The Unbearable Cluelessness of Russian Embassy Reporting


by: Renketsu Link



The ultimate problem is this: It’s all written by civilians.

The intel community has a word for people who aren’t on the inside: Little people.

Little people don’t matter because they don’t have skin in the game. The reasoning goes, intel agents are in the field, while you’re at home living your life. On some level, there is the understanding that the intel community is fighting to protect the lives and happiness of the Little People, but in practice there tends to be condescension and resentment because you don’t really get to lead a normal life if you’re playing the Great Game. The two are fundamentally incompatible. This also means that little people don’t know anything about how the intel community operates on any level, which includes how it treats things that it considers important (intel product) from inception to retirement. In point of fact, most “common knowledge” about the intelligence community comes from movies and novels, and intersects in no meaningful way with reality. Much of this misinformation is due to the fact that that people on the inside don’t want to talk because they assume that a) they’re being watched by Somebody (which is the case maybe a quarter of the time, and usually by their own agency’s counter-intelligence section) and b) no matter what they say they’ll get picked up for saying anything (a risk which varies by administration). There is a more subtle reason for this, which I’ll get to in a moment.

The chain of command is not only something you get beat with until you let someone else be in charge, it’s also a game of Telephone where nobody’s willing to call anybody else on their weird-ass ideas.

The intel community is a world unto itself, ostensibly executing policy set by the Executive Branch. That policy gets modified in subtle ways all the way down through the various chains of command. This Director thinks the policy means one thing, and interprets it one way. The Vice Director thinks the policy interpretation they found on their desk one morning means something else and writes orders that mean something slightly different. And so on. Policy (what a government wants to accomplish and how it wants to be perceived) is just as much created as it is carried out. At the level of the individual operative there is no policy, there are only orders carried out that, to a large extent seem to reflect the original intent of what the Executive Branch wanted to do but just as often doesn’t. The chain of command is not only something you get beat with until you let someone else be in charge, it’s also a game of Telephone where nobody’s willing to call anybody else on their weird-ass ideas. Functionally speaking, this is a feature and not a bug because plausible deniability is the chief concern of civil servants, and being able to blame somebody farther down the chain of command than you are has saved no small number of asses over the years.

The “more subtle reason” I alluded to earlier?

If somebody on the inside talks about stuff inside the intelligence community, they are commonly perceived as being The People Who Set Policy. Let’s consider J. Random Spook, an intelligence operative of some kind who happens to make a public statement that gets published. The little people think J. Random Spook is the one who makes the hard calls, orders the assassinations, organizes the overthrow of governments, and so forth. He looks like he’s in charge when he is, in fact, not particularly important. Unfortunately, this makes the agency J. Random Spook works for look bad. It also makes it look like J. Random is doing things above their pay grade which pisses everybody off and explicitly goes against agency policy (and by that I mean the handbook that says what Thou Canst and Canst Not Do While You Work Here). Also, due to the chain of command being one big game of Telephone, this also misrepresents what the Executive Branch wants done and makes the President look bad. Whether or not anybody in the Executive Branch knows that the chain of command is a big game of Telephone is an entirely separate question — one I don’t have the answer to. The Internal Affairs and probably Counter-Intelligence departments of the agency J. Random works for come down on him like a ton of bricks because he’s not only kicked over an anthill by running his mouth, he’s shit on the Director’s desk right before a visit by the President.

But, back to Russian embassy reporting. In particular, the Russian embassies in New York City and San Francisco being shut down a week or two ago, all personnel being expelled from the country, and people reporting fires at those facilities.

Why are people surprised at seeing smoke coming from a chimney? Of course the Russian embassy had a fire going in the fireplace. First of all, if you’re going to have an indoor fire that’s where you want it, isn’t it? Second, embassy staff were in a rush to destroy as much material as they possibly could before they ran out of time. They were given a certain length of time to leave the country and return to Russia, which meant that they had somewhat less time to shut their facilities down in a satisfactory manner. Standard operating procedure in any crisis situation in a secure facility is to destroy everything that can’t be removed, and a shutdown situation is by definition a crisis situation because it’s a given that intelligence agents of the country the embassy is located in will enter the building the first second they can get away with it and search the place for anything actionable. The reality is, as you might expect, a great deal more specific and complex.

various amusingly named compartments for special projects with secret squirrel names like BUTTHURT HIPSTER.

