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31 July 2007

Revisiting analysis and law school

Our opposition to the over-involvement in intelligence of those who have gone the path of the lawyer remains unchanged, however upon reflection, and in response to the comments of others, we would like to caveat our position when it comes to the formalized study of analytical methodologies. (This of course has nothing to do with the fact that one of the more celebrated professors and writers on analytical tradecraft, David Schum, himself went to the dark side and law school....)

There are a number things which the major legal academies tend to instruct their newer students on which are too often forgotten, or ignored, in the intelligence studies field. These include the theory and philosophy of logic, as well as rhetoric and argumentation – not to mention good concise writing skills. However, when the body of statutory and case law, and the framework of looking at the world through those lens, become the focus of the law student’s time and energies, something seems to change, and it is nearly impossible to break them free of that mold thereafter. While this is a good thing from the perspective of the bar, it is almost always fatal for the work of intelligence.

In an excellent related post, Volokh Conspiracy again comes to our notice examining how analysis is taught within the legal environment. In some ways, this discussion mirrors the debate within the intelligence studies academy regarding the proper way to teach analysis and substantive target accounts – does one focus on the targets, and teach the tools along the way, or should the courses be built around the tradecraft with a smattering of the history and account issues thrown in as the means by which one demonstrates mastery of the toolset? This is part of the debate that came to define the new curriculum in place at NDIC (JMIC, not the other…), and one that many of the newly constituted intelligence programs in civilian academia are going to have to face on their own. (And hopefully soon, rather than assembling a pastiche of legacy courses from existing departments and instructors with the garnish of an intel intro or history class.)

We have heard both arguments, with merits to each. The additional elements of target language and cultural knowledge also weigh into this equation, but we too often find that accounts surge so quickly there is little assurance of longevity in the kind of specialization that would weigh these latter factors more decisively (as they often tilt in favour of substantive regional and target expertise vice analytical emphasis). Unfortunately, spending a career on one target simply isn’t how most of the community must work these days. Like the related debates of regional accounts versus functional issues, this is damn close to a matter of theological dispute, if not an outright invitation to civil war, within the community.

We think however that we shall be checking out the author’s book - The Legal Analyst. We are always open to new ways in which one might choose to teach the basic methodologies of analysis, and perhaps we might even find a means to begin to bridge the divide between fully minted lawyers and established intelligence professionals.

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30 July 2007

The underpinnings of soft power

We often have occasion to debate the utility of application of soft power in the contemporary strategic environment. There are too few which are willing to discuss the full spectrum of soft power applications, let alone to understand the fist within the glove - the potential utility of non-kinetic measures in close concert with controlled violence for overarching strategic purposes. There are even fewer willing to undertake the hard work of outreach to those outside the community that is necessary to make the purely softer elements of national power work effectively in the international environment, and almost none among those outside the community willing to commit the time, resources, and energies required to help pursue long term strategic soft power effects. It is at these times we wish for Peter Schwartz’s prediction that we will soon see “novels to emerge in the next two decades that will reveal the workings of this form of power, in the same way that Tom Clancy’s novels illuminate the underpinnings of American military culture.” (Although Schwartz expects these novels to be written in French, we sincerely hope one of the bright young Generation Victory will take up the pen first.)

This is not to say that we are anything other than unabashed fans of robust soft power capabilities – after all, American covert action at its best throughout history has been largely about the effects of soft power properly applied. One thinks of the Italian elections of 1948, or the FAREWELL Dossier and similar operations which blunted the effectiveness of KGB Line X operations.

It has thus been with great distress we have witnessed the resistance of the academy, along with the reluctance and even outright hostility of many of the other key owners of the infrastructure of American soft power, to programs and efforts which would help increase American influence abroad, and to blunt attacks against our interests at home.

We therefore are pleased to note the apparent traction, at least in the short term, of recent outreach efforts to involve the scientific establishment in the counterintelligence process. (Profiled here at the blog of Bugs n’ Gas Gal, which we are pleased to discover for the first time.)

There have been too few of these successes in these dark days. And it says something profound, and not altogether pleasant, about American intellectual life when what should have been a natural part of a citizen’s responsibilities becomes something so noteworthy as to be singled out for specific praise. Without more of these efforts, American soft power will remain a myth or a fantasy, and the overwhelming burden will continue to be carried by the kinetic side.

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29 July 2007

Legal intrusions into foreign intelligence activities

There has been a recent and disturbing trend of domestic courts increasingly intruding into the realm foreign intelligence activities, an area throughout American history which has been the sole operational province of the Executive Branch, funded and overseen by the Legislative. Whether concerning detainee operations, communications intelligence programs, or even assessments of the threat posed by illegal combatants – the dangerous idea that foreign intelligence (as an activity) should be treated by legal regimes in the same manner as information gathering in the law enforcement context.

This is a damningly difficult concept to combat. Intelligence activities should and must always take place within the framework of a rule of law, and subject to the control and oversight of the elected branches of government. Reviewing intelligence activities on a case by case basis within a judicial framework is precisely the wrong approach when attempting to maintain situational awareness at the national level in a complex and dangerous world.

In recent weeks we have been particularly troubled to see a number of items which point towards the intellectual foundations of a potentially radical expansion in the scope of judicial overreach into foreign intelligence activities. The continued political furor over the recent leaks regarding the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” has shown just how damaging such intrusions can be, and how terribly frequent the improper discussion of sensitive programs by those who so callously break their most sacred oaths. When the DNI himself indicates that the political fights and legal wrangling has had operational impact, it is more than time to worry.

