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31 May 2007

Not an Intelligence Estimate

We have been aware for some time of the recent academic exercise by Mercyhurst College’s Intelligence Studies program in utilizing a wiki-based production process for analytic experimentation which resulted in the production of a model National Intelligence Estimate on infectious disease issues. It has now apparently gone public under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council.

We were initially very interested in the discussion surrounding this effort, as it seemed on the surface quite innovative, and touched upon many of the key areas we have focused on here at Kent’s Imperative – including the use of new technologies to support analysis, and the integration of private sector and academic expertise into community efforts. However, we had reserved judgment and comment until the final form was published.

We find ourselves now troubled by the results we have seen. While we still support greatly the concepts of distributed, virtual production utilizing new collaborative technologies to blend academic and IC professional expertise into a single cohesive product, we are greatly disappointed by the initial run of the experiment. We suspect strongly that those without substantive community experience may have played a role in the divergence from what seemed initially a good project into something that displays remarkable deficiencies in tradecraft and judgment – not to mention a depressingly shallow treatment of the subject under consideration.

We may offer a more substantive critique of the product in the future, but our initial coordination notes would highlight the following, both methodological and substantive:

  • Nation-state level focus on what are essentially transnational and globalized problems
  • Lack of any apparent utilization of futures intelligence methodologies (such as scenario projection, horizon scanning, Delphic analysis, driving forces / event mapping)
  • Excessive confidence in statements based on incomplete information or future uncertainty
  • Introduction of arbitrary quantitative metrics into an essentially qualitative expression of analytic confidence, rather than utilizing intelligence community normative forms
  • Too frequent focus on current conditions as opposed to the supposed 10-15 year target horizon of the product
  • Layers of embedded analytic judgments expressed as factual points in “editorial” style
  • Lack of any serious examination of Non-Governmental Organization and other private sector roles, currently or in the future timeframe of the study

Some might say we are being too harsh on what are after all a group of students. We do not direct our criticism at the students themselves – they clearly made an effort to address a very difficult task normally given to professionals with many years more experience (and a much greater familiarity with DI writing style); and acquitted themselves as individuals well. Our disappointment lies solely in seeing an unprecedented opportunity to a great extent squandered in the production of a glossy rag rather than something of true and enduring value. We continue to believe that even these most junior analyst / students are capable of much more – and that the concept has the potential to offer unique value to the intelligence community.

Still, we are glad that something came of the effort, if only to observe the process from afar. We would like to second Haft of the Spear’s call for the introduction of new schools, and new groups of academics for new experiments on new targets - that may perhaps have a better go of it, particularly given greater involvement of IC professionals in the kind of blended approach we have been advocating for some time now.

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30 May 2007

Remembering capabilities-centric models

Former Spook has an excellent piece commenting on the continuing debate over USAF ISR issues, from acquisition to employment. His points regarding the underutilization of non-traditional assets – from pods of various flavours to onboard sensor suites and especially the Mark I eyeball, brain attached – are well noted indeed.

Intelligence operations planning, in the sense of orchestrated and robust deployment of collection, processing, analysis, and fusion systems of systems, is a rarely taught skill within many organizations – particularly as current players emphasize turf over mission and everyone else assumes that the –INT collection owner will step up in the fight as part of doing business (something that is rarely the case on anything but the most visible of all accounts.)

Those tasked to use such skills are often drawn from very different parts of the community than those taught, and than may have been originally expected to inherit operational or theatre level responsibilities. Under the pressure of real-time environments they will rarely have the chance to learn from the theory, but rather forced to evolve under the brutal Darwinian pressures of warfare and of covert conflicts.

Those in the acquisition community have no such excuses. The long lead lifecycles of major components of the intelligence and warfighting architecture ensure that there is substantial time to consider the implications of the platform, its possible sensor payloads, and its integration into the whole of the operation. And moving away from the strict platform-based thinking, there is plenty of room and potential for innovative new solutions to be integrated in a capabilities-based fashion, rather than waiting for new platforms to be built around them.

In the same manner, we note a fascinating analysis of the recent real world “cyberwar” involving Estonia and Russia, compared to its fictionalized counterpart from the dawn of the networking era. We are fans of mining the creativity and insight of storytellers for potential insights into the future, and are always interested to look back on their successes (or otherwise) in formulating accurate predictions. (It is most fortunate for many an intelligence analyst that their assessments are not public domain, to be subject to such merciless scrutiny over time. That job waits for the historians in the long decades to come after declassification, and usually the unknown authors are long since dead or retired into obscurity.)

What strikes us most about this comparison is the difference between the fictional vision of an advanced state-owned, platform and shooter heavy special operations mission – against the reality of a distributed, commercial off the shelf capabilities-centric event for which attribution, let alone intent, is difficult to characterize effectively.

Call this among the clearest evidence of the clash of mindsets between generations of warfare – leaping what was a 3rd generation model (based on a World War II kinetic analogy) with the prediction of 4th generation technologies (yet to be developed, and famously written on an ancient manual typewriter with a vision inspired by a single advertisement for an early Macintosh computer); into true operationalized 4th generation technologies used in what may be the precursor of a 5th generation fashion.

What is scary is how many intelligence and information operations professionals just entering the field still believe in the fictional variant (or at least want very much for it to be true…); and how much the acquisitions community is structured to support the fantasy rather than the realities. Because after all, it is easy to have advertisements for the large, flashy and photogenic platforms plastered all over the Metro, but it is extremely difficult to market abstract concepts in which a few inches of circuit board and a few lines of code are the real engines of capabilities.

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29 May 2007

Lock-in in the intelligence community

Our fascination with Google is well known. They are an entity entirely dedicated to the business of information acquisition, archive, and discovery – one of the few companies in the world whose primary civilian commercial business matches so many critical task functions in the intelligence community. They are also culturally unorthodox, organizationally different, intellectually driven – and widely successful.

We have a deeply divided assessment of their current operations and future potential, particularly based on their widely reported human resources issues. But they bear watching, and are an interesting bellweather in the ever changing information tradewinds.

Thus we note Scoble’s recent comments on yet further rumours of decline within the Googleplex. We are most fascinated by his statement:

“Google has lockin on interesting ideas that you could come up with. Forget the legal lockin too. What’s the real secret sauce over at Google? Is it your idea? No. It’s the infrastructure! The datacenters, the fiber, all that. Getting your idea to work (and to be integrated with something that’d bring you large amounts of traffic) will not be easy outside the walls of Google.”

This deeply reflects similar dynamics within the ongoing privatization of intelligence. The lock-in created by the infrastructure – both physical / technological and intellectual – is an enormous pressure against smaller, privatized efforts outside of the traditional boundaries of large agency efforts. These pressures are among the strongest drivers of ever-increasing levels of staff-like billets for contractors, rather than the smaller outsourced single issue studies that pre-dominated within the community’s early contracting. It is simply too difficult for many raised within the confines of the vaults to operate anywhere else – and the norming effects of shared information systems and archival repositories tend to mean those who do try to go it outside begin to lose touch with the zeitgeist after even a very short time.

We are intrigued, and would like to see further research on these issues. There are certainly solid reasons for the intelligence community’s infrastructure to be quite binding, but there may be key elements that currently act to create lock-in pressure which can be effectively transformed to allow for more distributed, and potentially more innovative, options in the pursuit of privatization.

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The pleasure and the burden of the reading stack

A holiday weekend (for some few lucky souls at least) and a bit of travel has scattered our small skunkworks even further to the wind, and has meant coordinating an answer to our colleagues’ requests for a glimpse at our reading list has taken longer than anticipated.

However, we can report a few titles that have been stacked on various nightstands and desks. As always, there is never enough time for the reading we wish to be doing versus the reading we find ourselves needing to get through. Thus will ever be the lot of the intelligence professional, we fear.

In fact, we feel there is little else so fundamental to the practice of the art and science than one’s choices in accumulating new information, the vast majority of which remains written (and likely will for some time to come, even if supplemented by graphical elements, simply due to the levels of information density in text versus other mediums.) But that is a debate for another day.

We are also not sure what value our current reading list has for our fellows – versus what we might choose to recommend or assign to a new analyst or student - but for what it’s worth….

