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29 October 2006

Non-state interests grappling against sub-state actors

We have long lamented the failures of public diplomacy, strategic communications, and information operations in the Long War. Fundamentally, organizations mired in the bureaucracies of the early Cold War and a 1950’s state-centric model have failed entirely to understand and adapt to the new information environment. Their processes are broken, their subject matter expertise is non-existent, and their raison d'être is simply not tied to the mission but rather to the iron rice bowls from which they feed. While a number of very good men and women toil honestly at the labour, with some measure of success, they serve a flawed machine.

Meanwhile, the enemies of our country’s and our allies’ interests continue to evolve apace new tactics, techniques, and procedures for propaganda and deception which are increasingly difficult to even identify, let alone defeat. They exploit layers of hostile connectivity enabled by new technologies in ways both unprecedented and unimagined – largely because they are in the new environment while our side convenes endless studies and planning sessions rather than engaging in the fight out in the marketplace of ideas.

In the best of all possible worlds, your authors would never have recommended that the defense of our country’s intellectual space against direct efforts by radical Islamists be entrusted into the hands of a free-lance jazz musician working in his spare time. But the fight comes whether or not those who would be forced to fight it are ready; and the unique nature of the Parallel World is such that every position is on the front line in this distributed non-linear battlespace.

Thus, we note with fascination the efforts of the Ikwan to engage Charles Johnson, for purposes undetermined. In short, we are watching non-state entities grappling against sub-state actors – largely as a result of the failure of the state entities tasked to that mission and that fight.

This has been going on for longer than most have noticed. It is only recently that it has become so obvious as to be unmistakable. And where the information environment leads, the kinetic environment inevitably follows. This is troubling…

26 October 2006

Those who hold the spear

Haft of the Spear also has a few interesting observations on the various and sundry aspects of the human equations in the intelligence community. Worth reading, even if we might disagree with some of the precepts. For example, the idea of a reserve is an interesting one; but frankly in the end this is a lifestyle, not a job. Part timers of the wrong sort – retired on active duty, or those more focused on vacation and outside interests - are already a large component of the problem. The idea of bringing outsiders in for consulting type expertise could be useful if done right, but we do not feel a military style reserve is the way to go there. However, the suggestions are at least stirring the pot and trying to get towards innovations – a far cry from the generalized rehash of centralization arguments and the endless org chart shuffles.

We do echo his statements on leadership issues. Nothing is more corrosive than bad management, and when you sandwich ineffective middle layers below empty suits you have a toxic mélange indeed. Running a good unit is hard. Doing so without the ability to choose people directly, or weed out non-performers, is nearly impossible.

Also the very dream of a workforce that isn’t tied into the deadening cycle of the commute is one worth fighting for. The exodus has already begun in some quarters, it’s just part of the unnoticed attrition. And for now there are always plenty of new bodies to feed into the grinder, so no one cares. But when the music stops….

25 October 2006

The community’s emerging underclass

The issues of intelligence privatization have never been more contentious than in recent days. In earlier times, it was a matter of academic debate; the stuff of long theses and dissertations written in full knowledge that the major agencies would never cede the degree of control required in order to reap the benefits those first theorists could see just over the horizon.

As in many things, those early visions were overtaken by events; shaped by a radically different post-9/11 reality. The butchery of the RIF’s and budget cuts during the foolish days of the 90’s had left a vacuum of expertise and experience; much of it drained into the private sector’s Darwinian competition. And frankly, those human lifetimes were likely better spent as allocated through private choices and the invisible hand of the marketplace than trapped in decaying bureaucracies wrapped up in turf battles and mass powerpoint poisoning. But with the terrible realization of the Long War, capability gaps had to be filled from somewhere.