Worse yet, we detect a discernable strain of legal thinking which now seeks to impose restrictions not only on the collection of information, but on its use. The idea that a warrant might be required to search against previously accumulated foreign intelligence materials sounds absurd, but recent legal opinions appear to have laid the groundwork for such an argument in future cases. This would also be very nearly absolutely fatal in the context of fusion and collaboration for homeland security intelligence purposes (particularly if critical elements of the intelligence picture are obtained from foreign intelligence activities of DOD and other agencies, as if often the case.)

We have long maintained that the mindsets of the lawyer and the intelligence professional are diametrically opposed. The first seeks to present a structured picture through adversarial argumentation, and by training attacks to exclude evidence from the picture to support a particular viewpoint. The latter struggles to understand puzzles and mysteries, and to assemble a coherent narrative in the face of incomplete, conflicting, and deceptive information in order to support the decision-maker’s choices regarding courses of action. Allowing the lawyers to dictate further the key aspects of the world of intelligence – and allowing intelligence activities to be framed into an “investigative” basis rather than continuing inquiry into matters of standing interest – will be the death of the profession.

In part, we come so near to such a state of affairs due to the lack of formalization of intelligence activity as a profession in its own right. It is too easy for those without a long term stake in the process to formulate “reform”, and in the current hyper-politicized environment, see those measures implemented without regard to their effect within the community. What few efforts we have seen to move towards professionalization have been far too much in the character of rent-seeking, and too little towards establishing an articulable and defensible basis for the actions and requirements which allow for the successful understanding of the difficult accounts and hard targets with which we are faced.

We have but a little time for the intelligence studies academia to step up and meet this challenge, before too much is lost to those who pursue studies of the field from a perspective which is distinctly alien to the history and the effective practice of the art and science of intelligence.

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26 July 2007

Let’s go fly a kite…

As the summer is full upon us, and we occasionally find our counterparts escaping the vault to the beaches and parks (at least in the nicer geographies of community assignments), we would reflect on a fine old intelligence tradition, the use of the humble kite for intelligence and reconnaissance applications. Unlike its more well known cousins in the balloon corps, the kite’s role is usually given short shrift in most intelligence histories.

From the humble hobbyist origins (like much of the intelligence field), the kite would become an occasional player in the early acquisition of military photographic intelligence (as it was called in the day). Frankly, the kites were probably no more or less effective than the other contemporaneous imagery collection platforms: balloons, pigeons, and compressed air or gunpowder rockets. The kite photography apparatus also provided one of the earliest examples of the use of imagery intelligence to support civil disaster response in wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Later efforts evolved in which the kite would be used as a type of manned reconnaissance platform, the Bachstelze (in English, "Water Wagtail") –towed by a submarine, no less – certainly testing the mettle of those assigned to such a unique watchstanding position.

Kite photography has returned to its civilian origins, once again a hobbyists activity. However, it is intriguing to speculate on what the history of UAV platforms might have been, had the early kite systems not been abandoned in favour of other systems, but continued to progress during the long years of WWII and the Cold War. Such thoughts are a pleasant diversion for idle summer afternoons.

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25 July 2007


It’s been a while since we have highlighted newer finds in the greater blogsphere. It is quite amazing to see the growth of informed commentary and cogent discussion regarding the intelligence profession as a whole, as well as the overlapping areas of military studies and inter/national security policy.

We are not quite sure what to think of the rather interesting but not entirely worksafe blog Swedish Meatballs Confidential. On the one hand, we find some of the pieces quite excellent but we dislike attempts to play insider baseball with Beltway politics (especially writ large.) We find such discussions border too often on conspiracy theory. But when they focus on information operations and military matters, they prove worth reading. (We also rather like the manner in which they characterized our link - "Kent's Something of Import".... clearly an artifact of translation software, but it carries with it a flavour of the Victorian...)

The House of War is another newcomer which merits a look based on its continuing focus on matters of insurgency, future warfare, and 4GW + matters.

The Wizards of Oz
, although so new it hasn’t yet accumulated much of a back archive, promises to add further to the 5GW discussion, and comes to the table with a pretty interesting follow-on to LTG Van Riper’s comments at Boyd 2007.

We have found ourselves occasionally tripping over the work of the Deception Blog – which deals with the entirety of the wider psychological aspects of deception (rather than the strictly intelligence context of D&D), but nonetheless occasionally offers links to exceptionally relevant new research. Regrettably, the wider blog cluster of which it is loosely a part of tends to run towards the whole “anti-polygraph” crowd, but thankfully this is not common as long as one sticks with the core psychological research sections.

It will be interesting to see the higher order effects of the informal online discussion in the blogsphere on future iterations of the literature of intelligence. But we expect that this will be the native communications behavior of the next generation of analysts and operators - and we strongly believe that if the community must quickly come to terms with the changing nature of organizational and individual expression and learning in the online environment, especially in the public discussion of the intelligence studies field.


24 July 2007

The intelligence officer’s virtual bookshelf

With the academic year fast approaching, and many students deployed in the far flung reaches of the globe where the mails are not always the fastest, we thought we might highlight a few electronic resources which might ease the burden of weight for those forced to carry around their research on their backs. (We suppose there are also more than a few more conventional students who might appreciate the ability to keep their critical references handy on portable media.)

