Thursday, 14 October 2010

The House of Cards and the Numbers Game: Two Models of Secrecy

'Coventrian', in Aaronovitch Watch comments, describes discovering Denis MacShane's dodgy dealings:
'However, the big mystery is the strange sequence of invoices from The European Policy Institute (EPI), which doesn't seem to have any presence on the Internet other than it was founded by Denis MacShane. The invoices are strangely repetitive, lacking in detail as to what work was done and with all contact details redacted. Why?
After extensive Googling I found this website gave me a phone number, but no postal or web address for the EPI.

And the result:

European Policy Institute 020 7736 0350

So I decided to Google the phone number to see if that would lead to anything.

I found the EPI shared a phone number with this website which is a company providing addresses for direct mailing across Europe, but what has that to do with European Policy Institute or the research and translation work invoiced to the taxpayer?

A whois search on the website gives Registrant as someone called Edmund Matthew.

But looking back at the results of my phone number google I looked at the next result which gave me this

Edmund Matyjaszek (ems AT or 020 7736 0350)

From the Poetry Society website.

Could Edmund Matthew and Edmund Matyjaszek be the same person? But hang on wasn't Denis MacShane originally called Denis Matyjaszek? Could they be related, perhaps brothers? There is a resemblance

So why do the EPI, European Marketing Systems and the poet Edmund Matyjaszek, all share the same telephone number, and who at the EPI is being paid by Denis MacShane/Matyjaszek to carry our 'research and translation'? Whoever it is has received more than £10,000 of tax-payers money. I think this deserves more investigation.'
Hmm, so Edmund Matthew was a false name. It's an old story - insisting on making your pseudonym resemble your real name, thus offering a big clue to investigators.

Is this just the idea (I assume false, except perhaps if changing first name only, which can plausibly be presented as innocent) that you won't get into so much trouble for making a 'smaller' change? Or some more fundamental, superstitious thing about names?

I can understand keeping initials (and first name) the same, if you're actually going to try and assume two different identities (those monogrammed hankies, for one thing). But I don't suppose E. Matyjaszek was actually trying to pass himself off as a different person on a day-to-day basis.

Going the whole hog and calling himself A.N. Bunbury might - might - have averted Coventrian's probing, it appears. Though the phone numbers seem pretty conclusive in hindsight, they might for all I know have been a shared asnwering service, or something. But then Coventrian would probably have checked that.

In fact I just have, and got an answering machine with a voice I assume to be that of Edmund Matyjaszek, saying it's the number of European Marketing Services - i.e. EMS, the business, so in theory, the link between the two could be established by phoning the EPI number - but without the rest, you might assume the identical phone number listings to be due to a typo.

That's steganographic secrecy for you. It relies on obscurity, not opacity, so seems obvious after someone else has actually joined the dots.

There's an interesting difference in degrees of secrecy (or of urgency of secrecy) between this and the case of the Henry Jackson Society/'Students Rights', another MacShane-related case of disguised identity, reported on the immediately previous AWatch thread.

There, it was noted by dsquared in comments that the Students Rights organisation (which advocates/advocated some kind of monitoring of student meetings, to check for speech crime Islamic extremism) is
as far as I can tell, a project of the HJS; I suppose this was obvious from the fundraising link, but "partner organisation" is a but confusing IMO (specifically, it confused me). I don't understand why this isn't made clearer on the website - the perhaps unworthy thought strikes me that connection with the HJS might have adversely affected its popularity, but can this really be true - I would doubt that one student in a hundred had ever heard of Henry Jackson, let alone the society.
On that hypothesis, the secret doesn't need to be sealed hermetically - instead it's a numbers game. The EPI case, by contrast, was relatively speaking, a 'house of  cards' situation. One the secret was known to anyone, it was very likely to be disseminated, and more importantly, it would be acted on by authorities, and could be verified reasonably easily.

(In fact, even this was not automatically disseminated - coventrian reports:
I sent the info to The Guardian who praised my research, but didn't publish.
The Mail, however, did.)

AndyB, suggested, of the Students' Rights case:
Except a quick Google and quite a few of those other ninety-nine students are going, 'oh, it's not an organisation devoted to Student Rights, but a front of an organisation devoted to the continued military domination of the world by the US.'
Which is true, but we're still in the numbers game here - unless students do that, they are none the wiser. Until critical mass is reached, and the thing becomes common knowledge, some students will be unaware of the identity, others unaware of what the Henry Jackson Society is, others of exactly what it stands for.

By all accounts, this was an open secret. Even if were published far and wide for all to see, nothing very serious would happen. Those involved would be no worse off than under the status quo ante - except, possibly a slight stain of duplicity; but this probably only among those already unsympathetic to them. Friends or even neutral observers could very easily pass this minor semi-deception off as a legitimate tactic, mistake, mix-up, what have you.

