A Riddle Wrapped In a Mystery Inside an Enigma

Bruce Schneier:


[ sometimes when ] we were sure of our [ covertly gained information ], we couldn't act because that would reveal "sources and methods." This is probably the most frustrating explanation. Imagine we are able to eavesdrop on al-Assad's most private conversations with his generals and aides, and are absolutely sure of his plans. If we act on them, we reveal that we are eavesdropping. As a result, he's likely to change how he communicates, costing us our ability to eavesdrop. It might sound perverse, but often the fact that we are able to successfully spy on someone is a bigger secret than the information we learn from that spying.

This dynamic was vitally important during World War II. During the war, the British were able to break the German Enigma encryption machine and eavesdrop on German military communications. But while the Allies knew a lot, they would only act on information they learned when there was another plausible way they could have learned it. They even occasionally manufactured plausible explanations. It was just too risky to tip the Germans off that their encryption machines' code had been broken.

The World War II bit isn't news to anyone who reads history (or, for that matter, Neal Stephenson novels).

I had an insight just now.

We know that the NSA collects all sorts of information on American citizens. We know that the FBI and the CIA have full access to this information. We know that the
DEA also has full access to that data. And we know that when the
DEA busts someone using information gleaned by the electronic panopticon of our internal spy organization, they take pains to hide the source of the information via the subterfuge of parallel construction.

The insight is this: our government is now dealing with the citizenry the same way that the British dealt with the Nazis: treating them as an external existential threat, spying on them, and taking pains to obfuscate the source of the information that they use to target their attacks.

Yeah, Godwin's law, whatever, whatever. My point is NOT that the NSA is the same as the Nazi party (in fact, my argument has the NSA on the opposite side). My point is that the government now treats ordinary civilians as worthy of the same sort of tactics that they once used against the Nazis.

This isn't really shocking, given that I think that the government has long been at war with the populace…but it's still a somewhat stark distillation of the trend.

Last 5 posts by Clark


  1. James says

    Don't ever worry about Godwin's law if the comparison is reasonable. There *can* be another holocaust-level event in the future, and it *could* happen here. Anyone who says otherwise is being naive. (Admittedly, most of the time when someone brings up the Nazi's they are being ridiculous)

  2. says

    i just saw this bumper sticker yesterday: "1984 was a warning, not an instruction manual"

    but then, i live in Boulder, CO…and there were lots of other bumper stickers on that car.

  3. says

    This has long been the case. For many years in both Democrat and Republican administrations the government is against the people.
    As long as they can keep us battling along partisan lines though they will continue to sweep up as much of our freedoms as we allow.
    The sheeple are selling the freedoms of the people.

  4. J.R. says

    24/7 surveillance–of everyone–militarized police, etc. it's as though our would-be masters think the Public is … Enemy #1.

  5. mcinsand says

    Stuart Gray,

    >>As long as they can keep us battling along partisan lines …

    This is the key of the con job that they pull on Joe Citizen, to get them to think that we actually have two parties. Both parties are working for the same thing: TARP bailouts, entitlement (overhead) expansions, and discretionary, expensive wars. The glassy-eyed partisans nod when their masters say that they need more power and less consitution because children, terrorists, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, whatever.

    Where parties and the mindless partisans agree is that we, the average citizen, are the enemy. All the more reason to vote, before that right/privilege is taken in the name of children, terrorists, 'those guys,' …

  6. Jacob h says

    I think this is a very fair comparison. The NSA/CIA/FBI is playing a game where the parties have incomplete information (poker), but ethically, morally, when it comes to citizens of their own country, they should be playing a game with transparency, where all parties are aware of what's going on (go). Claiming that this somehow "hobbles" their ability to operate is like claiming that we can't make public the kind of bullets the police use, because then criminals might design a bulletproof vest tailored to those bullets.


    Would-be but for what?

  7. says

    That seems like a completely rational approach by the government – if the citizenry realized how unimportant they are to those in power, there very well would be an existential threat to the current power structure.

  8. Vorkon says

    You know who would have used Godwin's Law to discredit and shame his opposition into silence?


  9. Cassius says

    It would have been awesome if you had not explicitly referenced Godwin's Law, but instead buried it in the structure of your sentences (e.g., the first letter of every sentence spelled out "Yes I know about Godwin's Law so bite me"). Then when somebody made the inevitable Godwin's Law comment you could point out your initial cleverness.

  10. Parallel says

    You're seeing symptoms but misdiagnose the disease.

