Killing Democracy with Bad Intelligence

Some of us have been having fun on Twitter discussing the reported power struggle in al Qaeda to replace Osama bin Laden in terms we’d use to discuss an American election. Which made this report–which Frontline linked as part of their Kill/Capture program that aired last night–all the more chilling. The author, Kate Clark, consulted “survivors, witnesses, police, senior Afghan officials – and, crucially, senior officers in the Special Forces unit which carried out” a September 2, 2010 bombing strike. She concluded that rather than killing a senior Taliban official, as JSOC still maintains, the airstrike killed a group of men campaigning for parliament.

Clark examines in depth the intelligence chain that led JSOC to kill a local campaign party, believing they were instead targeting the Taliban commander. That chain started with intelligence from a detainee.

The intelligence operation which ultimately led to the 2 September 2010 attack, started, according to the Special Forces unit, with information came from a detainee in US custody. This allowed them ultimately to identify a relative of the detainee as the shadow deputy governor of Takhar, one Muhammad Amin, and to map a Taleban‐ and IMU‐related cluster through the monitoring of cell phones.

For some reason, the intelligence analysts tracking this cluster concluded that Amin had started using the SIM card of the guy they eventually targeted, Zabet Amanullah.

The intelligence analysts came to believe that the SIM card of one of the numbers that Muhammad Amin had been calling in Kabul was passed on to him. They believed that he started to use this phone and to ‘self‐identify’ as Zabet Amanullah.

And in spite of the fact that Amanullah and Amin spoke by phone two days before the attack, JSOC maintained they were the same person. Amin explained in an interview with another researcher,

About two days before his death Zabet Amanullah spoke to me on the phone and told me that he was determined to block Qazi Kabir from being elected to parliament. That is why he was supporting Abdul Wahid Khorasani, that and the fact that they are related… After the incident, I saw my name in the media and realised the attack was intended for me… I did not discuss this with anyone…

At no time did the analysts investigate the biography of Zabet Amanullah, which would have alerted them that he was a prominent local figure (and, as Clark lays out in a poignant biography she includes, a former human rights worker who had survived three rounds of imprisonment and torture). Instead, JSOC insisted that the technical data targeting a phone was enough to justify the attack.

The Special Forces unit denied that the identities of two different men, Muhammad Amin and Zabet Amanullah, could have been conflated; they insisted the technical evidence that they were one person is irrefutable.

[snip]

When pressed about the existence – and death – of an actual Zabet Amanullah, they argued that they were not tracking a name, but targeting the telephones.

The report discusses the legal implications of this mistaken killing in depth–the failure to cross-check intelligence and the failure to protect others in the convoy who gave no sign of belligerence.

But the metaphor of it all–of the US using faulty intelligence to bomb an Afghan trying to practice democracy–captures what we’re doing in Afghanistan so much more aptly.

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  1. JTMinIA says:

    I think you’re missing the leaf due to your focus on the forest.

    Yes, there was quite a bit of collateral damage, but we got the phone. The phone is dead. It is an ex-phone. Not stunned. Dead.

    Party outside the WhiteHouse front gate at 4 pm to celebrate. Be there or be square. But, please, what-ever else you do, don’t bring your phone.

  2. foobar says:

    The intelligence operation which ultimately led to the 2 September 2010 attack, started, according to the Special Forces unit, with information came from a detainee in US custody.

    I thought the storyline was heading down the “intel from tortured detainee help the US smoke a good guy” path. Was Cheney in the room at the time?

  3. harpie says:

    Thanks for writing about this, Marcy.

    From the Frontline introduction:

    ”Gen. David Petraeus, since he took command of troops last year, has ordered a major expansion of these “manhunt” missions that rely on highly classified intelligence, cutting-edge technology and Special Operations forces.”

    …just reminded me of this:

    Manhunt; Seymour Hersh; The New Yorker; 12/23/02

    [The Bush Administrations new strategy in the war against terrorism.]

  4. justbetty says:

    Kind of OT, but I just saw Diane Nash on the Tavis Smiley Show talking about the effectiveness of non-violence. She so beautifully explained the old violence begets violence theme- if only those in charge of this country had ears to hear! The families of the dead people won’t feel any more kindly toward the US because killing them was a mistake. Who will make this stop?

