Michael Mechanic

Michael Mechanic

Senior Editor

Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning features editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He lives in Oakland, California, with his wife, two kids, four chickens, striped cat, and way too many musical instruments to master.

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Michael landed at MoJo after six years as an award-winning feature editor at the alt-weekly East Bay Express. He's written for numerous publications, including The Industry Standard, the Los Angeles Times, and Wired. He set out to be a scientist, and as an undergrad spent a year in an organic chemistry lab at UC-Berkeley, where he was a biochemistry major, trying to synthesize natural poisons found in the skin of certain tropical frogs. He later earned a masters degree in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard University and a second masters in journalism from UC-Berkeley. In 2009, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for public service, as one of five writers in MoJo's "Torture Hits Home" package. The father of two mostly charming kids and an only occasionally charming striped cat named Phelps, Michael lives in Oakland, California, where, after years of classical piano and raucous punk-rock drumming (and putting out more than a dozen CDs on his former DIY label, Bad Monkey Records), he has retired to old-time and traditional music, guitar finger-picking, and more recently fiddle and mandolin. He has four chickens—Lucia, Podge, Cat, and Weed Whacker—but what he really covets is a hedgehog.

Declassified Documents Reveal the CIA's Sense of Humor (and Literary Aspirations)

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
From the "Get Smart" episode "Spy, Spy Birdie."

Within a trove of freshly declassified articles from Studies in Intelligence, the CIA's in-house journal, we found a number of humor pieces based on the agency's internal employee evaluations. Here is one such piece in its entirety, from the Spring 1984 issue. The author's name was, naturally, redacted.

****

PAR-Faits (AND OTHER Faits)

What follow are quotations from Performance Appraisal Reports that Mr. [redacted] compiled over the years, and for which he composed introductory comments. The quotations are rendered faithfully, with typographical and other errors intact, for they contribute to the fun. The subjects, supervisors, and reviewing officials mentioned and quoted in this compilation are to remain forever, and mercifully, anonymous.

The Golden Rule-Redux: "I believe that the readers of this PAR, as well as the previous one written by the Rating Officer, should know that the Rating Officer and I have had and continue to have many strong personal and professional differences of opinion. He believes, for example, that I have reached my level of competency, and I believe that he has exceeded his."

Mastering the surprise ending: "It should be recognized that by employing the proper technique, very comfortable shoes can be made from a sow's ear but making [redacted] silk purse requires an entirely different raw material."

Making no bones about it-in the vernacular: "Subject is also responsible for all Headquarters support of a complex covert action operation aimed at maintaining the political stability of a regime headed up by a weirdo who goes around saying things like 'dat get me shame'."

When faint praise is called for: "Operationally, Subject was not loafing."

For one who skates well on thin ice: "Subject is quick to spot thin stuff and do something about it—particularly when it comes to good operational tradecraft."

For one who can bench press human dynamics while reciting from Rabindranath Tagore: "His ability in oral expression and human dynamics was strongly demonstrated... "

Growth Potential: "As the period drew to a close, Subjects apparatus had begun taking shape... "

Being hugely successful: "He largely recruited a high level source."

What to do to protect colleagues from being hit by large and fast moving desks: "Mr. [redacted] continued to be the Elmer's glue of the large and fast-moving [redacted] Desk.

Almost flawless—so to speak: "His English is flawless, if not close to it."

When in doubt clutter things up; its good for cover: "He characteristically complicates simple things."

The smiling, freely offered thumb in the eye: "One thing not noted previously is his calm and pleasant demeanor which tends gratuitously to mask his toughness as a case officer."

The clairvoyant case officer: "...His operational reporting is often on time, often ahead of time."

Then there's this little QP drummer: "He marches to the beat of his own drummer."

Although not a hot-head: "This officer has a warm mind."

His eyes are clear but his prose is measured and smoke-watered: "With the perspective of twenty months of overview of his long march, rather than with the smoke-watered eyes of those who peer too closely into his campfire, I conclude that his pace has been measured."

