Embracing the Meshugganah

This piece from Tom Ricks, the military correspondent at the Washington Post, has some excellent stories about creative anti-terrorist strategies used by the British to fight the I.R.A., including a laundromat where they run the clothes through a machine that tests for bomb residue before they dry clean the clothes.

To pin down where the bomb makers live, they mail out coupons with special codes to link customers using those coupons to specific addresses.

I’ve also been reading an interesting book about the C.I.A. by a former spy, Ishmael Jones, called The Human Factor.

It describes a bumbling, bureaucratic organization seemingly incapable of pulling off anything even remotely clever.

My guess is the real truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The laundromat, if it really existed, probably didn’t work nearly as well in reality as in the retelling.

And while I have no doubt the C.I.A. has some problems, I sure wouldn’t want to be a terrorist trying to evade that organization.

(Hat tip: Dmitri Leybman)

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  1. laundryspy says:

    Ingenious. Now they only need to prevent terrorists from buying their own laundry machines, thus forcing them to take their laundry to the terrorist-detecting laundromat.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    A BBC blogger posted that “terrorists” are people with bombs but no Air Force.

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  3. Greg says:

    re: CIA

    I imagine the most successful intelligence operations are the ones nobody ever knows happened (like the perfect crime is one where no proof exists that it happened). The best cover for covert operations is to convince the world it could never happen.

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  4. Valpey says:

    The best cover for covert operations is to convince the world it could never happen.

    And the most successful business model is one where you aren’t required to show anything for your work but your financiers continue to pay you anyway because you’ve convinced them that what you do is necessary but they aren’t allowed to ask questions.

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  5. Nick K says:

    I expect it was a dry cleaner not a laundromat. But the devil had a few good tunes as well.

    Before digital cameras, there was a big market for discount photo processing by mail in the UK. East German intelligence advertised in British Regimental Journals offering a good price on developing and printing. And of course every photo was given the once over for any information. They probably made a profit as well.


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  6. misterb says:

    I believe that the human factor may be lacking at the CIA, but the technology factor is not. I agree with Dr. Levitt, I wouldn’t want to be a terrorist trying to avoid the CIA, with the combined coverage of satellites, drones, and electronic eavesdropping, about the only places you can avoid detection is either in the middle of a huge crowd or deep in a cave.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t say much for anyone’s privacy.

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  7. Ellene Cain says:

    What machine can we put Karl Rove in?

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  8. tom burden says:

    between “legacy of ashes” and “the human factor” is there any record of competence of the CIA?

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  9. Greg says:

    “The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA” by Antonio J. Mendez

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  10. WGWAG says:

    To #1: Terrorists are, quite frankly, busy urban professionals who need to use laundromats at times. The idea is to catch them in their everyday lives, when they are not “on guard” in “terrorist” mode.

    Levitt wanted to track terrorists-in-plotting via their spending patterns IIRC …

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  11. griff says:

    you do realise we’re not fighting the IRA any more?

    and that it was political negotiation that ended the fighting, with former IRA supporters now being part of the government?

    an example to follow there I think…

    and for a follow up, which country’s citizens (apart from Libya) supplied most tof the IRA’s funds and guns?

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  12. Kevin says:

    The laundrette (laundry in the UK) was called “Four Square Laundry”. Here’ s a description of it from “An Phoblacht” the newspaper of Sinn Fein – the political wing of the IRA.


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  13. Anon says:

    1) In Israel, at the airport, before reaching the terminal, security pokes its head in the cab and asks the pasenger and the cabdriver separately if there are any problems, and where they were picked up.

    2) Also at the airport, your hands might be screened for explosives or gunpowder residue. As a result, if you’ve gone to a gun range, it is wise to keep the card of the range on you, to explain why your hands have explosive/gunpower residue.

    Both strike me as cheap, intelligent, and potentially effective (especially #1).

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  14. Matt says:

    Re: CIA

    I recommend Robert Baer’s “See No Evil.” He gives some interesting insight as to why the CIA evolved into such a technologically focused bureaucracy, rather than a trimmer, more human intelligence-based org (based on his decades long stint there).

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