Hizbullah: The Story from Within by Naim Qassem

Hezbollah: A Short History by Augustus Richard Norton

The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War by Thaddeus Holt

The Tao of Deception: Unorthodox Warfare in Historic and Modern China by Ralph D. Sawyer

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr

The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Sir Rupert Smith

Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth by John Garth

Terrorism Law: Cases, and Materials, Fourth Edition by Jeffrey F. Addicott

SOE: The Scientific Secrets by Fredric Boyce

Cyber Adversary Characterization: Auditing the Hacker Mind by Tom Parker, Marcus Sachs, Eric Shaw, Ed Stroz, Matthew G. Devost

Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization by John Robb

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A Short Course in the Secret War, 4th Edition by Christopher Felix

Plus the usual stack of periodicals that are routinely delivered, or that we haven’t quite gotten to – Economist, Defense Intelligence Journal, Intelligencer, Journal of International Affairs, Small Arms Review, and as always the latest issue of Studies…

Perhaps we can tag a few others with the meme, including Messrs. Tanji, Martin, and Former Spook. These gentlemen should likewise make for an interesting list to add to the extant offerings at Coming Anarchy (who it looks like started the viral idea for these posts), Soob, Hidden Unities, and Simulated Laughter.


25 May 2007

Designing for the intelligence professional

We have witnessed the explosive growth of just about every new technology under the sun, all claiming to support (or even entirely automate) intelligence analysis tasks, emerging in the years of the increased Long War budgets. We have even taken part in the design and development of a number of systems – some of which have endured, others of which we have gladly put out of their misery.

We have come to a number of conclusions regarding what works and what doesn’t based on those experiences. We have learned some interesting lessons from the usability crowd, and even more from the evolving body of standards and practices which comprise the whole Web 2.0 phenomena. But a recent article regarding the proliferation of features in various techno-toys, driven by consumers who may not really know what the need or want, calls for additional contemplation.

For us, the gold standard of design is and always will be the Avtomat Kalashnikov. It is designed to do one thing, and one thing well – under any conditions, with nearly any level of maintenance (or lack thereof). (There is a reason why it is among the most frequent weapons encountered worldwide.) No feature creep there – and a reason why we keep (at least) one at home, in addition to having carried one in many locations overseas over the years.

Unfortunately, the venerable AK is also the product of nearly seven hundred years of firearms evolution. The tools used by the intelligence community can claim nowhere near such a distinguished lineage. (The sole exception perhaps may be found in the world of the cryptographer, where automation has simply advanced mathematical tools once done by hand with pen or abacus. However, one could argue that the munitions of the cryptologic world are among the most refined tools of the intelligence community, certainly so far bypassing their counterparts in the analytic environment as to be an entirely different order of beast.)

In part, we suffer from tools we do not truly need because most those tools are designed by engineers and technologists working in isolation from their users. Indeed, in most systems development processes we are familiar with, the user is simply at best an afterthought, or at worst an annoyance to be conferenced with in order to ensure “buy-in” as one of the “stakeholders”. It is a wonderful thing for a developer to be able to code in splendid isolation, and hand-off a system they themselves certify to meet the user population needs – even though only a handful of actually users may have ever seen the damn thing before it goes live, and opportunities for comment and change are restricted to such a narrow window their input may as well not have even been obtained.

We might call for a similar approach to tool development as we have seen in the development of analytic methodology – embedded design professionals, working alongside their analyst counterparts, and embedded analysts, working to bridge between the two worlds as translator, native guide, and Sherpa. We are aware of initial attempts at making this happen, but much more needs to be done at resolving some of the difficulties such efforts face both within the walls and within outside partners.

In this, we would also second the call by Haft of the Spear for the introduction of lightweight development environments to permit rapid deployment of small scale, situated software for specific applications. Likewise, the introduction of lightweight processes (and supporting information sharing options) to capture analysts’ needs, desires, and frustrations with their toolsets would go a long way to helping codify that which is absolutely vital versus that which is merely part of the ever growing list of bells and whistles – especially if this is done within a larger framework of lessons learned and tradecraft capture and transmission efforts.

h/t Boing Boing

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24 May 2007

Paper cuts

We note well, and with thanks, Coming Anarchy's point regarding the nature of good intelligence operations. It is merely the routine and (entirely understandable) reaction of our knuckle-dragger contingent – whose allergy to anything resembling desk work is well known - that prompted our earlier caveat regarding the multiple origins of our thought.

It is also for us somewhat ironic, though, and prompts us to a longer digression on related matters. For a number of years, not too long ago, we found ourselves often called upon to brief newly baptized young analysts (of exceedingly tender years and excitable sensibilities) on the expectations and realities of their newly chosen professional path – which was by all historical trends going to end buried in a small cubicle somewhere in the depths of a sub-basement vault. Our emphasis during these lectures was indeed very similar to the point raised by Younghusband, and for good reason (although regrettably not as well phrased due to the inelegance of the bureaucratic principles we also served.)

We often think of those lectures, however, now that we are several years into the Long War – and now that the usual mode of transportation for some of those “youngsters” may involve something armored (or at least very fast); and now that they may find themselves carrying their personal weapon far more often than their courier bag, or wearing 5.11’s more than they might their dinner jackets. We do not think they were wasted – nor the emphasis misplaced – but the culture is changing as more and more the roles between worlds blur.

We love the quote nonetheless, and think its message is well conveyed. Which brings us back around to what is perhaps the essential point of the entire debate - it is first and foremost a matter of perceptions. In the old days, one was either a boffin or at the sharp end, and the boffins were the boys which mattered most for eventual victory. We now seek to employ (for not all, but increasingly many positions) the warrior/scholar - a mixture of sage and adventurer, of the thinker and man of action. He must be capable in one day of shifting between the hallowed debates at the highest levels of academia to the most decisive of deeds in the streets of some foreign city. He must be comfortable with the diplomats as much as the mercenaries, and master not only the arcane technologies of information production and knowledge management but also a wide range of foreign and US small arms and other weapons systems. (In fact, the astounding variety of the latter requirement is in itself a fascinating microcosm of experience - perhaps something for comment later, with any luck including the photographic input of the gentleman at The Donovan.)

Some of the debate here at Kent’s Imperative is the playing out of tensions between those two realms. The old moulds of the Cold War and the False Peace have been irretrievably shattered – and in their stead the community is remaking itself. Perhaps the most visible signs of this transformation will be in the mystique and the manner in which it is cultivated and conveyed. We are not sure what the new ideal for a culture, and a shared sense of self, should be – especially in a community fast privatizing and scattering to the winds. But we know that it is the work of our days to shape it as best as possible, into what will serve most closely the needs of tomorrow.

To this end, we also note Verification’s recent comments regarding youth outreach by the community. We agree that most of the day to day business of the profession is far from glamorous – and indeed, even that which would be the stuff of fiction otherwise is fraught with the kinds of details that render the concept of glamour quite far from mind (dysentery tends to do that, likewise a lack of showers, or even the cramped confined of the typical windowless office stuffed with rapidly obsolete computing hardware.)

But this is not the manner in which we choose to remember such days and deeds – rather, it is a choice, in much the same manner as the dispatches of the British Empire, to gloss over the baser considerations (in such narrow contexts alone), in pursuit of a better expression to give meaning and merit to the lives spent in the service of that which will never be known to the outside world. This is equally important for the children of those who serve, as it is for those deciding whether or not to enter the field.

Their disillusionment will come in time, one way or the other – but perhaps in all of this, the seed of belief in a higher purpose can be planted firmly, to sustain them through the dark nights. Thus our lectures have changed, on the rare opportunity we give them these days, and our emphasis is on the rare and fleeting moments of individual exceptionalism and near legendary impact. For we have other means of cultivating intelligence professionals to excel in the day to day business of normal activities – but we must inspire them against the day when they will be called to perform above and beyond.

