Federal CIO Council’s Guidelines on Security and Social Media

Posted September 17th, 2009 by

I got an email today from the author who said that it’s now officially on the street: Guidelines for Secure Use of Social Media by Federal Departments and Agencies, v1.0.  I’m listed as a reviewer/contributor, which means that maybe I have some good ideas from time to time or that I know some people who know people.  =)

Abstract: The use of social media for federal services and interactions is growing tremendously, supported by initiatives from the administration, directives from government leaders, and demands from the public. This situation presents both opportunity and risk. Guidelines and recommendations for using social media technologies in a manner that minimizes the risk are analyzed and presented in this document.

This document is intended as guidance for any federal agency that uses social media services to collaborate and communicate among employees, partners, other federal agencies, and the public.

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Risk Management and Crazy People, a Script Using Stock Characters

Posted September 10th, 2009 by

Our BSOFH meets a Crazy Homeless Guy on the street just outside the Pentagon City metro station.

Crazy Homeless Guy: (walks up to BSOFH) Can I ask you a question?

BSOFH: (Somewhat startled, nobody really talks to him unless they’re trying to sell him something) Uhhhh, sure.

Crazy Homeless Guy: You know that there are people who claim to be able to say… take that truck over there and just by moving their finger make it fly into the Washington Monument.  Don’t you think that this is a threat to national security?

BSOFH: (Realizes that Crazy Homeless Guy is crazy and homeless) Not necessarily, you see.  I would definitely classify it as a threat.  However, when you’re looking at threats from people, you have to look at motives, opportunity, and motives.  Until you have all three, it’s more of an unrealized threat.

Crazy Homeless Guy: But what if these same guys could kill the President the same way, isn’t that a national threat?

BSOFH: Um, could be.  But then again, let’s look at a similar analogy:  firearm ownership.  Millions of people safely own weapons and yet there isn’t this huge upswell to shoot the President now is there?  Really, we have laws against shooting people and when somebody does that, we find them and put them in jail or *something*.  We don’t criminalize the threat, we criminalize the action.  Flicking a finger doesn’t kill people, psycho people kill people.

Crazy Homeless Guy: Or even if these same people could use the same amount of effort to kill everybody on the planet.  You know the <censored, I don’t like being sued by cults> people claim to have this ability.

BSOFH: (Jokingly, realizing that somebody has been taking 4chan too seriously) Well, I wouldn’t care too much because I would be… well, dead.  But yes, possibly.  But then again, since the dawn of the nuclear age and all through the Cold War we’ve had similar threats and people with capabilities created by technology instead of word study and the power of the human mind.  You have to look at these things from a risk standpoint.  While yes, these people have the capability to do something of high impact such as kill every human on the face of the earth, the track record of something like this happening is relatively small.  I mean, is there any historical record of a <censored, I don’t like being sued by cults> actually killing anybody through sheer force of their mind?  In other words, this is a very high impact, low probability event–something some people call a black swan event.  While yes, this is a matter of national security that these people potentially have this capability, we only have so many resources to protect things and we have our hands full dealing with risks that actually have occured in recent history.  In other words, risk management would say that this event you’re speaking of is an acceptable risk because of more pressing risks.

Crazy Homeless Guy: (Obviously beaten into oblivion by somebody crazier than himself) Well, I’ve never thought about it that way.  I’m really scared by these people.  Hold me, BSOFH.

BSOFH: Um, how about no?  You’re a Crazy Homeless Guy after all.  I have to get back to work now.  Come hang out sometime if you want to talk some quantitative risk analysis and we’ll start attaching dollar figures to the risks of <censored, I don’t like being sued by cults> killing all of humanity.  Doesn’t that sound like fun?  If we can get you cleared to get into the building, we can have a couple of whiteboarding sessions to determine the process flow and maybe an 800-30-stylie risk assessment just to present our case to the DHS Psychic Warfare Division.

Crazy Homeless Guy: Uh, I gotta find a better corner to stand on.  Maybe over by 16th and Pennsylvania I can find somebody more sympathetic to my cause.

BSOFH: You’re crazy, man!

Crazy Homeless Guy: You’re crazy, too, man!

