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Copyright © 2005 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series.

Tribute to military veterans

It is ironic that so many people stand at the US borders, hoping to get in and do any kind of work, while so many in the US shun the work that it takes to operate the US.

Millions of men and women in the US have voluntarily undertaken tasks that nearly everyone else shuns - that is the task of defending freedom. It is public service. It doesn't pay well. It is often thankless. Many are often placed in uncomfortable environments for months or years at a time. They are away from family, friends, and the thousands of activities and things that you and I take for granted. Many are in constant danger. Some get seriously injured, lose limbs, and even lose their lives. Yet if you asked your neighbor to do it, he would simply shun this work as well as any other lower paying work.

2,752 people lost their lives during the 9-11 terrorist strike. Since then, as of May 29, 2006, there have been 2,690 coalition deaths in Iraq, including 2,466 Americans, defending freedom against terrorism. Every death in battle has helped prevent terrorists from striking any other country in the world - may have prevented literally millions from dying recently or in the future. In two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, millions have been given a taste of freedom through the US and coalition allies. It is up to them to maintain their freedom and improve on it.

Usama bin Laden claims to love freedom - claims he is free. He is on the run and hiding in remote areas, far from civilization. His idea of freedom is substituting his type of political and religious tyranny for whatever oppressed people currently have. He is not a liberator, he is a megalomaniac leading people with false religious and political ideologies, no better than Saddam Hussein.

I'm not sure whether people like Usama bin Laden, who have only experienced tribal style government or tyrannical rule, are able to understand or appreciate democratic freedom, and are able to defend it. People who live under tyranny and oppression lose their sense of responsibility for their own direction and welfare. People who are free become more responsible for their own direction and welfare. I do think that the new generation in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq have tasted democratic rule, and will not stand for oppression. The seeds of democracy have been planted in fertile soil. When people love freedom, when you strike against their freedom, they strike back.

We need more peaceful ways of assisting the world and defending ourselves. War is an ugly business, creates problems, is often poorly executed, and is not a healthy way to win the peace - a lot of mistakes were made. But until we find better ways, hats off to the men and women in the military who help us maintain our freedom, even for those of us who don't appreciate it, and make the world a better place for all.

Why they do it is puzzling to those who stand aside and shun or criticize. In answer to the one most important question, "Is their sacrifice worth it?" "Yes," is the only possible answer, and it is a resounding "Yes!" Thank-you.

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In honor of the puzzling actions of those who defend us, I turned a few musing into puzzles - just for fun puzzles. There are actually four puzzles on this page - one for media analysts, one for political analysts, one for government analysts, and one for future code breakers (cryptographers).

Puzzle 1, for media analysts.

Katrina van den Heuvel, editor of The Nation, was on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, on the May 7, 2006 broadcast. It is a highly rated show, and growing quickly in popularity. I often record it so I can see it after Church. Bright, articulate, fresh perspective, outspoken, unconventional thinking, she added a firebrand to the show and clearly challenged the Round Table discussion. The Round Table is looking a bit stodgy, and even more pompous than me. It isn't that easy to challenge George Will, one of my favorite "thinkers," for decades, but who could stand a little shaking up... well something short of confrontation - I don't appreciate the drama queen style currently typifying most cable news. Will Katrina van den Heuvel be on again? That's a real puzzle. (I vote, "Yes!" Hopefully my vote won't get her cast into outer darkness.) Anyway, it's a puzzle worth thinking about.

Puzzle 2, for political analysts. Am I a spy?

The NSA is accused of collecting phone records - by the billions. Are they looking for something specific, or are they going fishing?

Fishin'? Ah'm agin' it. Any gal'darn rascally varmint goes siftin' through my phone records oughta' be thrown in the pen-i-tenti-a-ree and tortured. Yes'sir'ee, they oughta' strap that varmint to a pole and tickle his feet 'til he laughs himself to death.