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The black swan and the siren song

Via Shloky comes the link to this most fascinating interview by the author of Freakonomics with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the thinker behind the concept of the Black Swan. Rarely are we so fortunate as to have two interesting thinkers conversing. Now if we could only get a similar conversation transcript and podcast between Taleb and some of the luminaries of the intel side of the house…

In an intelligence community that has become in many ways almost obsessed with the prospect of surprise (and the attending problem of warning failure), Taleb has achieved a nearly cult status. (We ourselves have done our humble bit in spreading his work more widely within the community.) It is thus quite refreshing to read about his attempts to spoof the traditional categorization in place in the major publishing houses, his other practical jokes in the financial world, and to otherwise defy commoditization of his ideas. This gives us great hope that he will continue to provide great contributions to the community.

Some key points from the interview, which intelligence professionals would do well to remember:

"We prefer any theory, even wrong, to no theory. Theorizing is the default activity for our brain; suspension of belief is an active one. Because of the narrative fallacy, our minds default to theory making. It takes more conscious effort – and energy - to suspend beliefs. It also takes more training – we train children to find “explanations” instead of just teaching them to have the guts to say, “I don’t know” in certain circumstances."

In many ways, our own concept of Smoking Mirror is an attempt to overcome the epistemic arrogance (confident but incomplete knowledge) of the false prophet.

It is too easy – especially as the ranks of true experts thin in the great demographic change sweeping the community – for many intelligence practitioners to assume to mantle of expertise without its substance. In the complex and chaotic world in which we live, that mantle is more of a burden than a benefit. It is for this reason we have such hope for the new young faces in the community, and for the generation after next. They join us without the same pre-conceptions and mental rigidity that too often mark their older but less suitable counterparts – and hopefully, these new professionals will be supported by the best possible education and training to help them preserve that flexibility of mind, and respect for the limitations of their own expertise without the burden of ego.

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23 May 2007

Lawfare and readiness

Via In From the Cold and Eagle Speak, we find two fascinating examples of the use of legal and political means to systematically degrade US military training and readiness through limiting exercises and other pre-operational activities.

The profit motive, both political and financial, is examined in depth in both cases by our esteemed (virtual) colleagues.

These are the tactical innovations that will be exploited in coming 5GW, whether a puppeteer emerges to orchestrate them, or even if only a part of the parasitic marketplace that is developing around the blunting of US influence.

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Another broken oath

Our eternal enmity towards leakers and their enablers in the media is well known. Recent events, no matter what the truth (or lack thereof) behind any given set of allegations, have once again proven that the media can do immense harm to national security – whether or not they have been given real information or not.

We would second Tigerhawk’s statement: “Frankly, I just want our spies to keep our secrets and not subvert the policies of our elected officials.”

Being better versed in the distinctions within the world of espionage, we expect nothing from the spies – the recruited agents whose lives are written in treachery – but we expect the highest standards from the intelligence officers and analysts who are the professionals of our community. We have seen too often the terrible cost when those standards are not met.

This sort of politicization of intelligence, and the breaking of trust by those entrusted with the awesome responsibilities of the community, is beyond the pale. It is only when the culture within the community ostracizes the leakers, both through formal sanction and informal shunning, that these most insidious of betrayals will cease.

We also note an interesting perspective on the very real and immediate difficulties created by timed, politically motivated leaks at another very new, and likewise rather quiet blog (that happens to have a beautiful layout): The World is Grey, Jack.


HR woes in the outside world

We often spend a great deal of time and energy considering the eternal dance of human resources within the intelligence community. Our previous ruminations on these issues have led to some interesting feedback and cause for greater reflection – none of it positive for the long term future of the community absent major and rapid change.

It is interesting therefore to note that even some of the biggest and brightest in the world outside the vault are having similar troubles. This recent account of the dysfunctional hiring process at Google mirrors other narratives that have been surfacing over the past few years.

We are personally aware of the case of one very talented, exceptionally qualified intelligence professional (with technological specialization in some areas Google was rapidly seeking to expand into), who liked the idea of trading in all of the black world for sunny California instead. This individual, whose particular expertise and background was more than simply unique, found out that the schizophrenia of the Googleplex in many ways mirrored that found in some of the worst community agencies.

In the end, Google lost a talented prospect based only on a few simple things:

  • institutional arrogance (and when someone raised in the worst of all arrogant cultures in one of the biggest three letter buildings comments on this, you know it has to be bad)
  • lack of coherence and cohesiveness in interactions with the individual. (To be sure, HR has many candidates to deal with. But from the perspective of the recruit prospect, each and every interaction matters, and matters a lot – especially given the uncertainty involved in waiting between contacts.)
  • inability to distinguish relevant areas of emphasis. (They assumed they knew what they needed- and those assumptions were based on a mental model that may have matched their core search business but had nothing to do with the position under discussion - rather than looking at the individual in order to see
  • inability to recognize the value of the individual’s existing intellectual capital. (Too often, big organizations assume that they are the sole creators and arbiters of the “good ideas” – even when practical and concrete evidence of executed innovation is staring them in the face.)

The intelligence community also suffers from all of these woes in its own way, but one expects better from a major player such as a Google. It is hard to hold up the example of the outside corporate world as a model for reform when even those entities are failing in this most basic, but most essential, of all organizational functions.

h/t Scoble

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Of puppeteers and 5GW

At Dreaming 5GW, Purpleslog has an interesting and evocative little post regarding the manipulation of 4th generation (and earlier) tactics by smaller groups of 5th generation warfare (5GW) actors. tdaxp has further comment.

We are intrigued by the idea, not least of all due to the applicability of the theory to certain types of proxy support problems. But we are also strongly reminded of the similarities between this theory and the Militant Shangri-La futures scenario developed during the original Proteus study. As their first paper summarizes:

"Militant Shangri-la is a frightening world of unexpected events and difficult-to-trace villains. The world in general, and the U.S. in particular, has continued into a third decade of a prosperous, information-driven economy. But the world is also continuing along the road to Complexity, with new structures of influence on the globe-some which hardly could have been imagined in the 1990s. The Newtonian diplomatic and military calculus of the past 400 years since nation states arose closing the Middle Ages seems to be giving way in turn to another New Age. In particular, the global man-in-the-street has endured a past century of 200 million deaths in war, dizzying and difficult technological change, and is listening sympathetically to the very Earth groan under the burden of pollution and extinction."
Familiar enough, but the key feature of the scenario lay in the deliberate construction of an “Alliance” in opposition to the United States. The composition of the Alliance was far less relevance than its connectivity, and the lack of apparent orchestration in those linkages that yet still allowed for synchronized events and strategic action. In this, we see the seeds of 5GW theory.

"But things are never what they seem in a complex world. Political, military, and economic actions yield unpredictable reactions in dimensions of policy - as the West was to learn in the decade from 2010-2020 when the Alliance was teaching it new tricks. For the Alliance operated both legitimately as a block of aligned nation-states and illegitimately as criminal cartels, and the twain often met. What was good for business was good.
"For the first time since the rise of the British Empire, the Alliance had created a genuinely effective Grand Strategy. It would keep the world on the edge of chaos; simply that and no more. And from that chaos-it would profit, never letting the Americans and their allies settle the world down into a single "balance of power." It was enough to make Henry Kissinger roll over in his grave. More, the Alliance saw with clarity what the West's bureaucratic governments refused to see: there were now no longer "spheres of influence" so familiar to Whitehall and Foggy Bottom. Now, the means for multiple planes of influence - new instruments of power, involving global media, new weapons, and profitable criminal enterprises had arisen. The Alliance was in space, on the seas, in the media and working into the hearts and minds of the world to kill the idea of personal liberty. With religion, nationalism, ethnicism, media, philosophy, art, music, the Alliance was harnessing the New Age yearning of the common man for its own use. One for all-and all for the Alliance. To the dismay of the West, many a man was ready to be domesticated."
It is a compelling scenario that has stayed with us for years – not for the direct prescriptive applicability as an actual future, but rather as a lens by which new events and indicators can be viewed. (This was, and remains, the core purpose of the Proteus Insights.)

If ever a 5GW puppeteer were to develop in actuality, we suspect the effects would look very much like what was gamed through MSL, as would the responses (and lack thereof) of the major Western powers. Of course, in scenario-building – as in most futurism - it is common to see exaggeration for effect to get certain points across. An MSL style 5GW puppeteer need not be a world-spanning conglomerate of all forms evil – rather, one could small groups, alternatively competing and cooperating, across a range of tactical and operational effects. In this, we see also parallels to John Robb’s Global Guerrilla theory outlining the concept of the “bazaar of violence”, but taken into the full range of 5GW through the inclusion of other actors and other means apart from direct conflict engagements.

