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27 February 2006

The bane of politics

The fine fellows over a GroupIntel have an interesting set of practical recommendations for de-politicizing intelligence. Unfortunately, we feel that the most damning aspects of politicization are internal in nature, not a function of improper meetings or relationship. Those improper relationships are however the contacts that tend to produce the kinds of leaks that are most damaging – but these happen most often with the recently departed members of the community who have abandoned their oaths. It is the tongue, heedless of the spinning wheel.

However, it is the unvoiced assumptions, the unexamined positions, and the hardening of mindset which has so damagingly introduced explicit politicization into the community. It is those decisions taken without reference to the elected officials – whose opinions could at least be said to represent the will of the people, whether advisable or not in questions of intelligence matters – that has created the shadow of an unelected component that exercises policy judgment rather than merely an advisory capacity.

To some extent, the bleedover into policy and action is inevitable, especially in a wartime environment. The mix of operational activities such as planning and tactical level support alone would virtually ensure that the old ivory tower model of the distant and detached analyst is fast fading. In fact, your authors have argued on behalf of more closer ties between these worlds for some time now – not on the basis of politics but on the need to shorten kill cycles and achieve rapid effects within selected target environments. This is a fundamentally different relationship, though, than the strategic level policy debates which are now raging.

All of these issues are manifestations of a community undergoing a serious crisis of change. It is no longer enough to simply hold forth a model which others have abandoned or corrupted and debate in abstraction. It is not enough to challenge the old orthodoxy in a few Studies articles in the hopes that some good might come of it. We have come to the fundamental questions of intelligence reform – and they may best be answered in the manner of the Confucian official who serves a bureaucracy which has lost the mandate of Heaven: to be a cork floating untouched in a sea of raw sewage. It is the cultivation of the person – the individual choices made by officers and analysts to eschew politics and pursue truth no matter what the nature of the relationships their job has thrust them into, that will solve this dilemma.

From this light, our colleague’s recommendations are an excellent starting point. More yet must still be done in order to effect what will be deeply personal changes at an individual level across a wide enough number of persons to make a difference.

Perceptions and influences

The indefatigable Ms. Dauber again highlights one of the core problems of the modern media environment – the editorial decision-making processes which drive coverage of terrorist events. Once upon a time, say back in the 80’s, when CT was a specialist’s game; certain conventions evolved in order to minimize the impact of terrorism as media phenomena. The choices regarding the coverage given to terrorist demands, and the way in which terrorist actors were permitted to present themselves, was at least given consideration. Ethics was once a factor.

Clearly this era has long been no more. Whether because of the 24/7 news cycle, the internal re-definition of the media as some sort of illusionary neutral party, or the presence of foreign media outlets with ties to terrorist entities; the old norms have been discarded. Media is now actively involved as a weapon, not merely as a channel for a message.

It is for this reason we also look again at John Robb’s Global Guerillas. While we disagree that the recent Al Qaeda attack on the Saudi oil facility was a black swan event, having been previously predicted and operational mitigation measures emplaced, it is interesting to note that his reasons for defining this as such extend out to a much larger audience than traditional warning theory would suggest. In this case, it is the market as a whole which must be warned and prepared for the adverse consequences of a terrorist event – something which also has media implications in terms of risk communication and consequence management. (One should also give credit to the fine authors over at Terrorism Unveiled for their excellent after action report on the Saudi incident.)

You can see something of the successful management of these balances in the recent anthrax event in New York, a naturally occurring incident that nonetheless demanded a delicate approach to ensure transparency and clear communication.

The realms of IO and intelligence are becoming ever more intertwined as the Parallel World's borders become more porous. The questions of what tools and techniques should be developed to add to our tradecraft in order to understand these issues becomes more pressing.

26 February 2006

More cryppie fun...

The potential for increased personal computing power and networked distributed processing has long been recognized as having applications in the field of cryptography. Indeed, attacks against the former government standard for ciphers, DES, were conducted by Electronic Frontier Foundation and others through just such a network - which broke the cipher in less than 24 hours, using 100,000 networked computers which attempted 250 billion keys per second.

DES has since been replaced by AES, and the background reading on the succession process is most interesting. The principal remains the same however.

Thus we have, via Boing Boing, another attempt to harness distributed cryptanalysis to solve several remaining unbroken messages from the German WWII Enigma system.

When will someone have a go at the remaining unbroken segments of the VENONA intercepts in the same way, we wonder? (Of course, VENONA breaks relied on an entirely different set of circumstances than the application of computing power, but time marches onward..)

24 February 2006

Shots heard around the world's markets

The analysts predicted it. The pundits debated it. The enemy plotted it.

But in the end, it all came down to those on the sharp end: on a sleepy Friday afternoon, the day of prayer, the matter was decided. This time.

On such mundane things as the under-trained and poorly educated low wage earning guards and cops the fate of the world hinges. Certainly, the fate of oil markets and worldwide energy security.

The reaction to this event will determine potential future of strategic types of terrorist targeting through conventional attack methodologies. John Robb of Global Guerillas has spent some time laying out these options, but to date its validation in the enemy’s actions is uncertain.

Given consensus-based targeting approaches that are currently evolving within the enemy’s networks, particularly by self-affiliating ideological threat entities, it may be enough that such attacks can occur to ensure that follow-on attempts will be made.

Rumours and realities

Our close allies in the Philippines are enduring some difficult times at the moment. Political instability in the country is a fearsome spectre, particularly when it involves questions of a breakdown in civil control of the military. Belmont Club, the author of which who is living in the Phillipines, provides interesting perspective; as does Pajamas Media’s new style of news reporting.

This will have further implications for the Long War, as well as a number of other geo-strategic issues, but the first question is the form of government and its players which will emerge from the crisis. For this, we defer judgment to the pol / mil types elsewhere in the community.

However, we will leave off with one observation from the master himself, Sherman Kent. There is a quote that circulates often in the community attributed to him, with words to the effect that “No coup plot that I have ever heard about was successful.”

Having said this, however, recent major political changes happened precisely because they became widely known, and the populace at large believed the outcome. The Orange Revolution (Ukraine) and the Cedar Revolution (Lebanon) are a fundamentally different kind of political event, however. Whereas once to execute a coup d’etat it required secrecy and the near total reliance on the military instruments of power, the fundamental shifts in technology empowering non-state actors has enabled new information dimensions the problem space.

From this, we may have to pen a corollary to Kent’s coup dictum. For today, it may be that hearing about the plot becomes a coup, whether the events of the conspiracy are successfully executed or not.

For the sake of the Philippine people, we hope otherwise and would of course prefer to see a peaceful and stable political outcome. But this country in particular becomes an interesting test case, given the high levels of emerging communications connectivity and the high literacy of the population.

22 February 2006

Wanting to believe – the mystique of intelligence

The word intelligence itself has an aura about it. To say it is to invoke old and restless spirits: whispering sentries, robed advisors to crowns long since corroded to dust, the dark secrets of countless wartime nights and courtier’s eves. Those who do not have such a sense of history may feel only the modern mythos, the black-suited spookshow, the silent helicopters and all-seeing satellites and miniature microphones that everyone knows have to exist – or at least so they think.

The craft of intelligence is burdened by its mystique as much as it is has been sustained by it. In the United States, national intelligence has fortunately passed through the uncertainty of the earlier interwar eras that plagued the earliest efforts to premature downsizing and dissolution, and were the defining mindset of even our greatest contemporaries at the dawn of the Cold War as they too feared a repeat of what seemed an inevitable cycle. Then, every ounce of mystique was necessary to ensure that costly and poorly understood efforts were funded in the time of the extensive drawdowns after the long conflict, so that we could continue to practice this arcane art so many have reflexively assumed to be somehow immoral or at the very least ungentlemanly.