And the moral of the story is that no matter how crazy you think you are, somebody else will always show up to prove you wrong.  And yeah, black swan events where we all die are dumb to prepare for because we’ll all be dead–near total fatalities only matter if you’re one of the survivors.

This story is dedicated to Alex H, David M, and some guy named Bayes.

OMG It’s a Psychic Black Swan photo by gnuckx cc0.

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Stress-Test Apache with Intent to Tune: BSOFH Tip for the Software Masochist

Posted August 28th, 2009 by

So I’ve been having some problems with my server for a month or so–periodically the number of apache servers would skyrocket and the box would get so overloaded (load of ~50 or so) that I couldn’t even run simple commands on it.  I would have to get into the hardware console and give the box a hard boot (a graceful reboot wouldn’t work).

Root cause is I’m a dork, but more about that later.

Anyway, I needed a way to troubleshoot and fix it.  The biggest problem I had was that the problem was very sporadic–sometime it would be 2 weeks between crashes, other times it would be 3 times in one day.  This is so begging for a stress-test really badly.  Looking on the Internet, I found a couple of articles about running a load-tester on apache and information on the tuning settings but not really much about a methodology (yeah yeah I work for a Big 4 firm, the word still makes me shudder even though it’s the right one to use here) to actually solve the problem of apache tuning.

So the “materials” I needed:

  • One server running apache.  Mine runs Apache2 under Debian Stable.  This is a little bit different from the average distro out there in that the process is apache2 and the command is apache2ctl where normally you would have httpd and httpdctl.  If you try this at home, you’ll need to use the latter commands.
  • An apache tuning guide or 3.  Here’s the simplest/most straightforward one I’ve seen.
  • A stress-tester.  Siege is awesome for this.
  • Some simple shell commands: htop (top works here too), ps, grep, and wc.

Now for the method to my madness…

I ssh into my server using three different sessions.  On one I run htop.  Htop is a version of top that gives you a colored output and supports multiple processors.  The output without stress-testing looks something like this:

(Click for a life-size image)

I keep one session free to edit files and do an emergency “killall apache2” if things get out of hand (and they will really quickly, I had to pull the plug about 20 times throughout this process).   I run a simple command on another ssh session to get a count of how many apache threads I have running:

rybolov@server:~$ ps aux | grep apache2 | grep start | wc -l

OK, so far so good.  I’ve got 11 threads running with no load and RAM usage of 190MB.  I needed the extra “grep start” because it removes the text editor I have open on apache2.conf and anything else I might be doing in the background.

I also killed apache, waited 10 seconds, and looked at the typical RAM use.  With no apache running, I use about 80MB just for the OS and everything else I’m running.  This means that I’m using 110MB of RAM for 11 apache threads, which means I’m using ~10MB of RAM for each apache thread.  Now that’s something important I can use.

I took my tuning settings in apache2.conf (httpd.conf for most distros) (Apache2 uses the prefork module which uses threads, read the tuning guide for more info) and set them at the defaults listed in the tuning guide.  They became something like the following:

<IfModule prefork.c>
  StartServers            8
  MinSpareServers         5
  MaxSpareServers        20
  MaxClients            150
  MaxRequestsPerChild  1000

Notice how the MaxClients is set at 150?  This will prove to be my downfall later.  Turns out that my server is RAM-poor for as much processor as it has or WordPress is a RAM hog (or both, which is the case =)  ).  I’ll eventually upgrade my server, but since it’s a cloud server from Mosso, I pay by the RAM and drive space.

After each edit of apache2.conf, you need to give apache a configuration test and reload:

server:~# apache2ctl configtest
Syntax OK                        <- If something else comes back, fix it!!
server:~# apache2ctl restart

I’m now ready to stress-test using the default setup.  This is the awesome part.  First, I need to simulate a load.  I make an url seedfile so that siege will bounce around between a handful of pages.  I make a file siege.urls.txt and put in a collection of urls so that it looks like the following:

....<about 20 lines deleted here, you get the point>

I’m sure there is an efficient and fun way to make this, like say, a text-only sitemap or sproxy which is made by the same guy who does siege, but since I only needed about 30 urls, I just cut-n-pasted them off the blog homepage.