Perhaps what interests us most in this discussion is the sense that it is more a matter of sideways applications (of the future that is already here, but not evenly distributed) than forecasting. In this, we not only quote William Gibson, but also take to heart his recent comment that “Glancing sideways is becoming more generally recognized as about the best way of doing what we used to call futurism.”

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22 May 2007

The existential fight over the old NDIC

For those that have been around the intelligence community since the pre-9/11 era - and we are an increasingly small number it seems – there is another older NDIC, not the National Defense Intelligence College (once the Joint Military Intelligence College), but rather the National Drug Intelligence Center. It is rare that we at Kent’s Imperative comment on any specific institution or mission, but the news of recent events is so striking as to demand our notice.

We are deeply ambivalent about the old NDIC and its work. On the one hand, it could have been the perfect example of the kind of de-centralization and distributed analytical production that we have long advocated. Pushing the work of the intelligence community to places outside of the Beltway is a major need if we are going to have the kind of workforce, and the kind of sustainability, that the Long War requires. Indeed, we are personally acquainted with a number of good officers and analysts which left other fast track DC jobs to head to that entity based on family concerns. After all, their GS salaries go a lot further there – even if they will never see an -11, let alone a -13, billet.

However, the organization is deeply and fundamentally flawed. The location – on paper defined as “acceptable” due to the supposed 6 hour drive to DC (in reality much longer due to traffic, weather, and constant construction) – is a depressed and failing industrial area with no substantial local talent pool of any description. Its staffing has been long considered exile by most in the counterdrug specializations in the intelligence community. True, some may choose exile rather than continue to be consumed by the intrigues in the belly of the beast – but most cannot accept the career-ending move that the assignment has historically meant, unless they were very close to retirement or otherwise no longer interested in having a career. So the bench of substantive expertise available to that entity is very thin indeed…

Nor can most good analysts tolerate for long an excessively incestuous bureaucracy, driven by political factors held over from previous administrations, and beholden to a party line rigorously enforced through a coordination process that is legendary as the “seven levels of editing hell”. And all to produce finished intelligence which is largely regurgitated materials culled from HIDTA reporting, presented with a kind of analytic arrogance that only a fusion of DOJ and DEA cultures could create.

So it is with no surprise that we see the budgetary battles to continue to fund the pork-subsidized existence of NDIC are playing out once again, with the usual suspects front and foremost. The letter itself however gives us great pause: “The NDIC also anticipates undertaking a new and vitally important mission in partnership with the National Counter Terrorism Center, including: assuming responsibility for the terror no-fly list, the terror incident tracking program…”

Needless to say, we believe that such a move would be the height of folly. These are programs far too important to entrust to a backwater group of second-rates and has-beens – even if there are a few true professionals hidden among them. The NCTC Worldwide Incidents of Terrorism program alone has commanded the attention of some of the finest minds in the community, and stands as one of the un-paralleled examples of analytic tradecraft and rigour applied to a nearly impossible problem set – one that is accomplished in a form that its primary products can be publicly released. And let us not even discuss the implications of a major shift in responsibility for the no-fly list...

The funding line for NDIC is small beer by any real community standards. We are not opposed to its continued existence – in fact, we would support continued funding contingent on robust management oversight and the transformation of the entity into a hub for virtual distributed analysis and production. Such transformation should focus especially on an expansion of its training and education mission in order to support the new state & local fusion centers, and other less connected law enforcement agencies. (Perhaps such an expansion could even be modeled along the same lines as similar efforts at the National White Collar Crime Center.)

But let us be very clear that such experimentation should not come at the cost of vital missions stolen from key community players simply to justify a single politicians’ pet pork barrel.

h/t to Instapundit, with our thanks for his continuing interest in the earmarks process. We are interested only in the outcomes, but are grateful that someone keeps track of the details.

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Duel of the navigators

Space policy is a thing in two worlds – and we are not referring to the celestial versus the mud. National space programs and their results are among the most enduring symbols of the 20th century industrial age on the cusp of futurity. In the 21st century, those locked outside of the superpower race of the Cold War are still desperately attempting to demonstrate their national prowess using the same old game.

This is not to say the benefits of space activities are without value – but rather, that many of the space programs seeking the national prestige of a bygone era rapidly show the shoddy signs of age and irrelevance.

Thus, we are grateful to EU Referendum for raising the continuing discussion of the European Galileo navigation satellite constellation. This is one of those programs whose utility could have been much greater than its political aspirations doomed it to face.

The underlying tensions of the Galileo program have even less to do with its (questionable) practical utility in the everyday mundane but essential applications that GPS has come to fulfill in the civilian world. Rather, Galileo is at its heart an attempt to provide the same military applications that the US GPS constellation has demonstrated so masterfully – but in a fashion independent of the (rarely exercised) US options to control, degrade, or deny access to that system’s benefits to enemy combatants. It is yet another of the programs in which the EU is seeking to demonstrate parity with the US, without having to commit substantively to ensuring its own defense.

This is debate of the 90’s for which the time of hard decisions has finally come. It is no longer a matter of abstract defense “strategery”, but concrete operational decisions that will have to be made in the first hours of future conflicts. A European system (or even its PRC counterpart) would be the first choice of belligerents expecting to lose access to US provided signal. Such as system would constitute a key center of gravity for sophisticated adversaries, particularly if those adversaries employed precision-guided munitions (in addition to any of the other friction-reducing C4ISR benefits of good navigation capabilities). It is far more likely that non-state actors would rely on such a system, particularly if their hostile status is also contested in the Byzantine diplomacy of other EU institutions.

One can surely expect that terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, relying upon the ambiguity of EU perceptions won largely through their propaganda successes, would eagerly seek out this option in future conflicts. And given their demonstrated ability to deploy rather sophisticated guided weapons systems in the past, the capability may not be far out of reach.

Given this, the spectre of space based engagement of navigation assets becomes all the more likely for the great power combatants in a serious major theatre crises of tomorrow. The related problems created by the proliferation of ASAT capabilities, and the deep consideration of other more terrestrial options for navigation warfare (NAVWAR), are definitely in the intelligence community’s future for a long time to come.

Some excellent work has already been done in this area within the think tanks – and among the most prominent pieces have been the recent products out of MIT. More remains to be seen, and this again is again one of the unique (but increasingly frequent) areas in which much of the raw information is available to feed high quality analysis outside of the enclosures of the vault.

UPDATE: It appears that between the time this post was written, and went up at this blog, exactly that sort of quality analysis has been rapidly emerging from the wilds of the blogsphere. See also Belmont Club and Open Europe Blog. But then again, we should not be surprised. Few things are as likely to spark a blogswarm on an issue than a mention by Instapundit.

We are glad to see serious thinkers begin to demonstrate the robust value of the distributed analytic mechanism which is the national security / foreign affairs / policy community of interest in the blogsphere. It is a strong argument towards the increasing privatization of intelligence – for if an spontaneous, emergent, amateur and hobbyist activity such as blogging can produce such results, how much better would the community be if such efforts were encouraged and energized through market mechanisms?

Unfortunately, this argument all too often falls on the deaf ears of those that would pursue an intelligence community of symbolic national prestige, rather than one that provided practical applied value for its consumers. Against this worrying trend, the example of such costly white elephant programs as provided by the EU should be foremost in mind.

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Inside the Hungarian sausage making process

We have been privileged to be witness to some of the great events of history, and to stand in the shadows behind the great men which define our age’s statecraft. We are continually struck that the national security establishment in the US is “two people deep”, one of the most exclusive of all small worlds networks. (Though in fact, the ever expanding pool of participants in that network has been one of the great sources of disturbance in the oldest of the intelligence community’s institutions – but that is something for another day. Suffice it to say that even despite radical growth in the number of participants, it remains very much a closed club.)

Overseas, there has never been any illusion that national security policy is anything but the product of a small circle of decision-makers. In most countries and governments, their numbers are so few, and their discussions so opaque, as to constitute a serious intelligence challenge to divine even the most benign intentions.