Today, however, the organizations and actors have become institutions, long since embedded in the fabric of our governance. It is the private sector that now struggles with the constant need to underline its definitions, and the constant struggle for funding and access that will permit it continuity. In its struggle it sometimes grasps for the mystique of its older brother – though whether it should or not is another matter. To wear another’s cloak, however rich a tapestry it may be, is sometimes worse than the humblest of rags if it is ill fitting.

The mystique has often been not only the lifeblood, in finance and in perception of need, but also the bedrock of credibility. The young analyst stands in the briefing room presenting not his own thoughts and opinions, but rather the wisdom that has been given the collective stamp of three letters and a crest – these days most often more than one, thanks to the proliferation of joint interagency working group task force commonality. It is not just a stack of paper with keen observations and learned judgements, it is a sanctified ritual complete with incantations scrawled in red or purple ink – a variety of initials scrawled ad infinitum. The consumer receives not merely the product, but a dose of the mystique to help him to swallow it. For most people in positions of power seek not advice, but validation of their power. And intelligence that provides good advice, and strong supporting materials upon which to base its recommendations and options, must be carefully coated so the consumer will accept it. The mystique is part of that coating, the shimmering glitter that is not gold concealing the otherwise overlooked pearl (or worthless dross and vapor, as the case may be.)

Thus the mystique does serve a value, or did once. But the reverse side of the equation is the damage it does. It is most often subtle, creeping and insidious. The mystique too often warps the collective practitioners, in our insular world behind the curtain. We begin to rely on the incantations to cover our slips of tongue or of pen. We assume we should be believed because our judgements carry with them the weight of many seals, and cannot understand why our consumers dismiss what is irrelevant or ill-served. We depend upon the mystique to shield us within the walls of our vaults, so that none may enter and pose challenge before the carefully crafted illusion is complete.

This is not to say we are dishonest, or even shamans clutching ancient beliefs. We as an aggregate body are but human, and we the authors just as much as anyone. It is a difficult enough thing to shatter our preconceptions day by day, and reexamine the tenants of our knowledge on every subject again and again to ensure we take nothing for granted. But intelligence is an ego investment profession. The mystique in some ways begins to define who we are, and not just for the posers and wannabes on the cocktail party circuit. Even the most respectable and most balanced among us to some extent defines themselves by the all-encompassing nature of the work – in some ways, we couldn’t be as good at what we do if we did not live and breathe it. But it is a far harder thing to reexamine who one is – this is for most the stuff of mid-life crisis or at least major life events, not a daily task on the to-do list. But in essence, that is what is demanded of analysts seeking to avoid the pitfalls of too-hardened mindsets and other flavours of cognitive bias. The measure to which we succeed is often based as much on the flexibility of personality than the rigor of imposed training or personal discipline – but one aspect of the myriad of factors that combine to self-select the practitioners that will stand above the crowd.

The mystique also imposes its burden upon us. We must live up to it, in the view of our managers and our consumers and even ourselves. It drives us to ever more elaborate organizational structures, fancier power-point presentation slides, more complex simulation videos. This drive can benefit both the quality and nature of our work. However, that burden can sometimes impose delays, add unnecessary layers of ornamentation, compound costs and overall reduce utility to the consumer. When a single page will do, we are sometimes compelled to send a dozen, or if we are more sophisticated we may send a page a day for a month, or worse yet establish a standing requirement that the page becomes a recurring product that will outlast our involvement – perhaps even our tenure. And, of course, this also will perpetuate the mystique as we refer to that product in future briefings and lessons learned documents.

Whether we like it or not, the mystique is a part of us. It is passed on, generation to generation, renewed in the oral histories relayed over coffee or in the conference rooms or even in the ever-more frequent memoirs of those who have been there and back. It is not just a sub-culture – it is the dominant paradigm. Why? Because at the end of the day, we all want to believe. It justifies our sacrifices, the long hours and the thankless labour in windowless basements or cramped cubicles under the glare of artificial lighting. It justifies the old computers and the slow networks, the low pay and ancient industrial-era human resources practices. We need the mystique because if we did not have it, we would need to find another justification. Or worse yet, we might question and find no satisfactory answers.

And then what would we believe?

21 February 2006

The state of commercial imagery....

Having been involved in the first generation of true high resolution commercial imaging satellite systems, your authors are continually amazed as to the uses which they are now being put. Entire market segments of the industry now exist that few could have ever predicted. The volume of use by academics and think tanks in addressing classic intelligence problems in the open source is one of these.

It is shocking to many to see what previously was the domain of only a few narrow experts now become available at a low price point.

If nothing else, this bodes well for teaching intelligence in the future. No longer does one have to make do as an instructor with a few dozen declassified images from national technical means or low resolution LANDSAT images in order to illustrate difficult problem classes.

Even more interesting is the availability of imagery to support the non-IMINT instructors. The issues of proliferation, denial and deception, and comparative military balance alone have been forever altered by this information now in the public sphere.

By way of example, see the latest article in Imaging Notes looking at the PRC’s nuclear capabilities – including underground facilities.

What happens now for imagery will soon also happen in other collection disciplines. The community is losing its monopoly. The question then becomes, what will sustain their relationships with consumers when they are no longer the exclusive source of certain classes of information?

Futures studies interview

Boing Boing points us to the following interview of Paul Saffo, of the Institute for the Future. It's a wide ranging piece that covers everything from information consumption and information overload to social communications to emerging technologies; and of course the art of the long view.

Worth reading even if you are not in the futures intel side of the house.

19 February 2006

Islam in alternative futures

Islam as a religion and as a cultural force has long received short shrift in the study of history and contemporary international relations. That it is rarely featured in futures studies is therefore unsurprising.

We direct the reader's attention to several speculative fiction authors which have attempted to remedy this, at least in narrative.

The first is Robert Ferrigno's Prayers for the Assassin. We were not familiar with this author, and are now giving serious consideration to his writings on the subject. An interview with him by radio host Hugh Hewitt can be found here.

The second is another very eclectic speculative fiction writer who has combined alternative history with post-cyberpunk science fiction in a trilogy consisting of the books Pashazade, Effendi, and Felaheen. Jon Courtney Grimwood has a quite unique background and extensive living experience in the region, and his perspectives on Islam are shaped very much by these experiences. Being a British author, his works are sometimes difficult to locate here in the US, but it is possible.

The final author we seek to highlight focuses more on the contemporary world, but again in fictional treatment. Norman Lang's Last Ramadan is worth the time, although it is "lighter" in new concepts than some of the others mentioned here - being more of a thriller than a thought piece, it nonetheless addresses from experience Middle Eastern issues.

Again, one might ask why we pursue fiction in search of the future. We can offer no better retort than former DCI Woolsey's dictum that "9/11 was a failure of imagination" on the part of our intelligence services, and there is no more certain place to find imagination than in fiction unbounded by the constraints of the real world. Consider it, if you will, a form a divergence for futures analysis. We have found it fundamentally changes the behavior and thinking of analysts around us for the better when they are exposed to these kinds of authors and concepts; and for this reason we will continue to advocate such works on an occasional basis.

Small wars

The nature of unconventional warfare is surprisingly enduring, as is the direct experience of war itself over the centuries. For all of the innovation in technologies, armaments, and the very record of war itself, some lessons remain starkly engraved. These become our narratives, repeated and relayed from generation to generation so that knowledge may at least have its shadow handed down - for no one can truly yet adequately convey the visceral experience of combat to another. It is a life experience that has no equal - it must be gone through first hand.

However, our narratives have been shaped in recent decades by media sources which are not often helpful and certainly not favourable. The myth of the burned out Vietnam conflict veteran, despite being convincingly debunked by data profiling actual veterans and the efforts to expose many frauds and charlatans that have misappropriated the name for their own male compensatory fantasy; haunts us still. The myth of the Cold War as bloodless, despite the loss of so many brave men in the shadows. The myth of Desert Storm as surgical and "clean".

Worse yet is the complete lack of narrative structure regarding the small wars in countries of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere that have predominately characterized the military instrument in American foreign policy for decades. It is rare to see these brushfire conflicts and forgotten campaigns highlighted in contemporary discourse.

