Face­book, Twit­ter, bots, Rus­sia, North Korea, China, a for­ever miss­ing plane, an as­sas­si­na­tion, etc. Here’s Jeff Stein’s 101 on spy­craft, so­cial me­dia and you.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CULTURE - IN­TER­VIEW by JA­SON TAN Jeff Stein is a long-stand­ing in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist from the US spe­cial­is­ing in in­tel­li­gence and for­eign pol­icy is­sues. He was re­cently in Malaysia for The Cooler Lumpur Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val. His pre­sen­ta­tion, News­room Con­fi­den­tial

If you had to put to­gether a news­feed for the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, what would be your top trend­ing topics?

For­eign: North Korea, eas­ily num­ber one. Rus­sia, China, Iran, Is­lamic State, Tal­iban, nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion. Do­mes­tic: rad­i­cal white supremacy and neo-nazi in­di­vid­u­als and groups.

We hear a lot about how so­cial me­dia is dis­rupt­ing busi­ness as usual. How has the busi­ness of in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing been dis­rupted by so­cial me­dia? Or has so­cial me­dia sim­ply “democra­tised” the prac­tice, for ex­am­ple, by mak­ing in­for­ma­tion more widely avail­able to the pub­lic?

So­cial me­dia is just an­other in­for­ma­tion source for the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. The IC (in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity) closely mon­i­tors Rus­sian and Is­lamic State ex­ploita­tion of so­cial me­dia in par­tic­u­lar.

We know from Ed­ward Snow­den about the scale of the NSA’S sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions. In what ways has so­cial me­dia been a boon for in­tel­li­gence agen­cies?

See, above.

How do you iden­tify if you’re un­der sur­veil­lance and what can you do about it, if any­thing?

As a ci­ti­zen, you have no real way to know you’re un­der sur­veil­lance in real time un­less an in­tel­li­gence whistle­blower alerts you. In some cases, you can file a suit against the gov­ern­ment de­mand­ing that it re­veal facts about its sur­veil­lance of you, but the process can take years and re­sult in very lit­tle in­for­ma­tion. Gov­ern­ment work­ers and con­trac­tors who deal in clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion know that their elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tions are be­ing ran­domly mon­i­tored.

Is Face­book the big­gest in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing agency on the planet right now?

Peo­ple who join Face­book (and other so­cial me­dia) vol­un­teer per­sonal and pro­fes­sional in­for­ma­tion about them­selves, so I wouldn’t call them in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions.

AI has made bot tweets pos­si­ble, among other things. How do you ver­ify the au­then­tic­ity of what you read or view on your mo­bile de­vice? What can be done to counter fake news?

As with any in­for­ma­tion or news re­port, one can judge its cred­i­bil­ity by trac­ing it to its orig­i­nal source. If it’s not from a rep­utable news or­gan­i­sa­tion, you should have se­ri­ous doubts about its cred­i­bil­ity. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion may re­veal it to be man­u­fac­tured by for­eign “bot fac­to­ries”.

South­east Asia seems to be the lat­est stage for the great game, now played mainly be­tween China and the US. What unique chal­lenges does South­east Asia present for in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing? Who has the up­per hand?

China has been deeply in­volved for cen­turies in the pol­i­tics of South­east Asia, the­o­ret­i­cally giv­ing it an ad­van­tage over the West in in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing around the re­gion. But heavy-handed Chi­nese pres­sure on South­east Asian na­tions may leave it vul­ner­a­ble to pen­e­tra­tion by Western in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and their re­gional al­lies.

The ex­tent of North Korea’s re­la­tion­ship with Malaysia, of­fi­cially and un­of­fi­cially, came to light af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Kim Jong Nam, while its re­la­tion­ship with China and the US played out be­hind the scenes. Would you have any in­sights on the type of in­ter­ac­tion that takes place among in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in such a case?