Big jokes from little mischiefs grow? "...his personal eagerness tends sometimes to lead him into small mischiefs."

Although an off-quay visionary he can trumpet, and drum, and stomp his foot all at the same time: "He has been like a one-man band trying to cover the waterfront on a far frontier."

The Good Humor Man endures: "He has endured rapid personnel changes with good humor."

The hyperactive dog of a case officer: "...He is a man of constant motion—some of it unnecessary...he bloodhounds even the longest odds and opportunities."

Although some may wonder: "All said and done, Mr. S. is human."

When tippling leads to being Freud, and the naked truth must be revealed: "At the right psychological moment he unfrocked himself in [redacted] cafe."

The crawl-on-your-belly-and-hiss approach: "...a target of opportunity whom he approached in his own inimical style."

Dignity in catastrophe: "Subject handles flaps with aplomb."

Standing tall in the Lilliput of Liaison: "Due to his height this man should probably be directed along liaison lines or staff work."

The runaway case officer: "He is not only a self-starter but a self-goer—at times tending to go too fast."

Unless one speaks quietly and carries a big stick: "The operational carrot is easily lost sight of and is difficult to catch."

The Case of the Abandoned Suitcase: "He began to pursue ops leads as soon as his suitcase hit the ground."

The cape-and-dagger jock: "He involves himself athletically in Base and local activities."

The strong tryer: "I would rate his effort to do the job as strong."

When finishing working hard on his syntax... "He at least secured his own housing on which he has been working hard to fix up."

The monosyllabic hot dog: "His performance has been-WOW"

The musty Middle East: "This officer has been associated long enough with Arab affairs. He now needs fresh air."

After making good strides in the wrong direction... "He has made good strides in the right direction."

The gritty performer: "This officers performance has been outsanding."

The forward leaning, vine swinging Case officer: "Mr. K. moved in sure-handed fashion."

The Compleat hard target Case officer: "He is a hard-nosed supervisor and a hard-headed officer."

Besieged, bothered and bewildered: "He has reached a standoff with the bureaucracy around him."

The operational arsonist: "Subject has kept the target fires burning."

When aptitude isn't apt: "His apptitude for spelling is poor."

When he's not plodding he Lies down, humps his back and makes himself small: "He is steady and defendable."

Because his compass came in his air freight... "It took the officer less than one week after his arrival here to get his bearings.

Just give him a tune-up, but don't touch the cheerful plugs: "He tries hard in a situation that has him more stymied than most of us, and he plugs along cheerfully."

The lean and meaningness officer: "He has brought new energy and meaningness to the program."

While shunning the unusual infinitude of every day chores... "He handles the usual infinitude of occasional case officer tasks."

To be some kind of mixed up butterfly... "He needs to get the operational chrysallis out of the political coccoon it is in."

He trembles at dullness, but— "He confidently attends all sorts of events of interest."

The wary grunter: "He gives a negative first impression, primarily because he is inarticulate."

When the anatomy of an Advance Work Plan is necessarily obscure: "Mr. S. has had supervisory responsibility for parts of two I.A.'s..."

Not risking over confidence: "He can look back at this job as 'pretty well done'."

The little engine with the retarded spark: "During the reviewing period this officer has made good use of the limited intelligence resources available to him."

Somewhere down there is gold; it just doesn't pan out: "Subject probably has much good in him. Somehow, though, it has not come through."

The tribal wit: " ... he is a happy headhunter."

In addition to avoiding prickly confrontations... "Subject is not one to sit on his laurels."

Migratory fixation: "I am looking forward to the next reviewing period when the birds will come home to roost." (next FR) "They have, and they have settled on the highest branches."

Seen through a glass darkly: "Insofar as I am able to comprehend it, I have no quarrel with the substance of the rating officer's comments."

Click here to view the original document—and "More PAR Bloopers," courtesy of your favorite spy agency.

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10 Fascinating Articles From the CIA's Secret Employee Magazine

| Fri Sep. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In 2007, Jeffrey Scudder, a veteran information technology specialist at the Central Intelligence Agency, came across the archives of the agency's in-house magazine, Studies in Intelligence. The catch: They were classified. So Scudder filed a Freedom of Information Act request. And then things got messy. "I submitted a FOIA and it basically destroyed my entire career," he told the Washington Post.