For this reason, we refer the readers to the latest posting over at Belmont Club regarding just such a fight. And for those seeking follow-on, Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power is also well worth the read.

For in this century, these are the narratives that will be of value in shaping our response to the wars we must fight, not the "good wars" of WWI & WWII. The ground may even be the same as our earliest conflicts.

17 February 2006

Generation Victory for the Long War

The Long War is dominated by transnational issues, from the very nature of the networked, asymmetric non-state adversary to the sources of its material, manpower, and funding support. Further, the interactions of this adversary with other states in the physical space and the critical information operations battlespace are fundamentally global in nature, and differ remarkably from any other war the United States has ever fought.

The 1990’s marked a period of remarkable commercial growth and prosperity brought about by rapid advances in communications, transportation, and information technologies; as well as the increasing liberalization of state economic and border policies. Treaties such as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the introduction of a common monetary system and monetary policy in the ever-closer European Union contributed significantly to the advances which permitted the free movement of people, goods, and most importantly of all, ideas, in ways never before possible. These phenomena are commonly referred to as globalization, and have fundamentally reshaped the geo-political landscape in ways that even now the Community struggles to describe. The impact of globalization is so profound that it can no longer be considered through its component indicators, but rather, in the words of the National Intelligence Council, now must be considered in a far different manner.

“Whereas in Global Trends 2015 we viewed globalization—growing interconnectedness reflected in the expanded flows of information, technology, capital, goods, services, and people throughout the world—as among an array of key drivers, we now view it more as a “mega-trend”—a force so ubiquitous that it will substantially shape all of the other major trends in the world of 2020.”

Noted defense analyst Thomas Barnett has characterized the impact of globalization as essentially re-drawing the map of the world, between the connected “Core” of globalized societies and the dysfunctional “Gap” of countries which have yet to integrate into the flows of globalization.

Beyond simply this difficulties posed by emerging consequences of state-failure and near-failure within countries in the Gap, the dynamics of globalization have a dark side - and that dark side profoundly characterizes the intelligence challenges represented by transnational issues. In matters such as commodities and human trafficking, weapons and weapons expertise proliferation, and non-state asymmetric terrorism there is a form of connectivity around which significant threat capabilities accrete and grow into robust network structures.

This hostile connectivity, as it might be termed, is not a new phenomenon but has previously been little considered by the intelligence community. It is defined by characteristics which are alien to us - degrees of religious fervor, tribal and clan relationships, proximity to a history and conflicts which have all but been forgotten if ever they were truly understood. It is based around the movement of commodities different than those valued in the Core: religious information, rare animal parts, child brides, undocumented workers, gold dowries, and narcotics. These things move in ways different to how the Core has structured its affairs: via smuggling, hawalas, exchanges within mosque and madrassas, or even passed from generation to generation in the countless interactions of childhood and maturity.

Hostile connectivity provides the essential driving fuel for the enduring low-intensity conflicts and forms of high intensity crime which haunt critical geographic theatres of operation from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa and from the Eastern Bloc to the Far East. It is the fundamental driver of militant Islamist terrorism as embodied by Al Qaeda and its successor affiliates. And most importantly, it is the natural vector and native home for the countless volume of cashflow generated by illegal black markets and illicit economies of corruption and bribery – the scale of which markets traditional economics remains at a loss to describe. It is the unrecognized priority linking a wide range of intelligence issues into a cohesive problem set.

Understanding these issues requires a degree of cultural immersion far different from that which the Community has approached previous targets. It is nearly impossible to measure from a Western perspective the emotional and instinctive value represented in so many of the commodities and services that fuel the dark side of globalization. Whether the symbolic import attached to holy writ such as the Koran or the Black Book of Yazidi religious sect, to the very real economic impact of coca or poppy cultivation in a society in which traditional farming has long embraced these crops as alternative agriculture – it is a fundamentally non-Western, and often pre-modern, perspective that draws heavily upon tradition and milieu.

More damningly, hostile connectivity has proven parasitic, exploiting new technologies in disruptive ways never originally anticipated from the Western perspective but which seem to flow naturally from a different tradition and perspective. To quote the futurist and science fiction author William Gibson, “The street finds its own uses for things - uses the manufacturers never imagined.” This is particularly so, one might add, of the Islamic street, as one views the range of unconventional attack options pursued by Al Qaeda – from hijacked airliners to chemical and biological weapons, from poisoned waters to fiendishly sophisticated improvised explosive devices. The pace of change of technology, driven by Moore’s Law and its descendents and all the investments of the Western world’s feverish race for its own technological singularity across numberless areas of research, only highlights the problems facing the Community.

And the Community that must face these challenges is very much a hidebound creature, far more used to the slow pace of change presented in quadrennial defense reviews and the occasional Congressional or Presidential Commission. Whole accounts now emerge overnight, demanding in depth coverage and expertise in areas never before considered of import to policy makers or even of value to intelligence planners. New forms of wealth and the restless movement of the unbound “herds” of individuals empowered in unprecedented ways combine with the ever smaller developmental and operational signatures of threats, and new sanctuaries for these threats to create multiple “perfect storms” of intelligence challenges for which the Community may be barely if at all adequate to weather.

To properly understand and meet these challenges, the Community faces radical changes to its structure, organizations, methods of collection, and most importantly personnel. The first changes continue to be grappled with, as the implications of the establishment of a new National Intelligence Director and support staff begin to become clear; as new technologies and approaches are brought to bear in the brutally Darwinian world of counterterrorism operations, and as the privatization of the intelligence community proceeds ever faster.

But the Community remains curiously, if not fatally, reluctant to address major personnel changes in an effective and timely manner, caught in competing priorities for attention and funding which naturally favour more expensive technological platforms and larger bureaucratic issues than the comparatively mundane world of human resources issues. These issues will continue to loom larger as more experienced intelligence hands face retirement and the demand for new analysts and collectors continues unabated. Unless the community comes to grip with the need for major changes in its culture and human resources practices, the failure to address commonly cited concerns will have a profound impact on the generation after next recruitment and retention.

It will be hard enough to convince that generation of analysts and collectors to come into a vault once they realize that the community is at its core another government bureaucracy as the mystique wears off, when they could be telecommuting from somewhere warm with a beach and picking their own hours crafting some policy wonkish dissertation on the latest crisis - especially for those that aren’t working with truly sensitive source data but open source information or even third generation rehashes of somebody else’s summarized take. It will be even harder when they are fully connected, networked, wired and they find out they have to stop posting to their blog, stop chatting about work over IM, and they can’t even take their cellphones or PDA’s or even their animatronic memory toys with them into work. The serious ones will begin to put up with it for a while, but the silence with grate upon them in ways it never did for their predecessors. It will be not just the demands of professional silence but the imposed isolation – the truly disconnected fire-walled blacked out vault. This will be perhaps the hardest of all for them – especially as reputation based server protocols are developed and where one’s public persona begins to have a direct effect on one’s quality of life.

And on top of this, despite an overabundance of extremely expensive group marketing designed to attract common interest and achieve economies of scale for mass market consumer commodity producers, tomorrow’s professionals will be far more individualistic in many ways than those emerging from today’s pop monoculture. They will greatly resent having to submerge that individualism for the sake of a monolithic intelligence culture shaped as much by its perception of mystique as relevant security or actual secrecy. They will be used to, and will continue to expect, the ability to pursue whatever odd personal interest strikes their fancy to the darkest regions of the net or realspace, whichever is easier. Limitations on foreign contacts will stop them from obtaining the latest audio rip of that “weird tribal drum thing that came out of the last war in the Rift Valley”, which is only available to those willing to endure excruciatingly long pseudo psych questionnaires built by a cultish shaman group bent on harvesting “souls” - something the group believes it can do through the collection of immense amounts of personal data. Limitations on travel will stop them from hopping the next transatlantic to party with their friends in the ruins of old Algiers or even just hiking through the Central Asian desert in pursuit of some four thousand year old Tibetan genetic samples. Classification and technology transfer restrictions will stop them from pursuing their home-built hobby shop seismic imaging apparatus so they can pre-map newly discovered cave complexes before embarking on their latest spelunking expedition. And if these pursuits sound odd, a mid-level manager in tomorrow’s Community won’t even know what hit him when his brand new analyst with the multiple fiber optic woven piercings and glowing animated skin art is standing in front of his desk with a leave application and overseas travel declaration with just a set of lat / long bounding rectangles and the scrawled annotation “by the bhodi tree”.