In­tel­li­gence agen­cies, like na­tion states them­selves, co­op­er­ate in ar­eas of mu­tual in­ter­est and se­cu­rity. De­spite se­ri­ous ten­sions among and be­tween them, Rus­sia, China and the US co­op­er­ate in ar­eas such as coun­tert­er­ror­ism, coun­ternar­cotics and stop­ping the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion.

Ditto for the un­solved MH370 in­ci­dent. There is in­di­ca­tion that for­eign in­tel­li­gence agen­cies knew very early on that the plane had veered off its flight tra­jec­tory. What kind of in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing takes place in such in­ci­dents? Do you think MH370 will ever be solved?

See, above. I have no idea whether the mys­tery of MH370 will ever be solved— but at this point, it looks doubt­ful.

There has been ex­ten­sive me­dia cov­er­age and dis­cus­sion of Rus­sia’s sub­ver­sion-by-hack­ing of the US elec­toral process. How is it that the US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies were blind­sided by this? Is it con­ceiv­able that the US gov­ern­ment also does the same, in its own strate­gic in­ter­ests?

It’s not really ac­cu­rate to say that US in­tel­li­gence was “blind­sided” by Rus­sian sub­ver­sive ac­tiv­i­ties—moscow has at­tempted to sub­vert and ma­nip­u­late US pol­i­tics since at least the ’30s. What was new was the emer­gence of a po­lit­i­cal “part­ner” in Don­ald Trump and his as­so­ci­ates, who not only en­cour­aged Rus­sian hack­ers to steal and dis­sem­i­nate the in­ter­nal emails of Hil­lary Clin­ton as sec­re­tary of state and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, but dis­missed the very idea that the Rus­sians were ac­tively seek­ing to tilt the elec­tion to­ward Trump. Both the Soviet Union and the US en­gaged in such ac­tiv­i­ties through­out the Cold War, in Western Eu­rope and around the world wher­ever elec­tions were held.

Closer to home, the Malaysian gov­ern­ment ac­cuses the whistle­blower site, Sarawak Re­port, of be­ing a sub­ver­sive for­eign agent. On the other hand, the Sarawak Re­port it­self claims to be the tar­get of a con­certed ef­fort to desta­bilise it by “pub­lic re­la­tions” agen­cies (and seems to have a pipeline of in­tel­li­gence it­self). Could you shed some light on how gov­ern­ment in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, or pri­vate ones, might be in­volved in such a sce­nario?

I have no par­tic­u­lar knowl­edge of the Sarawak Re­port sit­u­a­tion, but gov­ern­ments from the be­gin­ning of time have sought to si­lence crit­ics, es­pe­cially those with ac­cess to gov­ern­ment se­crets. Dur­ing the Water­gate scan­dal of the ’70s in the US, we learned that Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon or­dered his offthe-books “plumbers” sub­ver­sion team to fire-bomb the Brookings In­sti­tute, a ma­jor home of the Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion. Over the decades, the CIA has of­ten used pub­lic re­la­tions agen­cies as fronts. In­tel­li­gence agen­cies use any­thing they can to keep an eye on their en­e­mies.

Christo­pher Steele, the for­mer MI6 of­fi­cer, is said to have pro­duced the Trump dossier. How do you think things will pan out for him, and what do you think is go­ing to hap­pen with the dossier?

By most ac­counts, Steele’s dossier in­luded a mix of in­for­ma­tion, some of which has not yet panned out. The FBI, CIA and con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tees are con­tin­u­ing their in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the Steel dossier. It’s too early to say how this will end.

How does a sit­ting US pres­i­dent alien­ate his in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and re­main in of­fice? As of to­day, how do you think things will pan out for Don­ald Trump and his ad­min­is­tra­tion?

Too early to say much more than his pres­i­dency is cer­tainly up for grabs.

A cus­toms of­fi­cer talks to a pas­sen­ger at Tu­man­gang rail­way sta­tion, North Korea, 2015.

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