Thus it is with great interest we observe the discussions taking place over at the My State Failure Blog, where a Hungarian defense intellectual is recounting the process by which their nation’s intellectual capital is brought to bear in the formulation of national policy -in an internet age, no less - both for their own internal discussions as well as their public presentations.

It is a unique window in the strategic thinking of a smaller but critical European power at the dawn of the 21st century. In a manner, this mirrors the evolution of strategic thinking and policy within the United States, where increasingly it is the think tanks and outside subject matter experts which drive new priorities and direction based on well formulated and concise ideas – the “reproducible strategic concepts” that Tom Barnett cites (himself perhaps the exemplar case study of the manner in which these ideas are developed and promulgated. In fact, the greatest strength of his original work for the purposes of Kent’s Imperative lies not in it substantive contribution – as formative as it may be – but rather in the narrative of how it came to be throughout the long years of Pentagon infighting over transformative visions.)

There are no doubt a number of similar discussions occurring world-wide, within the governments and defense establishments of other small and medium powers – some of them our allies, some perhaps otherwise, and increasingly these discussions will be more transparent and more accessible. It is these windows, however, that support our contention that the intelligence which will matter most in the future will be far less about stealing secrets than in making sense of the complexity, speed, and linkages of new events, ideas, and players on the international stage. There will always be a need for clandestine collection capabilities – but these will be an ever-shrinking specialization in a community evolving to meet new challenges that involve that which is hidden in plain sight.

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21 May 2007

Document security in the contemporary information environment

We need not continue to berate the issues of lack of technological investment and familiarity which have allowed so many recent inadvertent and unauthorized disclosures, damaging to national security and national prestige. In this, the infamous Sgrena investigation report is by far the best case example one could highlight for the lack of effective information management procedures (which resulted in work arounds which were neither effective in coordinating sharing between entities, nor protected information which needed to be secured.)

Thus, we winced when open media reporting brought to light what was described as another potential example from the Iraq theatre of operations, this time from the (much older) Coalition Provisional Authority reporting. However, upon further examination there is (thankfully) less there than meets the media's eye, as is discussed by Lamplighter.

But it will never cease to amaze us that in this day in age, a full decade and more since the widespread adoption of secure communications technologies built on commercial platforms, that there are still those in the community that have not mastered the basic and essential everyday sanitation procedures to keep their systems (and their service records) clean. The CPA documents case is instructive, not because of what was compromised, but due to its very graphic illustration of how many politically motivated individuals are out there looking to exploit any lapses for their own gain – and how many others are out there willing to pick up and repeat any allegation as long as it contains the magic words and classification markings.

Be thou warned.

h/t Instapundit

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Re-creating the academy (in Second Life and beyond)

We have long been fans of distance learning for intelligence education and training. The highly mobile and highly dispersed nature of the workforce – the segment often most in need of accessible instruction in the theoretical and historical aspects of the art and science – essentially dictate that some sort of technology mediated approach be developed.

Regrettably, we have been less than satisfied by many distance learning options to date. Most lack the essential richness of interactions with fellow practitioners that occur in the sidebars of conference seminar and classroom format environments. In many cases this is not for lack of trying on the part of the host, but rather due to the essential reservation of most in our profession to revealing any sort of details about themselves, their interests, and consequently their thoughts on the substantive and methodological matters under discussion. Also quite unfortunately, in more than a few cases productive virtual conversation simply does not occur in online learning environments due to the over-reaching egos of some instructors, whose pontificating styles or dictatorial assertions effectively kill student interaction (and learning potential). While this may also occur in the real world classroom, the negative effects are amplified in the virtual.

Despite these drawbacks, the distance learning format is a necessity, and like the nearly samizdat quality of much of the intelligence literature of value, the materials are copied again and again to be passed from hand to hand among acolytes and their mentors alike.

Thus it is with great interest we have observed the attempts of a number of institutions to develop new online learning tools using virtual environments. The most famous of these is of course the persistent world of Second Life, and the intrepid virtual sociologists and anthropologists of Terra Nova have a posted a fascinating interview with one of the educators in the front line of this new form of education, from no less august an institution than Harvard University.

We find the substance of the comments most illuminating, but more-so we are intrigued by the levels of support from what one might have predicted could have been a very conservative and hidebound organization. Rather, we are finding it is the smaller universities – the ones with the most to lose should international level strong “brands” of education become more accessible through technology – that are driving much of the resistance to exploration of new learning environments. These smaller schools, with small programs that they have hoped to create as a flagship differentiator in the education marketplace, simply cannot compete on a name recognition level – and usually cannot begin to compete in quality of instruction (or educators). Instead, many schools rely on retired has-beens who have not been involved in the substantive practice of intelligence for years if not decades, and a support staff of adjuncts and TA’s that may never have been fully a part of the community in any but the most junior capacities. Unfortunately, many of these programs do not even realize the difference between what their staff are teaching, and what is normative within the profession – and most lack any meaningful mechanisms for feedback and reflective evaluation.

This however explains the astonishing vitriol these smaller programs (and their deeply threatened staffers) have displayed towards the online environment. Competition is a terrible thing for those who have come to rely on their sinecure – and even though the rapid expansion of the marketplace has meant intelligence education is far from a zero sum game, the widely held perceptions that programs need to be driven by “asses in seats” in order to be successful die very hard indeed.

Even when established players in the intelligence studies academy rush to build their virtual equivalents, they usually offer little more than a fig leaf of rigor. Many have not considered the longer term implications of the widespread adoption of their newly offered certification on the brand of their “core” resident programs – but we are finding all too often that even those brands are being rapidly devalued by poorly selected instructors, poorly designed curriculum, and lack of effective course design and delivery. These issues are among our strongest disappointments in most of the intelligence studies academy as they now stand – for they have essentially betrayed their own promise and potential at a time when the intelligence community needs them most. And these are not a matter of whether the schools offer a virtual distance learning program or not, but whether they are capable of delivering quality intelligence education at the professional level.

We strongly hope that the emergence of alternative tools and environments can spur the development of alternatives for instruction and learning, and can help drive the intelligence studies field in new directions. Otherwise, we fear deeply for the health of the profession and the longer term viability of the intelligence academy.

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20 May 2007

Thinking spatially in the Parallel World and beyond

We are quite used to grappling here with the issues created by the emerging importance of the Parallel World of the nets in the consideration of current and future intelligence challenges. It is one of our enduring areas of fascination – from the conflicts to the concepts. Over at the End of Cyberspace blog, there has been an ongoing locus in the conversation for some time now on what exactly the generation after next communications technologies will look like, which we have been following based on its implications for our interests.

The fine authors there now note a particularly interesting paper by Nigel Thrift, which although burdened with a regrettable volume of academic jargon and fuzziness, raises interesting concepts regarding the conceptualization of space, time and communication.

Those that recognize our long-standing interest in the convergence of these subjects will note the similarity to the Proteus Insight of Starlight. As the original Proteus study’s authors wrote:

“Perspective is everything. Not until late in the 19th century did science discover that the night sky has depth as well as breadth, that constellations not only are in the eye of the beholder, that they are distant illusions. By the early 20th century, when quantum physics wed astronomy, the illusion became deeper. However we characterize the apparent pattern of the clusters, the light we see in Manassas or Arizona takes about 400 years to reach us from the nearest star in the group. Each night in the sky, there appears an event that is already over. We are seeing the past in the Present.
"We can think of no better metaphor than Starlight to characterize the central problem for the Intelligence Community as it looks toward the future. Whether we examined the world of a criminal mastermind, of virulent disease, or a high-technology space race, the pattern of events in that world commonly turned on three characteristics: complexity, venues, and time - all of which can be captured in the metaphor of Starlight.”
We find these mirrored in the focus of the Thrift paper, which outlines the transformative effects of technological contexts on human activities, in particular focusing on time-space, sensorium (perception), and language.

We are particularly struck by the line “Vocabularies of spatial configuration will multiply.” One of the more difficult aspects we have found in teaching geospatial and imagery intelligence disciplines to new analysts is the lack of the ability to verbalize many key concepts, except through abstraction or practical demonstration. It is for the lack of such vocabulary that we believe these particular disciplines have so long languished in the academic intelligence studies field, and that the traditional players within the intel academy have so poorly addressed geospatial and imagery education needs. (In addition to the barriers to entry posed by systems technology support requirements or access to high quality imagery sources, Google Earth notwithstanding).

