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30 April 2007

Revisionist politicization

We are most disturbed by some of the passages cited by advance reviewers of former DCI Tenent’s new book. The prospect of a senior official of that level authoring such a controversial piece so quickly after his tenure is a difficult enough thing to stomach, but it is frankly just another indicator of the unpleasant nature of senior level politics in this town these days – and an indicator of how far from the apolitical ideal the position itself has fallen.

Tenent is by no means the first former DCI to write an autobiography. Indeed, former DCI Gate’s older work has enjoyed re-issue after his appointment to SecDef. The existence of the book is not entirely the core of our objection, however much we might otherwise wish to see those who served in silence remain so upon their retirement, at least until the matters of controversy had been relegated to the status of history.

Our primary objection comes from the characterization of discussions of intelligence briefings and key judgments during Operation Iraqi Freedom pre-planning. There is much room for the interpretations of history, and the inevitable second guessing by the principals involved in those debates. This is also regrettably politics as usual in this town, for what is perceived a defeat (even in the narrow temporal sense of the media’s momentum) will always be an orphan.

The statements personally attacking specific DIA analysts, especially given the issues surrounding the factual accuracy of the criticism, is another matter entirely. While it is now a given in some circles that the creation of new functional and organizational structures for mission specific analytical efforts was somehow at the root of all problems with pre-war intelligence, this still remains in an unproven assertion whose core allegations of “cherry-picked” conclusions have never been validated – and which hopefully will be the subject of proper and rigorous academic study in coming years. No matter what the outcome of that study might be, it would be a far better treatment of a difficult historical discussion than the current media and political scrimmage that has so badly tainted the matter with controversy.

One can argue the motivations and effectiveness of specific units such as Undersecretary Feith’s shop (and many no doubt will for years to come), but the creation of dedicated mission centers, functional groups, or task forces is hardly a new phenomena driven by any specific agency management. In fact, one noted commentator (speaking under the Chatham House Rule in an unclassified public forum) recently focused attention on the issues surrounding the growing number of account-specific centers, not due to fears of politicization, but out of the very real concerns that the effective conduct of intelligence on a wide range of targets is now apparently best accomplished through exception (in the form of these small units) than through the normal but increasingly ineffective bureaucracies of the community - with damning implications for the larger entities.

Attacking individual analysts assigned to serve in any of these shops is beyond the pale. Analysts given the privilege and responsibility of briefing at the DCI’s level are not speaking from individual opinion but rather coordinated agency (if not community) assessments. One can question the accuracy of those assessments, or the analytic rigor of the process by which they were produced, but somehow alleging that the briefing lacked validity due to the (inaccurately alleged) reserve employment status of the individual analyst is the worst form of libel - and ill-befits a former senior. And at the end of the day, what a DCI chooses to convey to a sitting President is the responsibility of that DCI, who must judge his advisors and their statements from his own experience, analytical tradecraft, and substantive target knowledge. Once he has spoken, he must own his statements – for history will always attribute them first and foremost to him.

It is further appalling to note the attempted attribution of new statements, which failed to fully characterize the nature of the underlying information regarding Iraqi WMD programs upon which the assessments were based, to specific analysts but described in language which would be exceptionally unusual, to say the least. Any analyst’s tendency to caveat even to excess is well known within the community, especially given the widespread recognition of hard target challenges and the impact of adversary denial and deception efforts. Analysts are drilled in the precision of well-parsed language, and the calibration of judgment usually conveyed using some variant on words of estimative probability. One can argue whether specific caveats were well crafted, or given conclusions communicated effectively, but it is nearly unthinkable that statements claiming almost bravado levels of confidence would have propagated through multiple layers of analysis, coordination, and presentation. Nothing so offends the well-tuned ear of those in the analytical communities – and this would have certainly provoked reactions.

We are also frankly amazed that a former DCI should express outrage at being judged based on his own statements, or that such judgments might have career impact – even if they were simply others’ words repeated. Intelligence officers and analysts live and die based on the accuracy of their assessments, whether errors were based in their own mistakes or inherited from others in the community involved in the product’s lifecycle. They are even judged, rightly or wrongly, based on policymaker interpretation and use of that intelligence – as any warning analyst or watchstander knows all too well. This accountability, even if applied wrongly in specific cases – is a critical and needed weight upon every individual in the national security community to get it right above all other considerations. Because when intelligence is wrong, consequences follow far beyond individual careers.

The focus of estimative efforts has to be on the substance and the tradecraft, not on personal advancement or any other careerist interests – and that focus has to start and end with the very pinnacle of the organization, and the intelligence community as a whole.

h/t Captains Quarters, Haft of the Spear

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27 April 2007

Comments policy revisited

On a side note, the comments policy of this blog is in place due to the unique distributed nature of our production team, and is exceptionally limited given the extraordinary but required constraints under which this effort is conducted. We are, as we always maintain, by no means acting in any official capacity in this blog. Who we are and what we do simply does not matter – we rely upon the force of our arguments and the persuasiveness of our writing to carry this effort, not any appeals to authority or the community’s enterprise experience. For those familiar with the substantive matters we raise, this is (or should be) more than enough for the purposes of this informal virtual conversation on matters of theory and academics.

Our opinions and statements do not reflect the position of any agency, organization, entity, or structure – and will never discuss any matters which would raise classification, operational security or other related concerns. And while we are never responsible for what any commentator might post on this blog, we simply cannot at the present time assume the burden of moderating a comments system in light of those restrictions – particularly as one may note that this blog may from time to time go dormant as other priorities for one or more of the authors take precedence over this effort. We have happily thus far found that a robust discussion is still possible given such necessary limitations, thanks to the continuing interest of others in the blogsphere.

While we have received criticism from others regarding this policy since the inception of the blog, we note firstly that this is a not a financially motivated venture for any of us, nor is it a democratic enterprise in which others may directly vote as to its conduct. (Indirect feedback through the marketplace of ideas and the attention economy is vote enough, we should think.)