Thus the current state of affairs of contracting has been born, in ways even the most ardent supporters of privatization could have ever foreseen. The community is being overtaken, and many government structures are reduced to little more than assemblies of contracting officers obsessing over the details of proposals and awards. In bitterly honest moments, it is possible to see that many of those now placed in such roles are qualified for little else – the product of the broken human resources systems which prize a faux diversity over truly unique experiences, or rate readily understandable life paths over the fractal-like eccentricities that mark the careers of the best intelligence officers.

This is not to say that contractors always offer the best solution. Ironically, while many of the RIF’ed veterans were the first tapped due to recent access and “ideal” resumes, they have not always proven to be best suited for the dynamic and radically altered battlespace and conceptual spaces with which the community now grapples. And in the surge, many false prophets arose to peddle the intelligence equivalent of pornography – glossy representations of the thing itself that can never satisfy true needs. Likewise, there are many who can only charitably be described as profiteers, whose obsession with the supposed riches offered by the new business space mark them as quite distinct from the otherwise honorable path of the mercenary.

However, overall and man for man, most contractors offer a great throw weight with a greater range of experiences and skills than their counterparts trapped for an entire career in the sterile confines of a single agency’s walls. It is no coincidence that many of the best in this business are rotating assignments every eighteen months; driven to new challenges and new prospects; walking away from shops mired in politics and funding disputes, places where they know they can no longer effectively contribute to the war effort writ large. This dynamic is only exacerbated by the schizophrenic manner in which they are treated by their government counterparts; who lacking any strategic vision for contracting services impose an endless series of changes and new award competitions; and then blame the contractors for lack of continuity.

And in this blame the true losses are mounting. There is a real and growing culture of treating contractors as second class citizens within the walls of the community’s sanctums. Many times it is the byproduct of resentment given off by those less qualified, who are obsessed first with their own pay and circumstances rather than the mission itself. It is also often the consequence of turf battles between management elements, grappling for additional funds and control of programs and in so doing demonizing those who are actually doing the work – and who will no doubt continue to do so once the dispute is settled no matter which manager or director emerges the victor.

Countless and pointless barriers are emerging, imposed in order to bound the freedom of action of contractors so as to in essence create an appearance of value on the part of their government counterparts, who lack the required skills for a task but do not find their requests bound up in the Byzantine net of backroom politics. In the end this only degrades mission performance, but it is the kind of subtle corrosion which goes unnoticed and spreads. Many of these advanced bureaucratic hindrance techniques have come back to the States from the lessons of overseas deployments, where the distinctions between the two worlds are so sharply defined as to literally cost lives.

It is no wonder that many of the best intelligence officers – whether government or contractor – flee the environments which are defined by these dynamics. Sick shops face attrition. If shops were suffering battlefield casualties at the rate of current attrition, their leaders would be rightfully cashiered. But because it is a slow and un-dramatic process, there are no consequences for bad leadership, arbitrary decisions, or poor morale whose cumulative effects drive the brightest elsewhere and leave the incompetent to continue the cycle.

In this, these officers are simply behaving in the manner long described by Drucker. Knowledge workers follow career paths which are increasingly divorced from organizational contexts and are deeply rooted in the individual’s personal interests and desired end states. Organizations which cannot adapt to this dynamic - and offer sufficient packages of tasks, opportunities, and compensation to attract the interests of the right knowledge workers - will suffer and eventually wither. There are dozens of shops in the community which are now but a shadow of their former selves because of these forces, but in too many of them the first complaint of the managers is about the “contractors”, not their inability to forge a coherent common vision and suitable working environment.

The new DNI human capital strategy has laid down a gauntlet, defining this as a talent “war”. This seems to mean the community is now setting a course diametrically opposed to the very contractors which staff and support it. If there were not a long history of official pronouncements regarding the community’s workforce that have come to nothing, one might be worried – whether contractor or government. But in reality this will likely amount to little more than one more milestone along the road in which the fantasies of academics and bureaucrats unravel.

You cannot win by betting against market forces, even in the most non-rational of marketplaces that are government bureaucracies. There must be a new approach to these problems, one that takes into account the demands of individuals and focuses on the needs of the mission. One that is built around the next generation, and generation after next in the Long War: the generation victory.

