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30 March 2007

The IC in the context of the Washington Metro area

It is no secret that the concentration of intelligence community related activities in the greater Washington Metropolitan area has been a topic of much discussion among community luminaries. A greater volume of unrecorded conversation occurs at the individual level, as the vast workforce each attempts in their own way to come to terms with what it means to attempt to have a life while being essentially tied to an intensely urbanizing, highly expensive geography due to the combination of opportunity clusters, security requirements, educational / professional development accesses, and the need for resilience in the face of ever shifting government mandates and priorities (and related impact on contractor market segments.)

One commentator recently noted that the “local commuting area” for the community now stretches from Aberdeen, Maryland to Charlottesville, Virginia. It is no small matter that along this linear distance of 180+ miles lies what is among the densest, most difficult traffic in the nation; along with what are among the highest property costs and other cost of living factors.

But for as difficult as it is today, worse is coming. A fascinating recent paper by an Arlington County urban planner has presented data and analysis concluding that “by 2030, the entire built environment in the Greater Washington, D.C. region will need to be nearly replicated by a like amount of new construction.”

The factors driving the growth, density, “stickiness”, and “spikiness” of the region are complex and not entirely proven, although fascinating to examine both in the domestic context and in the potential application to foreign targets. However, there is little doubt that these factors are at play in the serious issues of recruiting, retention, and workforce satisfaction / productivity within the community.

The future history of the Long War will no doubt leave much room for interpretations of the impact of these factors on the community. However, it is unlikely that this tyranny of geography will change in any meaningful way - even with the emergence of efforts to build usable distributed collaborative capabilities in the Parallel World, or in the face of the serious critical infrastructure issues created by the centralization of so much of the community in the area.

The question rather becomes one of coping strategies, and of the level of pain that those serving over the course of the next fifteen years will have to endure; especially for the juniors as the SES’s and other seniors continue to enjoy the lifestyle benefits of having been in the area before such a dramatic expansion.

h/t Creativity Exchange for the urban planning and attraction elements; and to Haft of the Spear for excellent examples and analysis of related current community developments culled from open sources

Update: The most relevant link for Haft of the Spear's discussion of IC quality of life and reform has been graciously pointed out. As always, the piece is far better phrased than we can offer...

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29 March 2007

The wisdom of writers on publishing

There are those that would ask us why we look so often to the science fiction writers for insight into matters normally considered beyond the scope of mere entertainment. We have attempted before to answer this question – see our previous post on Jesters at the Futurist Court’s Table.

But we think we need no defense to support our contention that one should always watch the leading edge of those who make their living solely by the public sale of the written word as a bellwether for all who work in information industries. After all, the publishing sector is among the oldest of all such endeavors, and the changes wrought by the digital era that impact us all are felt most keenly there.

Thus, we recommend the following discussion by author Charles Stross, which surfaces a fascinating question- what is the true value of a digital information product, and how is such a value calculated in the absence of actual market information given the constraints which inhibit normal market performance?

These are not trivial questions when transposed into the intelligence community. The increasing privatization of intelligence has turned what was once a government monopoly operating based on political perceptions of priority and value into an increasingly market driven field, albeit a strangle distorted market influenced by major factors far outside of traditional commercial dynamics. It is not merely the contractor consultancies, nor the commercial competitive / business intelligence sector that is struggling to come to terms with these questions.

On a related note, see Robert Scoble’s take on the death of the newspaper model.
His money quote: “The industry has NOT invested in its future. It is reaping the rewards of that.” It is also very interesting to note that the academics were warned, but they did not listen – and persisted in training the next generation in an environment, and a set of skills, that were increasingly less relevant to the assignments of the future.

In the end, these issues are the concern of every analyst that is responsible to a consumer for finished intelligence; and of every consumer that is faced with the proliferation of often competing and contradictory voices – whether called intelligence by name or otherwise.