This effort is rather a specific and narrowly tailored attempt to pursue a muse, and in so doing to hopefully inspire those among the community of interest to new approaches and new ideas. We have gratefully noted that interest in the subject remains high, and that many of the ideas floated here (and elsewhere in the growing related conversation) have begun to find manifestation in the community – and for this reason alone we will continue our humble attempts at advancing this conversation for as long as circumstances permit.

And perhaps someday, once the Long War is won - and like the Cold War relegated to the dustbin of history, and the life of academic ease or some other intellectual patron's grace is even an option for some old operators and analysts - we may be able to engage more fully and openly. To borrow the oft-quoted wish: faster, please.


Interdisciplinary approaches in intelligence studies

We are amused to note the following critical commentary regarding our recent discussion of network analysis techniques within intelligence applications, with thanks to Zenpundit for providing the link and his own material of interest to spark the discussion. We are grateful for the anonymous writer’s time and effort spent cursorily Googling in support of his statements. We would like to point out, however, that human factors as usually expressed in academic research – and the cited searches – focuses largely on human computer interaction, design and usability, and related ergonomics issues, which is quite a different usage than found in the intelligence community (at least when referring to analytic tradecraft and key accounts).

We welcome the feedback, however, and might suggest that he who finds fault might find productive work – perhaps an annotated bibliography as literature review. We are certain that there are more than a few reputable journals which would be happy to publish such a piece. These options do presuppose the article will survive the process of peer review by those raised in the Anacapa and NIM tradition, or those grappling with difficult related visualization problems. If not, we might offer space in this humble forum if the material passes referent muster, although we always encourage other contributors to enter the online conversation with their own blogs.

The anonymous commentator’s criticism does unintentionally highlight one of the more enduring and difficult challenges of intelligence studies. While the intelligence community often borrows from other fields of study – and in fact can even be said to have been born from the bastardization of various social science disciplines – it lacks a great deal of the survey and validation processes that have marked adoption in other fields. As the above example illustrates, it often even lacks a common language which may be extended across the boundaries of individual agencies or organizational cultures, let alone to the wider academic and professional world outside of its boundaries. Whether any specific interdisciplinary approach has been utilized or not in analytic tradecraft application against key targets or accounts, the lessons learned from the attempt are often never captured, or in the rare instances where they have been captured, may not be well promulgated (for any of a variety of reasons.)

The work of intelligence is sufficiently different in most applications that interdisciplinary examples do not translate well in direct transfer, but rather require substantial transformative work to match first principals to desired outcomes. This can be very rewarding work, but it is by no means easy – particularly as the bulk of this labor must be done by those assigned to the account at the substantive level. While the contributions of the methodologists are key to these processes (when an entity is fortunate enough to have at hand trained and formally designated methodologists, itself not a given), it is the great lament of community professionalization since Sherman Kent’s first call for a literature of intelligence that the hard work of tradecraft building will always take second seat to the business of actually doing intelligence and responding to decision-maker needs. In part, it is because of that continuing dynamic that efforts such as this blog exists at all.

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26 April 2007

Paging Mark Bowden

There’s no doubt an entire book to be written regarding the saga of missing former FBI Special Agent Robert Levinson, who vanished from Kish Island, Iran – and who has become the center of a fascinating nexus of political entanglements, illicit markets, totalitarian state power ministries (who, not coincidentally, also are designated as terrorist sponsors), and corporate security / brand protection concerns.

Stratfor has an excellent summary of open source information on the case to date. (Warning - Link is to their transient free weekly sample page, otherwise the article will have to be found in their paid archives.)

While we are not given to indulging in conspiracy theories, this is certainly one incident in which the back story is likely to be even more interesting than what is already known. It is not for us to write, however, but there is definitely room for an aggressive journalist / researcher with a flair for the sweep of history and insight into the personalities of individuals. We look forward to reading that publication someday - and hopefully also to be able to use the example in a case study method session.

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25 April 2007

Network analysis in historical contexts

We have long been proponents of social (and other) network analysis techniques for selected accounts and targets, especially given our usual focus on transnational issues and other targets which are inherently network-based.

We have struggled however to adequately capture the mature professional’s understanding of target networks in key current incarnations – particularly those related to covert structures of criminality, terrorism, and of the illicit markets – in order to convey the skillset necessary for new analysts to interpret dynamics and events within those networks.

There have been a number of excellent studies into the subject from a variety of perspectives, which have tended to produce some unique and often counterintuitive results regarding specific targets. Among these is Dr. Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks. (In particular, the author’s summary presentation, frequently given in professional circles in the area, is not to be missed.)

However, for as good as much of the current literature relating social network analysis methodology to intelligence applications is when regarding specific targets, there is a distinct paucity of material which examines and evaluates the tradecraft itself. What work has been done focuses on mathematical theory and computer sciences aspects – critically important in its own context, but less than useful in helping analysts assigned to pol-mil, human factors or tactical / operational support roles. (The best of the computer science research in the area may be found at Carnegie Mellon’s CASOS.)

In a way, it is helpful that the next generation of analysts and officers will have emerged from an intensely network social environment, and are intuitively familiar with mediated interactions and group dynamics. However, this is a very specific milieu, and helping these analysts achieve a wider basis for understanding of similar behaviors in other contexts - free of cultural and other cognitive biases - will remain a challenge.

Thus we are grateful to see the following insightful comment by COL Lang regarding the social dynamics of the current security surge in Baghdad. We do note based on our experiences in theater that the influence of the mukhtar has been pervasive for far longer than has been recognized during recent operations, but it is good to see the intellectual constructs for analyzing the sources and limits of that influence propagating more widely. The lessons here of history pose a useful line of inquiry for those seeking to comprehend alternative viewpoints regarding social and political constructs for security and support in unstable and conflict area environments.

It is perhaps for this reason we have seen medievalists (even literature majors) do so well in selected intelligence units, when their more traditionally trained political science counterparts fail. After all, the interpretation of events and personalities of Renaissance Europe, or the Three Kingdoms period in China, demands very similar skills and awareness.