    The underlying disease is the unwillingness of our policymakers to unabashedly use spies, diplomats and soldiers to deal with bad guys outside our borders.

    Are foreign drug runners enough of a national security threat to our country that they need to die? Well then have the balls to order the CIA/NSA to find 'em and the military to snuff 'em. It's not the job of the US government to protect foreigners' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (unless the Senate ratifies a treaty to that end).

    The FBI, DEA or IRS are not the right tools for the job of deterring or killing foreigners. The fact they have to engage in "parallel construction" to get past their internal checks and balances is simply evidence that they're the wrong tools for the job.

  11. says


    It would have been awesome if you had … buried it in the structure of your sentences

    If you haven't detected any messages stego-ed into this post you're not doing sufficiently clever cryptanalysis.

    …or, perhaps, I'm toying with you.

    Who can say?

  12. Rich says

    Why don't they stop calling us "US Citizens" and just call us "US Suspects" instead. I feel like that's all we are.

  13. wolfefan says

    Hello Clark –

    It's nice to see you here again. No specific comment on the post, just wanted to welcome you back.

    Best wishes…

  14. Chris Bray says

    So then the question is: Have you ever had a sense that a government agency was using parallel construction to cover the origins of its case against one of your clients?

  15. Kfix says


    Are foreign drug runners enough of a national security threat to our country that they need to die?

    Er, no.

    And it may not be the "job" of the US government to not be a dick to the rest of the world, but that doesn't make it a good idea.

  16. Drew says

    Clausewitz was half right: politics is the continuation of war by alternative means.

  17. bst says

    @Jacob h

    But he is a doctor. Which would make it really interesting to discover that a government agency was using parallel construction to cover the origins of a problem of one of his clients.

  18. Old Toby says

    Great post, Clark. It fits all too well with my dark notions of society this morning.

    Instapundit, which picked this post up, also linked today to a post about DRM and the great Mozilla Shaming. That post posits that there were some undisclosed interested with reasons to remove Eich. http://voxday.blogspot.com/2014/05/why-brendan-eich-had-to-go.html A community trained to mass action, is a community weaponized, ready to be used by any manipulator. Who really tracked down EIch’s contribution, and why was it brought out at this time?

    Clarke has posited a war of mirrors, with deception and misdirection cloaking each move—just the kind of engagement a mob would be useful for. The actual components of the weapon, feeling all righteous, would not know who was aiming them or why.

    It's time for us to think more about who the manipulators in each shaming are…

  19. Jacob H says


    Huh? You mean patients, not clients, right? Also, I still don't get it…are you saying that the government would find out that one of his patients had some health condition (somehow circumventing HIPPA), and then, what, investigate the cause of that health condition as linked to some kind of crime? That is some bizarre speculation, and I can't really think of a cause of a medical condition that would obviously point to some kind of criminality. Before you say "gunshot wound," that is something that already has to be reported to police by doctors, so no parallel construction required.

    Or, re-reading your comment and noticing you said "cover" and not "discover," did you mean that the government somehow caused the health condition of the patient? That's not at all implausible, but how would parallel construction possibly help cover that up? That's not what that technique does.

    Parallel construction is when you find out your girlfriend is cheating on you by reading her email, but when you confront her, you tell her you found out by seeing them out together. Then she doesn't change her password and you get to keep reading her inbox

  20. says

    partisans nod when their masters say that they need more power and less consitution because children, terrorists, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, whatever.

    You left out an all time favorite "dopers".

  21. David says

    The main purpose of parallel construction is to produce evidence admissible in court, but otherwise it's a fair point.

  22. JonasB says

    "My point is that the government now treats ordinary civilians as worthy of the same sort of tactics that they once used against the Nazis."

    This is one of those annoying statements that's simultaneously true and completely wrong at the same time. The fact that the same technique was used in WWII is irrelevant to any perceived view the government has or does not have towards its citizens. The same need to conceal sources could also be present, say, if an undercover informant was being used instead of NSA surveillance.

  23. Robert What? says

    I guess it was better when the Cold War was in full swing. At that time the spooks, psychopaths and sociopaths all had their attention focused on the "Evil Empire". Now that the Cold War is over, there is no outside existential enemy, so the American public has become the existential enemy of our own government. The Eye of Sauron is on us now. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a great thing for Reagan to help bring about the end of the CW. The Russian Federation isn't the same kind of enemy. Besides we no longer have the "moral high ground" anymore as we're more tyrannical than the Russians at this point. As an aside – Putin doesn't strike me as wanting to reconstitute the USSR: I think he wants to reconstitute the old Russian Empire with him as Czar.