24 October 2006

How other services may be solving their 21st century collection challenges…

Kombinat has evolved into a term coined to describe the murky linkages between Russian security services and business elements, whether official or (more often) through interlocking layers of corruption and organized crime (organizatsiya).

It is presumed that the Russians are facing the same kinds of collection challenges as every other industrial age bureaucracy forced to live in the information age against its will. The potential opportunities created by kombinat structures – part government, part criminal, part business have presumably not been entirely lost on the new generation of Russian intelligence officers; although the degree to which any official structure recognizes or utilizes these opportunities is quite uncertain. One can assume at the very least however that individual officers maximize any and all potential sources for personal profit.

The average Russian citizen is very much aware of this phenomena. In fact, it is nearly impossible to conduct any normal activity of modern life without a krysha (roof) – “protection” and facilitation services provided by organizatsiya and kombinat structures through extortion.

Thus, it is with no surprise that we view the alarmed reactions of the Russian user segment of the blogsphere in response to a dubious business decision by Six Apart, the owners of the popular blogging service Livejournal. Their fears are most certainly not unfounded.

And while one can easily dismiss the Livejournal service as home to angst-ridden teens writing reams of mindless fanfic before migrating to Myspace or Facebook; there are fascinating war stories regarding this service among the open source intelligence (OSINT) crowd, dating as far back as 2000 (long before its acquisition by Six Apart.) As one of the earliest readily available lightweight online publishing tools, it attracted for a brief time a number of early adopters. And in the course of the evolution of the community’s response, a number of boundaries had to be defined for this new thing, and those boundaries were rapidly tested.

Of course, if the Six Apart deal goes through; then the issue becomes a matter for deeper examination by the fine folks engaged in counterintelligence and information operations… which is where the “new economy” suddenly comes crashing into the otherwise cloistered mazes of the decidedly non-connected, non-technical, and deeply unhip. In other words, the rest of us…

23 October 2006

Belated realizations

The NY Times public editor has admitted that publication of national security information leaked in an attempt to damage ongoing programs that were alleged – without any supporting factual basis – to be somehow “illegal” or “improper”, was a mistake.

The damage having been done, this admission garners the American public nothing. Introspection in the face of monumental arrogance is by no means commendable. The Times took upon itself a decision regarding the most sensitive aspects of current intelligence and counter-terrorism operations, based on an incomplete picture provided by sources whose motivations were likely suspect and whose identities have never been revealed. That it now expresses faint regret, couched in the defensive against the supposed ill-effects of “criticism”, is meaningless.

They call it a secret for good reason. The process by which that designation is established is one of law and of sober, rational contemplation. The higher order effects of improper disclosures are extremely difficult to anticipate and usually beyond the ken of most laymen – and that’s only one of the reasons that the revelation of classified information is a crime.

It seems to your authors that the call for prosecution is most certainly bolstered by this public admission. It would be most interesting to read, in evidence provided to a court by the discovery process, what if any internal discussions occurred within the Times regarding the decisions to compromise ongoing programs for financial and political gain.

The swarm has covered this well... credit goes to Michelle Malkin, Captain’s Quarters, and Just One Minute.

22 October 2006

The collection challenges of the 21st century

Further to the discussion of how we even begin to explain the terms of reference for the types of problems the community is facing moving into the new century, we find the following item:

Categorize this as another unsubstantiated Google rumor, but the word on the street is that Google has acquired SpaceShipOne and is putting it inside building 43 at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. No word on the purchase price, or if this was a donation, or why the ship is not staying at the Smithsonian.

Now the rumor has turned out to be an error of interpretation, as detailed here:

My source was good, but it was clear there was more to the story. To solve the mystery I said I’d send an iPod Shuffle to the first person that took a picture of the ship today and sent it to me. Thanks to readers, I now know the rumor is false. Google did not acquire SpaceShipOne. But they did acquire a full scale replica of the ship and have indeed installed it in building 43 at Google.