In any event, the application of this kind of analysis goes far beyond Iraq, and will be one of the core competencies demanded of new analysts in the remainder of the Long War and in future wars to come.

h/t John Robb, who cites this a supporting example of the breakdown of the Westphalian ruleset

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24 April 2007

The best of the Academy

We have been gratified to note the response of the blogsphere, and of many within the intelligence studies field, to our brief note on “Imitation and the Academy”.

We would wish to profoundly emphasize that the majority of our colleagues are courteous professionals who have not only displayed great intellectual honesty and rigour, but also have on more than one occasion offered us great personal assistance as we have struggled jointly to come to terms with difficult and enduring challenges in the field.

There are also a number of individuals at a range of institutions which we have never met, but nonetheless owe a debt of the muse thanks to their efforts at advancing the literature. Whenever possible, we have sought to reference these works which have so profoundly influenced our own thinking - although we regret that much of this corpus remains as yet unpublished in open forums, or otherwise not attributable due to the unique academic and professional interactions of our community.

However, we are most happy to note that the expected new availability of a great deal more literature from one of the key intelligence studies academic and community sources - the newly re-branded National Defense Intelligence College. The schoolhouse is undergoing profound change, which it has slowly begun unveiling in limited public forums with the strong expectation of greater openness to come. This is what sets true thought leaders apart – their willingness to pursue unique and innovative approaches, and to share them with others who may benefit. From what we hear, their new curriculum will be an amazing thing – and may very well revolutionize expectations for professional intelligence education.

There are also a number of others whose new involvement in the Academy we feel holds great promise due to their unique insight. Among these is a gentleman we have frequently cited – Messr. Michael Tanji – now teaching at George Washington University, whose students are fortunate to benefit from one of the more unconventional, and thus worthwhile, perspectives in the field. And now, it appears that he will be entering the world of the mainstream media (for which we forgive him, and wish him the best….)

Also of worthwhile note is the continuing Summer Hard Analytical Problems (SHARP) series, which brings together academics, professionals, and technologists in an attempt to focus discussion on key accounts of interest to the community as a whole.

We also look forward to the end results of the research which is now consuming the once prolific Dr. Dauber of Rantingprofs. While we respect and understand her choice to focus on key priorities other than the online discourse, we eagerly await what new wisdom she will offer in other medium.

And while slightly off the normal range of topics in this forum, we wish to offer particular thanks to the proprietors of The Donovan blog, which has driven quite a bit of traffic and interest our way (and not for the first time, either). We are particularly enamored with their recurring photo recognition series, as it has featured rare and interesting ordnance and other toys. We can never stress enough the importance of basic military knowledge for serving intelligence professionals assigned to roles in the Long War, and it is nice to have a light and easy way to continually reinforce new slices of a complex area of study for new analysts and officers.

All of these efforts are most needed, and more like them need to be encouraged. The knowledge that this is how the field should be is the root of our dissatisfaction with the smaller segment of the academy which is failing to meet this high standard, instead attempting to build small empires of ego built upon the work of others and relying upon the disconnected nature of the field to protect them from having to compete in the marketplace of ideas. This ill serves the academy and the community at a time when we can ill afford anything less than every best effort.

As for our house, we will continue to serve in the best manner we are able, and continue to pursue the professionalization of intelligence, and the development of the intelligence literature, with those that are willing to collaborate online and offline. We are fortunate to live in such days, and to serve alongside so many of the best and brightest.


23 April 2007

The quality of private military studies

We have been following the debate over private military companies for some time now. It bears exceedingly close relationships in many ways with similar evolutions in the privatization of intelligence, but due to the high media profile of major private military contractors has received a great deal more public attention. This public attention has translated into a number of journalists and academics seeking to put forth their own views on the issues – but who have routinely been writing as outsiders, and frankly in most cases in a politicized manner that does no credit to the study of the subject.

We have long struggled with any critiques of this new cottage publishing industry centering on the PMCs, if only because it is very difficult to engage in conversation with those who usually start the debate from a perspective that denies the legitimacy and raison d’etre for the existence of contractors of any stripe, let alone a functioning marketplace which includes services performed in the battlespace.

To this end, we may reference the following critique of the new bestseller on Blackwater. Ironically, the criticism is written by an academic who is also pitching a book (though one of fiction). Regrettably, one must also overlook the comments re: “manipulated” intelligence, which are also unhelpful to advancing the actual debate, especially when expressed in the kind of verbal shorthand which is so symptomatic of politicized discussions of a complex issue not so easily rendered into soundbite form.

We do however wish to echo the disappointment in the squandering of a unique opportunity to do justice to the complex and difficult issue of private military contracting. However, we also note the continued interest in study of private military entities in a number of other areas. There have been a number of online ventures in which serious individuals are now beginning to look more closely into the matter, with some good results. And of course, there is the remarkable output of the “khaki tower” – the military academia, which has been producing consistently interesting publications at a quality and level of depth that simply has not been matched by any academic, journalist, or other outsider. Some of these pieces date back even prior to 9/11.

Now if only the literature on the privatization of intelligence was so robust, or so professional – but one must suppose that the analysis of shooters is and always will be of greater interest to a wider audience than the arcane nature of our art and science.

Butkus and Howes. A Critical Analysis of the Coordination, Command and Control of Contractors in Iraq. Naval Postgraduate School, December 2006.

Herron and Santiago. Analysis of Security Contractors in Deployed Environments. Naval Postgraduate School, December 2006.

Harris, Neil J. Contractors and the Cost of War: Research into Economic and Cost-Effectiveness Arguments. Naval Postgraduate School, December 2006.

Heskett, Jonathan D. The Potential Scope for Use of Private Military Companies in Military Operations: An Historical and Economical Analysis. Naval Postgraduate School, December 2005.