  24. Jamie says

    Um, Toby?

    Eich resigned. There was no coordinated attack. Many people who contribute to Mozilla were weirded out, and that put his role in question. I suspect that if the hypothetical new head of GE had some proclivity that stakeholders found disturbing, that would be just typical norming, "the markets have spoken".

    Look at the board reshuffle. Mozilla is managing itself, as free-marketeers normally assert it should be. Except when it works in a way they don't like.

    Look, I hate the bullshit attacks on companies for founders' conceits. I'm probably much more at risk; almost nobody agrees with me. But (yes, there is a but) I choose with whom I do business. I don't do business with some people because they suck ass as humans. This does, in fact, cost me more. I'm OK with that, as are my clients. The line to draw is complicated. As are most things. Simply asserting they don't exist is just unrealistic.

  25. CJK Fossman says


    The theory that Eich was attacked because he opposed DRM makes a good tale. That doesn't make it true.

  26. That Anonymous Coward says

    Truth, Justice, & the American way…

    We are denied the truth, which denies the accused justice, and this is the new American way.
    How many people are considered an acceptable loss so that we can keep the methods we are using secret?
    Are we really that stupid as a society that we blithely still somehow believe they have our best interests at heart, and will never use these same tactics against us?

    Perhaps we need to understand the things being done in our names are wholly opposed to our alleged morals & laws, and need to stop. That fear is never the right reason to give up on the foundation of what we are supposed to be.

  27. Chad Miller says

    @OldToby: Without commenting on the appropriateness of the protests themselves, the answer to the timing question is "He wasn't the CEO before." The contribution to Prop 8 was well-known before that, but the outrage mill started the instant he was announced as the Mozilla CEO.

  28. John Thacker says

    Such things have been going on for a long time. Back when it was possible to do phone phreaking and get free calls on AT&T's monopoly long distance system, AT&T developed a Toll Fraud System to combat it. That system sampled millions US phone conversations and recorded the start of them. It was questionable whether or not it was legal, but AT&T got the law changed to explicitly say that something like it was. (It was originally called Project Greenstar, but that was changed when their General Counsel realized that that just *sounded* horribly illegal and antiprivacy.)

    AT&T would occasionally pass information from Operation Greenstar to the feds about criminal activity, especially mob influenced numbers rackets. The feds would then make sure to find ways to justify investigations without using Operation Greenstar's data explicitly, doing parallel construction, so as to avoid making it public knowledge.

  29. Pablo says

    Except during WW2 the nazis did not have the so called protection of the 4th amendment. Drawing analogies to us as the "bad guys" reinforces a misconception that NSA are good guys.

  30. David says

    I don't think the analogy is a good fit since the executive agencies don't engage in parallel construction because they would fear the citizens, but because they don't want the judicative meddle with the executive's power over the citizens.

    If you really take a look at the right and the wrong motivations of becoming a police officer, there is actually a rather thin line of "right". Let's say you don't do it because it puts you in a position of power but because you want justice to prevail. In that case you'll feel strongly about right and wrong and sorting it out.

    But that's not your job. Your job is to figure out what facts you can, protect humans from crime and violence by stepping in between, gathering evidence and then hand everything off. You are not supposed to ever score a goal for justice but only pass the ball.

    You stick your neck out, and the offense plays with the metric "it is better to drop the ball rather than kick it unnecessarily".

    So there is a lot of temptation to "scoring" accidentally one for what you feel should be justice. And on the other side there are those in the executive who just enjoy their power.

    Combined, they have a lot of impetus on the emerging culture, more than the few who manage to stay their course.

    So if you want to revert to WWII times, the "parallel construction" people are those digging and filling the mass graves at Katyn with people they murdered, keeping quiet about it at home in order not to upset morale.

    Though you don't need to look as far back as WWII. The same thing happened in My Lai and less publicized places.

    Parallel construction is mostly used for routing around proper judicial processes, particularly the U.S. Constitution, "for the sake of" those kept in the dark about increasingly more appalling violations of justice and basic human rights committed in their name.

    And the worse the transgressions become and the harder they are to hide, the more do you perceive as the "real enemy" in your task of protecting the citizenry and/or your interests the law, the courts, and the Constitution.

    The people are not perceived as the enemy: they are lifestock. The enemy are the laws, courts and Constitution trying to steal the lifestock from under the watch of the shepherds.