But the process itself is instructive. A distributed collection network was in effect instantiated based on common interests and the promise of tangible reward, which provided multiple source confirmation of a difficult question in very short order.

However, it is exceedingly hard to describe this event, and the dependencies and drivers underlying it, in terms which will allow others outside of the hyper-connected and technically savvy digerati to understand the power of this model if the community could find the means to adapt it to current targets and issues. Most of them will still be caught up in the strangeness of the corporate culture at one of the world’s arguably most important knowledge based companies, that a symbolic representation of aggressive vision and dramatic innovation should be acquired for its totemic value. (This lack of understanding alone is very likely why there are few good monuments to the community’s recent activities, despite the number of new buildings which could house them, and newly minted professionals that would benefit from the uniting effects of ritual and memory. After all, our more recent monuments are still written in Cyrillic….) Quite a few will still be struggling with the concept of privatization of what once was exclusively a government domain…

The event as a case study itself is actually about journalism and the new media. The real promise is in the model taken back out beyond the water’s edge and into the hard target arena.

21 October 2006

Try explaining this to a Cold Warrior...

The Cold War being so long over, now, that we have had time to erect memorials and catalogue the countless memoirs – but there are always those who are unwilling and unable to adapt to the new century’s wars. The disorder of the 1990’s and even the Long War itself are but an afterthought, or so the thinking of the large scale conventionalists go.

It is extremely difficult to reason with those who persist on holding views set into stone nearly a quarter century ago. It is even more difficult for the newer generation of analysts and collectors coming into the game to understand or communicate with the relics that refuse to face Smoking Mirror. The new entrants only understand the Cold War through the lens of a history book.

But they do understand technology, natively and intimately. And through this they understand the weapons and tactics of the Cold War, having grown up on ever more realistic generations of play adapted from the serious games of combat simulators. Better yet, they understand the proliferation of these systems, and are better positioned to observe and comprehend the implications of these legacy weapons in the hands of new decentralized and non-state actors. After all, among the favorite new forms of entertainment for this generation is the online video – whose content is certainly a far cry from the pre-packaged fare doled out by the major media houses. Like this marketing video for the Hind gunship….. one of many showing this platform.

Once it took the collective effort of the community to pursue the rare sightings of these dark birds at airfields and air shows across the globe. Now even those once elusive demonstrations are the latest viral fad….

What begins with the flailing attempts of a dying state kombinat to market military exports far and wide becomes the harbringers of proxy war using capabilities never before seen in the hands of non-state actors. These unanticipated surprises have even spawned informal attempts at distributed collaborative open source analysis for battle damage assessment….

This is the cognitive environment the new generation of analysts must navigate. And it is nearly impossible even to explain the terms of reference of this environment to those whose thinking is still grounded in the last century.

20 October 2006

The influence of the spear

There are few commentators in this new medium which pursue the examination of the rarified strata of the community and its issues. Among the more prominent in our reading lists have been the prolific authors over at GroupIntel. Now, the most vocal of these fine men has found a new home at Haft of the Spear (for reasons detailed here.)

It should be noted that the evolved form and tactics of the spear, in the incarnation of the ranked footmen armed with pikes, were critical to changing warfare in Europe in the 15th century; particularly when assembled into professional mercenary companies.

There is a parallel here, we think. As always, it is never the courts and their fops which are in a position to see the coming wave of change; but the outsiders.

There is also a warning, too: for while the mercenaries were key drivers of the revolution in military affairs which at its end would reshape the European map and the fortunes of all of the courts then extant, those who benefited from mercenary services were the first to turn against the practice once their goals had been achieved. Now as the Westphalian system continues to erode, we expect that the inner circles of the court which replaces the old order will also condemn the very instruments by which the revolution in intelligence affairs will be accomplished.