Jorgensen, Brent M. Outsourcing Small Wars: Expanding the Role of Private Military Companies in U.S. Military Operations. Naval Postgraduate School, September 2005.

Wallwork, Richard D. Operational Implications of Private Military Companies in the Global War on Terror. Army Command and General Staff College, February 2005.

Kidwell, Deborah C. Public War, Private Fight? The United States and Private Military Companies. Combat Studies Institute Press, 2005.

Millard, Todd S. Overcoming Post-Colonial Myopia: A Call to Recognize and Regulate Private Military Companies. Judge Advocate General's School, April 2003.

Housen, Roger T. The Privatization of Warfare: Back to the Future. National War College, 2002.

Goddard, Scott C. The Private Military Company: A Legitimate International Entity Within Modern Conflict. Army Command and General Staff College, June 2001.

Baffer, B. D. The Professional Military Services Industry: Have We Created a New Military-Industrial Complex? Marine Corps War College, May 2005.

Vaught, Donna S. Modern Mercenaries of the Twenty-first Century: Professional Military Consultants a Modern Tool of Foreign Policy. Naval War College, February 1999.

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Imitation and the academy

Imitation is flattery, but also proof of a system which has lost its way.

We have noted an increasing proliferation of imitation items circulating within select smaller settings of the intelligence studies academia, which by some strange coincidence repeatedly also references the more rarefied material we have set forth or cited, usually within days of our initial postings. Such coincidences become increasingly suspect over time.

It is not that we are displeased that it appears that we are so profoundly influencing the evolution of the debate. We are however saddened that there appears to be so little original thought emerging out of institutions which should be thought leaders in this field, yet for some reason languish without insight or innovation to call their own, reduced to a genteel form of plagiarism that seeks to pass off others ongoing research efforts as their own.

We are also concerned that this dynamic ill equips students to meet respected academic and professional intelligence standards for collaboration and debate. In the online medium of the blogsphere, one of the more important elements which has evolved to enable a more dynamic and interesting collective conversation has been the “hat tip” reference to origins of material passed from one context to another. In a way, this modern practice very closely resembles the Islamic tradition of isnad utilized in oral repetition of narratives across generations of multiple speakers. It is, in our view, vital to the essence of the online scholarly debate – especially when in so many instances the entirety of discussions on particular issues may only be grasped by walking the chain of attribution back across time and individual contributions.

Not entirely without reason, the application of isnad type citation has been growing within the intelligence community – particularly as coordination processes and distributed collaboration becomes more and more common within many entities. This is partly a response to increased emphasis on the traceability of analytical judgments, and of data supporting those judgments, which has occurred given the public discussion surrounding the declassified version of the 2002 Iraq NIE and related Senate inquiries. Also, not coincidentally, as an aspect of rigor it is fundamentally similar to key basic analytic tradecraft in both HUMINT and COMINT fields, and therefore tends to be ingrained in professionals with experience in those disciplines to the point that it is transferred to more academic discussions almost without conscious volition. It is further in no small measure the direct result of influences from the blogsphere, in both its open and community iterations, as the availability of robust search capabilities coupled with small worlds social networks virtually ensures the visibility of any “me too” behaviors.

The intelligence community’s debate over new methods of citation may have changed with the technology, but frankly has not altered in its poles since the earliest days of analytic scholarship, as can be seen in earlier works on the subject.

Thankfully, our other more prominent blogging colleagues have always been kind in their attribution, for which we are grateful; and hope that we have also likewise been scrupulous in providing our source references for all to examine. We understand it may be entirely galling to many academics - steeped in a tradition which surrounds them with young minds with a tendency towards hero-worship - to acknowledge the anonymous mutterings of those they have never met at conferences, or recognized as published in the usual journals – particularly when the torch of authorship is passed so often between contributors, or temporarily suspended without any public explanation or acknowledgement for reasons entirely related to the unique factors of our collective profession. But it speaks to the heart of scholarly integrity, and to the disconnects between current professional practices and what passes for the same in a regrettable number of academic circles.

We are starkly reminded of the example of a particular British professor at one American institution who a number of years back attempted to pass himself off as a so-called expert in intelligence matters, but whose plagiarism and repeatedly demonstrated incompetence - before his frankly too quiet, and too long delayed dismissal - remains legendary in the field, and an enduring black mark for what was an otherwise fine organization. While the recently noted behaviors by other academics has not risen to anywhere near such an egregious level, the observed psychological factors bear striking and troubling similarity to early case indicators.

For those whose only recognition comes from the community of fellow thinkers, this behavior is particularly galling. The online blogsphere is an economy of attention, and while some may profit financially, this has never been our intention (or even something appropriate given our small skunkwork’s ever-changing collective roles and responsibilities.) This is rather an effort driven largely by personal interest, and what feedback we are given in other forums is the sole distinction between a semi-private “analysts’ coffee” between colleagues, and a worthwhile attempt to respond to Sherman Kent’s original call – albeit in a more informal manner than the gentleman could have conceived given the technology (and timelines) of his day. We certainly feel our humble effort falls well within the bounds of the latter category, and feedback from our more intellectually honest colleagues has validated time and again the return on our collective investment of time and energy in this effort. For whether their comments have been complimentary or critical, the debate advances based on common contributions and shared conversation for which we remain grateful.

Let us hope that our other colleagues will learn soon to display a higher standard of rigor, in order to set an unimpeachable example for the next generation of officers and analysts.

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22 April 2007

Warning examples for would-be futures analysts

We have recently begun following the quirky Paleo-Future blog out of the horrifying spectacle that one day our own forecasts may be featured therein - though we are comforted in that our writings will no doubt likely remain quite obscure, especially in comparison to things such as AT&T advertising or Apple's early pop culture visions. But we learned early to always be mindful of the examples of other’s mistakes, in order to seek to avoid them ourselves.