The academy’s failures in the area of geospatial intelligence education are sorely in need of correction. Thankfully, it seems that hope is in the horizon, as the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation pursues its efforts to spread a model curriculum throughout the intelligence studies field. We wish them the best in their labors, and deeply hope that the increased focus in this area will yield not only new solutions to the classic real world spatial intelligence problems, but those of the Parallel World, and the interactions between the two planes as well.

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War in the Parallel World

When is a war a war? When has a war gone “mainstream”, coming out of the shadows of deniable engagements and hidden casualties? What does sustained information warfare truly look like – not in the sterile academic settings of the university lecture, or the exercise conference table – but in the real world of humans and their systems?

If there was ever an answer to the question of threshold, it appears the ongoing cyber conflict involving Russia and Estonia has crossed it. See now Instapundit and Belmont Club, based on the Washington Post.

We have commented on this new conflict before, but a European state on state crisis in the 21st century is more than worth a second glance - if indeed it is truly state on state, for which we have not yet seen definitive attribution.

Wretchard in particular applies an apt name: the Wizard War. This captures, in succinct form, the alienation the typical man on the street might feel in the event of such a war. To be sure, Everyman knows all about the interwebs, and the tubes, and the magic motion picture music box thing that exists to feed their iPods and cameraphones. But the technical understanding of higher level cyber environment dependencies exists at about the same level of comforting abstraction (the legions of Slashdot and the rest of the technical blogsphere aside.) So when more than one banks computers go down, and the panic begins to set in, Everyman will be facing a shattering of illusions for which he is mentally unprepared. The loss of confidence will have a far greater effect than any mere temporary disruption, however mass.

It is in the layers of these abstractions that 5th generation warfare (5GW) lurks and hides. Trying to unpack the complexity of the issues involved in facing a concerted series of attacks against what is our collective hallucination of cyberspace (in Gibson’s terms) begins to take on the character of a Jesuit debating society. We have taken part in our share of these debates throughout our careers, and have yet to find an acceptable set of answers to any of them – but regrettably, keep running into ever more numerous sets of lawyers that all claim they do, even though none of them agree with each other, as the years go by.

In the original Wizard War of World War II (so named by Churchill), these debates were equally as divorced from the prosaic realities of the day. However, it was the boffins of Bletchley Park, and the luminaries of the MI establishment such as R.V. Jones that set the stage for decisive victory – subtly in the European theatre and more brilliantly in the Pacific, illuminated by the impossible brightness of Paul Tibbett’s mission.

But then it was the heyday of the state military-industrial intelligence complexes. It was the time of control, and of massive resources spent towards national ends in a unity of purpose and a shroud of absolute secrecy. That it brought about victory is the lesson of history. But the question before us now stands: can victory be accomplished without reverting to those kinds of organizational and political structures? For today’s environment is far removed from sixty years ago, and some genies can never be put back in their bottles.

There is a good reason that the threshold of cyber war has not yet been fully crossed by state actors (as opposed to their non-state counterparts, whose effects to date have been more akin to terrorism, crime, and disorder than anything approximating a war). Once the triggers have been pulled, there are certain losses which have major systemic effects which ripple beyond borders and far outside of military or even strategic national target sets.

We continue to watch with interest.

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19 May 2007

The continuing debate over climate intelligence

Weather intelligence (Wx) is one of the oldest continuously practiced forms of analytic prediction and forecasting. It has morphed over the years from something deeply and firmly entrenched “behind the green door” to an integral part of operations planning (an interesting evolution that may mirror future shifts coming in other forms of embedded intelligence support to the warfighter.) Wx forecasting is of course also a famously inexact blend of the art & the science, despite significant advances in sensor technology, modeling and simulation tools, and distributed real-time reporting sources.

Wx has also provided a fascinating comparative look into the evolution of analysis across cultural and organizational contexts, as US weather products (at least those available to the civilian world) are more timely and accurate than their European counterparts. The reference has escaped us, but we recall one research study that attributed this in part to the difference in meteorological publications processes between the peer-reviewed journal – preferred in the US - and the edited volume – preferred in Europe.

It is equally fascinating to see that the continuing debate over Wx in the form of the assessment of the potential for long term climate change has not yet abated. We have weighed in on this matter ourselves, but we continue to find new material surfacing throughout the community, mirroring a number of internal discussions. It seems that the prospect of institutionalizing this account has struck a nerve amongst practitioners. Additional references can be found at Politics & Soccer (the blog of a Georgetown University student) and at the Weekly Standard (where one can find a longer variant piece by the author usually featuring at Haft of the Spear.)

To this end, we note that there has been an apparent divide in the reactions between newly minted professionals (and their aspirant counterparts of equal age and similar experiences) versus the veterans and those that have been substantively engaged in the Long War for some time. Interesting enough, the younger generation is frequently eager to pursue such studies.

Whether our initial impression dismissing this difference as coming from a mindset imprinted by the media-generated cognitive biases (the results of decades of politically correct environmentalism targeted at the younger generation in the schools) will prove correct over time, we cannot say. There may also be more balanced and apolitical reasons for the interest of the younger set, perhaps even including the desire to find new accounts not yet dominated by the gray beards and talking heads of the community – and conveniently, one that does not require extended deployments but rather travel to the nicer places of the world for conferences, etc. (No one should ever think the new kids are stupid when it comes to angling for the right travel opportunities. One of our long ago bosses once noted that even the most inexperienced analysts could be divided into groups based on their native inclination towards cunning and self-interest in selecting assignments. The best and brightest would surge to the most difficult account of the day, and commit themselves utterly to it with no regard to personal sacrifice. The smarter, and usually quieter, ones would select the accounts most likely to bring them to the “chocolate” countries – nice European posts in places renowned for their confectionary and other cuisine.)

Once again, Wx provides a truly unique window into the practice of the craft, and the professionals' perspectives of the craft, cutting across the generations. It is however now become an entirely too political debate for our taste - and one that is being explicitly politicized by many of the participants.

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18 May 2007

Contrasting official lightness with private gravity

We are continually fascinated by the manner in which the private sector so far exceeds government capabilities in understanding the Parallel World. While it is one thing to know that the rapid development of IT and related innovations has been driven by the private sector for at least a generation, it is another thing entirely to realize what that means for organizations still struggling to come to terms with the implications of even the most basic of developments (such as email or even lightweight web publishing.)

To be sure, there are highly technical and very savvy individuals scattered throughout the intelligence community, dedicated to the study and analysis of such issues. But this is increasingly one area in which the open source realm may be dramatically outstripping what occurs in the vault.

By way of example, we reference recent coverage of the ongoing cyber conflict between Russia and Estonia. Again, we make no assertions regarding the incidents, their attribution, or implications beyond what others have already stated in public sources (whether accurately or not, time will tell.) But we are very interested in the increasing levels of technical sophistication and interest being applied to the analysis of current network disruption events.

While Global Guerrillas has a theory type think piece (worth examining in the overall context of John Robb’s contribution to the body of emerging 5GW theory), various Internet security shops are increasingly publishing open versions of analysis at a more technical, and tactical level. As an example of the latter we reference Arbor Network’s corporate blog posts on the subject.

We have seen enough of the failing cyber security report cards, and the constant shuffle of senior executives through the relevant government posts, to venture that the sort of quality of thought behind the focused attention paid to this incident (and others like it) would be simply alien to many otherwise nominally assigned to the responsibility of covering these key accounts. (For more background on the ongoing trials and tribulations of the federal cyber security sector, we can recommend no better and more consistent commentator than can be found at Haft of the Spear.)

Of all the areas in which public/private partnerships for enhanced analysis and intelligence production could be of value, we can see few potential accounts more clearly in need of such unique contributions. It does not take a major Beltway contractor, nor any sort of specialized access program, to accomplish significant aggregation, interpretation, and insight into these sorts of problems – and policymakers are likely to be better served by a more broadly based attempt to integrate more substantive experts into the community’s coverage of these accounts.