I fire up siege and give my webserver a thorough drubbing, running 50 connections for 10 minutes and using my url seedfile.  BTW, I’m running siege on the webserver itself, so there isn’t anything in the way of network latency.  <enter sinister laugh of evil as I sadistically torture my apache and the underlying OS>

server:~# siege -c 50 -t 600s -f siege.urls.txt
** SIEGE 2.66
** Preparing 50 concurrent users for battle.    <-The guy writing siege has a wicked sense of humor.
The server is now under siege...                <-Man the ramparts, Apache, they're coming for you!
HTTP/1.1 200   1.08 secs:   16416 bytes ==> /
HTTP/1.1 200   1.07 secs:   16416 bytes ==> /
....<about 2 bazillion lines deleted here, you get the idea>
HTTP/1.1 200   4.66 secs:    8748 bytes ==> /about
HTTP/1.1 200   3.92 secs:    8748 bytes ==> /about
Lifting the server siege...      done.

Transactions:                  61 hits   <-No, this isn't actual, I abbreviated the siege output
Availability:              100.00 %      <-with a ctrl-c just to get some results so I didn't
Elapsed time:                6.70 secs   <-have to scroll through all that output from the real test.
Data transferred:            0.87 MB
Response time:                3.27 secs
Transaction rate:            9.10 trans/sec
Throughput:                0.13 MB/sec
Concurrency:               29.75
Successful transactions:          61
Failed transactions:               0
Longest transaction:            5.61
Shortest transaction:            1.07

Now I watch the output of htop.  Under stress, the output looks something like this:

(Click for a life-size image)

Hmm, looks like I have a ton of apache threads soaking up all my RAM.  What happens is that in about 30 seconds, the OS starts swapping and the swap use just keeps growing until the OS is unresponsive.  This is a very interesting cascade failure because writing to swap incurs a load which makes the OS write to swap more.  Maybe I need to limit either the amount of RAM used per apache or limit the maximum amount of threads that apache spawns.  The tuning guide tells us how…

There is one setting that is the most important in tuning apache, it’s MaxClients.  This is the maximum number of servers (with the worker module) or threads (prefork module).  Looking at my apache tuning guide, I get a wonderful formula: ($SizeOfTotalRAM – $SizeOfRAMForOS) / $RAMUsePerThread = MaxClients.  So in my case, (512 – 80) / 11 = 39.something.  Oops, this is a far cry from the 150 that comes as default.  I also know that the RAM/thread number I used was without any load on apache, so with a load on and generating dynamic content (aka WordPress) , I’ll probably use ~15MB per thread.

One other trick that I can use:  Since I think that what’s killing me is the number of apache threads, I can run with a reduced amount of simultaneous connections and watch htop.  When htop shows that I’ve just started to write to swap, I can run my ps command to find out how many apache threads I have running.

rybolov@server:~$ ps aux | grep apache2 | grep start | wc -l

Now this is about what I expected:  With 28 threads going, I tipped over into using swap.  Reversing my tuning formula, I get (28 threads x 15 MB/thread) +80 MB for OS = 500 MB used.  Hmm, this makes much sense to me, since the OS starts swapping when you use ~480MB of RAM.

So I go back to my prefork module tuning.

<IfModule mpm_prefork_module>
 StartServers          8
 MinSpareServers       5
 MaxSpareServers      10
 MaxClients           25
 MaxRequestsPerChild   2000

I set MaxClients at 25 because 28 seems to be the tipping point, so that gives me a little bit of “wiggle room” in case something else happens at the same time I’m serving under a huge load.  I also tweaked some of the other settings slightly.

Then it’s time for another siege torture session.  I run the same command as above and watch the htop output.  With the tuning settings I have now, the server dips into swap about 120MB and survives the full 10 minutes.  I’m sure the performance is degraded somewhat by going into swap, but I’m happy with it for now because the server stays alive.  It wasn’t all that smooth, I had to do a little bit of trial and error first, starting with MaxClients 25 and working my way up to 35 under a reduce siege load (-c 25 -t 60s) to see what would happen, then increasing the load from siege (-c50 -t 600s) and ratcheting MaxClients back down to 25.

