Category All Things DC

Iran and North Korea cooperating on cyber-defense, ‘domestic Internets’?

UPDATE (28 Mar): Article today from the Times on how hackers from both North Korea and Iran have launched cyber attacks over the past week. No information on a connection between the two, other than their “erratic decision making,” but their skills appear to be growing, with Iran taking down American Express for two hours today.

UPDATE (24 Mar): Good article in PC World today about the threats posed by Iranian and North Korean hackers. The article covers some of what’s been discussed here, but also highlights testimony in the House last week about the unpredictability of Iran and North Korea making them harder to deter than China and Russia. The article points out that while the Iranians and North Koreans lack the cyber skills of the Chinese and Russians, their greater sense of “intent” may make them the more dangerous threats.

UPDATE (18 Jan): U.S. banks have officially sought help from the National Security Agency in dealing with the months-long cyberattacks, according to the Washington Post.

UPDATE (8 Jan): The Times has a story today with U.S. officials blaming Iran for attacks the past few months on “Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, PNC, Capital One, Fifth Third Bank, BB&T and HSBC.” The attacks are on a scale available to nation-states, not kids in a basement, “transforming the online equivalent of a few yapping Chihuahuas into a pack of fire-breathing Godzillas.” According to the story, the attacks are expected to continue.

UPDATE (3 Dec): Reuters carried a story from Kyodo yesterday about Iran stationing defense staff at a North Korean military facility, “apparently to strengthen cooperation in missile and nuclear development.” The “staff” reportedly consists of four people from Iran’s Ministry of Defense and “firms close to it.” The group may be in country for longterm collaboration, or to observe North Korea’s upcoming rocket launch.

UPDATE (24 Oct): The Times has an article today on an Iranian cyberattack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil firm in August that is now believed to be, “among the most destructive acts of computer sabotage on a company to date.” The attack is thought to be retaliation for previous cyberattacks on Iranian oil facilities – and may have even used some of the same code. This is shaping up to be an interesting battle, clearly visible even in the open source world.

UPDATE (18 Oct): The cyberattacks on U.S. banks are continuing into their fifth week, with the Wall Street Journal now publicly blaming Iran as the source of the attacks.

UPDATE (1 Oct): The Times has a story this morning about the effects the bank attacks are having on U.S. customers, plus additional speculation on who is behind them, with Iran and the general ‘Middle East’ as the most mentioned sources.

UPDATE (28 Sep): Bloomberg (among others), is reporting an escalating, ongoing cyberattack on U.S. banks that some, including Senator Lieberman (head of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee), are blaming on Iran. It may or may not be Iran, part of the ‘beauty’ of cyberattacks is being able to disguise their origin, but the attack points to the growing sophistication of state-level actors (the North Koreans took down a major South Korean bank last year) and the dangers posed to the U.S. private sector by cooperation of the type highlighted below.

A couple of interesting stories on Iran and North Korea so far this week: the Washington Post reports Iran is preparing an internal version of the Internet designed to limit Iranian’s access to the outside Net, plus block foreign cyberattacks. The article stresses the difficulties the mullahs will have establishing the system, while acknowledging the security advantages afforded by such a project.

Nowhere however, does the article mention a connection with North Korea, which has long had a ‘domestic Internet’ of the type described in the article. NK’s internal network offers the exact advantages – security and training for cyber-operatives, mentioned in the Post article.

The second article, from The Christian Science Monitor, on a new Iran-NK pact designed to enhance research cooperation in the fields of “information technology, engineering, [etc.],” makes a connection between the two countries on ‘domestic Internet’ development seem both possible and natural. The focus of the article, and other media attention to the pact, is on shared nuclear weapon and missile development efforts. However, the juxtaposition of the two events highlighted in the stories, the shared interest in walled-off internal networks, and the recent pact formalizing ongoing joint research and development efforts begs the question of whether the North Koreans are also aiding the Iranians in establishing a more cyberattack-resistant internal network – thereby removing a tool outsiders use to influence and track Iranian nuclear weapons development.

While this development would be good for the Iranians, it would not be a positive for security and stability in the region. If Israel and the U.S. lose their cyber option for derailing and delaying Iran’s nuclear efforts, kinetic options become more likely – to no one’s benefit. Stay tuned.

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Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy

[Book Review] Wonky, but surprisingly readable – Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy traces the history of U.S. “nation building,” or “stand back and let the Koreans do their thing – ing” in South Korea.