Collections such as Paleo-Future serve to point out well that most of what passes for futures analysis is merely a concise summation of the features of the present, exaggerated in a manner which reflects the interests and cognitive biases of the day. And while the future may already be here in uneven distribution, interesting parts of that future also emerges at the intersection of today’s forces and drivers that create complex higher order effects in ways that will always be difficult to predict. That’s why futures studies will remain just as much of a job as any other part of the intelligence equation.

We have been troubled by the lack of effective predictive analysis tradecraft in most intelligence analysis instruction, and a deep misunderstanding of futures studies techniques displayed on the part of many of the faculty and students emerging from typical academic programs. The process of authoring a fifteen year out-years assessment is far different than developing key judgments for an estimate regarding a current intelligence problem, but it seems too few times are those differences recognized or addressed.

This failure is not for lack of resources. The futures studies field has been producing a body of literature that frankly already nearly exceeds that of the intelligence studies academia, from a much smaller base of much younger institutions. The basic text as always remains the Art of the Long View, but there are numerous others tackling applications ranging from business strategy, technology developments, and a number of key national intelligence questions. Demonstrated project efforts abound, most notably in the United Kingdom’s multiple horizon scanning efforts, the National Intelligence Council’s excellent recurring series, and other private sector efforts. And for as much as Proteus is cited for its conclusions regarding the potential intelligence environment of 2020, the process by which it was developed is equally ignored.

This issue ties into the greater concerns regarding the lack of strategic imagination and strategic thinking within the intelligence community. It is widely acknowledged that the overwhelming press of current intelligence demands continues to rob time and effort that might otherwise have been devoted to longer term concerns, and to the kinds of interactions that lead to creativity and insight in futures problems. But it is hard to worry about tomorrow when one is always fighting fires today. Even when scarce time and analytical resources are devoted to futures studies questions, they often focus on easy, media-centric shibboleths which are politicized from the start by their very nature.

Futures studies, forecasting, and other forms of predictive analysis deserve far more attention than they current receive. There is some hope on the horizon, as some of the best in the community are shifting posture to emphasize a far more forward looking, forward leaning approach in intelligence studies – integrating predictive and opportunity analysis at every level. Hopefully, these efforts and their follow-on imitators bring new focus to futures intelligence.

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21 April 2007

Watching the wiki grow

The following fascinating video illustrates the growth of the Wikipedia entry on the VT shooting incident over the first 12 hours.

The intelligence community still has not entirely come to terms with the impact of new tools such as the wiki, although it is making great progress in at least some forms through early adopters and the younger generation which natively embraces such technologies. We have however been disappointed by other experiments in wikified intelligence production, as much as we continue to believe that the medium offers promise in creating better options for virtual distributed collaboration in analysis and authoring.

We strongly suspect that one of the reasons Intellipedia works well is because it is essentially duplicates the functions of the now vanishing “shelfware” products and mentoring processes that previously functioned to tie together new analysts and their more experienced counterparts on specific accounts and targets. Both of these essential functions have been largely overtaken by the recent upheaval in the community, aggravated by factors including the state of permanently high operations tempo, the creation of new players of interest who lack other key connectivity to the established community, and the major demographic changes within many agencies.

Other wiki applications are not yet so clear. There have been strong arguments, and some moderate demonstrations, that the tool can play a role in replacing smartbooks, watch logs, and other “pass-down” shared documents, particularly in environments where there may be significant temporal distance between analyst shifts. Wikis have also reportedly been experimented with in coordination of exercise events, and would seem to offer promise in presenting a shared “reality” framework for simulated material.

The VT incident above highlights the potential utility of the wiki in incident management and shared situational awareness roles. The increasing proliferation of intelligence operations and fusion centers throughout the community has created unique analytic tradecraft requirements for watch officers and analysts - who typically are only taught skills and TTPs developed by their cubicle-bound counterparts.

The wiki as a tool may offer new options for the evolution of more unique tradecraft better suited to rapid analysis under crisis conditions. Interestingly, one of the first areas in which wikis might be used to contribute to such a new subspecies of the tradecraft may be in enabling structured argumentation and analysis between multiple contributors in a more explicit and transparent fashion. (Whether structured analysis methods are best suited for the operations center environment is another question entirely, but a question that has seen at least some initial attempts to examine in a systematic manner. See the JMIC Occasional Paper “Intelligence Analysis in Theater Joint Intelligence Centers: An Experiment in Applying Structured Methods”.)

Not all problems can be solved by the same kind of hammer. However, we are fascinated to watch the results of the continued trial and error of beating new objects against the wall. At least it saves the pain we would encounter when the only options we had was the pounding of our heads.

h/t to Bitter

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19 April 2007

The illusion of negative proof in incomplete operational demonstrations

We have in the past cited John Robb’s earlier works with interest, as it was clear he was attempting to piece together an understanding of the complex dynamics within modern sub-state and non-state networks involved in many of the key conflict areas around the globe. For these contributions to the literature we are indebted to him, even as we may productively argue with specific points.

We have been less enamored of his recent writings, however, but have been willing to leave the task of debating “multi” generation warfare (4GW, 5GW, et al) to those among the many excellent writers specializing in such military theory - who also not coincidentally offer a better turn of phrase on matters which we consider to very nearly border on combat theology, but for whose efforts we remain grateful.

However, Robb’s recent writings on “negative proof” to evaluate the effectiveness of current surge counterinsurgency operations in Baghdad demand a response. The logical fallacy of seeking to establish indicators for the operational and even strategic picture from single tactical incidents is bad enough. Although we believe in the strategic corporal, and have seen repeatedly the effects of major “turning point” incidents in Iraq (such as the bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra), we have also seen far too many events designated by the pundits as the karmic keystone of the entire conflict – and just as quickly forgotten.

We are particularly concerned by Robb’s selection of recent events which form the basis of his “proof”. The enemy gets a vote in operations, and the success or failure of an effort is not judged on the actions the OPFOR takes in casting that vote, but rather are weighed in the net assessment of both sides’ effects. The strategic estimate is not merely a first draft of history, but the Choosing specific symbolic incidents such as the April 2007 complex attack on the Iraqi Parliament, or random protests (many of which consist of paid agitators), as meeting some threshold defined as “significant enough”, is deeply problematic. This is the essence of satisficing, and carries with it both the weight of cognitive bias, and also in no small measure elements of an analyst perhaps over-attached to his personal theory – with attending loss of objectivity.