As a profile of Scudder in the Post explains:

He was confronted by supervisors and accused of mishandling classified information while assembling his FOIA request. His house was raided by the FBI and his family's computers seized. Stripped of his job and his security clearance, Scudder said he agreed to retire last year after being told that if he refused, he risked losing much of his pension.

Now, in response to a lawsuit filed by Scudder, the CIA has declassified and released some of the hundreds of journal articles he's requested. Nearly 250 of them have been posted on the CIA's website. Published over four decades, they offer a fascinating peek at the history of US intelligence as well as the corporate culture of "the Company."

Here are 10 that grabbed our attention:

1. "How We Are Perceived": "It came as a shock to learn that there seem still to be large numbers of well read and presumably intelligent US citizens who perceive that we are assassins, blackmailers, exploiters of sex and illicit drugs as well as the creators of our own foreign policy separate and distinct from that of the Department of State," a clandestine service member wrote in this essay from the winter of 1986. "How can it be that perceptions differ so radically from reality?"

Answer: Leaks to the press "together with some of our acknowledged missteps" had fed a trail of Soviet propaganda, which misinformed the American public. Even the State Department and military intelligence harbored "misperceptions" about the work of the CIA, the author continued, listing a half-page of apparent myths—which has not yet been declassified. "We have the option of keeping mum and allowing the misperceptions to grow, or of tackling them head-on. We have only ourselves to blame if we do nothing to set the record straight."

 

2. "11 September 2001: With the President": President George W. Bush's CIA briefer, Michael J. Morrell, recalls the events of 9/11, which he witnessed as part of the executive entourage:

The president asked me who was responsible for the attacks. I said "Sir, I haven't seen any intelligence that would point to responsibility, so what I'm going to say is simply my personal view." The president told me he understood. I said two terrorist states were capable of conducting such a complex operation [REDACTED] I pointed out [REDACTED]; that neither had much to gain and both had plenty to lose from attacking the United States. Rather, I said the culprit was almost certainly a nonstate actor, adding that I had no doubt that the trail would lead to the doorstep of Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida.

 

3. "Leo Theremin—CIA Nemesis": Best known as the inventor of the eponymous instrument used to make UFO noises in B-movies, inventor Leo Theremin was also a Soviet spy. The "Russian Thomas Edison" survived the gulag to become a KGB researcher whose "very existence was a state secret." His biggest coup: Placing an ingenious bug inside a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that was given to the American ambassador in Moscow in 1945. The hidden microphone was not found until 1960.

studies in intelligence
Not available on newstands: The CIA's Studies in Intelligence CIA

4. "An Interview With NSA Director Lt. Gen. Michael V. Haydem": In this prescient Q&A from the pre-9/11 and pre-Snowden era, the then-NSA director and future CIA director spoke about his agency's reputation for excessive secrecy:

Everything's secret. I mean, I got an e-mail saying, "Merry Christmas." It carried a Top Secret NSA classification marking. The easy option is to classify everything. This is an Agency that for most of its existence was well served by not having a public image. When the nation felt its existence was threatened, it was willing to cut agencies like NSA quite a bit of slack. But as that threat perception decreases, there is a natural tendency to say, "Now, tell me again what those guys do?" And, therefore, the absence of a public image seems to be less useful today than it was 25 years ago. I don't think we can survive without a public image.

Asked about cooperation between intelligence agencies, Hayden's answer foreshadowed the intelligence failures behind 9/11 and the coming hunt for Osama bin Laden:

Without getting too much into some really sensitive stuff, let's think about conducting operations against a major international terrorist leader…Think about two agencies, for illustrative purposes, 35 miles apart, trying to marry the data to get the son of a gun. And each of them saying, "I'll give you my finished reporting, but not my tickets." You cannot tell me that's the correct approach in the first year of the 21st century. We're like two foreign potentates, negotiating a transfer of prisoners, and we're both wrapping ourselves around our own tradecraft.

