ESQUIRE: If you had to put together a newsfeed for the intelligence community, what would be your top trending topics?
JEFF STEIN: Foreign: North Korea, easily number one. Russia, China, Iran, Islamic State, Taliban, nuclear proliferation. Domestic: radical white supremacy and neo-Nazi individuals and groups.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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.
ESQ: 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?
JS: See, above.
ESQ: How do you identify if you’re under surveillance and what can you do about it, if anything?
JS: 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.
ESQ: Is Facebook the biggest intelligence-gathering agency on the planet right now?
JS: People who join Facebook (and other social media) volunteer personal and professional information about themselves, so I wouldn’t call them intelligence-gathering organisations.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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”.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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.
ESQ: 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?
JS: See, above. I have no idea whether the mystery of MH370 will ever be solved—but at this point, it looks doubtful.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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 off-the-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.
ESQ: 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?
JS: 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.
ESQ: 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?
JS: Too early to say much more than his presidency is certainly up for grabs.
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: Reporting the Un-reportable was about how journalists bring to light issues deemed too sensitive or controversial, that are in the national interest but might run contrary to national security.