For a book in English, it contains a surprisingly large amount of the Korean perspective in building their nation into the success that it is today. Still, it seems too heavily focused on the U.S. role, while underplaying the role of the South Koreans. Perhaps a more reflective title would be The U.S. Role in South Korean Nation Building.

Either way, the book is an informative, readable history on U.S. – Korea relations and Korean development.

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Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train – slow and utilitarian, but beats the hell out of I95

Having ridden the DC-NYC portion of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional twice a month for the past three years, I feel I should write something about it, but do so more out of a sense of obligation than any deep feelings for Amtrak at its most utilitarian. To quote Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, “No good train ever goes far enough, just as no bad train ever reaches its destination soon enough.” The Northeast Regional lies squarely in the mildly pleasant middle.

Northeast Regional

 

 

 

 

 

 

First off, compared to most other routes, the Northeast Regional is expensive – which is probably why it’s the only Amtrak line that pays for itself. It can also get crowded, forcing people to roam from car to car in search of a seat or, as I did one Thanksgiving-eve, sit on the floor between cars, surrounded by fumes (the tunnel into Baltimore was especially pungent) and the occasional snowflake.

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“To Expect ‘Change’ from DPRK Is Foolish Ambition: Spokesman”

One of the best (i.e. amusing and somewhat readable) and most interesting (i.e. not solely about overfilled production quotas or the godlike exploits of the Great/Dear/Newest Leader) articles from North Korea’s official news agency I’ve come across in a while. Give it a click if you have a few minutes.

With the recent change in leadership brought on by the death of Kim Jong-il and succession of his son Kim Jong-un, has come heightened speculation on possible changes, reforms, modernization, and the like in North Korea. This article is North Korea’s forceful response. Some of the highlights, aside from the headline:

  • “Upset by this, the puppet group [i.e. South Korea] let experts in the north affairs and others interpret the stirring situation of the DPRK in a self-centered manner, vociferating about ‘signs of policy change’ and ‘attempt at reform and opening’. This ridiculous rhetoric only revealed its ignorance and sinister intention against the DPRK.”
  • “As far as ‘signs of policy change’ are concerned, there can not be any slightest change in all policies of the DPRK as they are meant to carry forward and accomplish the ideas and cause of the peerlessly great persons generation after generation [highlighting and justifying the family-based leadership successions], to all intents and purposes.”
  • “From decades of trumpeting ‘reform and opening’ to impose their corrupt system upon the DPRK, the hostile forces now seem to have been preoccupied by hallucination that such a move is taking place in the DPRK. Such idiots ignorant of the DPRK are professing experts in the north affairs. Pitiful are the U.S. and the puppet group which are resorting to foolish ambition on the basis of their sham analysis.”
  • [My favorite]: “To expect ‘policy change’ and ‘reform and opening’ from the DPRK is nothing but a foolish and silly dream just like wanting the sun to rise in the west.”

Except for a few changes around the edges, this is one of the rare times North Korea’s official line actually conflates with reality.

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The Ugly American

[Book Review] Stunning that a book written in 1958 about Vietnam and SE Asia is still so dead-on accurate. Reading it, you’d never know it wasn’t written last week about Iraq or Afghanistan.

A collection of semi-fictional vignettes about Americans working in the made-up SE Asian country of Sarkhan (read: Vietnam), anyone with a hint of overseas experience, or even time working with the U.S. government, will quickly (and in many cases, depressingly) recognize the various archetypes of Americans abroad illustrated here. The authors reportedly based many of the characters on real people they’d met while overseas. A quick bit of Googling sheds light on the origin of many of them.

A quick, enjoyable read – whether a story at a time, or the whole book. Highly recommended, especially for those heading overseas, or to DC, to work with the U.S. government and/or military.

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Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam

[Book Review] I kept bumping into excerpts from this book while I was in grad school, but just recently got around to reading the whole thing.

While I know nothing about COIN aside from what I read in grad school and gleaned from working with sundry folks overseas, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife certainly seems like a helluva sensible book – and not just on Vietnam or for historians, but for anyone interested in the performance of the U.S. and British armies, past, present, and future.

The author, John A. Nagl (retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel), examines the performance of the British Army in Malaya and the U.S. Army in Vietnam to gauge how effectively each organization learned and adapted to fighting a counter insurgency. The Brits come off rather well, having won their fight against communist guerrillas in what became Malaysia. The U.S. Army comes off much worse, appearing bureaucratic, ossified, and unable to change or adapt, even when ordered to change by higher-ups or shown how to adapt by junior officers.