What makes these descriptions even more remarkable is that they are but the tip of a future iceberg, because all of these are just the ones capable of being postulated today. The community will need these kinds of minds – as odd as it may find them – because tomorrow’s Opposing Force will be far stranger. These are the minds which will overcome the challenges posed by transnational issues – for they will be transnational citizens, born and bred in a world so fundamentally altered by the forces of globalization that it will bear almost no resemblance to that of its predecessors. These children of globalization will be the first generation to truly be capable of confronting at a native and intimate level the impact and implications of the dark side of globalization and hostile connectivity. They will be the generation which will bring victory in the Long War.

The community blogging....

Again, as promised we do not often engage in the near metaphysical discussion of blogging as a subject unto itself. The range of those that have called for greater use of blogging encompasses just about anyone that takes up the digital ink. Sometimes, these are even worth reading. Regardless, this is a subject rather well covered by others, and the truly interesting aspects are in the participation not the abstract.

The range of community professionals which actually blog is however much, much smaller. We wish to take a moment to highlight some of their work, as they have been in the space longer than we and of course have a lot to offer simply by virtue of their different focus areas and interests.

The first is actually a group blog at Terrorism Unveiled which includes on individual whose work we have been reading since she was at university and traveling in the Mideast. We did not realize that she and her collegue are now bona fide members of the community, but we are not surprised that someone of such intellect and literary gift would find a natural home to common interests.

The second is another group effort (Group Intel) by many of the contributors from the Terrorism Research Center. We have to give these individuals unique credit, because they have been in the space since before 9/11 which makes them quite rare indeed. There are only a few of us out there, surrounded by a sea of newcomers. (And while we hasten to add many of the newcomers are themselves quite professional, the old hands are well worth knowing.) TRC has also recently caught our attention for a unique Red Cell training effort in conjunction with Blackwater. We might well have chosen to attend had we not just spent far too much time in austere environs, eating poorly prepared goat and lamb, and losing our hearing to gunfire and explosions. Plus, we just shaved our beards and are not eager to go back to that state of dress again... Maybe next time.

There may well be others we have missed today, and deserve our attention. We will endeavor to present these to you as they come to our notice.

16 February 2006


There are few things more damaging to good analysis than interruptions. Most of our tools and much of our lifestyle, unfortunately seem designed to encourage rather than reduce interruption.

Case in point, the loss of the last attempted post; ironically on writing intelligence. Lessons learned - drafts must not be saved in web applications which have a history of losing posts.

Original post will be recreated, but not at the moment.

Perspectives on wealth and the machine of money

We quote extensively from Bruce Sterling on more than one occasion within these pages. In part, it is because he has in abundance the one quality which was most lack in the antebellum – imagination. He has literally reinvented his career as a wordsmith in enough different venues to command respect for his written accomplishments alone, but he always brings a unique angle – speculative fiction, industrial design, party planning, and futurism – to the study of particular problems. His vision is a useful predictor of things to come, although even he acknowledges the challenges of that profession.

His latest piece, for Forbes, is a treatise on the futures of money.

This is also something another of our favorites addressed. To quote once again from Proteus,

But there, in 2020, we wanted to explore the fundamental underpinnings of Wealth. It is easy, in our opinion, to wax on about the global economy and the wired world, but it is anyone's guess whether or not those trends will continue. There are many plausible scenarios (and we postulated some) in which they did not.

For us, the questions are not whether a global economy will or will not continue or whether the poor will always be with us. Rather, the central questions were:

  • What will people value in the future? For in Wealth, there is much Power - anciently and in the future.
  • How will Wealth work in the future? Before Croesus, barter was the method, and goods were independently valuable. After Croesus, money itself filled both roles. We were looking for the possibility of similar revolutions.
  • Finally, apart from the physical possession of commodities themselves, how will the Wealth of the future be measured in space and time? How will trade, the movement of Wealth, be accomplished, measured, and monitored in the future?

At length, we found evidence of broad change afoot. Across all of the scenarios, we saw that money will still be valued in the future. However, in the press of environmental, social, spiritual, and cultural concerns manifested in what we called Herds, people increasingly will come to place very high value on less fungible assets, such as knowledge, safety, health, personal networks, and privacy. These new "currencies" and the interrelationships that lead to their acquisition will be more vulnerable to manipulation than money. To some degree, we witnessed the undoing of Croesus' coup: in our futures, things that are valued highly are less easily standardized.

We also saw that significant threats to national well-being will emerge from shifts in the global economy. These threats might result from deliberate "attacks" or they could be spawned by the confluence of myriad economic decisions that are, in turn, based on highly complex interactions and-importantly-transaction flows.

Because opportunities and threats emerge from new or unexpected sources of Wealth, it is vital to understand the new forms of economic value creation. In several of our workshops, the participants undertook successful, rudimentary efforts to define models for next-age economic value creation. This effort led us to believe that a more concerted expert-level experiment workshop might bear fruit in the near term.

We also believe that the key to understanding how Wealth works in the future lies in building models in which we can define new kinds of observables within dynamic transaction flows. To us, this task is not the same as trying to model how the stock market functions or understanding -whether a particular company or sector will increase or decrease in value. Much work is underway on those challenges. Here, we are concerned with what Wealth will be and how it will be created and distributed in the future.

We have seen a number of non-currency forms of wealth in the market of attention of which the blogsphere is a part; and as a result a number of related debates have emerged regarding the state of that market. Like any other economy, there is competition and uncertainty.

The defining standard which set the reference for emerging digital currency was ironically also laid out by another of the post-cyberpunk speculative fiction authors, Neal Stephenson, in his work Cryptonomicon. Always a recommended read for the accessible manner in which his thoughts are presented, we have seen the very thing he envisioned come to light. However, in the real world it became a much more mundane application – the creation of a virtual currency not for “Atomizing society. Making the world safe for drug traffickers and Third-World kleptocrats" but rather as part of a game.

And the success of that virtual currency, used in a fictional world but traded for actual dollars, was so stunning that early estimates indicated economic activity on the scale of Russia’s GNP and an exchange rate nearly equal to the Japanese yen. This research led to an entire specialization of academic disciplines, one that we still follow with some interest because of its value as a micro-scale model for the issue as a whole. For the first virtual world’s currency has spawned imitators both in other games and for other purposes. Its value in aggregating wealth to specific purpose is only now emerging, and it also parallels the astounding growth of alternative online remittance services.

These are challenges not even the financial community is prepared to deal with. The services themselves are emerging and will disrupt traditional business models so profoundly that even the giants of the traditional anti-money laundering world will be hard pressed to adapt. In the end, it is more than likely that the global scale of black money – virtual or otherwise – is simply so much higher than any previous estimate that it may likely overwhelm traditional analysis.

It is a daunting gauntlet cast down before us.

15 February 2006

Released HARMONY documents....

The ever invaluable Counterterrorism Blog points to the following West Point study "Harmony and Disharmony Exploiting Al Qaeda's Organizational Vulnerabilities" which is compromised of released Al Qaeda documents from the HARMONY database.

In short, it is a stunning declassification move to see such material released for open examination. It is even more critical as it offers a rare public window into the correspondence and workings of the primary adversary in this Long War, a first and most useful step to help understand their activities.