Among the most useful of the unclassified resources in the intelligence studies field has been the DTIC public STINET (scientific and technical information network) – not least of which as it offers much of the military academia’s voluminous output of papers and studies, particularly those of the War Colleges, which have been released for unlimited distribution. The scope of the body of work available through these releases is so significant that when we are engaged in the difficult task of teaching intelligence, we would nearly always strike marks against students who offered their own research without reference to sources derived from this remarkable collection of prior thought on almost every subject of interest to the field. (There is simply too much material, easily accessible, and of significant interest, to be overlooked so casually. It was typically one of the first signs of insufficient rigor.)

We also have been recently acquainted with the ever growing collection of out of copyright works assembled by the Open Content Alliance and distributed through the Internet Archive. Many of these works were previously overlooked in the field in all but the best equipped of libraries. And while there is a modern conceit that all of the literature of intelligence began in the post WWII era, there is a surprising body of work that emerged post Civil War (although only Pinkerton’s boasting tends to enjoy any mention), and in the aftermath of the Great War. For those looking into the early origins of intelligence as an organized activity, these are excellent original texts made widely available.

We are gratified to see a number of publishers beginning to open up electronic archives of their production output. There will always be far too many volumes for any individual to peruse manually, and to acquire in hardcopy. However, the application of the search engine to these works can open up specific authors to much wider appreciation, and can surface material with interesting relationships to ongoing areas of academic interest that may have previously gone unnoticed. One of the more recent of these is the Praeger Security International database (subscription access, but in our humble opinion worth the fee, certainly from an institutional perspective.) Unlike the current focus of say a Jane’s (resource valuable in its own right, but one that all are no doubt familiar with), the PSI database offers the full text of a number of books frequently assigned as standard texts within the intelligence studies field. It is an excellent place to start if one wishes to assign additional readings to newer analysts and other students, without imposing on them the cost of the entire volume for one or two chapters. (Although most good analysts will want the full text, but that is entirely typical of those enthralled in service to a frequently shared obsession.)

We would also be remiss if we failed to note the increasing number of titles publicly released from the National Defense Intelligence College (formerly JMIC). A number of their more recent works are now a core part of the canon of intelligence literature that every new analyst and student should be acquainted with.

We are most pleased to see the growing accessibility of the literature of intelligence, and hope this next academic year’s papers, and thesis/capstone projects, will benefit as a result. For too long, material has been locked up in limited circulation and often hard to acquire hardcopy, distributed hand to hand as grey literature or even samizdat. That was not the way to build an intelligence profession, and we have suffered for it.

We are also interested to see the longer term and higher order effects of the virtuous cycle we believe is created by increased access to the literature – especially for those institutions which value and foster such accesses (vice those that would continue business as usual.) We expect a certain normative effect, where the previous excesses of false prophets may be muted by a wider exposure to that which may show them in true light. We also hope to see an end, or at least a reduction, in the endless and fruitless attempts to reinvent the wheel, and to recast analytical tradecraft in an individual’s image. There will also remain a place for the methodologist, and the innovator, in adding to the body of best practices and enriching the community of interest; but we hope that knowledge of the wider scope of the profession will help place those contributions in context.

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23 July 2007

Wx-ing for the future

We have commented previously on the growing push towards institutionalizing the “climate change” issue as an intelligence account. As those who have made their career around other transnational issues which never quite fit neatly into previous concepts of what merited status as a unique account, we are actually even sympathetic to the arguments made by those in favour of the specialization, despite how strongly we ourselves would come down on the other side of the substantive underlying questions – and despite our driving sense of other priorities in the Long War.

Our appreciation for the arguments in favour of tracking on the climate change issue comes not from the science of the debate, as muddled and as frequently revised as it is. Rather, we note that many significant targets of national intelligence interest do believe in the narrative of climate change – and would continue to do so, no matter what the science may eventually show. Belief creates behaviors, and those behaviors are of interest, especially when the actor is a national level priority target.

Thus Politics and Soccer’s arguments in rejoinder , referencing PRC weather control activities, do not entirely fall on deaf ears. We have seen similar questions of activity and effect arise in related contexts, such as in economic intelligence assessments of agricultural productivity - once the bedrock of Soviet studies, and no doubt the future backbone of AFRICOM’s civil affairs and development efforts. And we have often witnessed local weather mitigation efforts, such as the automated counter-hail systems deployed in many European vineyards to protect the delicate vines. (Although we note, those seeking to define the climate accounts often attempt to divorce the prosaic and often inconvenient realities of weather intelligence from the grand questions of change.)

In the end, intelligence as an activity is entirely the sum of its tradeoffs. To assign analysts in the already thin bench to a climate change account would be to strip them from other transnational issues in which their expertise and time could be better spent. However, we do not think we would reject FINTEL papers touching upon the behavioral side of the equation, particularly in sensitive geopolitical contexts. And perhaps it is there, in the analyst’s own private wars (perhaps pursued on their 20% time), that the climate change account will be best identified and proven on its own merits rather than in the abstract of debate. And perhaps this may be another one of those issues in which public/private intelligence activity models may prove fruitful, as long as the politicization that has damaged the public debate can be avoided.

Who knows what may come of such an effort? With our luck, we may very well wind up working in due time for some young rising star SES that has come up through the climate change account…. But we hope that executive will have been firmly grounded in indications and warning, human factors, and operational net assessments regarding the issue rather than the amorphous prognostications of events hundreds or thousands of years in the future.

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20 July 2007

The relics of the code wars past

If you are looking for that perfect gift for the spook who has everything, you could do far worse than to get them their own fully functional authentic Engima cipher machine.