And as far as me being a dork… well, aside from the huge MaxClients setting (That’s the default, don’t blame me), I set MaxRequestsPerChild to 100 instead of 1000, meaning that every 100 http requests I was rolling over and making a new thread.  That would lead to cascade failure under a load. (duh!)

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The Spanish Civil War and the Rise of Cyberwar

Posted June 22nd, 2009 by

As usual, I greatly enjoyed your blog from 17 June, A Short History of Cyberwar Look-alikes, Rybolov. Moreover I really appreciated your historical examples. It warms my heart whenever an American uses the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/5 as a historic example of anything. Most Americans have never even heard of it. Yet, it is important event today if for no other reason than it established the tradition of having the US President intercede as a peace negotiator and win the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts. Because of this, some historians mark it as the historic point at which the US entered the world stage as a great power. By the way the President involved was Teddy Roosevelt.

Concerning the state and nature of Cyberwar today, I’ve seen Rybolov’s models and I think they make sense. Cyberwar as an extension of electronic warfare makes some sense. The analogy does break down at some point because of the peculiarity of the medium. For example, when considering exploitation of SCADA systems as we have seen in the Baltic States and in a less focused manner here in North America, it is hard to see a clear analogy in electronic warfare. The consequences look more like old-fashion kinetic warfare. Likewise, there are aspects of Cyberwarfare that look like good old-fashion human intelligence and espionage. Of course I also have reservations with the electronic warfare model based on government politics. Our friends at NSA have been suggesting that Cyberwarfare is an extension of signals intelligence for years, with the accompanying claim that they (NSA) should have the technical, legal, and of course budgetary resources that go along with it.

I’ve also have seen other writers propose other models of Cyberwarfare and they tend to be a mixed bag at best. At worst, many of the models proposed appear to be the laughable writings of individuals with no more insight to or knowledge of intelligence operations beyond the latest James Bond movie. My own opinion is that two models or driving forces behind international Cyberwarfare activity. The first is pure opportunism. Governments and criminal organizations alike, even authoritarian governments have seen the Hollywood myths and the media hysteria about hacker exploits. Over time, criminal gangs have created and expanded on their cyber capabilities driven by a calculation of profits and risks much like conventional businesses. Combine an international banking environment that allows funds to be transferred across borders with little effort and less time and an international legal environment that is largely out of touch with the Internet and international telecommunications, and we have a breeding ground for Cyber criminals in which the risks of cross-border criminal activity is often much less risky than domestic criminal activity.

As successful Cyber criminal gangs have emerged in totalitarian regimes, it shouldn’t be a surprise that eventually the governments involved would eventually take an interest in both their activities and techniques. There are several reasons that totalitarian government might want to do this. Perhaps the simplest motivation is that the corrupt officials would be drawn to share in the profits in exchange for protection. In addition, the intelligence arms of these nations could also leverage their services and techniques at a fraction of the cost of developing similar capabilities themselves. Additionally, using these capabilities would also provide the intelligence agencies and even the host government with an element of deniability if operations assigned to the criminal gangs were detected.

Monument to the International Brigade photo by Secret Pilgrim.  For more information, read the history of the International Brigade.

Perhaps the most interesting model of development and Cyberwarfare activity today would be based on the pre-WW II example of the Spanish Civil War. After World War I, a period of mental and societal exhaustion followed on the part of all participating nations. This was quickly follow by a period of self-assessment and rebuilding. In the case of the defeated Germany the reconstruction period protracted due to difficult economic conditions, in part created by the harsh conditions of surrender imposed by the winning European governments.

It was also important to remember that these same victorious European governments undermined many of social and moral underpinnings of German society by systematically all the basis of traditional German government and governmental legitimacy without regard for what should replace it. The assessments of most historians is that these factors combined to sow the seed of hatred against the victorious powers and created a social climate in which a return to open warfare at some time in the future was seen as unavoidable and perhaps desirable. The result was that Germany actively prepared and planned for what was seen as the commonly inevitable war in the future. New systems and technologies were considered, tested. However, treaty limitations also hampered some of these efforts.

