I am thinking is that Joseph Heller, now deceased, must be somewhere, sometime, somehow, laughing his ass off.

The magical binding agent that held the complicated pastry-like loaf of the novel Catch 22 together was the recurring refrain “where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”

When I first read that book I was an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force.

As an Intelligence Officer I was amazed by the meaningless drivel that got classified “Confidential” “Secret” and “Top Secret”.

That experience – being an Intelligence officer – has had a lasting and damaging effect upon me.  I can’t see the world the way the Mitt Romneys, John McCains, or even – sometimes – the Barack Obamas of the world see things.

I merely see a cavalcade of trivial stupidity that sometimes has real comedic value where they see a bunch of serious shit. 

In support of that assertion I am going to, in the next few posts, post stuff that I have written (or maybe new stuff that I might yet think up that hasn’t so far been written) that touches upon my patriotic dysfunction.

Here is the first.  And yes, if you have been reading this blog for awhile I have previously posted this as a part of my petite memoir Saigon 1967, but if you haven’t read it for awhile,or haven’t read it at all, the Snowden affair gives it – I think – new context.

The commissioned ranks of Air Intelligence had two separate specialty codes – 8054 for Briefing Office and 8044 for Photo Interpretation Officer.

When I was in Saigon I was a Briefing Officer. A Briefing Officer’s job was to “sell” the Air Operations people (the pilots) on various targets.

The Photo Interpretation Officer was in charge of identifying all potential targets and learning everything they could about those targets, working them into a great strategic mélange of information that could be accessed tactically in support of the strategy of winning the “war effort”.

The interlock between the strategic mélange and tactical execution was the Briefing Officer. Briefing Officers “sold” the Air Operations liaison Intelligence Officers – another, unknown to me, specialty code - on various targets.

In actual fact, there was no real relation between the targets we tried to “sell” and winning the war. We simply had an untold number of things that could be bombed and we needed to bomb as many of them as possible, as often as possible. We talked about strategic/tactical results, but the reality was, there were a bunch of guys running around in black pajamas causing untold trouble. It was thought by our leaders that if we put enough airplanes in the air every day over enough targets we would probably kill some of those guys in black pajamas. The mélange and the selling were nothing more than a grand charade in which we indulged to implement actions in service of our leaders’ assumption. The truth was that it was an elegant and macabrely massive application of the random walk theory. But that was not a truth that anyone would admit. It was too much like the works of Shakespeare from a room full of monkeys theory.

In my time in Saigon there was one violation of the application of the ongoing random walk approach to dropping ordinance on the enemy. That was a two or three month period in which the Mu Glia Pass was bombed around the clock. At the Mu Ghia Pass there was a confluence of a number of trails that the enemy used to bring men and supplies into South Vietnam. The roads came from a variety of countries. That confluence at Mu Ghia was seen as a concentration point which the enemy had to traverse. “If we are willing to expend enough ordinance over a long enough time, without letup, we can stop them,” thought the warriors-in-chief.

After several months there had been no measurable decline in men or supplies from the enemy in South Vietnam.

The project was abandoned. We returned to a random walk.

Since the components of our strategic mélange lacked any actual strategic or tactical value, and since all the vast hoard of classified material supporting the creation and “sale” of the mélange wasn’t even accurate, or based in any rational conception of reality, I turned to another source.

I had noticed that Time Magazine (I had my Time subscription delivered to me in Saigon, albeit a version with very thin paper compared to the domestic magazine) had much deeper discussions of many of our targets. And Time’s discussion of the conduct and results of many of the missions with which I was familiar was much more in-depth, interesting and insightful than the information I could glean from classified sources. At first this irritated me. Why were my classified sources so boring, irrelevant, wrong and, basically, useless? Why couldn’t we do a better? Why couldn’t we do a competent job of gathering and disseminating intelligence? Time magazine could; why couldn’t we?

Then an idea occurred to me. Why not use Time as my source wherever possible for my briefings? Who would know? I read the classified stuff. Nobody would know that I was only using the classified stuff as a fact checker where that was possible against what Time had to say. Where the facts were absent and Time had information so much the better. There was no way to question me.

My briefings, which had been up to that point encounters my audience bore up under as a professional duty requirement, quickly became lively well-attended events. I suddenly gained the reputation of being a young officer on the rise. And, best of all, I was assimilating and purveying information that was actually interesting enough to keep everybody, even me, awake and paying attention. But I had already made the career decision not to let anybody or anything make me really care.

That was probably a good thing.

On the strength of my vastly improved briefing skill I was chosen to replace a departing lieutenant whose primary function had been to brief every morning the brigadier general who was commander of the entire 7AF HQ intelligence function. The subject of these briefings was everything that had happened overnight. The problem with that, in addition to an aversion I had toward generals, was that the information available for preparing them was only our useless, boring, inaccurate classified information. Time magazine was weekly. Its information was a week old, not overnight. So I was back in the soup.

The difference this time was that the general really thought he was winning the “war effort” and wanted to know “what” and “why” and “who” and a bunch of other interrogatives about every subject. That information was either not readily available or was totally unavailable. Without Time Magazine I was dead meat. As a result my answers very quickly transmitted the impression, which was fact, that I didn’t give a shit and, in any event the interrogatives were so trivial as to be ridiculous.

I was quickly replaced with someone who gave a shit.

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