There are few items more totemic in their physical incarnation than this humble collection of wires, rotors, and lights. Yet this machine, and the false confidence in its security, killed more Germans than all of Bomber Commands - and in its closely related incarnations, killed more Japanese than the atomic bomb.

It is also the symbol of perhaps the greatest victory of intelligence in the history of the Western services. Nothing like it may ever exist again as a focal point of such unique and incomparable import and value.

We are a few days late in catching this item, so bids have now exceeded $28,000 (after delisting and re-listing of the auction. (If you simply must have it for yourself, it's an immediate purchase price of $50,000). But for those that can afford to give that special someone in their life the very best, it is more than worth it.

h/t Castle Arrgh!, Slashdot, and the many others which noticed this most unusual of listings.

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19 July 2007

Blogging the DNI’s Open Source Conference

Conference season continues apace, and with a wealth of interesting material surfacing for public discussion in the intelligence studies world. We note with great interest the rather unusual collection of blog entries by multiple contributors regarding the events. We are used to seeing this at the major tech conferences, but are frankly surprised to see it in the intelligence community. It simply would not have occurred to us that such a thing would happen, if not in due to overt security restrictions then in the face of the normal culture which prevails at such events.

It is however a harbinger of things to come, we think. We ourselves are of mixed minds on this matter – we have for a long time supported the Chatham House rule in order to encourage a more frank discussion free of political and career considerations (which can be far more damning than any security officer’s checklist). We fear that routine blogging of these rare unclassified events may greatly impair free flowing debate – and may indeed limit attendance in ways we cannot currently predict.

But in this case, the deed is done, and for those interested, a short collection of some relevant links:

DNI Open Source Blog 2007

a thaumaturgical compendium:
Hidden in plain view
Knowledge Management
Media as the Open Source
Technology: Improving the Use of Open Sources
Open Source on the Web

We should also note that the recent Boyd Conference has also generated quite a bit of interesting blogging in the 4GW and future warfare space, well covered by others.... see the usual suspects over at Zenpundit, Shloky, Simulated Laughter, Soob, and tdaxp

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Transnational issues and the lesser known accounts

We have been remiss in not pointing out the excellent overview of a number of accounts that are certainly off the beaten track in the analytical world that Coming Anarchy has chosen to grace its audiences with in recent days. One post that particularly caught our eye regarding the unique nature of evolving high intensity crime in the Oceanic region.

While similar issues have been increasingly of concern in Africa and Latin America, we have rarely seen such cogent thinking applied to the wider range of the “lesser included”. It serves to spur interesting thought, particularly for those of us concerned deeply with transnational issues and indications & warning.

The community has grown too accustomed in recent years, we think, to focusing on the great first order catastrophic events. The more subtle outlines of higher order effects from the less dramatic, and certainly less tangible, aggregation of actors and their smaller incidents have not only fallen out of vogue but also out of common examination. But it is precisely the subtle corruption of small state systems, overwhelmed by high intensity crime and low intensity conflicts, that will have reverberations throughout the global system. The hollowing out of states by distributed network actors is not merely a matter for concern in the places where there is the obvious stuff of the industrial age (such as the extractive industries), but also the influences of Herds and the other raw materials which are mined by the new economies.

Coming Anarchy’s piece is the kind of thing which brings us up short, and while we cannot abandon first tier priorities in favour of these faint glimmers of futurity, we can pause to contemplate their effects on our own accounts. And hopefully, the community as a whole can begin to institutionalize methods by which outsiders in the academic and corporate world can contribute meaningfully as part of a unclassified exchange in a formalized and ongoing manner.

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15 July 2007

Historical perspectives on military and intelligence privatization – codes and ciphers in China’s warlord era

Intelligence as an organized activity in the modern era began as an amateur’s game, made more serious by the deadly business of war throughout the 20th century. And while much attention has been paid to the evolution of the early effort of pioneers which became the basis for the major nation-state programs of the major conflicts that convulsed the globe in the three world wars of the last century, we occasionally have reason to be reminded of, and to reflect upon, the efforts which the intelligence studies history has nearly forgotten.

Among those are an interplay of requirements, technology, and actors which resulted in one of the most interesting artifacts we have ever had privilege to lay eyes on – one of the earliest codebooks used by a private military company. (An item that we had hoped one day to be graced to acquire, but unfortunately as the years have passed it seems that is not to be.)

The nearly continuous conflicts of the Chinese warlord period resulted in the development of a major market for mercenaries and arms merchants engaged by the various factions to support and supply their forces. Communications of the day were primitive, but the telegraph had made ingress to the country and represented the only effective link between the forward representatives of the private military companies of the day (often individual entrepreneurs and adventurers) and their larger networks of investors, suppliers, and strategic level intelligence (usually provided solely through open sources and RUMINT).

The security of these communications were however a paramount consideration in the ever shifting political currents of an intensely factionalized country. Thus, a variety of code systems and ciphers came to be employed by those smart enough, or experienced enough, to pay attention to such matters.

The technology of the day required almost all messages to be sent via Morse, and messages would pass through any number of hands during transmission, receipt, and delivery. Further, the system was a heavily Anglicized development which did not handle Chinese characters well, although a numeric transliteration system was in use. Additionally, major companies (especially in the banking and shipping industries) had adopted a series of brevity codes in order to save telegraph transmission costs when handling routine message traffic (although not without push-back from the major telegraph providers, who saw lost business opportunities in the shorter messages and increased costs due to the greater difficulty and greater error rates which were incurred in sending enciphered text – the net neutrality battles of the Victorian Internet).