 

5. "Interview with Erna Flegel": In 1981, future CIA chief Richard Helms spoke with a nurse who was stationed in Adolf Hitler's Berlin bunker as Nazi Germany collapsed in 1945. About her former employer, whom she was a "fanatical admirer," Flegel gushed, "When Hitler was in the room, he filled it entirely with his personality—you saw only him, aside from him nothing else existed. The fascinating thing about him was his eyes; up to the end, it was impossible to turn away from his eyes."

 

A redacted passage in an article about assassination planning in Guatemala. CIA

6. "CIA and the Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954": As this heavily-redacted article explains, later reviews of CIA activities in Guatemala in the 1950s turned up documents that had not been disclosed during earlier investigations into CIA assassination plots. What was in those rediscovered files? For example, while it was plotting the overthrow of "Communist" Jacobo Arbenz:

Discussions of assassination reached a high level within the Agency. Among those involved were [REDACTED] was present at least one meeting where the subject of assassination came up. DCI Allen Dulles and his special assistant, Richard Bissell, probably were also aware in general terms that assassination was under discussion. Beyond planning, some actual preparations were made. Some assassins were selected, training began, and tentative "hit lists" were drawn up.

"Yet," the article asserted, "no covert action plan involving assassinations of Guatemalans was ever approved or implemented."

 

7. "Interrogation of an Alleged CIA Agent": This 1983 paper opens with the transcript of the questioning of a suspected American operative by a particularly indefatigable interrogator known as A.I.:

A.l.: Do you work for the American Central Intelligence Agency, Joe?
Hardesty: Hell, no.
A.l.: Why do you persist in lying to me?
Hardesty: I am not lying. You have no right to treat me like this.
A.l.: Of course not.
Hardesty: Since you agree with me, may I go?
A.l.: So you are not lying ... interesting.
Hardesty: May I go now?
A.l.: Who are your superiors at the CIA?
Hardesty: I don't know what you are talking about.
A.l.: You had better think about that statement before I make a record of it.
Hardesty: Go to hell.
A.l.: Why so hostile?

A.I. is short for Artificial Intelligence. The exchange actually took place between a human and a computer, indicating the agency's early interest in the kind of sophisticated computer learning that's since become increasingly commonplace.

 

8. "Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story [REDACTED]": This undated release, apparently from the late '90s, takes on the PR disaster spawned by San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb, who had accused the CIA of importing drugs into the United States in the '80s. Webb's claims were "alarming," and the agency was particularly stung by the allegation that it had worked to destroy the black community with illegal drugs. Fortunately, the Studies in Intelligence article explains, "a ground base of already productive relations with journalists" helped "prevent this story from becoming an unmitigated disaster." Hostile reporters attacked Webb's work and he eventually became a persona non grata in the newspaper world.

Ultimately, claims the article, part of the problem with the response to Webb's stories was a "societal shortcoming": "The CIA-drug story says a lot more about American society…that [sic] it does about either CIA or the media. We live in somewhat coarse and emotional times—when large numbers of Americans do not adhere to the same standards of logic, evidence, or even civil discourse as those practiced by members of the CIA community." In 1998, the agency partly vindicated Webb's reporting by admitting that it had had business relationships with major drug dealers. Jeremy Renner stars as the late Webb in a new movie, Kill the Messenger.

 

9. "The Evolution of US Government Restrictions on Using and Exporting Encryption Technologies": During the Clinton administration, the government was powerless to stop the development of open-source encryption tools. This Studies in Intelligence article details the many failed official attempts to control the development and proliferation of encryption tools. In the face of opposition from researchers, the business community, and its own experts, the government eventually eased restrictions on the technology. But, as the author noted, spooks yearned for the golden age of electronic eavesdropping: "The US Government, and NSA in particular, would like to return to the Cold War era of complete government control over strong cryptography and skillful manipulation of the research and corporate communities."