The enemy understands well the non-kinetic effects of specific tactical actions, and chooses to utilize those that have information operations aspects without regard to the longer term efficacy of the options. One has but to witness the emergence of the red-on-red incidents between AQI and Sunni insurgents in Al Anbar to identify strong evidence of a mixed scorecard in the longer term assessment from what were seen as early “significant” events, such as the temporary seizing of built up areas.

Analysts should always be mindful of the necessity to rely upon rigorous analytic tradecraft, and in particular robust counter-deception practices, in order to prevent their work from being tainted by adversary IO themes – particularly when those themes are pursued through a pattern of kinetic operations rather than mere rhetoric.

The success or failure of current strategies has yet to be weighed. Perhaps the effects will be better measured in another Friedman unit… but it is more likely that the political debate will have moved the goalposts for the assessment by that point in time, and the then current discussion will be dominated instead by another transient issue that fails to reflect the grand strategic picture.

Closely related to this discussion is the troubling lack of awareness of enemy IO and political warfare operations and tactics, and the effects of these behaviors on analysis. These issues are not limited to any one pundit or thinker, but rather broadly impact many of those otherwise bright minds attempting to tackle difficult problems.

Fortunately, the academy has responded with at least one individual’s effort to remedy this otherwise widespread ignorance. Dr. Michael Waller has authored an excellent overview, building upon his earlier work countering Soviet and insurgent aktivny mera operations in previous conflicts. We are fortunate to count the gentleman among our influences, and highly recommend his instruction at the Institute of World Politics.

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18 April 2007

Nation states as market distortions

The ever thought provoking Shlok Vaidya has presented a fascinating corollary to the growing body of maxims regarding the re-emergence of the non-state soldier, in which he argues that “the nation-state is distorting the market” for private military companies.

The nation-state system is widely considered to be an aberration (in historical terms), and the erosion of its monopoly on violence has long been recognized within the national security debate. However, the debate has thus far pre-supposed that this monopoly was an intrinsic right, rather than a brief period in which the unique convergence of technology, ideology, and geo-politics encouraged an unnatural centralization (and a set of related beliefs among those capable of providing services of violence which sustained that centralization.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the private military industry is that it has demonstrated the alternative to the monopoly, not only to the nation-state sponsors which have typically employed their services in major theatres, but to the actual consumer of those services. Shloky innovatively recognizes the difference, and claims the current customer is actually the “tax-paying citizen”. This poses the potential the emergence of other future customers of these services. Certainly, we have seen the dynamic of multiple customers for professional, military grade violence emerge in the illicit markets. Its official, legitimized counterpart has not yet caught up – not least of which due to the delay in recognizing the potential for such services by customers at the sub-state level.

For whatever flaws they might have, most PMCs would be far preferable to the other service provider options available to those customers – especially if traditional solutions have been provided by entities such as the professional mercenaries of third world nation-state governments, whose only marketable aspect to date has been their receipt of the so-called international community’s approval. In this light, Greystone and similar peacekeeping / stability and support operations oriented firms represent not just a viable option, but a better overall investment. Given the removal of other distortions, and the cognitive biases of the consumers, there is a sizable market opportunity waiting to be seized. And fortune favors the bold.

We have been most fascinated by the development of the kinetic capabilities, financial structures, and command & planning staff that allow for such a market to exist. The most striking feature of the current PMC system is the ability to constitute significant forces from what are essentially virtual arsenals when the right conditions of finance, sponsor, and mission align.

A similar dynamic has been observed in the privatization of intelligence. Most entities currently exist to serve nation-state needs that either cannot be filled by government staff, or that can be more flexibly, more cheaply, and more effectively met through the use of contract services. However, key homeland security and foreign area intelligence accounts have significant implications for other consumers, and outside of the comparatively much smaller market space for travel and “security”-type intelligence services, these consumers have not traditionally been well served. Again, the entities best positioned to serve these markets are likely to be those outside of the nation-state system – particularly for issues that are inherently transnational in nature.

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Where have you gone, Mrs. Wohlstetter?

In the light of recent events, we are reminded of the continuing challenges of getting predictive intelligence right. We are not given the power to see the future, but we are given the ability to reason - and most importantly, to imagine.

There has been a recent trend towards the examination of intelligence surprise (particularly at the strategic level), intelligence failure, and the analytical tradecraft by which these are avoided. We are grateful for these efforts, and their contribution to the literature of intelligence.

To this end, we recommend our readers to the excellent doctoral thesis “Surprise, Intelligence Failure, and Mass Casualty Terrorism” by Thomas Copeland - one of the few scholars of the intelligence field that emerged in the 1990’s. We were pleased to make his acquaintance at several academic functions in the past, and we greatly respect his intellect and insight.

Closely related, the classic Anticipating Surprise by Cynthia Grabo has recently been updated and released as an occasional paper by the Joint Military Intelligence College. The original declassified version has also been released through the Kent school.

Other contributions by authors at the Fletcher school and at the Military Intelligence Corps Professional Association have also been noted.

While we still feel the recent loss of Roberta Wohlstetter - the first and best of the scholars in the subject - her legacy continues to live on in the community.

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12 April 2007

Industry’s “intelligence collection effort” targeting USG

“Industry hires our alumni, and runs an extensive and effective intelligence collection effort targeting us.”

The quote from Navy Secretary Donald Winter comes in the context of a different struggle by the government to come to terms with increasing privatization – one much further along in is transition of key roles to the private sector; and in which issues of control, expertise, and the effects of years of decreasing expenditures are much more evident.