  5. harpie says:

    This was interesting, from the Executive Summary [pdf]:

    Although the military, when choosing the location of the 2 September 2010 attack did take precautions to ensure that by-standers were not targeted and took pains to ensure that only Zabet Amanullah’s car was struck, ISAF press releases and discussions with senior officers suggested that proximity to a target is being used as a proxy for determining combatant status. Nine other men, all civilians and fellow election campaigners, were killed in the attack. ISAF and the Special Forces Unit, however, continue to view their death as legally justified.

    From

    Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities Under International Humanitarian Law [pdf]; International Committee of the Red Cross; May 2009

    [p36] For the purposes of the principle of distinction in non-international armed conflict, all persons who are not members of State armed forces or organized armed groups of a party to the conflict are civilians and, therefore, entitled to protection against direct attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities. In non-international armed conflict, organized armed groups constitute the armed forces of a non-State party to the conflict and consist only of individuals whose continuous function it is to take a direct part in hostilities (“continuous combat function”).

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A cell phone GPS signal, “identified” to a target of opportunity, is sufficient to justify a lethal attack? We should remember that in light of two recent announcements: expansion of domestic drone airbases and the government’s new “threat advisory service”.

    EW commented on the additional new drone hangars earlier. Also announced this week was the USG’s new threat advisory service, a kind of reverse 911. It will contact you to advise you of customized threat assessments for your location – based on your cell number and current GPS location.

    That’s like saying that a primary purpose of domestic drone operations will be to assess recovery efforts after natural disasters. Yes, that’s one potential use, among the most benign possible.

    The threat advisory service seems more like a transparent attempt to normalize the government’s constant, real time monitoring of your cell phone activity – GPS readouts, phone and e-mail activity, downloads, the lot.

    As we know, the new Apple machines, for example, generate and save quite a bit of GPS data, which may include not snapshots but logs of real time movements. I assume, like the Terminator, that it also has “detailed files” of all other uses over a long stretch of time.

    • mzchief says:

      Also announced this week was the USG’s new threat advisory service, a kind of reverse 911. It will contact you to advise you of customized threat assessments for your location – based on your cell number and current GPS location.

      I’d love a link for the new Valet Call-Up service to run my eyeballs across. I’ll trade you for it with “Simple Toadfish Grunts May Contain Complex Information” (by Dave Mosher, May 11, 2011) and Boomerang Systems RoboticValet™ (video, July 20, 2010).

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Beta services coming to a cell phone near you. Here is one story. I think Think Progress had another yesterday.

        Every wireless carrier is expected to participate….

        While carriers may allow cellphone users to opt out of receiving notifications from local officials and about Amber Alerts, no one will be allowed to opt out of receiving presidential alerts.

        Even users who turn off the GPS locator technology on their phones will receive the alerts, which will be sent out to all users in range of one or more cellphone towers selected by authorities. Phones that are turned off or aren’t getting any reception won’t receive the messages.

        Responding to privacy concerns, Fugate said that no location or other information from the phones will be sent to authorities.

        That last assertion might be subject to a credibility check; on its face, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          I would also question the ability of the consumer to fully turn off his or her cell phone’s GPS function. Shutting off a consumer’s access to the device is not the same as shutting off its functionality.

          Introducing that capability into cell phones was one the government’s top priorities after 9/11. Telecoms companies responded enthusiastically by offering a plethora of more attractive contracts, “upgraded” phones and so on, under the guise of enabling a more effective 911 service. The national security and commercial marketing implications of it were obvious.

          Most modern home electronics, for example, no longer have an off-on function; regardless of its label, “off” puts the device into “standby” mode. That keeps it “on”, using almost as much electricity, which is wasteful but marketed as a “no wait” convenience. Marketing guys must think their devices still run on vacuum tubes.

          GPS devices are also becoming more accurate, in two and three dimensions.

          • Kelly Canfield says:

            Right. Without going through all manuals for every phone, the only certain advice is to power down the unit and remove the cell-phone’s battery.

            Plus, the information isn’t ever really sent directly to the “authorities” – it’s sent to the carriers, which then dutifully forward when asked.