See here's just the thing. One and one equals two. When you go fishin', and you catch one fish and then another one, you got two fish. You can stroll away from the pond, happy as a Love Bug, and forget about those other fish. But when you go pokin' 'round in people's phone records, and you are lookin' fer one and one, and you stumble onto it like a frog in a path around a pond on a warm night, you ain't done lookin' really until you see if there's other ones in there that equals somethin' else altogether. Could be that takes a heap o' explainin.'

So here is the puzzle. Maybe I'm a spy. I was in the Navy, but I spent my time on land. I wore civilian clothes, had a diplomatic passport, and I travelled incognito in the foreign country in which I lived and worked, and sometimes travelled from Africa to European countries without going through border checks. I held a Secret security clearance. I worked with some very secret communications equipment that forty years later most people still don't know even exists, and these were at an embassy and the "Country Club." The Country Club looked like something out of a James Bond movie, and could withstand 2000 lb. bombs. Some of my cohorts made frequent trips to listening posts.

I was trained in Black Arts martial arts, in case I ever needed deadly hand to hand combat skills. I can assemble and disassemble weapons blindfolded, and my intelligence measures in the upper 2%. I studied the methods used by CIA operatives to recruit agents, and I traveled to remote locations to meet with other Americans on missions in the country. I listened to secret radio transmissions after the USS Peublo was seized off North Korea and the USS Liberty was attacked by Israel. I sometimes collect information. I sometimes write stories involving spies and international intrigue (The Angry Doves and Riverboat Justice.)

Some real experiences: One day we found that the crypto sheets that contained secret messages, which were supposed to be shredded and burned, were being used to wrap potato chips sold on the street. Another day it was discovered that the Country Club crypto machine was missing. Everyone urgently searched for it. It was finally located the next day in a closet under a tarp. Right. I wonder where that had been. (Recently President Bush's travel itinerary was found in the White House trash. Nothing much changes.) Most of us figured that our enemies already knew most of our secrets - the secrecy was for keeping our secrets from our own people. Years later a foreign service officer lived on one side of me, and an Air Force officer on the other. I was known by the code, "28." I can write secret messages that no one can decrypt. This is all true, undistorted information. I haven't told anyone most of this information in forty years.

Think I was a spy, or worked in intelligence? If you think so, you have been the latest victim of bad logic. Welcome to the vibrant world of fishing and conspiracy theorists. I have never worked in US or foreign intelligence, or done any covert activities or anything clandestine, and have no desire to. I gave you true facts without context. Information has to be seen in context with other information.

Bad logic like this assists law enforcement in jumping to the wrong conclusions, assists religious extremists in getting to terribly wrong conclusions, assists Da Vinci Code buffs in believing things that are very unlikely, assists archaelogists in making incorrect assumptions about ancient beings and the reasons for evolutionary gains, assists juries in convicting the wrong person, and is a danger that we all face from having too much information with too little context. We too often believe what we are predisposed to believe, and search for supporting information. Unfortunately we usually find it.

As NSA, and now CIA, head, Lieutenant General Michael V. Hayden, USAF, testified before Congress at his hearing to head the CIA, sifting intelligence (datamining) can be done inductively or deductively. Induction, according to Hayden, looks at all of the information and tries to identify all possible causes. Deduction (as Hayden describes it) comes at information with a conclusion and looks for supportive pieces. Deductive reasoning may have played a part in the faulty beliefs about weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaida in Iraq. (I don't think inductive logic and deductive logic are defined quite as Hayden states, but his example is certainly valid.)

I believe that organizations like the NSA and CIA are filled with professionals who don't sort information incorrectly and don't do wrong things with it, and that Hayden is a leader who wants it done the right way. But historically the government has failed us by going fishing in its favorite ponds when it should have been doing due dilligence. Has anything really changed? Can our laws protect us? Right now the Bush administration is circumventing the law as it pleases, illegally listening to phone conversations, not informing Congress or the American people, while Congress is going along with only minor objections, and this raises the daunting prospect of what the administration might do next - trust is evaporating like steam on a dry day - the approval ratings for the President, Vice President, and the Congress is in the pits.

