Podcast: Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, The Burns Oregon Militia Standoff and a New Segment on Russia

William Tucker joins me for episode 36 of the Covert Contact podcast to review the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the militia standoff in Burns, Oregon. Did Saudi Arabia go too far? How will Iran respond? Why is the federal government handling the armed militia members in Burns with kid gloves? We address those questions and others.

The episode closes with the announcement of a new segment that will feature William. He’ll be joining the podcast once a week for a short discussion about Russia. There’s much to discuss here, and 2016 will be eventful, so the persistent focus will help us, and you, stay on top of America’s greatest national security threat.


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Podcast: Covert Contact Wraps up 2015 with William Tucker

Regular contributor William Tucker joined me for the final episode of 2015. We discussed holiday terror alerts, Poland’s unusual raid of a NATO-linked counterintelligence center that it operated with Slovakia, the U.S. Army Europe counterintelligence division’s release of a mobile app for soliciting tips, and more. We closed out this episode with thoughts about the year ahead. We looked at Asia, Russia, Mexico, the future of ISIS – and what may rise when it eventually falls.

Covert Contact is going to get off to an interesting start in 2016 but I can’t reveal some of the guests just yet. I’m excited and I think you will be too. Subscribe on iTunes, or through any number of other platforms, to get episodes delivered directly to your computer or mobile device as soon as I release them.

Your feedback is appreciated. Please don’t hesitate to reach out and tell me what you like, or don’t like about each episode.


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Julia Tatiana Bailey: Visual Artists and the Politics of Surveillance in Post-Privacy America

This post by Julia Tatiana Bailey is a companion piece to her appearance on episode 34 of the Covert Contact podcast which can be found on iTunes and other services. – John

In recent years, revelations about the mass surveillance programs of Western governments, and the extensive use and abuse of digital technologies on all sides of the so-called War on Terror, have brought the clash of privacy and national security to the forefront of public debate in the United States. The central role of the image within this debate makes it particularly relevant for visual artists and curators, who are keenly aware of issues arising from the creation, dissemination and reception of visual material. Criticism of government surveillance through digital channels develops concerns about the intrusive nature of the photographic medium that have been explored and debated by artists since the 19th century. In the 21st century, the distinction between documentation and voyeurism has been made all the more complex by the proliferation of images in an era of camera phones, CCTV, social media and reality TV. Yet as some condemn the perceived erosion of privacy, expectations of “artistic freedom” that have been enshrined in American culture since the Cold War are enabling artists and curators to provide a unique critical perspective on the contemporary politics of surveillance.

Aerial photograph of the Headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, by Trevor Paglen. Commissioned by Creative Time Reports, 2013.

Aerial photograph of the Headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland, by Trevor Paglen. Commissioned by Creative Time Reports, 2013.

The conflict between claims of surveillance for protection and accusations of privacy violations has been a source of inspiration for a number of artists. Photographer Trevor Paglen has turned the camera back on those alleged to have infringed the privacy of others. His haunting photographs of spy satellites and classified aircraft, secluded listening stations and CIA prisons, penetrate the heavy blanket of secrecy shrouding covert government operations. However, Paglen has argued that rather than seeking to expose, his photographs instead aim to encourage viewers to question their submissiveness when faced with challenges to their personal liberties.

One artist only too aware of these challenges is Hasan Elahi. His experience of being mistakenly identified as a potential terrorist and repeatedly interrogated by the FBI in 2002 was a catalyst for a unique practice of self-surveillance. Since 2003, Elahi has made his location continuously available online through the Tracking Transience project, using the resulting data as source material for installations and performances. As well as critiquing the overreach of mass surveillance in the United States, Elahi’s decision to make his life publicly accessible has protected him from becoming a target of that surveillance.

Hasan Elahi, Tracking Transience: Security & Comfort, 2012. C-print in 7 sections, 60 x 210 inches.

Hasan Elahi, Tracking Transience: Security & Comfort, 2012. C-print in 7 sections, 60 x 210 inches.