It is out of those commercial codes that the early efforts arose to provide for secure communications amongst those in the private military industry of the day. A number of firms published primitive codebooks for both brevity and security purposes - a commercial market for cryptology which would preserve elements of the nascent American signals intelligence establishment during the turbulent days following World War I. Many of these codebooks were adopted throughout the private military industry in China, and evolved in modified fashion throughout the course of operations. In one surviving example which we are familiar with, the phrase tables had been extended to cover a wide range of situations the original designers had no doubt never envisioned. The sometimes hastily scrawled handwritten notes of nearly a hundred years ago are still quite familiar to anyone that has ever been in the field, attempting to obtain logistics support or to acquire new munitions and matériel.

The 21st century has seen the world of cryptography come full circle. Now, it is again commercial technology - commonly available at the individual level through public key and elliptic curve encryption as well as widely published, mathematically robust algorithms such as AES / Rijndael - that is featuring prominently in the forward theatres of the Long War, where the private military industry finds its most active current markets and the field of communications security has some of its most interesting opportunities for substantial new contributions.

We would wish to see this sort of history better explored by the academics of the intelligence studies field, and the longstanding nature of the private military enterprise taken into account during the all too often overwrought discussions around the privatization of intelligence and of warfare. The literature of intelligence, and of national and international security studies, would no doubt greatly benefit - and who know what young minds might thus be inspired to accomplish?

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12 July 2007

Predictive markets in futures studies

The concept of using markets as a predictive intelligence tool for future studies has been too often critiqued by those who do not understand the nature of conclusions which can be drawn from market data. While we may question the collective groupthink that sometimes dominates on particular issues, and often find ourselves quite contrarian to the whole, the concept is an interesting one and deserves far more attention and exploration than it has been given. The politicization of the concept in the wake of media attention a few years ago has not helped in the least.

We have seen a few new efforts in the space - not least of which in Google’s internal predictive market - and there is even a journal for the field, but we fear that too much of the potential value has been destroyed by the politics of the thing, at least for this generation.

We also find the introduction of the economic element the most critical aspect of the successful predictive market. We have long been deeply suspicious of the arbitrary introduction of quantitative values into inherently non-numeric intelligence problems, and regrettably have seen far too much of a trend in recent years (especially in certain segments of the academy) that seeks to assign a false precision to ideas which exist entirely within subtle variations of the gray, better communicated through language and narrative than dry figures attempting to establish an aura of pseudo scientific rigor. The economic element is indeed another arbitrary figure – but there is something that focuses the mind when the scales are well perceived in terms of other weights such as opportunity costs or even the simple fixed pool of limited resources.

Thus it is with interest we note that the Long Now Foundation’s efforts to create a predictive market of its own, Long Bets. The Long Now effort has produced some very interesting forecasting and think pieces looking at the truly out years perspectives on the human condition, and its efforts here look quite promising. The market itself is largely a pairwise establishment, between those offering predictions regarding future scenarios, events, and drivers and those who would challenge the statement against a fixed sum to be donated to charity by the inaccurate party. As such, it is far less a mechanism for determining the wisdom of the crowd than it is a matter of watching the alpha geeks. For currently, the participants that are backing and challenging these predictions, are a smaller elite of highly connected, typically highly interesting individuals with strong existing public records in analysis and forecasting of difficult issues in complex and dynamic problem spaces. But this is very much a thing interesting in its own right.

In a way, this reminds us of the process in use at Stratfor, as recounted by their “Chief Intelligence Officer” George Friedman, in which their analysts are forced to make predictions for an internal record (apart from published FINTEL) regarding their assigned accounts on a quarterly and annual basis. These predictions are permanently tracked and make up a part of the analyst’s performance review and professional development process. (We would be very interested to see a study of their results over time correlated with other measures of analyst performance, if only from the perspective of a kind of reputation mechanism.)

The Long Bets effort bears watching. And more importantly, this is a low overhead mechanism that can easily be duplicated within the intelligence community, perhaps even as simply as establishing a short Intellipedia page to track IC internal versions (although the key financial elements are another matter entirely…. Perhaps the “bets” can be paid in non-currency commodities of unique value only within the vault…)

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11 July 2007

Illustrating the difficulty of futures intelligence

This item by science fiction author Charles Stross is an excellent micro case study of the difficulties of doing good futures intelligence and scenario projection. The issues and concerns of the day, especially in the alternative planes of finance and thought that comprise the Parallel World, are only faintly visible in the distant Starlight. The driving passions, and serious concerns, of those caught up in the future mysteries that will be the realm of tomorrow’s intelligence rely on a series of nested assumptions and understandings that we can only barely begin to sketch the outlines of today.

In a way, our earlier admonition regarding the need to be constantly aware of the fallibility of trying to doing intelligence in the incomplete information space of OSINT also holds true for futures intelligence. It requires a great deal of personal humility, and a very open mind, to get futures intel right. The same even goes true for its easier cousin, horizon scanning, as selection and emphasis is naturally biased by the limitations of one’s own perspective, inevitably and irreducibly rooted in the now. Frequent trips to face Smoking Mirror are called for….

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10 July 2007

Knowing indicators

It seems that commercial overhead imagery continues to change the manner in which key national security issues are examined in public debate. In the past several days, commercial imagery provided new evidence regarding the nuclear activities of two major hard targets – PRC and Iran.

