Thursday, May 01, 2008

Fleance's revenge

The apparent suicide of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "DC Madam", in a toolshed behind her mother's home in Florda has excited the imagination of conspiracy theorists. The focus of the theories of course, is Palfrey's list of the clients of escort service. Did some powerful client who wanted his identity protected from scandal arrange to have the "DC Madam" killed? Here's what Wikipedia has to say about those records.

Palfrey appeared on ABC's 20/20 as part of an investigative report on 4 May 2007. In combination with Palfrey's statement that she has 10,000 to 15,000 phone numbers of clients, this has caused several clients' lawyers to contact Palfrey to see whether accommodations could be made to keep their identities private. Ultimately, ABC News, after going through what was described as "46 lbs" [21 kg] of phone records, decided that none of the potential clients was sufficiently "newsworthy" to bother mentioning.

The scandal has led to the resignation of Ambassador Randall L. Tobias from his State Department position and as the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Also named was Washington Times columnist Harlan Ullman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

On July 9th, 2007 Palfrey released the supposed entirety of her phone records for public viewing and download on the Internet in TIFF format, though days prior to this, her civil attorney Montgomery Blair Sibley had dispatched 54 CD-ROM copies to researchers, activists, and journalists. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) acknowledged on the night of July 9th that he had been a customer of Palfrey's escort service.

Note the words "supposed entirety" in the paragraph above.

Speculation of foul play will revolve around the idea that Palfrey held something back. With Palfrey dead any secrets she may have known will either be lost or usurped. There's nothing for example, to prevent some news agency from claiming the former DC Madam left a list consisting entirely of Republicans in their possession. The list could be authentic or might not. But assuming for the moment that Palfrey did have the goods on someone and paid the price for it, the circumstance underlines the fact that in the Information Age, knowledge is power. And money. Suppose you had a piece of information that was worth your life. How would you protect it?

One option is to give it to your lawyer, because everybody knows that lawyers are upright people who will never sell their clients out, pledged as they are to "justice for all". What's the alternative? Public key encryption.

Public-key cryptography, also known as asymmetric cryptography, is a form of cryptography in which a user has a pair of cryptographic keys—a public key and a private key. The private key is kept secret, while the public key may be widely distributed. The keys are related mathematically, but the private key cannot be practically derived from the public key. A message encrypted with the public key can be decrypted only with the corresponding private key.

The system ensures that the possessor of the private key is the authentic owner of the information. But the hitch is that security depends on the security of the private key. Anyone who acquires the private key can decrypt the message and incidentally, make a claim to own the information. In order to use the private key as a form of insurance against assassination the following scheme can be implemented.

The bombshell can be posted in an encrypted form to a public site. The author can claim in public that a particular string will appear in the decrypted message. Since the public key is accessible to everybody, all that is needed is a mechanism that will broadcast the private key to the public in the event that the mechanism to do so is not periodically disarmed.

Suppose such a system exists. Killing the possessor of a vital secret will mean that the mechanism to broadcast the private key to the public will not be disarmed. When a timed cycle elapses the key will be released to the public. The secret message can then be decrypted by anyone without any doubts as to the provenance of the message. It will be indisputably authentic as long as the predicted string is found because it is the only key that will unlock the secret that is already in public view, albeit unreadable. This means the system to release the private key need not involve lawyers. It can consist of a computer running a timed process. Or it can consist of trusted individuals who have sealed envelopes they need to mail in the event of death.

Palfrey went to law school and worked for a time as a paralegal. She was not stupid. One only hopes that if a secret she kept cost her life another secret can come back from the grave to unleash revenge.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger RWE said...

The really odd thing about Palfrey’s threat to unleash her client list is that it seemed to be directed at everyone and no one. It did not appear that she specifically told any official that she would release records on him unless he arranged to have the charges dropped – and in any case, that would have to be done in secret, since otherwise it would be a dead giveaway.

So, what was she threatening? And who? It appeared that she thought that “the government” could be intimidated into dropping the charges or at least some kind of a plea deal. Alternatively, it would require a high level concern over her prosecution being prejudicial to good order – as were some of the prosecutions in the LA riots (e,g,, the black thugs who beat up truck driver Denny on TV and got off with little or no punishment). Unless Al Sharpton was on the list that would not happen.

This resembles the archtypical case where a land owner tells the town he either gets to build a shopping center or he will put in a pig farm.

5/01/2008 05:10:00 PM  
Blogger Andrewdb said...

RWE - If she makes specific threats she gets in more trouble. By making vague threats and sending subtle signals she can try to bargain without provably bargaining.

Kind of like airlines and air fares - its about game theory (which might work here, but probably doesn't with war).

5/01/2008 05:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It can consist of a computer running a timed process. Or it can consist of trusted individuals who have sealed envelopes they need to mail in the event of death.

That means the trusted individuals have to know when she dies. If "they" abducted the DC Madam and killed her in obscurity, the trusted individuals would never know for sure when or if they needed to release the envelopes to the media. So the DC Madam should have made arrangements to send, once a week, six generic postcards with no return addresses, which she would deposit one at a time in six different outgoing mail slots in six different post offices. Five of these postcards would go to dummy addresses. The sixth would be the trusted individual with the envelope. If he failed to receive a postcard two weeks in a row, that would be his pre-arranged signal to mail his packet.

