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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Review: Family of Spies by Pete Early

Another of those must reads after watching the eponymous movie. I have this need to always find out what really happened, i.e., what verity there might be in the dramatic film version compared to real life. Some background reading revealed that John A. Walker’s achievements were monumental. The Soviets could read our communications but not break the code until Walker gave them the code cards. But that was only half of the puzzle. The North Korean hijacking of the Pueblo in 1968 gave them the machine (whether that was the intent of the hijacking remains an interesting speculation.) Why the U.S. didn’t change all its codes after the hijacking baffles me, but they didn’t, and the Soviets could read all the U.S. military traffic until 1980 when the system was changed. That was millions of coded messages. “K-mart store has better security than the U.S. Navy,” John told the author in one of his interviews.

This is the extraordinary story of John Walker who, as a Navy warrant officer, passed vital secrets to the Russians, not out of any political conviction, but purely for the money. He successfully enlisted his friends and relatives in his operation. This went on for more than twenty years. And he would never have been caught except John’s maltreatment of his wife. In fact, the FBI initially discounted Barbara’s revelations much as they ignored the information they had on the 9/11 attackers. John soon realized their ineptitude. “I began to realize that the FBI is not like it is on television. You see, the FBI doesn’t really do any investigating. It doesn’t know how to investigate. The FBI is not powerful at all because its agents are really just bureaucrats and they have the same inherent ineptitude of all government bureaucrats. All they do is spend their days waiting for some snitch to call them and turn someone in. That’s how they operate, and I was beginning to sense that.”

I have always said that the danger to an institution is more likely to come from within (this applies to computer facilities and well as American society - especially with Trump now on the loose.) Of course, that is the danger inherent in trust and it’s virtually impossible to live in a society devoid of trust so the balance between trust and openness and self-protection is a delicate one. “Perhaps it is time for intelligence experts to rethink this central concept of attitudinal loyalty, this idea that Americans don’t betray their country to foreign powers the way that Europeans are perceived to do quite regularly. We trust our citizens to an extent that is almost unknown in history and unheard of in most other countries. This is as it should be. However, we live in a society where money is no longer a mere commodity, but a sacrament. Money is power, possessions, persona, sex, and status.”

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