            Another issue is roaming – both data and voice. If you subscribe to an MVNO, like Virgin, well, all the data, both types now, are flowing over Sprint’s network, and whoever Sprint has contracted with for coverage.

            Sprint might send one file to a Requestor for an individual MDN/MEID, but the roaming carrier could send an entirely different file to a Requestor.

            Data is a mess, frankly, and that’s it.

          • mzchief says:

            Even if a call is not in progress, as long as there is power to the handset the cell sites can see it (because of polling ; a bit more on geolocation). Typical BITS equipment (usually in the Central Office). I was musing months ago how cell sites might receive functional upgrades but haven’t done further research on any new equipment.

            • Kelly Canfield says:

              I have wondered for quite some time if there is enough demand to make a spectrum noise device.

              See, in each market the carriers have acquired different spectra. Nextel for instance ran in the 800MhZ band and famously made a give-back deal for first responders.

              So technically, a person could make a null data/radio packet broadcast device that just made null noise in that 800MhZ band, then turn that device off when s/he wanted to USE that communication device to receive/make a call or use that 800MhZ voice/data network.

              Somewhat bandido, but, just saying…

              • JohnJ says:

                I have wondered for quite some time if there is enough demand to make a spectrum noise device.

                Demand YES; especially in theaters.

                Felony YES. Ask the FCC :)

                (‘Dad was Engineer for FCC among other things).

                I can’t remember how many times I have been asked to build one! It’s not that easy since you have to hit all the available channels on a band to work. Plus there’s that jail time thingy.

    • clemenza says:

      This might seem radical but people can reject this shit by tossing your cell phone and getting a hard line installed at home.

      This can be accomplished with minimal hardship.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It is a bit Luddite. I wouldn’t mind at all not be “connected” in the way that telecoms marketers mean it, but many others across generations would feel lost at sea.

  7. bobschacht says:

    Is this another example of “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”?

    Please alert Steven Colbert so that he can properly parody this act of barbarity.

    Bob in AZ

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The blithe “Oops” at killing the wrong targets ought to be replaced by embarrassment, contrition and restitution. Instead, we stomp around, trampling all the flowers looking for a handful of weeds, and flip the middle finger when the gardener objects to the “overkill”.

      If the idea of restitution seems abhorrent because we can’t make mistakes, we can’t be held responsible for them when we do, and if we paid them, it would bankrupt us might make a reasonable person pause and wonder whether we are fighting too many wars.

      • bustedcelt says:

        At the same time, what is being done about troops-gone-wild joykilling afghan moped riders…sounds like both those guiding multi-million dollar drones from D.C. and those firing a string of one dollar bullets share the same detachment from the killing they do.

      • jawbone says:

        …embarrassment, contrition and restitution

        And “walking” at least 10 miles on their knees, shoeless, to the shrine of their particular religion…or any appropriate shrine. Preferably in hot dusty area with little grass.

  8. Mary says:

    I’m way far out of the loop these days, and this spec is going to be tied to some of my original spec from way back about the “TSP” and dancing pinheads, but I wonder to what extent Muhammad Amin and Zabet Amanullah had similar voices. My old spec still nags at me, that a part of the what the NSA was doing with the TSP (and why the kept crying about tech that wasn’t contemplated by FISA and that they weren’t “data” mining as they defined data mining – for some of the program) was running voice identification selection as reasonable cause to target phone calls.

    And if they’ve been doing it for almost a decade now, and never had to account for any of their misses and misidentifications, they could very well have developed the mindset that their voice id is “irrefutable” technical evidence. So maybe they have Amanullah with a voice that sounds similar to Amin and target him off that, or maybe they are doing voice identification targeting and after the conversation between Amin and Amanullah, someone “follows” the wrong voice from that conversation.

    fwiw – probably not much.