This is one of the finest analysis for current information operations perspective that the authors have yet seen in the open source. We are devouring it as this is being written, and recommend highly its review - not least of which because it offers both English and Arabic versions of the original source documents for deeper study.

This should be an immediate teaching text. Many thanks to those over a CT blog which pointed it out to us.; and of course to the USMA for conducting this research in the first place.

New challenge for crypto types

Bruce Schneier has a new cryptogram up on his site as a challenge for all the cryppies out there.... there is some dispute as to its origin, but the backstory is that is allegedly was a note found at the site of a murder / suicide in Feb 2004.

For the rest of the world that isn't inclined towards homegrown codebreaking efforts, this is as good a time as any to bring up again that most wonderful of sculpture pieces, the Kryptos sculpture. While your authors are not normally art fans for the most part, this piece is truly captivating on multiple levels - as was its companion installation art piece, the Cyrillic Projector.
If only there were a larger range of such intelligence oddities as these two latter pieces. But then again, its a very specialized market segment, and part of the appeal is that such things cannot be mass produced.

The continued questions of existence…

Several individuals have recently asked your authors why we remain fixated on the question of the profession’s future, and all that flows from this.

This is a difficult thing to answer. The short form is that here we stand, at the midpoint of the 0’dark decade, having been at war since the first year of the century’s turning. (And while your authors were well aware of the war before hand, the difference between the antebellum policies of deliberate ignorance and “watch and wait” versus the post-11th world are so striking the delineation has been made clear by history. But we will never forget where we were New Year’s Eve 2000 and the near miss averted through what can be best described as sheer luck.)

And what do we find? We have listened as the DCI himself demanded the rest of the decade to rebuild the clandestine service.

We have watched as critical collection programs are compromised over domestic political debates – and stood amazed as the President of the United States himself had to utter words we never dreamed to hear him say; and publicly visit a place once so secret it did not even have a public name.

We have watched a deceptive narrative form around major issues of intelligence policy – an alternative conspiracy theory in which leakers speak only truth to power and no secret is safe as long as it advance abstract standards held forth by those that have never seriously considered the practice of the profession nor the underlying need for its service.

We have seen the cannibalistic results of a broken security clearance system which neither protects from unauthorized disclosures nor meets the human resources needs of its organizations. We have seen the corrosive effects of dysfunctional processes which impact hiring, retention, advancement, and job satisfaction for dozens if not hundreds of individuals of our direct acquaintance.

We have watched the proliferation of lawyers at all levels of the profession, and seen the damage that inappropriate use of their services has done. We have watched countless times as those without prior CT experience choose to start their fight against the adversary not with that hard targets, the people of whom we know little, but with the English speaking Westernized subjects which are easiest to follow. And there are no easier subjects than those inside the community.

And at the end of the day, we stand at a turning point in history. The community, and the profession, are not only engaged in a Long War with our adversaries but are convulsed by intercine struggles as industrial age bureaucracies and functions meet information age and network era challenges.

We feel that it is not enough to criticize. We must work towards a new path, a way forward that will build upon strengths and shore up weaknesses. We must find a better solution. This blog, the public version of our open source research, is part of the process by which we explore these issues in search of a solution.

The consequences of failure are first irrelevance, and then the gravest of outcomes for national security. This cannot be allowed to happen on our generation's watch.

13 February 2006

Unlinked accounts….

One of the most pervasive difficulties in working any of the “cyber” accounts (cyber crime, information operations, etc.) is the serious disconnect between most professionals view of the Parallel World and the “real”. In no small part this is because many of the earliest indicators of major issues online tend to impact only what can be at best charitably described as trivial concerns – the vast bulk of communications online being the normal everyday affairs of a civilian population at peace. However, this casual attitude belies the gravity which lurks beneath the surface.

Consider then this:

Seattle-Area Website for Girls Club Hacked by Angry Muslims and Nobody Cares

The item also mentions one European private group involved in tracking online adversary activity. Of course, its more widely known counterpart is Internet Haganah.

Tying together cyberspace and “meatspace” is one of the hardest intelligence problems faced in dealing with World Theater. Effects are synchronized not merely in time but also by meme. Thus far, there are few tools or analytical techniques which are designed to aid in this effort; and most collection systems, production workloads, and reporting streams are not designed to address these classes of problems.

Absent training and experience, it is difficult for many analysts and other intelligence professionals to come to terms with these apparently unlinked activities - let alone the kind of challenge this poses to the law enforcement and security communities.

Insight from Schneier on biological aspects of the Parallel World

Bruce Schneier, for those that do not know of him, is a fairly serious expert in the realm of cryptography, computer defense, secure communications, and related security areas. Your authors may not always agree with what the gentleman has to say, but he is always worth the time to read.

He also occasionally produces fascinating insight into certain problem classes, such as in this quote below from an evaluation of Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 7 web browser.

But the masses still use IE, and our security depends in part on those masses keeping their computers worm-free and bot-free.

Too often online security takes a similar approach to its real world counterparts in that it focuses on establishing a strong perimeter and hardening its own defended assets. However, many contemporary online security problems are spawned from the widespread compromise of vulnerable segments of online populations – who in turn in aggregate become responsible for infection of other systems and attacks against the smaller number of defended citadels as part of botnets and other swarm tactics.

This calls to mind many of the problems faced when discussing security in an active biological environment, whether bio-war or bio-terrorism. Adequate protection comes not only from securing a hardened perimeter but demands epidemiological surveillance and response.

These are fundamentally intelligence-led challenges demanding robust watch & warning and predictive analysis responses. They are also rarely taught well…

Balkanization of the Parallel World

A number of sources have pointed to the following piece of satirical micro theatre.

Regrettably, this is not the first time such a thing has been discussed. In fact, it is almost a planning factor for those in the community forward leaning enough to anticipate future challenges; let alone those that listen to outsider sources in speculative fiction.

Bruce Sterling wrote about the potential for autonomous, mobile communication networks based out of a small package on the back of a motorcycle in peril of careless damage by ignorant local law enforcement in his version, a warning by an early activist for digital property rights. While his vision was modeled on the bulletin board systems technology of the day, like many things in the world of computing these things come full circle.

A relatively obscure and anonymous author whose work is no longer appears to be extant (having been authored online in the long vanished days of the public spam free Usenet) wrote about “webstates” and the impact and eventual importance of virtual nationalities in the early days of the emergence of bounded “premium” networks such as Compuserve and AOL.

Neal Stephenson mentioned the impact of exclusive communications networks on social interactions, and the problems such networks would pose for surveillance systems (whether government sponsored or otherwise.)

In our own modern reality, we face compounded layers of darknets, competing and incompatible protocols, and increasingly exclusive ways to utilize what previously was considered the information commons. Much of this is driven by corporate profit motives – sometimes for the eventual benefit of the overall marketplace, sometimes to irrational and short-sighted ends.

Your authors fear that this Balkanization will inevitably occur. The so-called “Great Firewall of China” proves that if not entirely technically feasible, it is at least within the realm of bureaucratic attempts. For those willing to build entire new networks from the ground up and mandate their exclusive use, it is actually fundamentally easy – as numerous government systems familiar to us all prove.

Discussing this future for the “public” Internet is not just a matter for privacy advocates or copyfighters. This will fundamentally alter the casual interactions and low barrier to entry connectivity which has done more to advance the literature and profession of intelligence than anything in American history short of Congress’s first appropriations during the Revolutionary War.

It will be a sobering and difficult challenge to face an era of Balkanized networks. Predictive analysis starts now, and it may take a generation to evolve robust collection platforms and effective analytical tradecraft to understand these environments when they emerge. It certainly has taken longer in the age of a more or less uniform singular "Internet" environment; which to this day one could strongly argue is still not properly understood. It should go without saying that in the Long War and its aftermath, this time will be a luxury we will not enjoy.

12 February 2006

Now that's real analysis

Some days it is difficult for analysts, especially those tied to desks in the bowels of dark undisclosed locations, to see the impact of their work. Sometimes the old accounts seem forgotten and all you are left with is a head full of bad memories of atrocities in a bad place no one else even remembers.

