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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.