  9. harpie says:

    The Takhar Attack; Kate Clark [pdf]; Afghanistan Analysts Network; 5/2011

    [Targeted killings and the parallel worlds of US intelligence andAfghanistan]

    WL sheds light on how US develops “target lists” in Afghanistan [p11]:

    2.2.2 Targeted killings and the law

    America’s Rules of Engagement, specific to the war in Afghanistan, are classified.37 Like many states, the US also does not reveal its criteria for defining ‘direct participation in hostilities’.38 Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, considers this ‘deeply problematic… because it gives no transparency or clarity about what conduct could subject a civilian to killing’.39 However, in the last year, more details of how some Afghans have lost their default civilian status and become ‘continuous’ military targets has been revealed in secret military dispatches published by Wikileaks. […]

    Hi, Mary!

  10. harpie says:

    This Report is a well done but disquieting and depressing read on several levels.

    The Takhar Attack; Kate Clark [pdf]; Afghanistan Analysts Network; 5/2011

    [Targeted killings and the parallel worlds of US intelligence andAfghanistan]

    The investigation for this report found overwhelming evidence that this was an entirely civilian convoy. The final proof was locating and interviewing the man whom the US military thought it had killed – the (now former) deputy Taleban governor of Takhar, Muhammad Amin. This indicates that something was catastrophically wrong with the US intelligence that led to the attack.

    ***

    [p35] The main political consequence of the killing Zabet Amanullah was the strengthening of a man whom the US military command had not heard of 187 the most powerful figure in northern Takhar and Amanullah’s old rival, Qazi Kabir. When Qazi Kabir won a seat at the elections just two weeks later, many people locally saw this as proof that he was backed by the Americans and nothing could be done against him. One senior provincial official said that following the attack, ‘he is stronger and more assured.’ 188 Given that the oppressive nature of local power structures has been a major reason for the rise of the Taleban in Takhar, this should worry the international military, as it may feed grievances and actually strengthen the appeal of the insurgency.

    ***

    187 Many Afghans, as well as some international observers, assumed that malicious intelligence must have been passed on to the US military and suspected Qazi Kabir, who has extensive networks in the Afghan security services. However, the US military was insistent that they received no such human intelligence; they said they had been tracking the target for months, they had learned to be wary of false allegations and tip offs and besides, they had not even heard of a Qazi Kabir (author’s interviews, December 2010). Qazi Kabir himself also denied the accusation (author’s interview, April 2011). [Well, he would, wouldn’t he?-harpie]

    188 Author’s interview, February 2011

    It might not have been military…what about an OGA such as, maybe CIA?

    [p11]The dispatches confirmed the existence of the Joint Prioritised Effects List (JPEL), a list of men whom the international forces believe to be ‘insurgent leaders’. The Guardian journalist Nick Davis, who reported on the secret dispatches, said that ‘a joint targeting working group meets each week to consider Target Nomination Packets and has direct input from the Combined Forces Command and its divisional HQ, as well as from lawyers, operational command and intelligence units including the CIA.’ Davis writes that ‘[t]he process of choosing targets reaches high into the military command.’40

    ****

    40 Nick Davis, ‘Afghanistan War Logs: Task Force 373 – Special Forces Hunting Top Taleban,’ The Guardian, 25 July 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jul/25/task-force-373-secret-afghanistan-taliban .

    It’s interesting to follow the story of the relationship between Zabet Amanullah and Qazi Kabir throughout the report….intrigue, politics, war, imprisonment, torture…

  11. harpie says:

    O/T Marcy, some days ago you wrote about a “trifecta” of strikes. Today, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen mentions the strike [he doesn’t say it was against al-Awlaki]in a piece about Yemen’s precarius state:

    Salih’s Long Goodbye; Gregory Johnsen; 5/11/11

    http://bigthink.com/blogs/waq-al-waq

    […] US officials aware of the dangers of a security vacuum and eager to press their advantage after killing Osama bin Laden on May 1, apparently authorized a drone strike that killed two AQAP suspects in southern Yemen on May 5. The operation, the first in nearly a year by the US in Yemen, is a dangerous escalation that could easily backfire. The last US airstrike, in May 2010, missed its al-Qaeda target and instead killed a Yemeni government official, Jabir al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib. His tribe is currently among those blockading roads and destroying power lines, justifying its actions as retaliation for Salih’s complicity in the attack. All of this, of course, has only further exacerbated the political and economic crisis in the capital. […]

  12. rusty houndog says:

    In response to Marcie at 4.