To be sure, this will require a culture shift, and a serious re-think of structures and processes by which intelligence is created in support of decision-maker needs to understand this new realm. But it is indeed something entirely new in form, shape, and outcomes. It simply makes no sense to continue to try to force fit industrial age organizations and Taylor inspired processes into a future where they have no place.

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17 May 2007

Further recommended reading from the academic contingent

We have spoken before regarding the excellent work done by our erstwhile colleague Dr. Tom Copeland on the subjects of intelligence failure and warning intelligence.

We are reminded today that he has recently released a new book on the subject, which appears to build substantively upon his earlier research and writing in the area.

It is on our reading lists, and is recommended to others by virtue of the author’s insight and quality of mind.

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The unbearable lightness of the bench

We do not normally comment on active cases or current intelligence matters, but this news item from the United Kingdom simply beggars belief. Apparently, the judge which is responsible for perhaps the most significant trial testing the civilized world’s response to the proliferation of terrorism support activities in the Parallel World is completely unfamiliar with even the most basic features of the environment.

We find it amazing that in this day an age, a system can be so flawed as to assign the responsibility of objective and balanced discernment to an individual who lacks even a layman’s understanding of the substance of the issues at hand.

This however underscores even more clearly the abject failure of the legal approach in counter-terrorism operations. In the Long War, the network is just another element of the battlespace, and it is futile to attempt to use structures designed centuries ago to obtain victory in this new age. Moving forward, deeper into the 21st century evolution of 4th and 5th generation warfare, it will no longer be merely futile but, like this incident illustrates, entirely absurd.

The judge is a national embarrassment for a key US ally. Regrettably, it is equally likely had such a case been brought on this side of the pond that a similar clueless individual would have been the one to hear arguments.

Our enemies have no doubt taken note. It is precisely this sort of event which provokes "lawfare" and other 5GW attempts to use our most revered Western institutions against us.

h/t Slashdot, LGF

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16 May 2007

Sic transit gloria mundi

Further to our recent emphasis on the history of intelligence, we thank Belmont Club for bringing a fascinating blog post regarding pre-Islamic power politics and military history in the Middle East.

Since the Islamic period, previous regional history has largely been ignored as simply falling within the jahiliya – the time of ignorance. Unfortunately, this dismisses a fascinating and valuable period of multi-polar interactions occurring in a geography, and cultural context, which remains of critical importance to the modern world. The failure to encourage a more holistic exploration of the period is one of the great failings of the current Middle East studies establishment.

We are grateful to the author at Moor Next Door for shedding more light on the period. We would be extremely happy if some young scholar in the intelligence studies academia would spend the effort to likewise illuminate other intelligence history in the Byzantine and Persian periods in the Middle East.

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When everything is intelligence, nothing is intelligence

The now famous essay from the Sherman Kent School comes to mind as one watches the debate over the intelligence community’s role in studying potential global warming issues play out in the media-legislative complex.

Both Haft of the Spear and In From the Cold have further insight and commentary into the role played by the political considerations in this equation, and are well worth reading.

One is also reminded that the intelligence implications of the issue has already been well covered by the National Intelligence Council’s Mapping the Global Future series, and to a lesser extent with the Proteus project’s scenarios.

However, a very wise (but very cynical) senior analyst once told us that the best account one could be assigned to is a futures study with a horizon long after your own retirement. That way, one could spend an entire career in intelligence and never be proven wrong…

Given the flux of other more frequently addressed geopolitical and transnational issues accounts, longer term futures are more and more being rendered irrelevant by the radical shifts of today. Thus, moving out to a geological timescale accomplishes the same objectives in a far more certain manner for those seeking a profitable retirement.

We ourselves feel that there are far more pressing and more immediate issues that demand the application of the talent and insight of trained intelligence professionals, and there are better target accounts in which the community can explore the integration of outside experts and academics with much more immediate, and much more reproducible, results.

As long as Americans are dying in the Long War, this kind of peacetime fantasy exercise is not just irrelevant but offensive. We are sure that there are many serving officers outside the wire that would love a chance to come back in, work in an air-conditioned office somewhere in the Beltway on a 9 to 5 schedule, see their families at night, and spend their time in the intellectual equivalent of wanking. But there is a real war to fight, and real intelligence to do first.

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Revisiting immersion in intelligence analysis

We do not often seek to challenge the foundational principles of the modern understanding of the art and science of intelligence analysis. We are not given to the sort of hubris that would see us reinvent the wheel, only to name it after ourselves. Nor are we inclined to the sorts of navel gazing introspection that would parse ever finer meanings into well trod paths, when so much unexplored territory remains to be studied in our field.

But as the summer conference season approaches quick upon us, and the usual suspects begin to circulate their initial research from the long academic year, we find ourselves facing the strange and continued demonization of an analytic element that has been very key to our and many of our colleagues work over the years. It is strange, in a profession now flooded with post-Heuer imitators, to admit this – in some circles it is akin to announcing one’s support for the Pelagian heresy. We have written about this before, but we are increasingly finding ourselves advocates for the exploration of other pathways within analytic tradecraft, such as this and other techniques.

Immersion as an element of analytic tradecraft - we deliberately do not call it a strategy, given many critics claim that it is the essential result of a lack of analytic strategy - has been derisively held up as the bane of all structured analysis. Indeed, the end result of the activity may indeed be the opposite of structured approaches – but the activity itself (when conducted correctly) may be something entirely more and entirely different. We find ourselves in discussions with many analysts who are struggling to describe the moment when the complex amalgamation of substantive knowledge, target experience, and creative imagination align in the brief moment of insight and inspiration that arises of its own accord. Many lack the words to even begin to convey to outsiders the nature of this process.

We feel strongly that it is this lack of explanation, as much as anything else, which has been responsible for the misunderstanding of the cognitive process that has been called immersion in much of the literature. The descriptions of its spontaneous nature are much mocked by those who prefer their issues dissected neatly and laid out over a period of time – often years. And while this latter approach is useful in certain areas, particular in dealing with grand strategic issues and longer term think pieces, its alternative has developed for solid reasons beyond mere satisficing or intellectual laziness.

We suspect strongly that what successful analysts describe as immersion is actually a mental function akin to rapid cognition. This helps to explain why many analysts perform qualitatively better under conditions of time pressure and crisis levels of information flows. Their cultivated minds have developed the means by which they can assess, weigh, re-assemble, and concisely structure information, judgment, and prediction on the strength of their knowledge and experience. They do so rapidly and efficiently, relying upon areas of their minds which are poorly understood in cognitive science (and which has only recently begun to be researched.) But they often cannot describe the how and why of what they do – indeed, it can be a frustrating process for them when they attempt to make these processes more explicit, given their fundamentally internalized nature.

Successful analysts who rely on immersion / rapid cognition usually produce a small number of short form conclusions. They often focus on linchpin events, scenario projection, and indicator development when attempting to describe these conclusions. Very good analysts almost always present a second line of similar short form reasoning, in which judgments are put forth to encapsulate intelligence gaps and adversary denial and deception elements – also structured around conditional and contingent elements favoring proof through action or the development of new information, not through lengthy hypothesis testing. Many analysts develop their reasoning not through individual effort at the writing desk, but rather through the rapid exchange of ideas and energy with colleagues engaged on similar issues and tasks (although this is often a matter of personality, but such personalities are often drawn together at points in time when such an approach is most useful.)

These behaviors are in large part a function of the environments in which the analytic element of immersion / rapid cognition is most often encountered. These tend to be forward deployed locations, crisis cells, or fusion centers – where the pace of events and the flow of information tends to outstrip other more deliberative approaches to analysis. Here, latest time information of value is measured in minutes and hours, not days or months. These are outgoing, extroverted and high op-tempo environments, dominated by nearly overwhelming volumes of incoming data. Usually, they are environments which are poorly designed for the purpose at hand, but which have been created based on other considerations (whether set design “cool” factor or field expediency.)