The Administration has opened several new fishing ponds: monitoring Internet traffic, collecting huge amounts of Internet information from search engines, and huge amounts of phone records - and who knows what other records are being collected. This is an opportunity waiting for the some administration to go fishing in its new favorite pond. The danger is not that the targeting is a problem - it is that fishing leads to wrong conclusions, and too much fishing leads to witch hunts. The simple fact is, law enforcement and monitoring can be done within the law. There are excellent provisions for monitoring what needs to be monitored, and checks and balances to make sure it doesn't get out of hand. The Patriot Act and existing laws are enough. Breaking laws should not be tolerated.

But, conspiracy theorists, as I said earlier, do we actually hide secrets not from our enemies, but from our own people? Al Qaida probably assumes that our intelligence gathering is more thorough and capable than it actually is. But if the American people find out what the Administration is up to, they might put a stop to it. Is "don't ask, don't tell," the latest government attitude about breaking the nation's inconvenient laws? The leaks are telling us something, and so is the heightened fight by the administration to stop them. So here is the puzzle: what is really going on?

Here is the second part of puzzle 2: has the CIA been unfairly attacked. After the CIA lost favor in the 1970s for doing human intelligence, two things happened. The military, through military intelligence, picked up a tremendous amount of the responsibility for intelligence gathering. A network of electronic listening posts (ships, satellites, stations) were set up and were under military control, and military special ops took over paramilitary actions, but were often still led by the CIA. Today the military gets the lion's share of the national intelligence budget. The NSA specializes in electronic intelligence gathering, and many in Congress felt that this less intrusive and less risky method, which the US has an advantage in, was much preferred to human intelligence gathering. This corresponds to the safer military strategy of precision bombing VS sending in troops. War and CIA intelligence gathering became a non-contact sport. (All of this is public information.)

After 9-11 and the Iraq invasion, the CIA was soundly criticed for human intelligence failures. What did leaders expect? It's like neutering a dog and then being furious because it can't make puppies. Well, terrorists have caught up and have ways of communicating and funding that the NSA has difficulty coping with. The demand is for more human intelligence. It's ironic that an agency that is criticized for not having enough field operatives and recruiting enough agents (which is an ugly business), is now going to have an electronic spying person, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, at the head. Good luck to Hayden, who fortunately seems to have human intelligence experience, and possibly even human intelligence.

Puzzle 3 - for government analysts.

Why does it take mail postmarked May 1, in Atlanta, Georgia, 16 days to get to a town outside of St. Louis, Missouri? It is a 10 hour drive on Interstate highways. A ridiculous six or seven days I can theoretically account for - it has never taken less than 5. But 16?!!! Does "going postal" now mean finding the longest and slowest route? (Twice when I was out of town for an extended period, they changed my address for me without my requesting or authorizing it, and it nearly took an act of Congress to get it changed back - nice what that does for you - "There ought'a be a law.")

Puzzle 4 - Break this - for future code breakers (cryptographers)

Code breaking of intercepted mesages has always been one of the major tasks of the intelligence community. Can you decode the message below? If so, perhaps you are a future cryptographer or computer programmer. Today's standard computer encryption typically can't be broken by most cryptographers, but the NSA can do it with a super-computer. Today's encryption depends on a method that scrambles the message with a key (math, secret code, and an algorithm) that is known to both sender and receiver. The problem with messages is that someone always finds out the key. Is it possible to create a message encryption system that can only be decrypted by the recipient? Eh, probably not - you can always tease the information needed to decode the message out of the recipient or his computer. But you can create a single message that can't be decoded without your help.

I play with this stuff occasionally just for fun, so I created this puzzle just for fun while writing this article on spooks. It is encrypted, but not in the robust 64-bit style. Instead it uses other more standard methods: substitution, obfuscation (scrambling) and code book (dictionary) techniques.

Crypto machines get stolen, so code machines are out of fashion except as computer encryption programs. But what if the code machine was super-secret and new technology? Hmm, sounds like a story. You are a CIA operative working in Afghanistan. One of the Special Ops Army guys spots a known high level member of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaida organization, Abu Messup, coming across the border from Pakistan, in such haste that he is apparently fleeing someone, and not exercising his usual caution. He is intercepted and injected to keep him unconscious until he can be interrogated.