Not just a historical examination, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife provides guidelines for helping any organization: bureaucratic, military, or otherwise; learn, adapt, and succeed when confronted by unexpected challenges. Pity this advice wasn’t better known or heeded in DC back in the aughts.

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Amtrak’s DC to Orlando Auto Train

UPDATE (29 JAN 2014): Skipped the Auto Train this year and tried the Miami to NYC ‘Silver Meteor’. While slower than the Auto Train, thanks to many more stops, Amtrak’s Silver Service trains go beyond the Orlando and DC only destinations of the Auto Train, making things more convenient for traveling outside those two areas – though without the benefits of carrying your car.

UPDATE (2 JAN 2013): I tried the Auto Train once again this holiday season and found it much the same – the convenience, relaxation, pleasure at avoiding both I95 and the airports, all were just as enjoyable as last year. The restrooms can get a little gamey after a few hours, but still a solid way to get to/from Florida.

While not as classy as the City of New Orleans between Chicago and the Big Easy, Amtrak’s DC-Orlando Auto Train is convenient as hell for getting you and your car to/from Florida. You drive up to the station, hand your keys to an attendant, grab the stuff (change of clothes, toiletries, booze) you want to take on the train, then walk inside the station and prepare to board.

                                                       
Vehicles load onto Amtrak car carrier – Images courtesy Amtrak

Once you drop off your vehicle (anything from a motorcycle to an SUV), an attendant will drive it onto an enclosed car carrier. This will be the last you see of your vehicle until arrival, so be sure and get everything out of it you want on the train.

Once inside the station, you wait in line to pick up your boarding pass and schedule dinner in the dining car – with nearly 500 people on the train, the evening meal is served on a rotation. And the dining car attendants do not take kindly to anyone arriving late or dallying through a meal.

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NYT’s Kristof in Iran

New York Time’s columnist Nicholas Kristof recently spent some time in Iran and posted some interesting columns (including videos) on the trip: Hugs From Iran, Pinched and Griping in Iran, In Iran, They Want Fun, Fun, Fun, and Not-So-Crazy in Tehran.

He was able to travel without a guide, which I envy. While I learned a lot from Professor, my guide during my trip, some of the most interesting experiences in the country happened when I was alone. I’m curious what else Kristof was able to come away with that he couldn’t/didn’t fit into his writings and videos.

I was most heartened by his final take, “We can’t do much to nurture progress in Iran, but promoting Internet freedom, shortwave news broadcasts and satellite television all would help. A war would hurt. […] Iran looks childish when it calls America the ‘Great Satan’ or blusters ‘Death to America.’ Let’s not bluster back or operate on caricatures. And let’s not choose bombs over sanctions and undercut the many Iranians who are chipping away at hard-line rule in tiny ways — even by flashing their hair.”

This was not so far off from my take in 2006, of Persians as a group of people that loved their country but hated their government – so long as no one attacked it. Iran is one of the few places I’ve traveled where most people, especially the young and educated, seem to genuinely like Americans. Given time and appropriate encouragement, this will help further U.S. interests far more than bombing Natanz.

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Pyongyang adds new Kim Jong-il statue to skyline

In less time than it takes DC to repair an escalator, North Korea added a giant new statue of Kim Jong-il to a hill overlooking Pyongyang. Shown here (image courtesy the Washington Post), is the new statue of Kim, apparently built since his death in December, standing next to the statue of his father that has long overlooked the Pyongyang skyline.

I’ve been to the monument and stood at the foot of the older Kim Il-sung statue and can attest that pictures do them no justice.

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North Korean Missile Launch

A couple of thoughts on North Korea’s recent missile launch:

1. Rather than a sign of the North being up to its old tricks, agreeing with the U.S. one minute, then ‘crazily’ breaking the agreement in order to launch a missile the next, the confusion is likely a sign of factional struggle and lack of clear leadership in Pyongyang. One silo group, more technocratic and concerned with food shortages, pushed for the food aid agreement with the U.S. and got it. Another group, more military and ideological, pushed for the test, regardless of any agreement. This group also got what it wanted. A lack of clear guidance from the top allowed the second group to cancel out the work of the first. A sign of new, confused leadership still trying to navigate (rather than manage or dictate to) the various entrenched factions of NK’s government, not a sign of craziness or some nefarious plot to make the U.S. look bad.

