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11 May 2007

Intelligence activities in the native medium of the blog

We are not prone to navel gazing regarding the now unremarkable magic of the world of lightweight web publishing tools. (That’s so 2002, as the cool kids might say…).

However, we find ourselves occasionally drawn into the ongoing distributed conversation regarding the growth of blogging within the intelligence community itself, particularly as the idea spreads within the walls (thanks in large part to some visionary efforts and some hard work to create acceptance and adoption.) From time to time, we find ourselves writing on such matters as reflections emerge in open publications, much as we have when discussing related issues of wiki technologies.

In this case, we find ourselves once again welcoming the end of another academic year for many intelligence studies programs, and the deluge of new student publications, term papers, and theses has begun right on schedule. We happily expect that between the major universities, and the military service schools, that we will have much reading to last us through the idyllic evenings we intended to spend relaxing in a hammock this summer.

This year, we are fascinated to see the continuation of a trend towards the use of blogging tools to publish these student efforts on the open net. We are not yet certain of what to make of this – for sure, it is a far better means by which to ensure readership and availability of material which might otherwise slip unnoticed into the great gray literature slush pile. But there are also systemic concerns, especially when the content of certain papers (even though they may be drawn entirely from open sources and presented in an unclassified academic context) may offer our adversaries advantages in concealing, denying, or deceiving the community’s efforts to understand their intent and behavior.

This is a subtle issue, but it does have the potential to influence the willingness of the community to engage academia in the long term – if only by giving fuel to the arguments against sharing discussions of methodology, target interests, and conceptual standards. (We do think that in most cases benefits outweigh potential risks – especially if a keen eye towards OPSEC and counter D&D concerns remains foremost in mind, and the selection of topics chosen with care and deliberation. Regrettably, this is not always the case.)

We also have not decided if the blog format is entirely the best manner in which to see new academic papers and longer term study type products presented. The native strengths of the blog, much like the cable, are in the short form; but this tends to obscure the levels of supporting detail and nuanced argument which are critical to more robust intelligence products – and particularly to those efforts exploring new dimensions of methodology and analytic tradecraft. Blogging also tends to encourage a very different tone than is normally appropriate for finished intelligence or academic pieces, but this may not entirely be a bad thing given the predominance of lengthy, dry tomes of no particular redeeming value which so characterize other segments of the community’s output – and unfortunately also large parts of the field’s literature.

This however begs the question: which then are intelligence activities that have a native affinity for the medium of the blog? Blogs, while created initially as a publishing and distribution tool, have much more to offer than merely functioning as an advanced dissemination system (as much as we like RSS for that purpose when dealing with short, recurring product streams.) They also by convention and customary usage occupy a unique niche between the formalized rigidity of finished production and the otherwise uncaptured ephemera of working notes, partial drafts, non-papers and coordination commentary.

Blogs can function to foster social growth and interactions within communities of interest – whether within their comments pages or (as we prefer) through the distributed effects of common linkages between multiple independent authors. In this, they do so more slowly than the rapid, transient connections of sametime (or the physical world counterparts of conference asides and deskside chats); and frankly the process tends to produce a higher quality of intellectual result much more closely aligned with Sherman Kent’s original vision of the interactions which would produce the body of intelligence literature. The only difference is the technology, which brings with it levels of speed and accessibility that could not have even been conceived in his day.

“The literature I have in mind will, among other things, be an elevated debate. For example, I see a Major X write an essay on the theory of indicators and print it and have it circulated. I see a Mr. B brood over this essay and write a review of it. I see a Commander C reading both the preceding documents and reviewing them both. I then see a revitalized discussion among the people of the indicator business. I hope that they now, more than ever before, discuss indicators within the terms of a common conceptual frame and in a common vocabulary. From the debate in the literature and from the oral discussion, I see another man coming forward to produce an original synthesis of all that has gone before. His summary findings will be a kind of intellectual platform upon which the new debate can start. His platform will be a thing of orderly and functional construction and it will stand above the bushes and trees that once obscured the view. It will be solid enough to have much more built upon it and durable enough so that no one need get back in the bushes and earth to examine its foundations.

Now if all this sounds ponderous and a drain on time, I can only suggest that, so far, we of the Western tradition have found no faster or more economical way of advancing our understanding. This is the way by which the Western world has achieved the knowledge of nature and humanity that we now possess.”

We are very interested in the continued exploration of the matter, and will continue our own humble examination of the subject as we may. We wish the new crop of intelligence studies graduates well in their own endeavors in this area, and hope that they will continue to contribute in accordance with the original Imperative.

For those of our colleagues and readers which would wish to offer commentary, advice, or encouragement, the following are a few of the new student papers-as-blogs in the field.

Content Analysis Technique

Terrorism Social Network Analysis
Qods Force Targeting Methodology

In this case, all are out of Mercyhurst, but others are no doubt coming soon and we expect we shall write on those presently enough. Do not be shy, nor spare the full weight of judgments in order not to offend - for few things are worse than the unjustified ego of young analysts who have never received adequate critique due to the diplomacy of their seniors (a thing we have observed all too often as of late in many an intelligence studies program.) Analysts develop in the competition of ideas, and learn from the hard realities of failure. If they do not fight for it, they do not grow.

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