 

10. Par-Faits (And Other Faits): In 1984, a Mr. [REDACTED] compiled quotations from Performance Appraisal Reports (PARs) over the years along with introductory quips. The subjects and supervisors quoted are also, mercifully, anonymous.

Almost flawless—so to speak: "His English is flawless, if not close to it."
The clairvoyant case officer: " ... His operational reporting is often on time, often ahead of time."
His eyes are clear but his prose is measured and smoke-watered: "With the perspective of twenty months of overview of his long march, rather than with the smoke-watered eyes of those who peer too closely into his campfire, I conclude that his pace has been measured."
The hyperactive dog of a case officer: "…He is a man of constant motion—some of it unnecessary…he bloodhounds even the longest odds and opportunities."
Although some may wonder: "All said and done, Mr. S. is human."

Book Review: The Underground Girls of Kabul

| Wed Sep. 17, 2014 5:30 AM EDT
underground gils of kabul

The Underground Girls of Kabul

By Jenny Nordberg

CROWN PUBLISHING

It sucks to be female in Afghanistan. No surprise there. Journalist Jenny Nordberg's revelation—to Western eyes, anyway—is that more than a few Afghan families raise their girls as boys. The practice, bacha posh, accepted when done discreetly, serves as a roundabout way for girls to attend school and earn money, and for couples who lack sons to avoid public humiliation. The real tension comes with puberty, when the bacha posh is expected to give up her ambitions, respectful treatment, male playmates, and even her freedom to leave the home. Nordberg's intimate exploration leaves us rooting for her brave subjects, if deeply pessimistic about the prospects of women in this maddeningly repressive culture.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Here's How You Can Help Unaccompanied Border Kids Without Giving to Glenn Beck

| Mon Jul. 14, 2014 4:15 PM EDT
A Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Nogales, Arizona, last month

Glenn Beck has announced that he intends to head to the border town of McAllen, Texas, on July 19 with tractor trailers containing food, water, stuffed animals, and soccer balls to distribute to some of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children apprehended at the border each year. "I'm getting violent emails from people who say I've 'betrayed the Republic,'" he said on his TV program. "Whatever. I've never taken a position more deadly to my career than this—and I have never, ever taken a position that is more right than this." He's asking people to donate to (surprise!) his own charity, MercuryOne.

But suppose you wanted to help support those children without feeding Glenn Beck's ego. There are plenty of do-gooders to choose from. Our own Ian Gordon, whose recent feature story on the solo immigrant kids helped catapult the issue into the national limelight, has been hearing from people with alternative suggestions, and tweeting them out…

1. Michelle Brané, who runs the Women's Refugee Commission's Migrant Rights and Justice program, suggests donating to national groups such as Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and the American Red Cross. The Women's Refugee Commission advocates on behalf of unaccompanied children and families, conducts research, and monitors detention facilities and border stations. KIND also advocates for and provides legal services to these children, and USCCB provides services for the kids after they are released from detention.

Brané also suggests that residents of Texas border communities look around for local organizations that are helping the kids and their families. Annunciation House in El Paso is one example. "Also," she writes, "as these children are reunited with family or sponsors, they will be entering communities throughout the country and will be (I hope) enrolling in school. In would be great for people to support them in their local communities. Schools and churches are a good place to start."

2. Nora Skelly from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service suggested that people volunteer as foster parents or support Texas orgs such as the Refuge and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which has been doing legal orientations for children in federal custody.

3. Ofelia de los Santos, the jail ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities in South Texas, has been interacting directly with the kids and their families. "One lady brought in knitted wool caps for the babies and small children, many of whom have colds from being in those freezing Immigration detention facilities," she said. "We quickly ran out. The adults started asking for them and we had no adult size knitted caps. Also needed are sweaters and light jackets for adults and kids, and inexpensive sneakers for women and children—"like Keds, not the fancy expensive kind." Current needs are posted daily here.

4. Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar studying unaccompanied migrant kids, points to the following suggestions from the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

5. Finally, here's another detailed roundup by Vox's Dara Lind.

For more of Mother Jones' reporting on unaccompanied child migrants, see all of our latest coverage here.

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