His papers and a laptop computer are removed from him and analyzed. The papers tell you nothing - he isn't a fool. But inside his computer is a mysterious drive. You suspect the drive is a code machine. But while trying to access the information on the drive, apparently an intrusion detector is tripped and acid is sprayed onto the media, destroying it. This confirms for you that secret information is on it. The quick thinking technician working on it quickly douses the drive with water. But did it do any good?

On closer examination, the drive media appears to be mostly unharmed. The air cushion caused by the spinning disk apparently prevented the acid from reaching the media. The technician manages to get an output from the drive, but it is unlike anything he has ever seen. He sends the output electronically to Langley and the NSA, and they have no idea what it is either, but they put a team on it.

Everyone wants to know what the secret message says. Is bin Laden trying to get around NSA listening by using personal couriers? Is a new attack being launched? You are determined to get the information out of Abu Messup.

You allow Abu to become partially conscious, and administer a truth serum before he can awaken and become resistant. You begin interrogating him. You ask him about the file and find out it is a secret message. You ask him what it says, and he replies, "There is something very big going on. I have information that involves Abu Massab Al Zarqawi and Usama bin Laden." He hesistates, and you repeat the question. But something isn't working. He looks around, grows angry, crunches something in his mouth and dies.

You check his mouth - he had a false tooth that held a poison capsule. But at least you got something from him. You and the technician are determined to decrypt the message on the drive. The technician puts the output in a form that is readable.

Now, go break the code.

What do you mean you want hints and tips? This isn't how spies work. OK, OK, cryptographers who work on this type of encoding usually work with messages received over a long period of time and decrypt a portion of one and use it to help decrypt another, and so on. Since I am a nice guy, here are a few clues.

Messages are often scrambled. An obfuscator uses an algorithm to scramble the message. For example, it might skip two words, and then grab a word from the end of the message and insert it, skip more words, and then grab another word from near the end. The result is a mess. But if you know that the message has probably been scrambled, you can probably figure out the pattern and unscramble it.

Substitution is one way of encoding a message. You see that there is a dictionary of words in the computer. It is a long list numbered to nearly 900 words. (The dictionary is at Message Dictionary. Tip: Use a text editor that numbers the words. Another tip: If you are really ambitious, you can find all of these words in one of bin Laden's latest speeches.

The code that you see doesn't have many numbers. It is mostly text. Could it be that there is another layer of substitution? And which way is the dictionary numbered - from first to last, or last to first? There could actually be many ways of organizing and numbering the dictionary. Tip: I tried not to make it too hard - it bears repeating, I am such a nice guy (blatant, sickening, self promotion - can't get anyone else to say it).

Tip: Keep in mind trying to understand how the encoding handles white space, numbers, and punctuation. When it is obfuscated, does it count punctuation as words? What about phrases and numbers?

Tip: The first part of the message is: "There is something very big going on. I have information that involves Abu Massab Al Zarqawi and Usama bin Laden,"

Tip: There are no errors in the code (er... I think) that would prevent you from solving the message (unlike the typical computer code usually found in books and on the Internet).

Tip: Watch "TV" it will get you. And if you put the code in MS Word, it may convert a double dash "--" to a long dash.

Tip: This would be difficult for most people to decode, partially because it is so time intensive. If you want to work with something easier, check into cryptogram puzzles or the NSA's Crypto Kids Web site.

OK, here is the message - good luck!

Oh, I forgot one thing, the CIA is always worried about secret messages being hidden in the text. Don't forget to watch out for this. And there are NO real secret messages in this code intended for anyone sinister - if you think you see something, bad logic and conspiracy theories strike again - you're just having too much fun.

Caution: this file has been changed by other people at least twice in the week since since I posted it.


Think you have solved the puzzle? What are the last three words of the message? Read backwards: "??tuoba" Is there a second secret message? If so, what are the last three words of that secret message? Read backwards: "ecaep dlrow eb"

- Scott

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