This is not the first time such revelations come from open sources with capabilities previously reserved only for nation state level intelligence agencies. In many ways, this is a very good thing. We can remember a time when the discussion of, say, a new type of Soviet SSBN would have been cause for a decade’s worth of debate on whether such a platform existed or not; as many in the debate challenged the old Soviet Military Power publications and mocked its hand drawn art. (In reality, much of the old DIA art was deliberately used to depict systems which had only ever been imaged from classified sources, and therefore needed a layer of comfortable abstraction in order to be introduced into the public view.) Certain parties, no matter how little credibility their arguments might have had, still managed for years to cloud issues for which concrete evidence existed simply due to their refusal to accept its source.

A more informed discussion about the implications and consequences of these activities can now occur, given the public availability of such indicators from sources other than the intelligence community itself. But we would caution those who wish to pursue any current account through open sources alone that there is always more to the story, and that the gaps in one’s knowledge may significantly outweigh the conclusions which can be effectively drawn from limited public and gray literature information.

We also note that these types of publicly “found” indicators emphasize the traditional strengths of IMINT and overhead collection systems – military/industrial targets with larger activity and support infrastructure footprints. We would challenge those seeking to pursue commercial overhead imagery sources to search for the more elusive targets of non-state actors in the global disorder – and in so doing, hopefully to refine and present new methodology for finding and identifying such faintly visible prey that would benefit both the intelligence community and the academic side as well.

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09 July 2007

Information security in hosted applications

We are fascinated to see Google’s purchase of the hosted secure (as in commercial) communications provider Postini. We see this as a significant milestone in bringing good cryptography and other good communications security to the average user of the Parallel World – which for a decade has been simply stalled, with no advances in usability due to the lack of significant adoption. (As opposed to those wonderfully secure but entirely impractical systems which are trotted out on an almost annual basis by some vendor or another.)

Now, we would not consider this proof against a nation-state level attack, but it certainly has to be better for the average business or home user (especially those working out in the hinterlands of the Gap) to be able to enjoy a modicum of privacy in typical communications.

We are also curious, however, how long it will take for many corporate users to get over the perception of insecurity and “irresponsibility” in a hosted service. And likewise, we wonder if there might be any government contracts in the works for a truly stable, robust, and secure platform operated by a major player such as Google. We don’t see this coming about for classified networks, but certainly anything Google would build seriously could far outshine the nightmare that is HSIN, and likely even edge out the new OSIS and AKO/DKO/JKO portals. We are certain Google could assure enough security for these sensitive but unclassified applications… and just think of the complications one would cause adversary traffic analysis efforts by mixing those messages in with the entire volume of Google’s routine data traffic.

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07 July 2007

Visualizing complex document sets

We have been meaning for some time to mention the release of a new demonstrator from Project Xanadu.

For those unfamiliar with the history of ancient computer science theory, Xanadu has been since the 1960’s a nearly mythical chase for a system which would perform hypertext like functions. That an entirely robust and working system has been developed which drives the entire intertubes since that time has been of little concern to the creators of the system – they have an elegant theory and will not be deterred from seeing it through. For this, we commend them, and wish them luck in doing so.

However, it appears the demo still lacks any of the sophistication we have come to expect in modern search and visualization applications. We are also deeply unsure as to the scalability or robustness of a fully realized application and server architecture – to say nothing to the final aesthetics.

Nonetheless, the concept remains intriguing. We have long been interested in complex three dimension visualizations of document sets (STARLIGHT and IN-SPIRE come first to mind), and we would love to see additional options available to the working level analyst with as little overhead burden as possible.

As for us, we would just like to have an original Memex desk as envisioned by Vannevar Bush. Maybe rendered in a nice steampunk iteration, with plenty of Victorian gloss to our pagan (if not barbarian) thinking….


05 July 2007

In a generation

From tdaxp, we note with grim resonance the following:

“Within a generation of the enslavement of Europe and China to Stalinism, arrogant American liberals combined with comforatble American leftists to do their best to defeat American action in the Vietnam War, and make South-East Asia safe for Communism.

If history repeats itself, or at least rhymes, within a generation of 9/11 active support of al Qaeda inspired movements should be fashionable on college campuses.”

We fear we shall see that day sooner. That generation may well be on the timeline of Moore’s law.

And as the man once said, the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.

The milestone regarding contractor deployments to Iraq exceeding total nation-state forces should also be noted, as the fulfillment of a long-standing prediction. This has occurred even in the face of the surge – despite many predicting that a privatized war would only come about in the wake of the US “retreat” they had so hoped for.

As the shooters go, so follows the privatization of the intelligence community. The fight for the future of the Long War might soon pass from the hands of government and into the hands of those who own the infrastructure, and the human capital, which must be defended against the depredations of terrorism and non-state violence. If new government administrations in the US and abroad choose to walk away from the fight, they will surrender the last vestiges of the fraying fiction which is the Westphalian monopoly on the use of force. Then privatization will be seen in full measure.

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04 July 2007

They also serve, who only stand and wait

We have noted that there are a good many fine analysts and officers who come into this latest contremps rather late in the game. Most are in the process of proving themselves, daily and quietly, in a dozen different areas of the community. But many remember St. Crispin’s Day speech – especially on the occasion of our own national holidays, and count themselves less a part of the enterprise of the Long War than their companions who have seen it through since the dark days of September, and in harm’s way on strange foreign shores.