However, I had my own suggestion:
...It's not necessarily that they are embarrassed to be associated with the HJS- it's proliferation as a strategy - same people, different think tank/ charity/ campaign/ whatever. All quoting each other like some kind of fact-laundering carousel fraud, and exerting pressure via the well known democratic principle of 'one pressure group one headline'. This appears to be a particularly pisspoor attempt, but...
On this hypothesis, even if everyone knew the two organisations were one and the same, the strategy itself could remain effective, even though at some level it depends on the two organisations being regarded as distinct. Unless people are paying quite close attention, the strategy of creating an apparently separate - thus additional - interest group might still work, because it's a very soft kind of deception. So one group might quote the other, and that could easily be missed. The two groups could both be listed as supporting certain measures, and many people might not quite add one and one together to get one. A statement such as 'five influential organisations have written to so-and-so demanding this-that-and-the-other' can pass.

All these may seem inconsequential, but in fact this is another numbers game. Influence adds up, and this kind of duplication, repeated in a few places, and confusing enough to remain convincing on the surface, all helps. (And readers, or listeners, or signers of petitions will often, of course, be doing the washing up, standing on a crowded tube, hurrying home from work, etc., thus not exactly in full forensic critical thinking mode.)

If I am going to push some kind of lesson here, I suppose it is that secrecy and deception come in different strengths, kinds and degrees, and only under quite closely defined circumstances does the 'house of cards' model apply to a secret:

1. When discovered, it must be transmitted. This means that the person passing it must have (a) credibility - a subjective matter, and a scarce commodity, distribution of which is not correlated very closely with actual trustworthiness, or (b) independent verification - again effective verification is not strightforward - whether it is accepted depends on the 'verifier' - the truth is not always regarded as verified, untruths sometimes are.

2. The transmission of information must proliferate. If it remains stuck in a small informational clique or ghetto, this may not happen. Over and above the constraints on transmissibility already described, this will require a transmission mechanism such as a newspaper. Such mass transmission mechanisms can act as gatekeepers, to use a slightly stereotypically 'conspiratorial' term.

3. Proliferation must lead to frustration of the secret-holder's purpose. This may take the form of 'critical mass', whereby sufficiently widespread discovery means the secret is ineffective, or 'catastrophe' - whereby information reaches or permeates a particular individual or group, who are specially placed to frustrate the purpose of the secret.

4. If the secret is part of a wider strategy, then not only must the purpose of keeping it be frustrated, but some further bad consequence must ensue, so that the process cannot simply be tried again. This will typically involve either a catastrophic event, such as information reaching prosecuting authorities (and ultimately, a jury), or a critical accumulation such as widespread loss of reputation.

This is a quick first attempt. When I can whip my attention span into shape, I'll be trying to produce more rigorous analyses of this kind of thing. After the Voodoo Histories review, that is, if I ever bring myself to get back to that...

[UPDATE - 14 Oct 21:40 - added final section laying out conditions for 'House of Cards' effect; stylistic and typo corrections - 16 Oct 8:48 - made quotes more clearly quotes]


  1. Excellent piece of investigation, Tim. The bastard should hang!

  2. Good post.'s proliferation as a strategy - same people, different think tank/ charity/ campaign/ whatever. All quoting each other like some kind of fact-laundering carousel fraud, and exerting pressure via the well known democratic principle of 'one pressure group one headline'.

    They're like low-rent Bill Kristols, aren't they. Hop from PNAC to the MEF, turn up in the New Citizenship Project, form the Foreign Policy Initiative and finally land in Keeping America Safe. With just a handful of figures you get the illusion that your madchap schemes are mocked by vast majorities.

  3. Re Mr MacShane - interesting to note that his 'partner', Joan Smith, wrote this (self-serving?) piffle not long ago:
    Have yet to hear Smith, an ignorant scribe with pretensions, comment on the latest scandal.
    btw I picked up MacShane's dreadful book 'Globalising Hatred' which focused on the "New Anti-Semitism". For an analysis of this supposed phenomenon see Norman Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah which, among other things forensically goes through the mendacious report put out by a committee led by MacShane on anti-Semitism. Here is a link to the relevant part of the book:
    MacShane's book is worthless. It manages to call Perry Anderson, Noam Chomsky and Walt and Mearshmier anti-Semites and is packed full of historical errors.
    Let us hope this sinks him for good, along with his life-hating columnist friend.

  4. I should make it clear I didn't do any investigation myself.

    Bensix - yes, I had the neocon example in mind in partcular. ('Mocked' presumably s/b 'backed', btw.)

  5. Gah! Indeed.

    Presumably this business started in the cold war? When Daniel Johnson launched Standpoint he quoted Gertrude Himmelfarb saying, “When you have a good idea, start a magazine.” I assumed the logic went that, "When you want that idea spread, start another magazine..."

  6. And on Standpoint:

  7. Not related to this post but of interest in light of previous ones:
    Has anyone heare read the post mortem report.
    Tom Mangold was on the radio being exceptionally rude about Norman Baker's book.