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Robert Baer & Geopolitical Agency
Meditations on the Great Game & America's future.
I just finished this podcast with Chris Voss, an FBI negotiator. Of his many knowledge bombs, he dropped the following which I paraphrase:
When I signed up to the Bureau, I swore to protect and defend the people of the United States. You can either live up to your purpose or you can follow the rules. You can’t do both. Your true values are the things you keep doing even when they cost you.
My friend Marc and I don’t debate a lot. There’s so much we agree on, in the way that observant people do. I find him generously practical when it comes to politics, for which I personally have little patience. I stumped him by asking him if he was rich, would he try to buy influence or leave it alone.
I would leave it alone. I once believed what Marc believes, but have run out of patience with the following sentiment:
Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.
-- Dwight David Eisenhower, 1954
But he was our last great president. Marc and I both, as consultants to industry, wonder why such proven leaders like Eisenhower do not come forward and lead the country. Reading two consecutive books by Robert Baer has led me to the conclusion that our national politics are wrecked beyond reconciliation. So here I am with more dark observations, keeping in mind that ‘The wise are never surprised by death’.
See No Evil
It ought to be obvious that Iran, seeing us casually and informally as The Great Satan is one of our greatest enemies. In Baer’s See No Evil, he accounts for a time when I was particularly waking up to geopolitical reality - the early 90s when we wanted to keep Saddam Hussein in his box, or maybe just get rid of him altogether. Baer who was on the ground in those early days tells heartbreaking tales of the CIA’s inability and America’s political unwillingness to investigate and thwart the nurturing by Iran of the poison amoeba which is today’s multinational network of anti-American terrorist cells. Non-state actors are the tentacles of hostile Iranian intent which is literally below our intelligence radar. So we continue to depend on radar and satellites and other SIGINT rather than have mufti shoes on the ground.
The conventional wisdom tells us that Americans are too stupid and uninformed to ever do good on the geopolitical scene. This is the self-fulfilling fantasy of hordes of Americans who have little concept of and regard for the capacities of those who actually do know better. You cannot read Robert Baer and not know that there is indeed belligerent hostility against America and the capacity for us to arrest it for goodness sake. But you can also not read Robert Baer and not know how disinterest, fear and willful blindness are capable of sabotaging our best and brightest. Nor can you read his other masterwork The Fourth Man, without gaining an appreciation of how disciplined and painstaking work based on just the facts can make a small team capable of solving some of the world’s greatest mysteries.
One of my enduring interests is exactly how such disciplined and painstaking work can be incredibly rewarding. It defines much of my very interest in computing in the first place - and it is something I hope to recreate in my future. In my own journaling, I called it ‘fine pointing’, and its purpose was to demonstrate to myself that I could code my way out of a paper bag, out of a locked shed and through concrete walls. But I didn’t truly enjoy solving puzzles for the sake of puzzling. I was never such an introvert that engaging people had lost all interest, nor was I ever so selfish, as self-centered as any writer can be, that I had no public spirit in my focus. So I have always been drawn to the lives of spies and priests in particular because they traffic in secrets that fail to reward them. In that, they have an inverse relation to discovery as the rest of us. Where we can be rewarded for puzzling out the truth and showing off that to the world, spies and priests are punished for loose lips. I have felt this tension all across my career with regard to non-disclosure agreements I have with my customers.
Ahh but there is a world of difference between getting sued and getting executed. Spies are that much more admirable because of this. They see the evils and are restrained even by those who might give license to combat it, sometimes by those whose purpose is to combat it. Combat it by the rules, and my master, by your leave. It is an essential complication of the rule of law and the realms of policy.
John A Young
I have been using PGP since 1998. One of the first characters I found in this cryptic world was John A Young aka Cryptome. He has been the receiver of much of this and that long since before our current familiar dealers and brokers in secreted information became household names.
There is something inherent, deep in our WEIRD psyches that compels us to know, and to suspect that we are being lied to. After all, we are descended from the people who survived their paranoia. The guys who say ‘nothing can go wrong’ do not survive shitstorms prevalent in our corner of the galaxy. So at the same time, we are blessed with the good fortune of not having to know that stuff which would melt our unprepared minds. Where is the middle ground? What would we allow AI to know and keep secret? What indeed is worthy of keeping secret? That answer itself is secret, or so I recall hearing in Congressional testimony. Nevertheless, a deathbed has a way of clearing fear and statutes of limitations.
These days I feel a bit more compelled to stray away from entertainments and more towards the intricate discoveries possible in consuming history, especially that of geopolitics. This too is a refocus.
The reason is simple. Reading Baer gives me a certain kind of confidence that extraordinary individuals with specific skills can get at the truth and thus live with the reward of certainty. Not an absolute certainty, but that beyond a reasonable doubt which is standard enough.
Nothing quite speaks towards this as Baer’s Perfect Kill written in 2013 that I read last year. It inverted my ideas about geopolitics, and gave me reason to believe that institutions as we know them are never quite as capable as we think they are, but that organizations of a different sort and purpose can manifest extraordinary things that are of global and historical significance. The existence of Bitcoin is a singular proof.
Also and by the way I used to read a lot of Michael Yon and Richard Fernandez. They’re back on the radar as well as Joshua S. Treviño at Armas and from the fictional corner, Jack Carr. I like the way he does his redactions.
So what I’m saying essentially is that politics is something of a bourgeois pastime that is not necessarily rewarding, but is necessarily important. What matters most is that those who swear to protect and defend are capable. It doesn’t take genius to read the political signals of our time. No disrespect to journalists, but they are not the deep researchers of our nation. There are better sources and methods. I’m keeping that in mind.
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