Longform’s Picks of the Week

Longform’s Picks of the Week

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

The Secret War

James Bamford • Wired

How General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, became the most powerful intelligence officer in U.S. history.

Inside the government, the general is regarded with a mixture of respect and fear, not unlike J. Edgar Hoover, another security figure whose tenure spanned multiple presidencies. “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander-with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets,” says one former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.”

Now 61, Alexander has said he plans to retire in 2014; when he does step down he will leave behind an enduring legacy-a position of far-reaching authority and potentially Strangelovian powers at a time when the distinction between cyberwarfare and conventional warfare is beginning to blur. A recent Pentagon report made that point in dramatic terms. It recommended possible deterrents to a cyberattack on the US. Among the options: launching nuclear weapons.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Ghosts of the Rio Grande

Brendan Borrell • The American Prospect

On the hundreds of corpses that go unidentified every year along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The path across the border is littered with bodies. Bodies old and bodies young. Bodies known and bodies unknown. Bodies hidden, bodies buried, bodies lost, and bodies found. The stories of the dead haunt the frontier towns from Nuevo Laredo to Nogales, and even deep within the interior of Mexico down to Honduras, someone always knows someone who has vanished-one of losdesaparecidos-during their journey north.

Many of those missing end up in the South Texas soil. Out on the Glass Ranch, a man named Wayne Johnson stumbles upon a skull, some bones, and a pair of dentures scattered near a dry pond. During a bass fishing tournament at La Amistad Lake, anglers come upon a decomposing corpse near the water’s edge. Late one summer night, a train rumbles down the Union Pacific Line, but it fails to rouse a father and son slumbering on the tracks. For 2012, Brooks County, with a population of just 7,223, reported 129 deaths from immigrants trying to evade the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, double the previous year. The county judge told the San Antonio Express-News that Brooks had run out of space for John Does in its Sacred Heart Cemetery.

The dead appear in springtime, when temperatures hit the triple digits, their fading T-shirts and tennis shoes strewn about the land like wilted wildflowers. Whether they tried to cross for money, love, or security, they did so knowing they might not make it alive. Their families keep hoping and hunting for answers-if they can. Last May, 22-year-old Aldo collapsed on a South Texas ranch and made one last, desperate cell-phone call to his older brother Alejandro in Houston. But Alejandro can’t drive there to conduct a search because he, too, is here illegally. “More than anything, I would like to know what happened to my brother,” he says, “because if I could retrieve some part of his body to bring down to Mexico, we could give him a proper burial.” 

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Looking for Clues in a Romanian Village

Özlem Gezer • Der Spiegel

Investigating the influx of Roma immigrants to Germany.

That adviser is sitting at a conference table in Bucharest. Water is served in plastic bottles here and two iPhones rest on the table in front of him. The man has closely cropped hair, wears a suit and speaks English well. He himself is Roma and used to travel through the country making music. Romania has a Roma strategy, he says, but only because the European Commission, the EU’s executive, requires one, and it’s only on paper. “If you marry a woman knowing she’s an alcoholic, you can’t complain about it afterward,” he says. In this analogy, Romania is the drunken wife and the EU the naïve husband.

He keeps asking: “Do you understand, Franziska?” If she has a problem, he says, he’s glad to help. If too many Roma from Fântânele are going to Berlin, he suggests, he can initiate some projects in the village — Giffey only needs to say the word. She laughs, and he laughs, when she tells him the child benefits that families can receive in Berlin are 20 times what they are in Bucharest. “Bullshit,” he says over and over again, and rants about his country.

That evening, Giffey sips a glass of water at a reception on the 18th floor of a modern skyscraper in Bucharest, where she has come at the invitation of the German embassy. There are hors d’oeuvres of cream cheese and salmon, and men in suits are drinking sparkling wine. A foundation representative explains that mayors in Romania are glad to see their Roma residents go.

Daniel Milhailescu/AFP/Getty Images

Dribbling Man

Robert Andrew Powell • Grantland

On Richard Swanson, who died while trying to walk 10,000 miles from Seattle to São Paulo, Brazil.

His final video, taken in Lincoln City, is the most upbeat of all. “I finally made it to the ocean here!” he shouted, beaming. “I am in Lincoln City near the beach. I’m walking now to the waves. My feet are feeling amazing, having my shoes off and just walking through the water and kicking the ball.” His smile grew even wider as he panned to Pacific waters lapping onto packed sand. “Very exciting moment today! I’m going to be on the ocean for thousands of miles, so this is my first taste of it, and I’m very excited about this. Finally!” He giggled – that’s the right word – as cold surf lapped his ankles. “All right. I just wanted to say good morning. And I am very happy to be here. And hopefully today will be a wonderful day as I walk down the beach and [U.S. Route] 101 and enjoy everything that the ocean has to offer! All right, I will talk to you all later. Cheers, everyone!” Not 20 minutes later, Swanson would be dead.

When I got to Lincoln City, the last person he stayed with overnight told me she had seen that final video on the beach, and all the other videos that preceded it. She’d also fed Swanson dinner and breakfast and had sat with him on her couch talking at length about his adventure. “What people don’t realize is this man was on a death trip,” Susan Ulbright said. “I think subconsciously he knew he wasn’t coming back.”

 Shaun Tandon/AFP/Getty Images 

Inside the NSA’s Ultra-Secret China Hacking Group

Matthew M. Aid • Foreign Policy

The inner workings of the U.S. government’s vast cyber-espionage unit.

Hidden away inside the massive NSA headquarters complex at Fort Meade, Maryland, in a large suite of offices segregated from the rest of the agency, TAO is a mystery to many NSA employees. Relatively few NSA officials have complete access to information about TAO because of the extraordinary sensitivity of its operations, and it requires a special security clearance to gain access to the unit’s work spaces inside the NSA operations complex. The door leading to its ultramodern operations center is protected by armed guards, an imposing steel door that can only be entered by entering the correct six-digit code into a keypad, and a retinal scanner to ensure that only those individuals specially cleared for access get through the door.

According to former NSA officials interviewed for this article, TAO’s mission is simple. It collects intelligence information on foreign targets by surreptitiously hacking into their computers and telecommunications systems, cracking passwords, compromising the computer security systems protecting the targeted computer, stealing the data stored on computer hard drives, and then copying all the messages and data traffic passing within the targeted email and text-messaging systems. The technical term of art used by NSA to describe these operations is computer network exploitation (CNE).

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

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