Tracking technology has proved popular in the work of many artists in the United States, as well as other Western countries and beyond. Recordings and data capture from surveillance cameras have resulted in a number of site-specific installations and interactive public art projects by US-based artists including Camille Utterback, Christian Moeller, William Betts, and artist duo Electroland. Meanwhile, images and recordings harvested from CCTV cameras and everything from Twitter and Google Street View to eavesdropping devices and sexcams have been incorporated into works by Addie Wagenknecht, Paolo Cirio, Andrew Hammerand, Brian House and Kyle McDonald. Since 1996, the pro-privacy performance group Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) has staged silent spectacles in front of surveillance cameras in New York to protest their observation. By sharing these actions online, SCP has sought to communicate to audiences the vulnerability of all persons to surveillance. Other examples of how artists have appropriated surveillance technology to comment on its pervasiveness and validity have been featured in recent exhibitions such as Watching You, Watching Me at the New York offices of Open Society Foundations and Panopticon: Visibility, Data, and the Monitoring Gaze at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

Visitor viewing Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg. Courtesy 3D Natives.

Visitor viewing Stranger Visions by Heather Dewey-Hagborg. Courtesy 3D Natives.

In an alternative approach to “surveillance art”, several artists have focused on the growing trend towards biometric surveillance. Between 2012 and 2014, Heather Dewey-Hagborg adopted techniques from biological surveillance to create a series of DNA portraits. The sculptures that comprise Stranger Visions were produced from genetic material found in public places to highlight the potential exploitation of the most basic elements of human identity. For his 2013 project CV Dazzle, Adam Harvey explored how modifications to hair styling and makeup could elude facial-recognition software by making people undetectable to computer vision algorithms. Harvey expanded on the theme in Stealth Wear, a fashion line that included an anti-drone burqa and hoodie. The typeface ZXX, created in 2012 by the South Korean graphic designer Sang Mun while he was an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design, was likewise intended to be indecipherable by text-scanning software. Such artistic interventions reveal the extent to which identities and personal information are compromised by new technologies, and question the unwillingness of the state to protect the rights of individuals.

American Jill Magid has covered this territory in several works, while collaborating with the “protective” institutions that have initiated surveillance programs. In 2002, she persuaded the Amsterdam Police Department in the Netherlands to let her decorate CCTV cameras at its headquarters for the performance project System Azure Security Ornamentation. Two years later, Magid created the video work Evidence Locker from CCTV footage of the artist recorded by surveillance cameras in Liverpool, England, with the assistance of the local police force. However, when AIVD, the Dutch secret service, commissioned Hagid in 2005 to create an artwork for its headquarters, in the hope of improving its public persona, she used her unique access to gather material for a series of independent exhibitions which were subsequently censored by the agency.

Indeed, as artists have joined the intelligence community and privacy campaigners in pushing the boundaries of legality, the defense of “artistic freedom” has enabled them to venture into both physical and critical areas restricted to non-artists. In 2006, the privileging of artistic expression above personal privacy was established by the New York Supreme Court in the case of Nussenzweig v. diCorcia. Ermo Nussenzweig, an Orthodox Jew, objected on religious grounds to his inclusion in Heads, a series of photographs of unsuspecting passers-by which had been taken by American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia on the streets of New York.  The court consequently ruled that diCorcia had the right to record Nussenzweig’s image as an anonymous subject of his street photography, as well as to display, publish, and sell the resultant photographs without Nussenzweig’s consent. Although using genetic material also found on the street, Heather Dewey-Hagborg was cautious to research which states prohibited the usage of DNA in this manner, drawing even more attention to the potential for abuse. By using telescopic lenses to overcome the anti-espionage defences of classified sites, Trevor Paglen has co-opted photographic technology more often associated with paparazzi into his artistic practice. Meanwhile, photographers including Tomas van Houtryve have attached cameras to drones to capture images that provide a compelling vision of a future where government surveillance threatens to encroach further on civil liberties.