28 March 2007

Public debate of intelligence issues

One of the more interesting evolution in the foreign policy and national security affairs communities that has been created by the interwebs is the increasing efforts by a number of academics and experts outside of the community to examine core, current intelligence issues in public debate and writings.

This is of course a quite understandable impulse, especially given the attention attracted by many of the serious issues of the day. Such efforts can bring much needed additional perspective - and even simple additional eyes on target - that may surface issues not previously considered and generate alternative analytical lines worth exploring. (The benefits of such an approach have been well outlined by our friend Mr. Tanji, in far more persuasive form than we could pen.)

However, the limits to such approaches are also worth exploring, particularly as analysis efforts stray into matters outside of the realms of single discipline OSINT or DOCEX; or when core analytical methodologies are initiated from a position of advocacy rather than dispassionate objectivity. Given the great uncertainties in understanding of many of the hard target issues, particularly given the nature of active measures of disinformation which often poison the well from which open sources are drawn, the development of inferences and defense of analytical positions is, as always, a quite challenging task. But this lot is accepted by all analysts, regardless of discipline.

And the constant, painful awareness of the limits of such understanding absent other sources of information not accessible in the public realm also comes with that territory. While the intelligence community may emphasize the need for additional accesses to hard targets, one must always recognize that the vast machinery of national technical means and other collection programs generates unique information that will only surface into the public domain long decades after the issue ceases to be current. Indeed, the examination of the historic intelligence issues of days past, with the aid of the properly declassified documents, has long been the staple of the academic intelligence studies world – and has been among the most valuable contributions the academic world has made to the field.

Some recent academic efforts however have increasingly trended towards what may be construed as very aggressive positions on certain issues, including directly challenging core intelligence community conclusions. Challenge is good – it provides a pressure within the marketplace of ideas that the community may sometimes be otherwise shielded from, although interagency coordination fights and red cell analytical lines are certainly their own form of competition and should not be blithely discounted. However, many of the recent challenges have been made using only partially declassified versions of core intelligence documents – or worse yet, leaked documents which may represent only one small portion of the available finished conclusions, let alone the supporting indicators for those conclusions. Such leaks, and leakers, are both reprehensible in that they represent not only an abandonment of the oaths of secrecy and loyalty sworn by those few privileged to be trusted with such issues; but also due to the typical political motivation and attending bias which has driven the selection and framing of the leaked documents. And whether based on leaked or only partially declassified documents, it is certain that the full range of available information developed by community sources and methods has not been revealed.

Among the current issues that have received such treatment have been debates over explosively formed penetrator (EFP) Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) [1], chlorine augmented payload Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) [2], Iranian WMD programs’ status [3], Chinese ASAT capabilities and intentions [4], North Korean nuclear programs [5], the scope of the dismantled Libyan CW program [6], and even the “strategic logic” of suicide terrorist attacks [7].

These debates have been interesting to follow, and one can respect the intellectual firepower that has been brought to bear by many learned individuals. Those who have put forth the effort to develop unique research sources, innovative alternative hypotheses, or technical analysis of difficult datasets, are to be commended in their efforts and encouraged to continue to bring new approaches and theories to the table.

We view these discussions with some growing unease, however, in that many commentators are increasingly straying from the open ended inquiry and exploration of difficult issues, conducted with the full realization that the levels of uncertainty inherent in the public discussion of such accounts will preclude any definitive statements. Rather, many experts are formulating positions – often heavily influenced by, if not outright grounded in, larger domestic political issues - and defending those positions with unfounded certainty or pure advocacy. This is unhelpful to the pursuit of truth, to say the least.

This should not be surprising, given the course of other public debates even in the most scientific and rigorous of academic disciplines. Apparently, there is something in the nature of the public discourse – be it personal reputation, cognitive biases, funding pressures, or something else entirely – that introduces subtle taint to the process. The intelligence community is by no means entirely immune to such factors, but it does benefit in decades of enshrined intent, and a solid corpus of analytic tradecraft and specific methodology designed to surface and defeat such intellectual contamination.