To this we hope our collective experiences in combat and in crisis will weigh enough to carry our admonition against such thoughts. We spare no words for those who have not had the stomach for the fight – who turned away when their chance came to step forward, or who deliberately chose the coward’s path. But for those whose skills and abilities lie in the vaults far to the rear in reachback, or those who have sought deployments but been given lonely outposts far from the core of the current conflict, we would extend our hope that they find stillness. Their hour may well yet come.

We recall the World War II story of a briefer for the Special Operations Executive, whose responsibility it was to instruct deploying officers and agents in the use of their assigned communications and code techniques. This was typically the final briefing given before clandestine insertion into enemy territory. On this particular day, he was assigned to give an extremely unusual group presentation to a large body of men, who would be tasked to direct action missions in support of SOE’s mandate to “set Europe ablaze”(a mission also shared by their sister service, the American Office of Strategic Services, who had contributed men to the group.) These men had been in training for what seemed an eternity, and were eager to join the fight. They had seen others come and gone from the schoolhouse – to unknown fates in Occupied Europe, or to return: harrowed, but covered in the glory of deeds of unimaginable courage and effect.

Their briefer gave them the final line of this poem as his own admonishment, in order that they might not hold their service so cheaply. They would go on to become among the most successful group of paramilitary operations officers in history, under the codename Jedburgh. And they would always remember their briefer, whose contributions to their survival were no less important than the men with whom they fought on those dark nights in the deep woods and mountains of France.

We would offer the same final line today, for the same reasons. There are future Jeds out there, and before this Long War is over we will need them most.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait

Milton (On His Blindness)

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03 July 2007

Life at Google from an outside perspective

We continue our unbridled fascination with Google as one of the major players in the new information industries (of which we strongly believe have actually now grown to encompass the intelligence community itself – and in fact, are in danger of rendering much of the community’s traditional activities irrelevant, but that’s another discussion.)

The search engine for years was the intelligence community’s secret weapon in managing the vast volumes of raw information that was generated by Cold War collection activities. Massive early investments were made in cataloging and retrieval software – primitive by today’s standards, revolutionary then… but Google isn’t just another search engine, in our opinion. It is an enterprise structure driven by the interplay of information, communication, and intentions. The manner in which it choose to structure itself, to envision its own activities, and to propagate its activities are interesting not only as an example of how such an operation may be accomplished but also in how an intelligence community driven by the same imperatives might have been shaped given a blank slate. We view Google as a looking glass to imperfectly glimpse a part of the future intelligence community.

Thus we note with great interest a new item, which if it were a national level service we were discussing, would probably qualify as a defector’s reporting – a recently resigned Google employee’s perspective on life at the ‘plex, written for his seniors at Microsoft. While the corporate world is by no means so harsh, we do find the tension of competitive forces interesting to observe in its own right.

But more importantly, we see in this account a number of things the community might do well to adopt itself. While the defector (er, former employee) highlights many of these as perceived weaknesses, by any means they are a definite step up from the typical vault dweller’s life.

It is simply inspiring to think of an intelligence agency transformed along such lines. How much easier would we find recruitment and retention if we could offer:

  • A private MD-VA-DC area bus/van service for IC employees and contractors and not just the inter-building or metro shuttle, but an actual regional transport network)?
  • A “tech stop” on each floor, with immediate repair and re-issue authority, and the ability to get networks immediately up and running for people transferring into a building?
  • An “SSO stop”, modeled along the same lines, to help facilitate clearance transfers, meeting requests, and to act as an interface with investigation and adjudication processes for a team’s new hires and contractors on behalf of the team’s management?
  • A chance for line level workers to do the kind of intel they want to do (versus the latest crisis they have been thrown into), at least part of the time? Or to contribute to the literature of intelligence? (Modeled along Google’s 20% time.)
  • An environment that didn’t demand even the most junior level staff attempt to dress like they are going before congress every day? And in which those seniors (and junior briefers) which did have to dress well for external reasons could take advantage of laundry / dry cleaning services?
In short, the focus on the complete care and feeding of the line level worker is not only a model we have seen at Google, but also out in expeditionary environments. Small investments reap great rewards in relieving individual employees of the burdens of normal life (which are added exponentially onto the unusual nature of the community’s demands), allowing them to focus on the core business of doing real intel.

If this seems alien to the business of government, it seems natural that the IC would contract out these non-essential functions. And it just might save them the loss of the better and brighter among their new hires (and the related real dollar loss, clearance system burden, etc.) as they go contractor – or get out entirely.

We will address the other points regarding career progression, management structure, and other operational-level issues at another time, we think. Suffice to say even Google may not have all the answers when it comes to the other extremely difficult challenges of HR and functional management. But one must always take a defector’s statements with a grain of salt, especially as we are not certain of the individual’s history, reliability, nor current motivations given the unknown audience for which he was writing….

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02 July 2007

DHS Border Security Centers of Excellence program

It is good to see the IC CAE concept catching on elsewhere, and in increasing areas of specialization. The latest is the Department of Homeland Security / Science and Technology Directorate’s grant for a new university Center of Excellence for Border Security and Immigration (under DHS-07-ST-061-002). We hope the new program will contribute as much to the intelligence and operations community as it does to the technology space.

This award reminds us very much of the original Department of Justice efforts to create an academic partnership with Mercyhurst College in order to address border security, which was a key part of the old Borderline daily intelligence product (an innovative mix of open source and operational reporting produced by the old Immigration and Naturalization Service intelligence shop). A similar effort was created in conjunction with the old Cross Border Control International publication, in partnership with the Ridgway Center at University of Pittsburg. These efforts produced good results for a number of years, and we look forward (hopefully) to a successor emerging.