Once upon a time, government contractors were praised for attempting to understand their key client organizations, and rewarded when they accumulated expertise and personnel which allowed them to rapidly and flexibly meet that client’s articulated (and even proactively anticipated) needs. Senior leadership tacitly expected to be able to find a comfortable post-retirement position within those contractor organizations, earning large salaries at less stress and risk. But at every level of government, contractors were considered second class members, there to provide a specific service but never “good enough” to truly belong – and as long as that remained the case, were kept almost as favoured pets.

Those days are long past, even if the illusions remain. The screams you hear are the realization that the old command and control model within the defense industrial economy – and its intelligence community counterparts – has been shattered forever.

The post 9/11 environment surges are most responsible for these changes, but they are rooted in the nearly intractable problems of systemic failure to invest in human capital, to motivate and reward individuals, and to face the current realities of life at the junior level in a major urban metro area.

Contractors perform almost every function conceivable within the community – and often far better than their government counterparts, based on the private sector’s ability to attract more qualified and experienced individuals at better pay and better quality of life. To be sure, not every shop actually does so – there are many stories of disillusioned contractors going back to the blue badge world. But when one looks at the next generation of analysts and collectors coming out of the university and out of their initial tours of military service, it is overwhelmingly contractors who are making the most attractive offers – not only financially, but in terms of sheer speed of the process and the quality of assignments. The idea of waiting nine to eighteen months for a position as a civil service employee, when one could have the same job – and the flexibility to quickly move to another in the field – is simply absurd. More and more, one looks around to see the best and the brightest of the up and coming are advancing in structures outside of the traditional community’s boundaries.

Current dysfunctions in the utilization of contractors, cited by SECNAV and others across the private military industry, are less a result of the shift of the command and control model to a privatized marketplace than the essential irrationality of that marketplace due to structural issues created by government decisions. Most are decisions which impose substantial burdens in the marketplace, enacted by those without any clear idea of how that marketplace operates and reacts. The clearance bottlenecks are but the most famous in the intelligence community, yet there are many others: issues of arming contractors in forward deployed areas, the ability of contractors to attend needed specific job related training available only through the major agencies (and usually offered only to their government employees), schizophrenic styles of contract award and re-compete cycles, and the increasing moral and operational impacts of efforts to segregate contractors from their identical government counterparts. These are issues caused by poor management (on both the government and contractors’ part), lack of coherent strategic vision, and the vast gulf of ignorance between competing community philosophies.

The SECNAV’s statement re-conceptualizing what have been long-standing efforts of the defense industry to understand its client, and communicate key decision support information to its senior management, are but the latest in a troubling trend. It is a line of thinking that seeks to assign blame for the end results of a series of specific choices to those that have apparently benefited from the outcomes, rather than those responsible for making the initial choices in privatization and contracting.

We have seen such thinking before, most notable in the ill fated “Intelligence Community Strategic Human Capital Plan” released under the previous DNI’s tenure, which sought to declare a “talent war” on contractors rather than facing the hard issues driving the comparative imbalance of contractor successes in recruiting key candidates.

To this “talent war”, the SECNAV now apparently wishes to add an “industry counterintelligence problem”.

It is a dangerous philosophy, and one that does not serve either the government or the intelligence industrial base. Taken to its logical progression, these concepts would lead to decisions which will inevitably destroy accumulated expertise, innovation, and professionalization in favor of politicization and deeper rice bowls.

These are troubling days. Let us hope that cooler and wiser heads will prevail.


For those that need additional reinforcement of the lessons of failure of centralized planning approaches versus marketplace realities, we note the following item from North Korea.

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11 April 2007

Wrist Watching

We do not often enough take time for the trivia of our profession – another of the important and all too often ignored functions that could be well served by the academy. However, we do love the museum; and at heart most great analysts are something of the pack rat, and field officers are – well - always collectors.

Thus we are greatly amused by the lengthy examination of the “spy” watch found at a specialist blog dedicated to “collecting time.” Be sure to also see previous posts on the subject there.

H/t Boing Boing


10 April 2007

He who owns the platform, redux

The following item cited by SmartMobs reminds us how very applicable the earlier noted lessons of control achieved through better processing, exploitation, and analysis – rather than mere ownership or creation of the raw data – are when examined across disciplines and INTs. In this case, they examine OSINT and social network analysis applications based on user-generated content.

While in the civilian world, that buzz phrase may drive much investment; the quieter versions of participatory architectures found within the community are also facing similar issues in the strange and uniquely competitive marketplace between agencies, programs, and dueling subject matter experts.

But what may seem a short term “victory” in the turf wars for a specific program may in fact be the roots of its downfall. Even the “best" practised, uber-authoritarian walled garden of “collaborative expertise” becomes essentially irrelevant if it strangles the contributions of its experts through attempts at control based on philosophies of ego or proponency – something we have seen in many of the non-inclusive small wikis and other similar “sharing” platforms being generated both inside government and by its academic partners, attempting to copy the concepts of Intellipedia and other like tools. In the worst case scenarios, over-controlled efforts die as their contributors invest time and effort elsewhere; or are fatally crippled as new contributions originate only from those without experience or access to more productive and vibrant environments.

Even experiments which fail teach valuable lessons. However, the manner in which these lessons are taught, and the next generation learns, will dictate whether the efforts are valid. Certainly though, the energy and drive of the individual analysts on the line will count far more in the long run towards developing and validating new techniques for distributed collaborative production – and capturing the ephemera of those activities as lessons learned and best practices should certainly count far higher in the schoolhouse and literature’s priorities than simply creating yet another “me too” attempt at a technological fix.

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07 April 2007

The Academy and the Community

We have long written about the importance of the academic establishment to the success of the intelligence community, not only in producing the next generation of analysts and officers, but also pursuing the research and thinking about the profession that is a luxury all too often denied to those with day to day operational responsibilities.