In the Soviet Union a similar set of conclusions developed during this period of history within the ruling elite, specifically that renewed war with Germany was inevitable in the near term. Like Germany, the Soviet Union also actively prepared for this war. Likewise they considered and studied new technologies and approaches to war. Somewhat surprisingly, they also secretly conspired with the Germans to provide them with secret proving grounds and test facilities to study some to the new technologies and approaches to war that would otherwise have been banned under provisions of the peace treaties of World War I.

So, when Civil War broke out in Spain in the summer of 1936, both Germany and the Soviet Union were positively delirious at the prospects of testing their new military equipment and theories out under battlefield conditions but, without the risks of participating in a real shooting war as an active belligerent. So, both governments sent every military technology possible to their proxies in Spain under the auspices of “aid”. In some cases they even sent “advisors” who were nothing less than active soldiers and pilots in the conflict. At first, this activity took place under a shroud of secrecy. But, when you send military equipment and people to fight in foreign lands it usually takes no time at all for someone to notice that, “those guys aren’t from here”.

Bomber During the Spanish Civil War photo by -Merce-.  Military aviation, bombing in particular, was one of the new technologies that was tested during the Spanish Civil War.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, I think the world has looked at the United States as the world’s sole superpower. Many, view this situation with fear and suspicion. Even some of our former Cold War allies have taken this view. Certainly our primary Cold War adversaries have adopted this stance. If you look at contemporary Chinese and Russian military writing it is clear that they have adopted a position similar to the pre- World War II notion that war between the US and Russia or war between the US and China is inevitable. To make matters worse, during much of the Cold War the US never seemed to pull it together militarily long enough to actually win a war. Toward the end of the Cold War we started smacking smaller allies of the Soviet Union like Grenada and succeeded.

We then moved on to give Iraq a real drubbing after the Cold War. The so-call “Hyperwar” in Iraq terrified the Russians and Chinese alike. The more they studied what we did in Iraq the more terrified they became. On of the many counters they have written about is posing asymmetric threats to the US, that is to say threatening the US in a way in which it is uniquely, or unusually vulnerable. One of these areas of vulnerability is Cyberspace. All sorts of press reporting indicate that the Russians and Chinese have made significant investments in this area. The Russians and Chinese deny these reports as quickly as they emerge. So, it is difficult to determine what the truth is. The fact that the Russians and Chinese are so sensitive to these claims may be a clear indication that they have active programs – the guilty men in these cases have a clear record of protesting to much when they are most guilty.

Assuming that all of this post-Cold War activity is true, I believe this puts us in much the same situation that existed in the pre-World War II Spanish Civil War era. I think the Russian and Chinese governments are just itching to test and refine their Cyberwarfare capabilities. But, at the same time I think they want to operate in a manner similar to how the Germans and the Soviet Union operated in that conflict. I think they want and are testing their capabilities but in a limited way that provides them with some deniability and diplomatic cover. This is important to them because the last thing they want now is to create a Cyber-incident that will precipitate a general conflict or even a major shift in diplomatic or trade relationships.

One of the major differences between the Spanish Civil War example and our current situation of course is that there is no need for a physical battlefield to exist to provide as a live testing environment for Cyber weapons and techniques. However, at least in the case of Russia with respect to Georgia, they are exploiting open military conflicts to use Cyberwar techniques when those conflicts do arise. We have seen similar, but much smaller efforts on the part of Iran, and the Palestinian Authority as embrace what is seen as a cheap and low risk weapon. However, their efforts seem to be more reactionary and rudimentary. The point is, the longer this game goes on without serious consequence the more it will escalate both vertically (in sophistication) and horizontally (be embraced by more countries). Where all of this will lead is anyone guess. But, I think the safe money is betting that the concept of Cyberwar is here to stay and eventually the tools and techniques and full potential of Cyberwar will eventually be used as part of as part of a strategy including more traditional weapons and techniques.

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A Short History of Cyberwar Lookalikes

Posted June 17th, 2009 by

Rybolov’s Note: Hello all, I’m venturing into an open-ended series of blog posts aimed at starting conversation. Note that I’m not selling anything *yet* but ideas and maybe some points for discussion.