A most interesting related discussion in the context of global climate analysis can be found here - again from one of those most unlikely sources, a science fiction writer.

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27 March 2007

Conceptualizing future national security threats

One of the more interesting analytic tradecraft courses we recently observed featured prominently the use of what others apparently considered highly unusual examples of potential future national security threats and new target accounts. Granted, the majority of the class being either military / former military, or new entrants to the community; one can grant the idea of major post-globalization economic issues as being somewhat out of the typical range for these individuals – no matter how old hat they might be now for the Proteus and 5GW crowd. And certainly one offers kudos to the instructors for attempting to broaden the horizon of the discussion, particularly given the nature of the forum.

However, the ever forward looking Bruce Sterling has unearthed a fascinating video that better illustrates the point of that class’s instructors than any mere discussion or text could. This is a prime example of why good intelligence officers – even those that are not assigned to futures / predictive accounts – should always occasionally check into what the science fiction community is saying; and how those ideas are warped through the think tanks and academics into a persistence of vision. Or perhaps a consensual hallucination, depending on one’s perspective – but in this case, the there that is there is not so far of a reach; or as another famous writer once put it so well, the future is already here – just not evenly distributed.


26 March 2007

Mobile consumers

The increasing prevalence of real-time handheld mobile email solutions of the crackberry variety is certainly a well entrenched fact of life in the Beltway and other highly urban areas. The following item highlights interesting factors that impact decision-makers who receive information via such channels, versus more conventional communications methods (the political aspects of the specific situation aside, and frankly entirely irrelevant to our discussion).

Within selected organizations, the use of the crackberry to handle almost all material (at lower handling levels) is legendary. Just as community best practices changed to reflect the differing production requirements embodied in web-based dissemination, so to one would think changes are due in the face of these new changes. However, few shops have given any serious consideration to these issues, in no small part due to the fact that Blackberries and their ilk are “just another email option”.

Ironically, it is the homeland security organizations – particularly those at the state and local level – which are leading the way in changing both products and consumer expectations to embrace the mobile intelligence consumer. They face similar, if not sometimes more severe issues of security, handling, and control; but the lack of structure and technological support which has so plagued them in other areas for once appears to be working in their favour.

It remains to be seen what lessons might be learned from such dynamics elsewhere in the community. There is a serious gap of real and systematic research into the effects of new technologies on consumers, and the solutions intelligence producers are finding to help meet their clients’ needs in this new environment.

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25 March 2007

The future of the VTC

The Video TeleConference (VTC) is one of the little heralded advances which has so transformed the nature of command and staff decision making during this Long War, as it moved down from the most senior command ranks (as in Kosovo) to ever progressively more connected lower echelons. (For good or for ill is for the historians to decide, should there ever be a concerted effort to review this humble administrative technology amongst all of the other wiz-bang geek toys now given to us humble knuckledraggers.)

The future of the VTC may be emerging, however, from an unlikely spot. Virtual “actors working in real time from remote locations have been beamed onto a stage where they performed with live, in-the-flesh actors.”

As fascinating as this sounds from the futurists’ perspective, we cannot help but remember the old teleconferencing system originally established for nuclear command and control, for use by the National Command Authorities in the dark ages of the 1960’s. This older system was quite visually striking, involving the use of mannequins seated at a conference table, whose features were a transparent model of the individual designated to be virtually present. Into that shaped screen model was projected a video of the speaker from the remote location. All in all, for the time no doubt the very model of the modern virtual environment, and the think tank (RAND, we believe) and its government sponsors were undoubtedly and justifiably as proud of it as those actors are of their mediated creation. However, looking back, will we find such artifacts as quaint, and as disturbing, as their early warfighting counterparts?

Among the great unpublished historical images of the Long War will be any one of the number of rooms installed in numerous palaces throughout the theatre, marked by a high dollar cost plasma flat screens, with diligent staff clustered around the only faint light in the otherwise darkened room, the other circuits on overstressed electrical systems having blown out but the all important VTC still active… sic transit gloria mundi.