Then something like this comes along, and reminds you that some things are never really forgotten.

How statistics caught Indonesia's war-criminals
Statistical methods have been used to settle the question of wartime atrocities committed by Indonesian forces against the people of East Timor. The island of East Timor (now Timor-Leste) was occupied by Indonesian troops from 1975 to 1999.

A truth and reconciliation commission was convened to explore the scope of the mass murder on the island, and Patrick Ball, a "forensic statistician" was called in to extrapolate the full scope of the wartime deaths that can be laid at the feet of the Indonesian occupiers.

Likewise, for those interested in the old account, we recommend the book “Masters of Terror: Indonesia's Military and Violence in East Timor in 1999.”

Information overload in the real world continued - the open source dimension

Your authors will rarely delve into discussions of meta-blogging…. Those most self-referential of conversations regarding the sausage making which produces words for screen. It is our considered opinion that most of these discussions are merely the modern incarnation of the starving artist’s affection, and at best are merely the backroom gossip of a new publishing industry. This includes efforts by commentators and critics to engage us regarding the availability or frequency of comments, graphics, advertising, or any of the dozen other editorial policy issues that arise when blogging.

However, we make an exception and are willing to engage in a limited degree of navel gazing when it comes to evaluating the blogsphere, and the technology space it arises from, as a whole. It is a fundamental requirement of our mission mandate that we occasionally peer at the turtles upon which this Parallel World is carried.

One of the best and most authoritative sources by which we may observe the changes in this particular segment of communications space is Dave Sifry’s re-occuring State of the Blogosphere series. The respect accorded to this individuals writings is derived from his position as founder and CEO of Technorati – we always listen to any man that builds and owns a non-traditional collection platform.

A News Cycle Measured in Megahertz ....

.... We track about 1.2 Million posts each day, which means that there are about 50,000 posts each hour. At that rate, it is literally impossible to read everything that is relevant to an issue or subject, and a new challenge has presented itself - how to make sense out of this monstrous conversation, and how to find the most interesting and authoritative information out there.

Key highlights from his summary which are also of interest:

  • Technorati now tracks over 27.2 Million blogs
  • The blogosphere is doubling in size every 5 and a half months
  • It is now over 60 times bigger than it was 3 years ago
  • On average, a new weblog is created every second of every day
  • 13.7 million bloggers are still posting 3 months after their blogs are created
  • Spings (Spam Pings) can sometimes account for as much as 60% of the total daily pings Technorati receives
  • Sophisticated spam management tools eliminate the spings and find that about 9% of new blogs are spam or machine generated
  • Technorati tracks about 1.2 Million new blog posts each day, about 50,000 per hour
Needless to say, this is a daunting volume of material in which relevant and valuable signal is no doubt originating at this very moment. The challenge here goes beyond technologies a core questions of the community – stealing secrets or creating knowledge?

When one considers that this is just one fragment of the entire open source problem space, even the most veteran OSINT proponent must stand in awe at the task before him. One wishes Mr. Jardines’ new organization the best of luck in this endeavor.

For those with extra time on their commute and space on their iPod, a recent (January 2006) interview with Mr. Jardines is available via podcast.

11 February 2006

Predicting Europe

The current cartoon jihad has merely brought to a head many of the major issues that have so bedeviled any predictions regarding Europe’s near and medium term future. Longer term predictions are somewhat easier, given that the current demographic data now supports a view that has all but sealed its fate – one that Ehrlich influenced alarmists from earlier decades would find all but unimaginable.

Nonetheless, it is the more pressing concerns of the day, and the tomorrow to follow, which naturally dominate our interest. For this, we refer readers to the excellent unclassified study and supporting papers conducted by the National Intelligence Council for the 2020 Project on Mapping The Global Future. (The European supporting series may be found here.)

For all its innovation in fostering outreach through its Dialogue with Experts – for which its staffers should be given much credit - one wonders however how much the distributed collaborative analysis made possible by new technologies and new relationships may outpace the NIC effort; particularly on longer term grand strategic predictions which do not need to rely upon classified information but merely require the right thinkers fed by the right research.

Historical Analogy in Analysis

The esteemed historian Victor Davis Hanson offers yet again an instructive lesson in perspectives on historical analogy which is of value for intelligence analysis. Some commentators have dismissed him as merely an administration apologist, but this is a grave disservice both to the man and to his work.

While many have warned against the perils of the technique of historical analogy, such as Jeffrey Record’s paper from the Air War College, few have so demonstrated its strengths when properly applied. Some theoretical basis is supplied in the classic 1959 Studies in Intelligence article by Cyrus Peake, “History's Role in Intelligence Estimating", now declassified and available online here.

Emerging media

It is not often such a “perfect storm” of events comes to pass: during the cartoon jihad, we are seeing are radical shift in the importance of new media’s role in helping to understand the dynamics of the crisis, particularly as the events have spread so rapidly to involve so many countries and institutions in difficult and damning choices. The level of intimidation caused by a few carefully stage managed events, synchronized not in time or space but through cascading effects in the information environment, is frankly from an amoral, strictly technical standpoint something to behold indeed. However, from all other rational points of view it is grave and troubling harbinger of things to come.

More interestingly, this crisis has forced a number of once-venerated media and political institutions into verbal and ethical contortions in order to justify actions suppressing what is entirely a question of free speech, for good or ill. Among the fascinating arguments that have developed is one that makes explicit what many analysts and commentators have long realized: that some major media organizations have assigned to themselves the role of gatekeepers in the information environment, and no longer being concerned with the reporting of information are actually the arbiters of truth.

The argument is one that is very familiar to those in the intelligence community, however shocking it is to now observe in journalists and news organizations which once trumpeted their objective approach to “just the facts”, let alone within supra-national entities such as the EU. The community has for so long grappled with this issue largely because it is a fundamental dilemma of those that possess unique sources must resolve, and it is not always an easy question. The role of editing and coordination is in the authors experience often akin to Dante’s vision of the damned, and in one agency in particular was generally referred to as the “Seven Layers of Hell” even in the presence of senior managers. One of the reasons, beyond politics and turf and rice bowls, that editing is such a painful process is this burden of gatekeeping, demanded of the community due to its role as close partner to the policy-maker and guardian of his (or her) scarcest of commodities – attention.

Again, nowhere is this better illustrated than in Proteus: Insights from 2020 (Copernicus Institute Press). We quote once more:

In whatever way these ancient peoples saw themselves and the world around them, most anthropologists agree they were as "modern" physiologically and intellectually as we are today. However they conveyed the knowledge they acquired, and the manner in which knowledge arose for them, was the same as it is for us. For untold millennia, epistemology has held that knowledge arises from three sources:

  • From authority (the leader says it is true)
  • From empiricism (the mammoth is bigger than I am)
  • From revelation (God says it is true)
Proteus showed us a number of frightening prospects, but none more shocking or perplexing than the possibility that, for the first time in human experience, a fourth kind of knowledge may be arising. In our work, we found that the use of complex, interconnected global networks can lead to the spontaneous creation of knowledge. This discovery is significant for two reasons:

  • First, the speed with which new knowledge was created and disseminated in our worlds was nothing short of remarkable.
  • Second, the new knowledge was silent on intrinsic truth or falsehood.
In other words, we were startled to discover that what was demonstrably true could become demonstrably false if enough people believed in it, and if the knowledge moved across the globe fast enough. Thus, knowledge in our worlds took on a set of changeable "states" that were mutable in a wired world.

We struggled as a group to understand Veracity, recognizing as we did the implications to the Intelligence Community. In the end, we could grasp it only by example and metaphor. Some of us came to understand Veracity in terms of knowledge and anti-knowledge - a parallel with the ideas in physics of matter and antimatter. For others, the best examples were from economics: the idea that if favorable (or unfavorable) information on a company circulated far and fast enough, it might become true even if the information was completely fabricated. There is, however, a subtlety to this example that belies its initial clarity. Unlike propaganda or deception, with which we have much experience, here the illusion actually becomes reality.