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North Korea Continues to Expand Cyber Capabilities; Cheap, Domestic Alternative to Buying Weapons from China, Russia

Partly for work, partly for personal interest, I’ve been following reports on North Korea’s efforts in cyberspace, including a cyber-attack on Korea University, an attack on the South’s agriculture bank and cooperative, Nonghyup, and speculation that Kim Jeong-Eun was behind at least some of the cyber attacks prior to taking over the country in December upon the death of his father.

U.S. defense officials are also tracking North Korea’s cyber activities, saying in testimony on Capitol Hill today that the North has added “sophisticated cyber attack capabilities” that mark “a skilled team of hackers” as the newest addition to North Korea’s arsenal.

Given the limited ability to definitively trace and prove the origin of cyber attacks, I’m not sure how these new capabilities fit in with the North’s unique method of international relations. A method whereby the North intentionally creates and escalates international tension, before trading away a reduction in those tensions in return for aid from China, South Korea, and elsewhere. If cyber attacks can’t be traced to the North, how can the North use them as a bargaining chip?

Instead, the new cyber capabilities appear to be exactly what they were called on the Hill today – military weapons. The North will likely continue to expand and hone its cyber capabilities, including attacks on outside countries, viewing them as a cheap, domestically-produced alternative to weapons purchased from Russia or China. A weapon capable of use with far less backlash, or evidence, than shelling South Korean islands or torpedoing South Korean warships. These new cyber assets are less about generating aid than about improving military capabilities in a cost-effective, easily testable, relatively safe manner.

After all, which is easier, cheaper, and offers less potential blowback – building and testing a missile that can threaten the U.S., or developing a cyber capability that can accomplish the same thing?

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The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda

[Book Review] Leaves the reader angry, frustrated, and fed up. Not however, because the book is bad, precisely because it is so clear, detailed, and powerful, making the best case I’ve seen yet for why torture doesn’t work and the U.S. shouldn’t be doing it.

The book was written by Ali Soufan, one of the FBI’s former top Arabic interrogators, one seemingly involved in every investigation from the East African embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, to 9/11, Gitmo, and beyond. As the book progresses, you can feel the steady increase in the author’s frustration and tension with the bureaucratic, DC way of doing things, including torture, versus being allowed to use his experience, training, linguistic, and cultural knowledge. In the end, completely frustrated and only days after being referred to as, “the future of the FBI,” by the FBI director, the author resigned and left the government.

While the DC bureaucracy in general comes out looking pretty bad, between the author’s reporting and the CIA-mandated redactions (left in the book as black lines through sentence after sentence, page after page of text, including through publicly available Congressional testimony), the CIA comes out looking like bumbling, arrogant, bureaucratic assholes (admittedly, not that hard, but still). State, at least in Yemen, doesn’t come out looking too good either, but the main beating is laid on Langley.

The book has some errors that detract from its credibility, mainly the Soviets invading Pakistan, instead of Afghanistan, on page 26, and the occasional confusion of the words “dessert” and “desert.” Still, overall, and in spite of the anger and frustration the reporting causes in the reader, well worth your time.

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FP Magazine: The Black Hole of North Korea

Great article (subtitled: What economists can’t tell you about the most isolated country on Earth) on the North Korean economy by Marcus Noland.

While the best quote comes at the end of the article (“Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale once counseled me that anyone who claims to be an expert on the North is a liar or a fool.”), the piece is an excellent reminder on the scarcity of accurate data coming out of the North. Take a look if you have time – a 10-minute read.

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Riding Amtrak Cross-country

Great story in last Saturday’s Washington Post on riding Amtrak from DC to San Francisco, via Chicago. With comments like, “Sleep came easily — the train is surprisingly smooth and quiet,” “Train etiquette seemed to involve asking strangers where they were headed and why they’d chosen the train,” or “The amount of space between rows on these trains makes a joke of airplane legroom,” it’s obvious the author is somewhat new to long-distance train travel, but appears smitten with the new/old option. Welcome.

As someone who was long ago taken with train travel, having ridden lines from Saigon-Hanoi to the Trans-Siberian, and written about trains from Chicago to New Orleans and Tehran to Istanbul (excerpt), I heartily recommend stepping away from the plane, hitting the pause button on your rush (unless you’re taking an actual bullet train, then by all means, enjoy the rush), and trying a little travel. You may be disappointed, you might overpay, it may be unpleasant (i.e. Tehran to Turkey), but it just might be worth it.

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