First, some background material which is regrettably mostly US-centric but should illustrate the basic principles:

As you may or may not be aware, there are multiple levels of sensitivity of materials. At the bottom is public information — press releases, blog posts, official social media presence, and other things of such nature. This is what everybody who cares to look for it can find. Then there’s the boring internal stuff, like e-mails and memos. In the US classification system this is covered by SBU (Sensitive But Unclassified) and FOUO (For Official Use Only), which aren’t technically classifications but everybody treats them that way. In the Russian government’s classification system the equivalent is Для служебного пользования (For Administrative Use). Above that in the US is the SECRET classification level, which is basically the equivalent of honestly answering the question “Can you keep a secret?” The Russian system has two levels equivalent to SECRET, Секретно (SECRET) and Совершенно секретно (COMPLETELY SECRET, though it is often translated as TOP SECRET). The theoretical top of the US system is TOP SECRET, with its many qualifiers that are not “above top secret” as some would put it but more like “Oh, by the way” sidebars;SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information), LP (for personnel who undergo regular Lifestyle Polygraph checks), ECI (Extremely Compartmented Information, thanks to your friends at No Such Agency), and the various amusingly named compartments for special projects with secret squirrel names like BUTTHURT HIPSTER. In Russia, the equivalent is Особой важности, which translates to “of particular importance” but should be taken to mean “top secret” in this context.

There. You now know more about security classifications than most of the UFOlogical community. So, why did I put this here?

Embassies contain a great deal of classified material, from diplomatic cables to intelligence product gathered by operatives under diplomatic cover to internal stuff that accidentally got a classification label (which makes it classified material by fiat) to I-don’t-know-what. Ideally, properly disposing of materials of different classification levels follows slightly different procedures, ranging from “feed it into a crosscut shredder” to “feed the drive into a degaussing machine that destroys the entire mechanism” to “put it into this bag that gets taken to another place in an armored truck where it gets fed into a crosscut shredder, then doused with an accelerant, and then goes into an industrial furnace while people with rifles and no sense of humor watch.” In a crisis situation, however, the process appears very different. It seems to consist of:

• everything on the “this goes home in the diplomatic pouch” list goes into said pouch and gets shipped back to Russia on the first private jet out

• shred everything in the embassy, probably starting with Особой важности and working downward to the less classified material

• permafuck every data storage unit in the building, probably with a degausser but a sledgehammer will work just as well

• trash every sensitive piece of equipment in the building so it can’t be analyzed, probably with the same sledgehammer

The last two are done by most every government because the state of the art of data forensics technology gets applied to each and every last device that can potentially store any data. If an intel agency thought they could reconstruct a shredded document by putting a live hamster in a blender along with two shots of vodka, half a zucchini, and the remains of a document, they’d clean out every pet store in a ten mile radius before you could say “Hit frappe’, George.” Espionage has a long and honorable history of reverse engineering devices other governments use to figure out how they work, for the purpose of figuring out how to exploit vulnerabilities in the device or extract remnants of sensitive data. The basic nature of the intelligence community as a whole is to get hold of every last scrap of information that could potentially be actionable. Classified devices might have to be left behind because they won’t fit in the diplomatic pouches (meaning they could be seized by US intel agents at the airport on the way out). So, to foil such heroic efforts you wreck (“decomission”) everything before you clear out.

The next best thing to turning paper into 1/16″ confetti? Burn it. Hence, the smoke coming from the chimney.

During rush jobs, however, such as having a week to shut down an embassy, minus two or three days to account for administrative overhead, sometimes accepted procedures aren’t fast enough to do the entire job. Let’s say that there are only two crosscut shredders in the building but you have ten thousand pieces of paper (conservative estimate) that need to be run through them. Even the best shredders bog down under heavy loads, which means that you need to find alternative means of ruining paper. The next best thing to turning paper into 1/16″ confetti? Burn it. Hence, the smoke coming from the chimney. Another point to consider: In a rush situation, it is likely that mistakes could be made. Highly classified material might be left untouched by accident. Sensitive data might be forgotten, documents might be left intact. So, to minimize this possibility, every scrap of information in the building must be treated as top secret and destroyed appropriately.

byline: Renketsu Link

Renketsu Link is one of the senior otaku of the Tanpa Supai Kai, an industrial espionage contractor headquartered in Fukuoka, Nihon. Beginning as a lowly copy protection cracker, Link swiftly rose to the position of chief network infiltration specialist. Link has pioneered multiple strategies and techniques for making CISOs commit seppuku and admins go on shooting rampages in the NOC before swallowing grenades.

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