For now however, change must first be accomplished. Then the chattering classes can fight over the bones, and perhaps fortune will smile on our friends. We wish them the best in their efforts.

18 October 2006

Searching Starlight

One of the other very key Insights from the Proteus study was the concept of Starlight – the complex and variable effects of time and distance on perceptions of information about events; and the impact of those effects on intelligence problems. To quote the original study:

Perspective is everything. Not until late in the 19th century did science discover that the night sky has depth as well as breadth, that constellations not only are in the eye of the beholder, that they are distant illusions. By the early 20th century, when quantum physics wed astronomy, the illusion became deeper. However we characterize the apparent pattern of the clusters, the light we see in Manassas or Arizona takes about 400 years to reach us from the nearest star in the group. Each night in the sky, there appears an event that is already over. We are seeing the past in the Present.

We can think of no better metaphor than Starlight to characterize the central problem for the Intelligence Community as it looks toward the future. Whether we examined the world of a criminal mastermind, of virulent disease, or a high-technology space race, the pattern of events in that world commonly turned on three characteristics: complexity, venues, and time - all of which can be captured in the metaphor of Starlight.

At the margins of the technology, there comes a tantalizing glimpse at a future day with a better search engine for Starlight itself….

Information covers many dimensions, location and time, and the day will come, one day, some day, when Google will better understand time, and all of its uses and applications, and render your web page in this context, spreading out a page’s multitude of incarnations like an eagle spreads its wings, archiving, comparing...

There have been a number of interesting attempts at this kind of capability in the past, (see any number of responses to the query “temporal search engines” from the open academic and technical press), but none have been successful in the manner of the fabled G. Until that kind of expectation is set, and the capability as a norm has trickled down into the closed recesses of the darkest vaults, the full implications of Starlight will continue to frustrate analysts without the tools to search, visualize, and understand complex relationships between events and behaviors; especially in asynchronous and emergent manifestations.

If this should come to pass, we will have gone a long way towards the objective laid out in the original conceptualization of the problem:

Foresight and uncertainty management become the objects of the intelligence cycle in the future;
the task for the Intelligence Community, therefore, is not merely the cataloging of events, but more the recognition of patterns. As a result, given finite resources, sensors may be less important than new ways to analyze complex data...

17 October 2006

Evolving the structures of the Parallel World

The news of news in the virtual environment Second Life is an important development in this small gated Parallel World. Reuters joins the list of structures which have imported real world equivalencies, however Balkanized, and exported a kind of connectivity which will enable new real world impacts from effects in the aether.

This step is one of the first which will eventually result in immersive virtual environments becoming serious accounts for intelligence and information operations professionals. For now it is play, soon it will be far more serious….

The precursors of this activity are already here, with the “political message” of certain games and their enthusiastic uptake by eager hostile audiences….

16 October 2006

The competition among forms of wealth

One of the enduring Insights from the Proteus study was the challenges posed to the intelligence community by the emergence of new forms of wealth, the mechanisms to make use of them by ever wider audiences. We have seen this in the Parallel World, and in the real…

One more example surfaces, which combines a radical mélange of elements: the failure of consumer confidence, aggressive information operations messaging, viral memetic ideas, and alternative financial instrument.

But the emergence of virtual currencies, and the rapid development of alternative currency exchanges for the virtual world, is not too far different….

UPDATE: It seems, like many of the emerging trends towards loss of state control, that there are older foundations in law and practise which support the use of private currency....

11 October 2006

The wrong model produces the wrong outcomes

We cannot emphasize the point enough: the art and science of intelligence is fundamentally different than any other profession in existence. For sure, there are parallels of concept, and many areas of multidisciplinary overlap; but it is a true and pure form of knowledge work that cannot be obtained by simple applying titles and creating new boxes on organograms within legacy bureaucracies. Those organizations will not value the intelligence function, and what is not valued is not resourced, recognized, rewarded, or retained.