We have also repeatedly expressed our frustration with the direction in which many of the prominent academic programs in the intelligence studies field have taken, particularly as programs grow, become entrenched, and breed reputations and attending issues of ego. The disconnect between the academic environment and the community has only been exacerbated by the Long War, especially as it is more than likely that even the most junior serving professional has experience with contemporary problems and players that far exceeds the majority of the retirees (and younger rear echelon types) which comprise the bulk of the academic staff in too many programs.

Even in the face of these disconnects, there is much that the academic world can contribute to the community – particularly in the areas of intelligence history, analytic methodology, emerging technologies, the body of intelligence literature, and of course the most critical mission of all: building the generation that will win the Long War.

To this end, we have noted with interest the DNI’s Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence program (IC CAE), which has in a short time dramatically expanded the number of schools now offering intelligence studies programs at the undergraduate level (many of which may be found linked in the sidebar). Most of these programs are exceedingly new, and face the not inconsiderable hurdles of any fledgling effort. We thus withhold judgment until further indicators of their effect develop in the due course of time – although we confess that we are by no means disinterested observers, as we unabashedly wish these programs all possible success.

However, we remain greatly troubled by the apparent lack of change in the institutional attitudes of many schools, despite their having sought and received substantial funding for such programs. The involvement of the intelligence community in university life at any level has been demonized by certain elements with distinct political agendas since the 1960’s, and this has been exceedingly unhelpful to those students seeking to pursue their chosen course of study (and eventual careers) in the spirit of academic freedom. Those students who have come through such civilian university programs know well the venom that have been directly at them from both other students and faculty. It is unsurprising then that the IC CAE programs should draw fire from those who see conspiracies of domestic control in even the most otherwise normal government actions.

In the farther left reaches of the blogsphere, we have regrettably found a lengthy and disturbing screed by an author who is apparently affiliated with a radical ethnicity-centered activist organization, which calls for “legal” action against IC CAE programs due to some supposed “misuse” of “intellectual property”, for “taking the history of a people” and “using it against them”. We shall not dignify the writer with any link traffic, if only out of the apparent need to protect the individual’s mental health privacy. The sentiment, however absurd, is driven by emotional and political themes which are not so easily dismissed (no matter how much the community would wish the debate to remain apolitical) – themes which are not only the domain of the acknowledged activist, but are found as readily in the faculty lounges in many of the institutions to which the community would court. (Indeed, even the aforementioned screed apparently originated as a public commentary to previously private faculty email exchanges cited by the activist author.)

We fear for the future of the academic study of the art and science of intelligence in the face of renewed activism to banish the national security establishment from the campus as much as we worry about the disconnects and the stagnation of those academic programs which do manage to continue to fight to exist.

If the mantle of responsibilities previously carried by the ivory tower has been cast aside, we wonder what then shall take its place? How best should the community seek to fulfill the needs which the academic world is no longer meeting? These are not idle nor rhetorical questions – question upon which we will no doubt reflect further in the coming days.

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06 April 2007

Sidebar updates

We would like to call the reader's attention (given the volume of RSS subscriptions these days) to the updated sidebar, now featuring quite a few more fine institutions, thinkers, and publications - some of which may, but many of which may not be familiar to our visitors. We will be continuing to add to the selection of our favourites for a little while to come, if only because we value it is as an outboard brain to aggregate important links for our little skunkworks.

In some ways, we have been remiss in our situational awareness efforts these days, and have failed to properly call attention to the some of the new minds and new literature in the field. We will be seeking to remedy this shortly.

While we have our disagreements with the typical approaches of current intel studies academic establishments in the ivory tower; there are new faces and players that may be changing traditional dynamics in the near future. We can only hope - stagnation is death, particularly in the Long War, as our enemies continue to rapidly evolve in ways that demand ever greater imagination, creativity, and drive from the community.


04 April 2007

He who owns the platform….

It is fascinating to watch the evolution of Google in the public consciousness. It is now considered by many, even those who should certainly know better, as a public utility. Of course, it is no such thing – as a private company, it is responsible first to its shareholders (as long as it infringes no laws) and only then – in the name of public relations, not any imposed responsibilities – should it consider other questions of corporate “social responsibility” and related questions which fall under the realm of philosophy

It is thus with grim amusement we note the recent controversy over Google’s choices in datasets populating its Earth imagery application. It is even more ironic that the furor appears to have been sparked by the use of the application by analysts who ought to have better sources at their disposal, but were apparently (surprisingly) unwilling or unable to rely on traditional government imagery product providers – even given the availability of robust support from efforts such as the National Geospatial Agency’s Commercial Imagery Program and embedded support elements throughout the homeland security and consequence management communities.

We have seen the same debates play out at the birth of the commercial imaging industry over everything from shutter control (whether out of legitimate national security concerns or over-hyped privacy debates) to scientific access "rights". At the end of the day, it is sound and fury signifying nothing – the platform is what matters, and he who controls that sensor will continue to be the defining factor.

What we find even more interesting, however, is that Google has changed the traditional view of what that platform actually itself is. Previously, we (and no doubt most of our counterparts) would have assumed that the platform was the sensor (and constellation.) After all, within the Intelligence Community it is generally the owner of the satellite or air-breather itself that has the defining throw-weight in any argument over tasking and dissemination.

Google has radically transformed the commercial imagery field, at least in its popular application. To be sure, GIS systems and finished imagery analysis still occupy their traditional market segments, but the entire market share of what one might consider “mass simple viewing” is essentially owned by the search engine – not the imagery provider. The new balance of power driven by this dynamic no doubt suits the management of the imagery collection systems well. After all, whether air-breathing or space-based, these are fields where technical skillsets predominate in order to tackle difficult technical problems that a generation ago were the sole provence of national government efforts (like many other collection challenges), and Google’s successes in popularizing imagery can only drive new innovation by non-traditional users while the providers focus on core business issues.

There are lessons here for the Intelligence Community on unanticipated higher benefits which occur when the raw material of collection is made available to a wider community, both to the substantive analysts as well as the continued success and relevance of the provider itself.

(Graphic above is of the next generation WORLDVIEW imagery satellite - courtesy of Digitalglobe).

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