Let’s get this out there from the very beginning: I agree with Ranum that full-scale, nation-v/s-nation Cyberwar is not a reality.  Not yet anyway, and hopefully it never will be.  However, on a smaller scale with well-defined objectives, cyberwar is not only happening now, but it is also a natural progression over the past century.

DojoSec Monthly Briefings – March 2009 – Marcus J. Ranum from Marcus Carey on Vimeo.

Looking at where we’re coming from in the existing models and techniques for activities similar to cyberwar, it frames our present state very nicely :

Electronic Countermeasures. This has been happening for some time.  The first recorded use of electronic countermeasures (ECM) was in 1905 when the Russians tried to jam radio signals of the Japananese fleet besieging Port Arthur.  If you think about ECM as DOS based on radio, sonar, etc, then it seems like cyberwar is just an extension of the same denial of communications that we’ve been doing since communication was “invented”.

Modern Tactical Collection and Jamming. This is where Ranum’s point about spies and soldiers falls apart, mostly because we don’t have clandestine operators doing electronic collection at the tactical level–they’re doing both collection and “attack”.  The typical battle flow goes something along the lines of scanning for items of interest, collecting on a specific target, then jamming once hostilities have begun.  Doctrinally, collection is called Electronic Support and jamming is called Electronic Attack.  What you can expect in a cyberwar is a period of reconnaissance and surveillance for an extended length of time followed by “direct action” during other “kinetic” hostilities.

Radio Station Jamming. This is a wonderful little world that most of you never knew existed.  The Warsaw Pact used to jam Radio America and other sorts of fun propaganda that we would send at them.  Apparently we’ve had some interesting radio jamming since the end of the Cold War, with China, Cuba, North Korea, and South Korea implicated in some degree or another.

Website Denial-of-Service. Since only old people listen to radio anymore and most news is on the Internet, so it makes sense to DOS news sites with an opposing viewpoint.  This happens all the time, with attacks ranging from script kiddies doing ping floods to massive DOSBots and some kind of racketeering action… “You got a nice website, it would be pretty bad if nobody could see it.”  Makes me wonder why the US hasn’t taken Al Jazeera off the Internet.  Oh, that’s right, somebody already tried it.  However, in my mind, jamming something like Al Jazeera is very comparable to jamming Voice of America.

Estonia and Gruzija DOS. These worked pretty well from a denial-of-communications standpoint, but only because of the size of the target.  And so what if it did block the Internet, when it comes to military forces, it’s at best an annoyance, at most it will slow you down just enough.  Going back to radio jamming, blocking out a signal only works when you have more network to throw at the target than the target has network to communicate with the other end.  Believe it or not, there are calculators to determine this.

Given this evolution of communications denial, it’s not unthinkable that people wouldn’t be launching electronic attacks at each other via radar, radio, carrier pigeon, IP or any other way they can.

However, as in the previous precedents and more to some of the points of Ranum’s talk at DojoSec, electronic attacks by themselves only achieve limited objectives.  Typically the most likely type of attack is to conduct a physical attack and use the electronic attack, whether it’s radio, radar, or IT assets, to delay the enemy’s response.  This is why you have to take an electronic attack seriously if it’s being launched by a country which has a military capable of attacking you physically–it might be just a jamming attack, it might be a precursor to an invasion.

Bottom line here is this: if you use it for communication, it’s a target and has been for some time.

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Working with Interpreters, a Risk Manager’s Guide

Posted June 3rd, 2009 by

So how does the Guerilla-CISO staff communicate with the locals on jaunts to foreign lands such as Deleware, New Jersey, and Afghanistan?  The answer is simple, we use interpreters, known in infantrese as “terps”.  Yes, you might not trust them deep down inside because they harbor all kinds of loyalties so complex that you can spend the rest of your life figuring out, but you can’t do the job without them.