For as important as these environments are, and for as many new and similar uses are being encountered, we have seen little effort to research or develop this frequently encountered analytic element. Instead, we as a community are facing a bizarre situation where less skilled disciples of a chosen belief system roam the halls, clutching a single text and rapping the knuckles of any who dare to disagree with the neatly ranked order of theory laid out in its pages. Meanwhile, entire cultures are built – and many intelligence professionals may spend their entire careers under such circumstances without ever needing or finding utility in other approaches. But the value they might find in the systematic evaluation of the immersion / rapid cognition approach, in order to identify what actually works for successful analysts, and why, is ignored. Worse yet, it is an aspect of the tradecraft left uncaptured even as those who have successfully used it retire and depart, and in their place enter the ranks of those trained in the dominant tradition, but who find themselves lost in an environment their training and education neither prepared them for or even described.

We will no doubt write on this matter again in more detail. For now, we are still observing the manner in which this exploration plays out, both through our own humble efforts and those of some very wise individuals around us.

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15 May 2007

What’s this (virtual) life for…

We have recently been intently focused on the utility and applications of this weird medium of the blog. For reasons beyond our ken, we have apparently touched quite a nerve in many of our readers, and we have been most gratified by the response that our humble efforts have drawn.

We are equally as interested, however, in the higher order effects our work appears to be producing. We continually encounter our own words, used in radically different contexts than we might have expected, throughout the community and its academic circles. (Ironically, more often without attribution in the latter context than in the former, in the exact opposite of our expectations. After all, plagiarism is not a vice in the intelligence community, especially in agencies built around the routine acquisition of things others might not willingly part with if they were aware, but it should always have remained a cardinal sin in the academic world.)

All of this, coupled with our observations of the efforts of others, has led to us to question what is the best potential set of outcomes from these sorts of activities. This is a question for which do not yet believe there is an answer. We have seen others attempt (successfully or otherwise) to parley their online writing efforts into new positions, or book deals, or promotion of day job business opportunities. We have seen egos rise, and charlatans fall – all the while seeing those with the most to offer continue to quietly promulgate new ideas and energy into a system desperately in need of both.

This has not always been a risk free activity for those in the community. While we here at Kent’s Imperative are fortunate to be able to operate under a rather favourable set of permissions (as much as others might complain about certain features, such as policy disabling comments which others might hold us responsible for) – we are by comparison the lucky ones. Others have recounted quite prominently their difficulties with entering the new online literature – including some of the more influential thinkers of the day, such as Thomas Barnett. (His experiences recounted here under the umbrella of “the blog bit back”, as accurate an expression as we have ever heard. Our thanks to Zenpundit for surfacing the discussion.) Others have simply vanished after brief flirtations with the technology and the tools proved not to be worth the investment for them.

We firmly believe that this new medium, through both the technology and the changing social conventions associated with its use, offers the ability to radically change the literature of intelligence in ways that will greatly benefit the intelligence community. We are not sure how this evolution will take place, nor what eventual form will emerge.

As we have said, we do not do this for money or for fame. We are deliberately anonymous to preserve professional discretion and to ensure that it is our ideas which receive attention, not our positions or associations. But we are glad to be in the flow of this new thing, and we intend to see it out as best as we are able – and hopefully to contribute as we might to the larger forces that will shape the revolution in intelligence affairs.

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14 May 2007

Higher order effects of the Metro and the hinterlands

The intelligence community is not the only knowledge work field in which the deleterious effects of concentration in major metropolitan areas are surfacing. The legal community is also struggling to come to terms with the implications of new communications and collaboration technologies, and what they will mean for a business that has for centuries been conducted face to face – and by culture and convention, in a very specific sort of environment, much like the business of intelligence.

One of the most interesting counter-points to the seemingly inevitable virtualization of everything is the line:
Relationships mean everything, and when the majority of your workforce aren't virtual marketers, you bet on what your workforce knows.

The gentleman lawyer also makes a very interesting point that parallels our earlier questions regarding the potential evolving distributed structures of the intelligence community as more and more contractors seek to move core analysis and production tasks out to less costly locales in flyover country.

The trend of using high priced space exclusively for client meetings may come around, and the creation of 'client reception areas' in many recent firm renovations point in that direction. I could see a metropolis-hinterland kind of effect, where firms put the rainmaker partners in downtown offices, and farm 'the work' out to less expensive premises. That of course, would require a clear separation between lawyer classes. Another can of worms that would be very difficult to resolve within big firm cultures… If this concept was undertaken, I'd bet on the support roles leading the exodus.

The issues of “divided classes” of intelligence professionals are even more significant perhaps than might be faced in the legal field, as are the potential human resources issues created when the advancement of one’s career may also involve relocating to the greater Washington Metro area from the comparatively idyllic (and far more family friendly) environs of the south, west, or wherever the “alternate” community centers develop. The next generation of talent may find this lifestyle incompatible with their continued interest in the profession, especially when connectivity offers a great range of options on the outside than ever before.

We are also greatly interested in the higher order implications of divorcing production from client-facing activities, above and beyond quality of life, compensation, and other human resources issues. The software industry has had previous experience with the management issues that surface in such cases, but it is a far different thing to outsource specific tasks done by highly introverted and technically focused engineers and developers than it is to physically disconnect the subject matter experts and analysts (however introverted or not they may actually be) from the briefers and program managers which must maintain relationships with the policy-makers and other supported action elements. The primary questions when evaluating such structures will revolve around whether or not alternative workflows and processes, using new collaboration technologies and approaches, can support the robust level of interactions needed to ensure that both teams stay on the same page. After all, the history of intelligence producer – policy relations has never been easy, even when both sides are in the same room. Can mediated technologies offer solutions to older problems, and even if so, what new issues will arise in the future?

Again, this sounds like an excellent area for the intelligence studies academia to begin to offer substantial contributions with practical application of theory to the field, especially if validated by experimental research…

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Incompatibility with the vault

We have written before regarding the challenges the next generation of intelligence professionals will pose to traditional management structures – particularly when those young minds have become accomplished experts in their own right. The following interview with a young technologist, Aaron Swartz, is quite revealing in what it says about those coming management challenges. (He is profiled further here.) For where today goes the hyper-mobile, highly creative innovators of the wired world, tomorrow will be your average everyday sort of knowledge worker.

The money quotes, in our opinion, for understanding the future of the disconnect between talent and management:
“Heh,” I joked. “I bet the first time my boss finds out where I am is when he sees my photo on the front page of his own website.”

But the best punch line was that … he didn’t find out when it was on the front-page of his website – he found out when I posted that fact to my blog!

Organizations cannot afford to continually lose talent through the profound mismatch of employee expectations to organizational norms – which will be an increasing problem as two very divergent cultures collide in the coming years. And while we do not know any specific details regarding the case above, it is not uncommon for many in the community to accrue significant amounts of vacation (and comp time) – only to lose it rapidly due to human resources imposed caps and organizational culture which discourages extended (week or more long) absences. Of course, for overseas travel – especially involving any significant personal interest (or increasingly professional interests simply not funded by the organization) such as a conference or class – a week is hardly any time at all.

In fact, in today’s constantly connected, extreme op-tempo environment, a week is barely enough time to get used to being disconnected enough to relax. And given the increasing prevalence of 14, 18, or even 20 hour days many young community professionals are putting in, five to six days a week, when they are switched on and engaged, it’s hardly much time at all in comparison to the typical range of uncompensated overtime which has been an assumed part of many shop’s baseline activities.

These issues are key elements of the profound shift in the nature of work that are part and parcel of the revolution in intelligence affairs. The managers and seniors that will tomorrow be responsible for running shops composed of people accustomed to this dynamic are going to have to spend serious time, attention, and thought on how to deal with the “incompatibility with an office environment” that many of the best and brightest of the next generation will face – particularly when that environment is the hermetic confines of the vault.

As an interesting aside from the issues of management and talent, the interview also surfaces a fascinating potential thread of dissent regarding the conventional wisdom on how Wikipedia has been assembled. Hopefully, Swartz will soon publish more of his research findings on the more widely based nature of small contributions by a large number of low-volume participants (versus the conventional understanding of a small pool of high-volume contributors which are said to be the backbone of the encyclopedia effort.) This has the potential to have profound implications for how the intelligence community understands the actual performance of Wikipedia (as opposed to the mythos it has built around its activities and philosophy) – with the potential for understanding parallel behaviors in Intellipedia and other new wiki applications in the IC.

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