    This very story demonstrates that we are NOT good at SIGINT; we continue to warp our thinking with self defeating circular logic based on fundamental errors. Signals Intelligence is a supplement to human intelligence, not a replacement.

      • Kelly Canfield says:

        Right. The smallest telco carrier I ever worked for operates in only 70 markets of the top 200 in the US and collects terabytes of data every month.

        Terabytes. Monthly.

        They still have problems, as do the other carriers, of drawing a comprehensive picture of network usage and customer types and putting it all together. Part of it is self-inflicted compartmentalization, but still, the problem remains.

        Now, transpose that over to all SIGINT, everywhere, by any means, at all times.

        [HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH! OK, forgive me that outburst.]
        *************************

        Tee trick is actually to make the data smaller, not bigger. Counterintuitive, but true.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Agreed. In China, for example, when you check into a hotel, your personal details – name, passport or id, etc. – are fed into the hotel’s business computer and simultaneously into a state security database. The data is immediately available to security services. If your file happens to be checked, the monitoring devices in your room(s) are activated. If you are a target of special interest, translation services are available in real time.

          I was once at a negotiation where something we discussed in a hotel room – against recommendations to do so – at 10.30 pm was fed back to us in English the next morning, via a play on words that used our actual words. Which means the data was monitored, translated, delivered to our opposite numbers in a negotiation, integrated into their business strategy and became part of active negotiations within about ten hours.

          Selectivity is the name of the game. That China example was an easy call, since it involved a name foreign investor’s business activities. But with larger, faster, more sophisticated computers and software, a lot of that can be automated, spreading the active observational net to a wider audience. The trick is to identify the parameters you most want monitored.

          • mzchief says:

            The ChineseG is one group that thinks The Matrix and 1984 are “How To” manuals and AT&T, IBM and a host of other transnational corporations and other countryGs have been happy to build it for them.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            China is not the only country to have such a routine business-cum-security computer check in process. I believe the French are quite fond of it. I don’t know how seamless, for example, is the integration at US airport check-in counters.

            The issue is what is the local government interested in knowing about you. In the US, I suspect the answer is everything; other countries are currently more selective, and more selective about cross uses being made of collected data.

    • mzchief says:

      Yes SIGINT if properly used is a supplement to HUMINT but it’s really about corruption and control. Putting the human intelligence where it counts threatens legacy power centers and them being found out for all the unethical and illegal things they do on routine basis to feather their nest(s). How about Monica Goodling as a certain kind of case-in-point from an organizational staffing slant?

  13. Jeff Kaye says:

    Here’s the problem… you are assuming that the U.S. government really cares about finding terrorists. They do not. They only care about the appearance that they are. They are mainly interested in securing territory to their advantage, so they can exploit the land and the population thereon. Anyone with different ideas is a… well, a terrorist, in their eyes.

    Zabet Amanullah is not the first human rights worker they have neutralized, to put a certain fine label to it. Al-Amin Kimathi was a Kenyan human rights worker fighting to expose the U.S. policy of backing renditions in Africa, something Time magazine reported on a few months ago, until he was arrested and tortured, reportedly to make him confess he was al-Qaeda.

    You have no idea, dear readers, of how evil this government really is. They are not for democracy.

    Should anyone wonder at the shock and so-called “justice” of the U.S. extrajudicial killing of Bin Laden, they should contemplate the relatively benign fate of Luis Posada Carriles, a U.S. backed anti-Castro terrorist, and former CIA employee, who bombed an airplane full of people, and got away with it. The U.S. has shielded him for decades from extradition for this and other crimes.

    Should we applaud any action by Cuban commandos who were drop into Texas (or wherever Posada Carriles is now) and make a hit or kidnap this terrorist? I won’t answer that question, as it’s not up to me to advocate any such behavior. But by the lawless actions of the Obama administration, anything is plausible now, and anything acceptable, unless it be subject to the ultimate law, vae victis.

  14. ThingsComeUndone says:

    The intelligence operation which ultimately led to the 2 September 2010 attack, started, according to the Special Forces unit, with information came from a detainee in US custody. This allowed them ultimately to identify a relative of the detainee as the shadow deputy governor of Takhar, one Muhammad Amin, and to map a Taleban‐ and IMU‐related cluster through the monitoring of cell phones.