But in remembering how we used our interpreters, I’m reminded of some basic concepts that might be transferable to the IT security and risk management world.  Or maybe not, at least kick back and enjoy the storytelling while it’s free. =)

Know When to Treat Them Like Mushrooms: And by that, we mean “keep them in the dark and feed them bullsh*t”.  What really mean is to tell potentially adversarial people that you’re working with the least amount of information that they need to do their job in order to limit the frequency and impact of them doing something nasty.  When you’re planning a patrol, the worst way to ruin your week is to tell the terps when you’re leaving and where you’re going.  That way, they can call their Taliban friends when you’re not looking and they’ll have a surprise waiting for you.  No, it won’t be a birthday cake.  The way I would get a terp is that one would be assigned to me by our battalion staff and the night before the patrol I would tell the specific terp that we were leaving in the morning, give them a time that I would come by to check up on them, and that they would need to bring enough gear for 5 days.  Before they got into my vehicles and we rolled away, I would look through their gear to make sure they didn’t have any kind of communications device (radio or telephone) to let their buddies know where we were at.

Fudge the Schedule to Minimize Project Risk: Terps–even the good ones–are notorious for being on “local time”, which for a patrol means one hour later than you told them you were leaving.  The good part about this is that it’s way better than true local time, which has a margin of error of a week and a half.  In order to keep from being late, always tell the terps when you’ll need them an hour and a half before you really do, then check up on them every half hour or so.  Out on patrol, I would cut that margin down to half an hour because they didn’t have all the typical distractions to make them late.

Talk Slowly, Avoid Complex Sentences: The first skill to learn when using terps is to say things that their understanding of English can handle.  When they’re doing their job for you, simple sentences works best.  I know I’m walking down the road of heresy, but this is where quantitative risk assessment done poorly doesn’t work for me because now I something that’s entirely too complex to interpret to the non-IT crowd.  In fact, it probably is worse than no risk assessment at all because it comes accross as “consultantspeak” with no tangible link back to reality.

Put Your Resources Where the Greatest Risk Is: To a vehicle patrol out in the desert, most of the action happens at the front of the patrol.  That’s where you need a terp.  That way, the small stuff, such as asking a local farmer to move his goats and sheep out of the road so you can drive through, stays small–without a terp up front, a 2-minute conversation becomes 15 minutes of hassle as you first have to get the terp up to the front of the patrol then tell them what’s going on.

Pigs, Chicken, and Roadside Bombs: We all know the story about how in the eggs and bacon breakfast, the chicken is a participant but the pig is committed.  Well, when I go on a patrol with a terp, I want them to be committed.  That means riding in the front vehicle with me.  It’s my “poison pill” defense in knowing that if my terp tipped off the Taliban and they blow up the lead vehicle with me in it, at least they would also get the terp.  A little bit of risk-sharing in a venture goes a long way at getting honesty out of people.

Share Risk in a Culturally-Acceptable Way: Our terps would balk at the idea of riding in the front vehicle most of the time.  I don’t blame them, it’s the vehicle most likely to be turned into 2 tons of slag metal thanks to pressure plates hooked up to IEDs.  The typical American response is something along the lines of “It’s your country, you’re riding up front with me so if I get blown up, you do to”.  Yes, I share that ideal, but the Afghanis don’t understand country loyalties, the only thing they understand is their tribe, their village, and their family.  The Guerilla-CISO method here is to get down inside their heads by saying “Come ride with me, if we die, we die together like brothers”.  You’re saying the same thing basically but you’re framing it in a cultural context that they can’t say no to.

Reward People Willing to Embrace Your Risks: One of the ways that I was effective in dealing with the terps was that I would check in occassionally to see if they were doing alright during down-time from missions.  They would show me some Bollywood movies dubbed into Pashto, I would give them fatty American foods (Little Debbie FTW!).  They would play their music.  I would make fun of their music and amaze them because they never figured out how I knew that the song had drums, a stringed instrument, and somebody singing (hey, all their favorite songs have that).  They would share their “foot bread” (the bread is stamped flat by people walking on it before it’s cooked, I was too scared to ask if they washed their feet first) with me.  I would teach them how to say “Barbara (their assignment scheduler back on an airbase) was a <censored> for putting them out in the middle of nowhere on this assignment” and other savory phrases.  These forays weren’t for my own enjoyment, but to build rapport with the terps so that they would understand when I would give them some risk management love, Guerilla-CISO style.

Police, Afghan Army and an Interpreter photo by ME!.  The guy in the baseball cap and glasses is one of the best terps I ever worked with.

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