5/01/2008 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Oh come on, now. If someone in the gummint did want to off the chick, couldn't they at least come up with the equivalent of Putin's radioactive poison on the tip of an umbrella? Or make it look like an accident or totally disappear the body so that no body ever knew *what* exotic island she took her filthy lucre and hied off to.

Suicide in a shed? And she left a note. Sounds like she did the closest easiest thing, which is what suicides usually do when they reach that state of thinking that all options having disappeared except one.

5/01/2008 06:26:00 PM  
Blogger Ticker said...

If someone's going to get you the best place to do it is in the graybar hotel. And they don't necessarily have to kill you in the hoosegow. Sometimes keeping you live and miserable is a worse threat.

Prison's a bad place to be if you have connected enemies on the outside. But at any rate, we'll never know.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns

5/01/2008 06:37:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Andrew: I guess it is a form of blackmail that cannot be prosecuted. But on the other hand, if she makes such a public statement and the guy in charge of DC Garbage Collection begins pulling strings, even backstage, it will be rather obvious.

Maybe she was thinking of Watergate - which was, in reality, an attempt by Dean to prevent the DNC from finding out that his girlfriend picked up a few extra bucks moonlighting for an escort service that the DNC itself used.

But I think this mainly reflects an attitude born of the modern Protest Movement. People will assert that “the gummit” ought to do something about their personal problem, and if there is no such agency they can complain to, well… there damn well ought to be. People will stomp around carrying signs and write letters without having any idea who they should contact - or even if anyone should. The action itself is supposed to galvanize “somebody” to do what they want. So we end up with guys in the Pentagon spending days to answer some silly-ass question someone sent to their congressman or the GAO investigating UFOs.

5/01/2008 07:23:00 PM  
Blogger Buckets said...

I don't mean to take this blog off into black helicopter territory, but I'm not willing to discount UFO stories wholesale. Too many respected and upstanding citizens (I wouldn't put Dennis Kucinich in this category) have seen unusual and sometimes inexplicable things, be they military test flights or something else.

Also, the sheer scale of the universe (it's beyond imagination) almost guarantees the existence of other intelligent life. We do ourselves, and the pursuit of truth and science, a great disservice by merely dismissing out of hand the possibility of extraterrestrial life.


5/01/2008 10:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Buckets, I agree there is probably other intelligent life in the universe, but the fact that we haven't heard any radio stations broadcasting from there seems to indicate it is a very rare phenomenon. There might be only five civilizations extant in the galaxy right now, including ours, which could put them an average of 10,000 light years apart from each other. So there could never be a two-way conversation between them, and physical travel between the two stars would be right out the window.

5/01/2008 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger Whiskey said...

There is a historical precedent. According to "Notre Dame vs. the Klan" which is the story of the Fighting Irish students kicking the Klan out of South Bend in 1924 (more or less), the leader of the Indiana and Midwest klan, DC Stephenson, at the time he was convicted of Murder in the Second Degree, left incriminating evidence of his bribery (by the Klan) of all sorts of State officials in Indiana.

After he went to prison, they turned up. Signed and with all sorts of incriminating details. Ruined the Klan's control over Indiana politics, caused the Governor, entire City council of Indianapolis, a Senator, and a few others to resign or be convicted of bribery.

Stephenson, who had all sorts of enemies (in the Klan, outside it, in Government) lived to be released forty years later.

Probably, if powerful government figures or business figures had problems, money would make the problems go away. Or influence. Or favors. Risky dirty work is for low-rent thugs who think like thugs. Not powerful men. Too many Law and Order episodes written by creatively bankrupt writers.

It may shock most, but powerful men react to threats in reflexive ways. By calling lawyers, calling in favors, and making payoffs, leaning on people, and causing a counter-stink. Very few powerful men in America (this is a good thing) make their way up the ladder by killing people.

If she had something on someone from the Gambino crime family, who reflexively even when it's stupid, kill people, I would be suspicious.

Here I would go with Occam's Razor.

5/01/2008 11:51:00 PM  
Blogger 3Case said...

One option is to give it to your lawyer, because everybody knows that lawyers are upright people who will never sell their clients out, pledged as they are to "justice for all".

5/02/2008 06:06:00 AM  
Blogger El Jefe Maximo said...

Eggszactly whiskey. Nine times out of ten, at least in the States, the downside risk is just too much to justify hired murder.

5/02/2008 07:09:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

The "apparent suicide" is now just "suicide" I could not find "apparent suicide" in the article as it now stands.

The page is now locked down.

Vince Foster lives.

5/02/2008 08:04:00 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

"There might be only five civilizations extant in the galaxy right now, including ours, which could put them an average of 10,000 light years apart from each other. So there could never be a two-way conversation between them, and physical travel between the two stars would be right out the window."

Maybe. Whenever I think of that problem, I always come back to the fact that civilization as we know it is, what, 4,000-6,000 years old? What would a person living 6,000 years ago think of the fact that we've visited the moon and brought back pieces of it? What would they think of the hubble telescope and all we've learned from it, or the fact that we've spliced daffodil genes into rice, or any of a number of other things?

Then consider 6,000 or 6,000,000 years into the future. Assuming we don't off ourselves with some weapon or other, what will we know then? Especially given that over the last couple of hundred years, our knowledge seems to be growing exponentially?

Physical travel to distant stars may not happen really soon, but it's not out the window by a long shot. I may change my mind in a few thousand years if we've remained static for a few hundred years.

5/02/2008 10:44:00 AM  

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