The study goes onto describe findings that emerged from the participants attempts to grapple with this question.

During the "insiders" workshop, significant debate arose not only about the Community's core mission, but also - on an almost metaphysical plane - whether the world, in fact, was knowable. For not a few - and to the surprise of the rest - the world was indeed knowable, if not quantifiable, and the mission of the Intelligence Community was to be the "arbiter of truth," a phrase that stunned the opposing, more philosophical camp. In one instance, a very senior former intelligence officer left one of the workshops after making the point that U.S. intelligence inevitably would "know” what had gone on in the ensuing years from the present to the scenarios of 2020. So, any vagary was, in his view, unlikely. "We would know it," he said.

He was not alone, and this is not surprising. In fact, it is chipped in stone in the marble foyer of the CIA's Original Headquarters Building: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:32

The idea of Veracity, its nature, and its achievement in the pursuit of intelligence collection is a core issue. Not only did we find the frightening prospect of new kinds of knowledge divorced from either truth or falsehood, but also we uncovered a fundamental fissure in the bedrock of the Intelligence Community's view of itself.

The painful level of self-realization that comes with admitting that one has for so long played the role of arbiter under other auspices, perhaps to our detriment, is one that still haunts a number of professionals. That soul searching is part of the burden which was imposed after 9/11, when the magnitude of failures both personal and collective came to rest on the shoulders of those thrust into the Long War. To this day, the media has all but ignored its own role in shaping the public information commons, and perception of the threat, that also played a key role in leading up to that day, and continues to impact the conduct of the war. The increasing number of media professionals admitting and even embracing their gate-keeping roles can only lead to such questions and must inevitably produce pressure for accountability.

Equally interesting from your author’s perspective is the manner in which this commentary was “authoritatively” briefed – through a new “Current” program segment available through Google’s video service. While not new, Google Current bears closer examination.

Leaving aside all questions of authorship, intent, and the politics of personal identity behind the attack on Michelle Malkin which mar this particular segment; the entire concept is stunning. We are watching a current information product, briefed through distributed online video, driven by the zeitgeist of aggregated individual attention. The deeper meaning of its content is nearly secondary to its form. This is the kind of innovation which will erode not only the mindshare currently owned by the 24/7 news organizations but will utterly destroy staple segments of the intelligence community’s product base, especially as the techniques for sampling the zeitgeist become more widespread and refined and the delivery systems customized and automated – perhaps through a virtual avatar, perhaps through something we have not yet envisioned. In short, this will turn from information into intelligence in short order. Couple this with a mobile delivery system that integrates well with the customer’s lifestyle with the same ease as a podcast or a Blackberry, and it may well be the daily brief for the new millennium.

This is not something that the traditional community is even positioned to create or even to influence. The only way to build such a capability belongs entirely to search engines, not classic SIGINT organizations, and it is likely that a specialized search shop like a Cyveillance or a Technorati or a Blogpulse could better exploit and analyze such data in any event.

And it will be up to an entirely different kind of professional at the policy and operational levels to utilize such a capability in support of efforts to wield soft power in the national interest.

Revisiting black swans

Your authors are consistently amazed that even given the fragmented state of today’s intelligence literature, and the lack of incentives provided to make it worth the time of analysts and collectors to keep pace with it (as well as the active dis-incentives often imposed on those that do so attempt) that there are entire concepts of discussion that entirely pass by senior individuals or entire organizations. Whether the originator may be right or wrong, controversial or dull, there are some new ideas which have had such an impact on the discussion of the craft or offer the potential to so completely disrupt the profession’s underlying tenets that to be ignorant of them is unimaginable.

It is for this reason we revisit once again Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s use of the metaphor of the Black Swan. Circulating in both paper and podcast form, please pass this around to the analysts, collectors, and managers around you and hopefully spare us and yourself from the kind of painful discussions we have lately endured.

10 February 2006

Yeoman’s work…

We wish to call your attention to a few otherwise quiet professionals who have been doing yeoman’s work analyzing one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Long War.

First, we highlight Cori Dauber of Rantingprofs. Ms. Dauber is an intellect of unique refinement and a blogger of long standing. She also happens to be an Associate Professor of Communication Studies (and of Peace, War, and Defense) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as a Research Fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

Her writings have done much to call attention to the media aspects of enemy behavior, and the impact of Third Voice decisions – particularly by those in mainstream media organizations – on the contemporary information environment. Where she leads, others are advised to follow.

Right now, she is on point in analyzing the cartoon jihad– a major strategic event in the Long War that has not only crossed over from the Parallel Universe of cyberspace but has become the very embodiment of World Theatre.

The second is Dr. Michael Waller holds the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair in International Communication at the Institute for World Politics, and blogs at the Fourth World War. Most should recognize the allusion to former DCI James Woolsey’s and Eliot Cohen’s construction of the GWOT in this title.

Dr. Waller is notable for the depth and quality of his scholarship in areas relating to propaganda, information operations, and political warfare. His most recent paper, “The American Way of Propaganda”, is now available through IWP and promises to be a most interesting read. He has been a lone voice in the wilderness for many years now, and his work deserves close attention from intelligence professionals who wish to understand the IO environment.

The realm of soft power such as public diplomacy, information operations, and political warfare is among the most difficult instruments of national power to wield and to analyze. It is rarely taught and even more rarely incorporated into the body of intelligence literature. These individuals should be commended for their efforts and serve as a model others would do well to emulate.

Community after next?

One of the first questions that usually arises when discussing competitive dynamics and radical changes within the intelligence community is along the lines of "what happens when, as you assert, competition destroys existing structures and organizations in the community? What comes next?"

The short answer is that your authors do not know for sure. We are analysts and officers, not prophets. However, we have some ideas. And many of those ideas are drawn from watching similar developments in other core information and knowledge industries. We spend a great deal of time with venture capitalists, technologists, and some of the oddities of truly competitive markets for information. Over time, we hope to share some of the perspectives we have gained, in the hopes that it will lead to evolution rather than the alternatives faced by many other failed information businesses, such as Western Union or the dying mass market Big Media.

Open thread for comments

A recent traffic spike seems to indicate that it is time to open a thread for comments. Comments are usually going to be disabled due to the ever present irritation of comment spam and other forms of automated clickfraud, a plague upon our Parallel World and one that frankly your authors do not have the time or inclination to defend against. However, we are interested in good conversation regarding the profession, and are eager to hear the ideas of those who have not yet stepped into the discussion.

As a reminder, the comment policy on this blog is to edit or delete without warning any inappropriate information. However criticism, rants, and any other constructive input is always welcome. If this policy offends anyone, there are plenty of other places to comment in the blogsphere and trackbacks are enabled to help cue readers' (and our) attention to those other places.

The picture, for those not familiar, is the Checkpoint Charlie sign of our generation: seen just before departing military controlled areas down Route Irish in Iraq, once the most dangerous road in the world.

Conversations in intelligence analysis - the impact of voice

During the age of the dot com, rapid changes overtook many traditional brick and mortar businesses and many of those organizations simply could not react to, let alone keep pace with, the speed of new developments and the rate of value creation which in many cases imperiled their core business models. These organizations failed, often spectacularly, and often in surprisingly short timelines, in what suddenly became a brutally Darwinian marketplace. During this period, a group of technology adept and business savvy authors put forth their ideas on the causes and impacts of those failures – many of which still endure to this day. The resulting “Cluetrain Manifesto” has become in some ways a cult classic in the online community. While the work reflects a dated enthusiasm in the context of a particular historical era, it does not however automatically follow that the implosion of the unique bell epoch entirely invalidates the ideas that flowed at the most recent fin de siecle. They, like all other aspects of the profession, require evaluation. And the core concept of the Cluetrain is that markets are conversations.