Julia Tatiana Bailey

Julia Tatiana Bailey is an art historian specialising in visual politics in the Cold War and art as propaganda, diplomacy and resistance. She recently completed a PhD focusing on official and unofficial Soviet-American cultural exchange and works as Assistant Curator of International Art at Tate Modern in London. Julia blogs on Cold War art at ESPIONART and can be found on Twitter at @espionart and @tattyjewels.

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Phil Walter: Behavior Change and the Instruments of Power

From the leader of the strongest country imaginable to the head of the local homeowners’ association, individuals and groups take actions using the capabilities at their disposal to change the behaviors of others in order to advance their own interests.  The leader of Country A may use its military to intimidate Country B into allowing access to a waterway so that Country A’s goods can flow freely through it, thus improving Country A’s economy.  The head of the local homeowner’s association may levy a fine on a resident because their unsightly lawn contributes to decreased home values throughout the neighborhood.  Whether the issue is large or small, a stimulus is applied to produce a response — a change in behavior.

Much of what we know today regarding behavior change comes to us from the research of Psychologist Burrhus Frederic “B.F.” Skinner, who is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning.  Broadly, Operant Conditioning seeks to change behavior through reinforcement or punishment.  Reinforcement is something done to an individual or group that will increase the probability of a desired behavior being repeated.  Punishment is something done to an individual or group that will decrease the probability of an undesired behavior being repeated. [1] 

While B.F. Skinner likely did not begin his work with national security in mind, some of his research may be valuable when considering the application of the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (D.I.M.E.) instruments of power. [2]  Though strategy documents may broadly describe national security objectives, implementation will involve using the instruments of power to reinforce or punish individuals or groups to encourage them to behave in a desired manner.  Note that the instruments of power may be used alone or in concert, and either positively or negatively; below are selected examples.  The diplomatic instrument may seek to change behavior through reinforcement.  A diplomat may engage an individual or group, describing the desired change in behavior and how the individual or group will benefit.  The information instrument can be used to provide the individual or group the data they need to make a decision and ensure they understand how punishment could follow if they fail to change their behavior.  If the desired behavior change does not occur, then the economic instrument in the form of sanctions could be used as a punishment.  This punishment would negatively impact the individual or group’s quality of life and possibly remain in place until they change their behavior.  In extreme situations, the military instrument could be used to visit violence upon the individual or group as punishment until their behavior changes. 

Beyond psychological theory and strategy documents lies implementation.  Using the instruments of power to achieve a desired behavior change in order to advance interests is imprecise, not without error, and must be constantly adjusted as people and situations change.  Below is a short list of questions that, though not exhaustive, may help one assess whether or not the individual or group behavior can be changed, which instrument of power is most appropriate, and whether the instrument should be utilized for reinforcement or punishment.

1.  Whose behavior am I trying to change?  (Individual or group?  Individuals within a group?  Sub-groups within a larger group?)

2.  How long has the individual or group behaved in this manner?

3.  How does the individual or group view the world?  (Individual history?  Group history?  Self-identity?  Group identity?  Culture?)

4.  What does the individual or group value?  (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may be of value here — Physiological Needs, Safety, Love / Belonging, Esteem, Self-Actualization) [3]   

While B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, D.I.M.E., and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are imperfect, they can be useful when thinking about how to change the behavior of others.  Compared to changes in technology, human nature remains relatively static.  One thousand years ago and one thousand years from now, an individual or group will be trying to change another individual or group’s behavior in order to advance their own interests and the same principles of behavior modification will likely apply. 

[1] McLeod, S. (2015). B.F. Skinner | Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

[2] Joint Publication 1 Definition “instruments of national power” (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2015, from http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/dod_dictionary/data/i/3974.html

[3] McLeod, S. (2014). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved November 23, 2015, from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not contain information of an official nature. He tweets @philwalter1058 and blogs at www.philwalter1058.com. This is a companion piece to episode 33 of the Covert Contact podcast

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