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24 March 2007

Competition and rent-seeking in the Intelligence Community

Aside from the horrors of being forced to listen to interminable discussion of bureaucratic procedure and the ego-stroking of committee structures, we have struggled to articulate our objections to the intermittent re-appearance of proposals that would seek to regulate our profession through some external standards body, usually academic or legalistic in nature. We have decried such attempts before, and asked that others “profess to me no profession”.

This item by George Will in the Washington Post well articulates the argument against such a process using the example of another industry. Unsurprisingly, it too is one of the creative professions, in which the distinctions between various kinds of tasks are blurry and frequently changing.

The key line, however:

“This is done in the name of "professionalization," but it really amounts to cartelization. Persons in the business limit access by others -- competitors -- to full participation in the business.
Being able to control the number of one's competitors, and to dispense the pleasure of status, is nice work if you can get it…”

When your humble authors here speak of professionalization, we speak of the cultivation of the analyst, the development of the individual officer. The definition of standards - and the efforts to meet them - is best done at the individual and small team level through performance review, mentoring, and the encouragement of individual development opportunities. The community has far too many barriers to the expression of talent, initiative, and superior performance already. It does not need additional measures to further distort the marketplace so that those less able to compete directly in the difficult world of economics and ideas can rest easy in their newly crafted sinecures.

And we say this as mid-career professionals who constantly look back on our younger, more brilliant and far better positioned counterparts nipping close at our heels. For while we might for a time enjoy the benefits of keeping such minds from taking our jobs, it would not serve the country’s interest, nor would it in the long term saving the community and ourselves from the death of irrelevance as change inevitably sweeps through. And change delayed is not evolutionary but becomes revolutionary – and there are already too many forces at work which stir the torch waving mobs to life, at least as far as that metaphor will carry a range of introverted pseudo-librarian personality types which make up most analytical ranks. (Your authors apologize, but lightly, for reliance upon the all too common but proven stereotypes, however please accept it as shorthand to preclude a longer discussion of Meyers-Briggs personality types and conditioned reactions under stress by individuals in varying environments and organizational cultures…)

This Long War is a generational war. Enacting hurdles to ensure that only those of the next generation who meet with some arbitrary stamp of approval are blessed entry into the war is among the ultimate foolishness; especially when that stamp is bestowed based on the conception of the profession understood by the older generation. While core analytic tradecraft remains the same, many of the other critical skills needed by intelligence professionals today are far different from what would have been considered standard or even appropriate for their counterparts even a short decade ago. (We know, having lived through the painful growth experiences of acquiring those new skills which we lacked, and which no one ever believed we would need until after we needed them, and needed them yesterday.)

It is this protectionist impulse also that one sees driving many of the commentators who rail against the increasing privatization of the Intelligence Community. But that, our dear friends, is a topic for another day….

h/t Instapundit, for the original Washington Post item

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21 March 2007

The community in purple

It seems that the inevitable back and forth debate over military versus other government HUMINT will continue to play out in the press for some time to come. If nothing else, this is good fodder for policy and think tank types; and academic papers of the should have – could have – would have variety for another few years.

A well written counterpoint to the entire debate itself has come from the inimitable Mark Bowden.

Your authors agree that it is long past the time to rehash these turf fights masquerading as “genuine community re-structuring” (TM). It is a waste of time and valuable intellectual bandwidth that would be better turned to the real problems of the community. The community needs more purple – jointness - and although the DNI has not yet gotten it there, the idea of an integrated, cross service HUMINT mission as proposed by some well versed commentators is an interesting destination from the current bifurcated structures.

h/t to Haft of the Spear – who, while perhaps late out of the gate on this issue, commands recent writings and consistency far and beyond our own humble and busy selves. His efforts are well worth reading, and as we ourselves struggle to put pixels to screen, we find them frankly inspiring in their own right. The gentleman does truly fine work in the service of the literature of intelligence.

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