The idea of the intelligence as a unique kind of market is one that merits some consideration. It is discussed elsewhere from time to time to varying reception by practitioners. The commercialization of intelligence has demonstrated the nature of this market dramatically – thus a paper from Joint Military Intelligence College recently estimated that the community was now made up of contractors for upwards of a third of its billets. (See footnotes page 5 in “Bringing Intelligence About”).

So, if one is prepared to stipulate that commercialization has already taken place to a not insignificant extent, there is by definition a market. Unfortunately, most intelligence agencies do not function with the recognition that they are actors in a marketplace – but rather as bureaucracies tethered to their rice bowls. This creates structures which cannot endure and whose output, like that of any other centrally-planned, state dominated industrial age organization, is doomed to fail in that marketplace.

It is also clear that the community is also not the only voice reaching the policymaker. The proliferation of competition inputs to has even spawned its terminology – the CNN effect – but it is not limited to merely major media channels. Decision maker attention has become fragmented as never before by competing and often contradictory streams and pressures.

Markets are by definition characterized by competition. Providers in these markets are competing for the attention (and by extension, affections – in the form of continued funding, access, or other intangibles of processes within government bureaucracies). So the question becomes, given the stated premise of markets as competing conversations, is the intelligence community using the correct voice in its conversations?

Intelligence community members tend to emphasize certain aspects of its collective voice – factors which are impersonal, distant, monolithic, and often arcane. These tend to be rejected by the consumer in some cases, and devalued in others. Moreover, increasingly consumers are distrustful of formal expertise – especially anointed expertise. They rightly understand that the issues they are confronted with are complex and rapidly changing, and many of these issues have emerged so quickly that few persons can truly claim a depth of understanding across any length of time. (The classic example of these suspect claims are found in the technical markets for programmers, in which selected individual’s resumes make claim to experience using a particular programming language or technology for longer than the language was in existence. Similar parallels exist for major intelligence accounts, especially in the post 9/11 world.)

This distrust is magnified by the choice of impersonal voices. Consumers rightly sense that many non-experts hide behind the corporate logo in an attempt to mask their own shortcomings, or more accurately that of the presented product. They no longer buy into the idea that a particular agency may have a “unique brand of analysis” that can be transmitted through its products independent of the people that generated them, no matter what kind of coordination or editing process nor what kind of corporate culture that may exist within the agency. Increasingly, the commodification of intelligence also means that not only can a similar (if not superior) grade of analysis can be obtained elsewhere in the marketplace, it may be easier and cheaper to obtain it elsewhere. Further, there is almost certainly going to be a greater deal of transparency available into the authorship, and sourcing of that analysis; and far fewer restrictions on the handling and use of that product. In a world driven by policymaker’s Blackberries, the latter restriction may be becoming increasingly more onerous than the perceived value of much of the products that form the staple output of some organizations.

In short, many consumers will instinctively seek out aspects of the personal in these conversations, because they are used to dealing with the personal. This is especially pronounced among policy-makers and senior management level decision-makers whose most critical professional skills fall into the soft areas of interpersonal interactions. These individuals routinely and constantly must evaluate information presented to them by individuals and use this to reach judgments – and the means by which they do so has nothing to do with a classification marking nor any number of joint task force ad-hoc working group logos.

These dynamics only grow stronger over time as new generations of policy-makers will emerge who will be far less tolerant of the impersonal and far more ready to seek out and utilize alternatives. Absent consideration of these factors, the relevance of traditional styles of production will continue to decline. This already may help to explain the growing trend towards “injected information” and ad-hoc analysis communicated by email, in person, or in hallway conversation that is rapidly overtaking classic papers as the primary channel of consumption for many intelligence consumers, especially in higher op-tempo environments.

The other hanging question that comes from re-conceptualizing intelligence as conversation is the same as faced by many media organizations: the sudden debate over ownership of that conversation. These concerns become magnified when consumers no longer trust their intelligence functions due to the alienating impacts of improperly understood voice.

Life hacks

For those intel professionals still stymied by technology, commuting, and the other hassles of a typical high distraction high stress environment, it may be advisable to take a page from some technology professionals and start exploring life hacks.

The term was first popularized by the technological bleeding edge at the Emerging Technology conference hosted by those most technical of individuals in the O'Reilly network.

It has since come to embrace a number of process and technological improvements to individual information use and productivity. Among the more prolific sources of new life hacks ideas is the blog 43 folders.

Regrettably, many of these depend on individuals being able to control their own technology environment - and many are optimized for open source software / linux / mac systems. Most community professionals are locked into their technologies by security restrictions - and face ever more obsolescent platforms and applications designed under arcane philosophies by the lowest bidder to the least common denominator.

Unless this changes, it will become just another part of the competitive pressures which will slowly render the community unable to keep pace with the contemporary operating environment and increasingly irrelevant to the decision makers - many of whom will have so completely adopted similar specialized life hacks that they will be unwilling (in not completely unable) to slow down to deal with the archaic approaches offered by the community, especially when they have other sources of information and analysis readily available to them.

09 February 2006

Further to social network analysis studies

There are a number of sources for further research on the advanced applications of social analysis techniques to transaction and communication data.

Among the better overviews on the web can be found at John Robb's Global Guerrillas blog, about which more later.

Alternatively, one can go straight to the authoritative university sources, and there is no better place to start in depth research than at Carnegie Mellon's Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems (CASOS).

Lastly, its applications in intelligence are well proven through Marc Sageman's work, Understanding Terrorist Networks. A must read book for those in the professional space. An excellent overview talk by the author may be found here.

Information overload in the real world.....

A rather famous senior member of the intelligence community is widely reported to have once quipped words to effect that “there is no such thing as information overload – only poor analytical strategy.” This phrase, whether apocryphal or otherwise, for whatever its original intention has unfortunately often become shorthand for many managers seeking for their analysts to “process” more traffic, or faster, or otherwise increase some key productivity metric which may or may not result in good analysis.

Emerging technologies and the changing dynamics of interactions between individuals are however provably creating greater volumes of information: on the web, in open source publications, and in new communications technology. So too the increasing pressures of globalization as these technologies and interactions defuse to new geographies and cultures, each with characteristic patterns of usage.

By way of example, consider the Chinese New Year. The importance of personal relationships in Chinese culture, particularly among an increasing mobile Chinese population, creates new demands for ways to keep in touch with family and friends. This is especially highlighted during major holidays. Thus, it is not surprising to note the following Smart Mobs entry regarding short message service (SMS) usage volume during the Chinese New Year – a staggering 12.6 billion texts. This originated from the two largest mobile carries. Official statistics reportedly reflect as 393 million mobile phone users.

The sheer volume of transaction data contained within these messaging patterns would reveal much about individual social networks: activity patterns, strength of relationships, clique formation, and other indicators of note. Examining these relationships, however, would be a monumental task – even for a repressive Communist government with unlimited police powers and no system of checks or balances to restrain surveillance of its own people.

As new social networking technologies are introduced, this sea of potential data grows by the hour. For example, consider the potential utility of data contained in the social networking service “a small world”. This service, famous after its profile in Wired magazine featuring a member of the extended bin Laden clan, is favoured by many users for its elitism and robust gatekeeping protocols which act as formidable barriers to entry. While most if not all of its users are younger and more technology savvy and European, and while potentially wealthy now are of likely little interest to any intelligence service, they do represent the next generation of what once was called the “jet set”. These are business, government, and technology leaders of tomorrow. The robust accumulation of data regarding their interests, interactions, and social relationships could lead to very interesting future analysis if ever harnessed – and one cannot assume it will be an intelligence service, let alone a friendly service, that would ever seek out such a task.

These challenges will demand fundamentally different conceptions of how data moves, how it must be protected, and how it could be analyzed in the future. It may likely demand far different organizations and talents than currently found in the profession. This, like most intelligence functions, is a brutally competitive race, and the first to a workable solution will enjoy an edge that will be increasingly difficult to overcome as the rate of overload itself increases.