Thus a profound tip of the hat to the comments over at GroupIntel regarding the great analytical and other dysfunctions reported in open media regarding that most ossified of bureaucracies at the Bureau…..

10 October 2006

The flash and the swarm

One of the most fascinating phenomena to observe in the wake of the reported North Korean nuclear test is the reaction of the blogsphere. Lightweight online publishing technologies, coupled with enduring interests in foreign affairs and policy matters, have once again proven that the attention of wonks and regular followers can be easily captured even on a (now beautiful) long holiday weekend.

The rapid rise of distributed collaborative analysis through the blogsphere has been an amazing thing to watch. The ranked masses of amateurs have rapidly hit upon basic questions that rivals the most professional of alternative hypothesis generation techniques; and often specialized niche expertise emerges to provide supporting evidence and interpretation of indicators to further these arguments. (One of the more unique cases in point of the latter was the anonymous “chemical industry expert” which stepped forward to offer analysis of the recovered mobile trailer system in Iraq; used alternatively for CBW production or for “weather reconnaissance", depending on which theory one chooses to believe.)

The community would do well to pay attention to this phenomena. Some tentative steps have been made at documenting and re-creating this dynamic, most notably in response to the 2004 Galileo Award paper, “The Wiki and the Blog”, by Dr. Calvin Andrus; but much work remains to be done. It is not at all clear that the primum mobile has been established to support this effort within the walls. And your authors in particular are unconvinced that the best way to drive this effort is through the use of Beltway consultants “debriefing” teams of “A-list” and technology savvy bloggers. The native development of a culture of discussion and exchange, enabled by the new technologies and freed from the constraints of stifling managers and visionless mid-grades, is not something that will emerge from even the best run boardroom meeting, no matter how well intentioned.

What is most disappointing, however, is that out of this process (however flawed) no doubt emerged more insight and innovation than has been seen from many of the so-called academic experts championing intelligence studies. Not even a few short months ago, your authors were astounded to find themselves in a room with representatives of a dozen different private and state university programs which almost to a man decried the new trends of online learning systems and in particular the demon Wikipedia. The level of vitrol, and of ignorance, displayed in that room was simply astounding; and it took some discussion later with a number of other serving professionals (who were also there at the time) to uncover the real source of so much venom: those who objected most are those whose rice bowls are most threatened. This is a matter for further discussion and examination, but it does not bode well for the state of intelligence studies.

For those with continuing interest in the collection and analytical techniques developed over time for the demanding problems of nuclear targets, we recommend Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, by Jeffrey T. Richelson. Longtime veterans of the community will recognize that author from his earlier works documenting the accretion and shift of structures within our realms.

09 October 2006

And in a flash....

And in a flash, failure is revealed. This particular incident, beyond its strategic and military implications, will be grist for the mills of the political science types for years to come. There is certainly enough blame to go around, and definitely serious questions regarding national will (or perhaps more accurately, the policy and strategic communications processes by which national will is mustered.)

More importantly, from the perspective of this blog's interests, is the post-mortem of the analytical tradecraft and key judgments which helped inform the policy and action void on this issue. If ever there was a case for opportunity analysis....

This process of review will not be appropriate for matters in the closed realm for a long time to come. However, there is a wealth of open source analysis in the various policy journals, non-proliferation publications, and other countless volumes of academia's interests and the Beltway's salons to begin with; and unquestionably these materials have also informed the broader debate on the NK issue.

And given the circumstances, it is not uncalled for that we should see a public breaking of swords, particularly among those analysts and policy wonks which still support the fiction of the 1994 Agreed Framework and other equally worthless treaties made with parties who openly display every intention of violating terms and offering only deception rather than transparency. Unfortunately, no such accounting will ever occur; and very likely the same authors will be granted opportunity to garner accolades as they pursue ever more elegant theories regarding future conflicts and policy challenges, with no need to account for the bruising inconvenience of hard facts and realities.

Let this be then a warning to other analysts; less they would follow the same easy route of damnation when facing future questions.