    On the word of one detainee who has probably been tortured and has every reason to lie even without torture we launch a strike to kill people?
    Did one source with every reason to lie Judy Miller teach a class at the CIA?

  15. Jeff Kaye says:

    Re telephones and finding people, the London Metropolitan Police must think they are JSOC, per the Guardian:

    The Metropolitan police has bought Geotime, a security programme used by the US military, which shows an individual’s movements and communications with other people on a three-dimensional graphic. It can be used to collate information gathered from social networking sites, satellite navigation equipment, mobile phones, financial transactions and IP network logs….

    According to Geotime’s website, the programme displays data from a variety of sources, allowing the user to navigate the data with a timeline and animated display. The website claims it can also throw up previously unseen connections between individuals.

    “Links between entities can represent communications, relationships, transactions, message logs, etc and are visualised over time to reveal temporal patterns and behaviours,” it reads.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The Met really is obsessed with security – though one would not know it from its abusively kind treatment of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, when it was caught illegally hacking into phones and e-mail accounts.

      The Met seemed to have tried hard to keep a lid on that investigation, claiming it involved only a few bad apples, but couldn’t. It’s been reopened by another office and estimates range that the phones and computers of 4000 or more people were affected. Rumors have it that the NOTW was not the only media outlet to engage in such hacking, which included not just top sports stars and managers, but the deputy pm, journalists, etc.

      The Met also has a quite aggressive political affairs section, which used to be called Special Branch, whose reputation was that rules were optional.

      Lord Bingham observed two years ago that there were more than 4 million CCTV cameras operating in the UK, a great many of them in London, which caused him to wonder why there was not more public outrage. (Then again the English invented the queue.) He also noted that the government had the world’s largest DNA database on its population. Under European court rulings, supposedly some of that’s been destroyed, which seems as likely as that Adm. Poindexter actually shut down his TIA program, rather than resumed it another name.

      Ten years ago, the estimate was that a tourist spending ten days in London was photographed 3000 times, at banks, airports, hotel lobbies, street corners, the lot. If you traveled from the City to York by motorway, you would be on camera the entire 200 plus mile journey. Labour purportedly turned off some of the motorway “speeding” cameras as a cost savings measure, but police and security services have different priorities.

      The integration of voice, data, real time GPS tracking is Orwellian. Statistical s/w is remarkable in the inferences it draws from it about individual and group behavior. The more data, the more accurate the inferences – and predictions.

      Three years ago, a long time in s/w development, it could use call and GPS data to reliably predict where, when and with whom you would have coffee on a Wednesday afternoon at a given time of year. I wonder what it can do now.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The Met is also gearing up security in anticipation of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the first since Victoria’s, and for the 2012 London Olympics.

  16. themisfortuneteller says:

    As we used to say back when I worked as a computer programmer for the Hughes Aircraft Company:

    “When a man makes a mistake, he makes a mistake. But when a machine makes a mistake … makes a mistake … makes a mistake … makes a mistake …”

    I never truly appreciated this truism until my wife went into the hospital to deliver our first child. After 3 days in the hospital, I paid the bill in cash and brought her home. Shortly thereafter, I received a humongous bill for 33 days of hospital services. Every item on the bill occurred 10 times, an obvious computer error. But since computers don’t make errors, I could not get anyone at the hospital to review the bill, and I flat out refused to pay for such an obvious mistake. So credit collection agencies began hounding me and my wife at home and even tried to have me fired from my place of employment. This went on for two years until I threatened a law suit which got the attention of a human person who then acknowledged the obvious computer error and apologized for what had happened.

    But all that only had to do with money. I can now imagine with horror the swath of death and destruction that an out-of-control and unaccountable America regularly visits on so much of the world because of political cowardice, corporate malfeasance, and trumped-up terror-mongering amplified by misunderstood and misapplied technology.

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      It’s like trying to convince people that Mr. Archibald Buttle is not really the suspected terrorist, Archibald Tuttle, all due to a typo by a machine.

      (From the movie “Brazil”, for those of you who may not know the reference.)