We should note that Patrick Henry College’s intelligence studies program has for some time been producing a weekly border security open source intelligence product, which to some degree picked up where the older Mercyhurst effort left off.

There are no doubt other efforts of which we are not aware, and we wish them all luck should they be in competition for the new grant.

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Calling the intel studies academy – Iraq edition

It’s time for a member of the academy to step up and do their part in this Long War. L3/MPRI is looking for an intelligence educator to support the Iraqi MOD’s new intelligence and security studies program. It is the summer, and there are plenty of those without tenure that could easily take sabbatical to fill this need.

(To forestall the inevitable questions and / or accusations: Yes, this is a contractor position… one more step in the privatization of the community. And No, Kent’s Imperative is no way affiliated with L3 or MPRI… this position is widely advertised in open media, and we comment on it only from this perspective. KI in no way profits from this blog entry – just like all of our writings here. And frankly, were we not otherwise fully engaged in current operations we might consider this particular deployment ourselves.)

We strongly believe that the creation of strong host nation services are critical to creating victory. We would not be surprised if in a decade we would see our Generation Victory serving alongside such new allies, trained to the best standards the intelligence community could offer.

So – for all those who have authored endless papers on reform and the notionally ideal service – here is your chance. There is an institution which is virtually tablua rasa upon which to write the best practices of tomorrow. But mere theoreticians need not apply – your students will be going in harms way (even if only as much as the American students deployed in the GWOT that you may have already forgotten) - and there is no time for them to be hashing out pet theories or ego battles on your behalf. They need the solid basics of analytic and operations tradecraft with a strong focus on the contemporary counterinsurgency and counterterrorism environment.

This is an opportunity to work on the cutting edge of US and multinational doctrine. We have not seen a similar opportunity since the first wave of instructors whose responsibility was to tie together post apartheid South African intelligence services. There, they had to merge British tradition, local doctrine (developed over decades of hard fought small wars), and ANC-era KGB proxy training into a cohesive whole to tackle serious internal security and transnational issues problems. Iraq is no less a difficult challenge.

But for those who want to contribute their best, it’s time to face Smoking Mirror. Is there anyone among you willing?

Professor of Intelligence and Security

Duty Description:
Assigned as primary professor of the Intelligence and Security department in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense Civil Service College. Responsibilities include analyzing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating curricula, syllabi, lesson plans, and training support packages pertaining to the Intelligence and Security department. Additional duties include mentoring, coaching and developing the Iraqi professors assigned to this department; to include certifying them as instructors and conducting train-the-trainer programs within their respected area of expertise. Assist Iraqi counterparts in the submission of all teaching materials to the Iraqi Ministry of Education for accreditation of any degree or certificate producing course. Must be able to obtain a security clearance.


  1. Analyzing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating curricula, syllabi, lesson plans, and training support packages.
  2. Mentoring, coaching and developing the Iraqi professors assigned to this department
  3. Certifying instructors and conducting train-the-trainer programs within their respected area of expertise.
  4. Assist Iraqi counterparts in the submission of all teaching materials to the Iraqi Ministry of Education for accreditation of any degree or certificate producing course.
Minimum Courses to be developed:

  • Intel Support to Counterinsurgency -
  • Advance Strategic Analysis -
  • HUMINT Policy & Requirements –
  • Strategic Targeting –
  • Indications and Warning –

Required education and job skills:

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • Work experience in security and intelligence agencies
  • Computer skills required; Powerpoint, MS Word, Excel
  • Excellent written and oral communications skills
Highly Preferred:

  • Post-graduate degree in international and political affairs
  • Formal teaching experience at college or university level
  • Ability to speak Arabic

We also feel there is a strong opportunity to help contribute the best-in-class curriculum and training support materials to this effort. For those interested in assisting in providing such materials (or additional Arabic language translation support) to but who are otherwise unavailable due to ongoing operations, please contact us. Perhaps this is a clear case in which an unclassified but secure private wiki environment can be of value. If nothing else, it is an application we are interested to explore.

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Regional versus functional issue accounts

One of the longest standing debates in the organization of intelligence as an activity (and the inevitable growth into a bureaucracy) was first addressed by Sherman Kent in his 1949 Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy. Even then, the division between regional geographically specialized organization versus functional, issue focused groups created tension between analysts – frequently reflected in finished intelligence production.

Sherman Kent diagnosed the problem as having its origins in “the customs of American education”, calling out the tendency towards regional specialization in the studies of historians, geographers, and political scientists; and the functional specializations in education of economists, sociologists, psychologists, and other “theorists” without applied studies targets. In his words, “which of the two groups should have command of a project is by no means so plain, nor is there a clear answers to the larger question as to whether the whole organization should be laid down along regional or functional lines.” To have the house divided along both lines is “an invitation, and one readily accepted, for major civil war” within the analytical community.

Little has changed since then. Of course, in part this is why we have coordination processes – to ensure that different regional and issue desks even within a single agency are represented in the debate, and to do so across all relevant contributing agencies. The processes of coordination are so closely tied to those of analysis and production that even in agencies and offices which do not have a formal requirement for coordination will usually introduce a “lite” version internally amongst themselves. (Such positions are one of the most powerful places one can be in the community in terms of impact in the introduction of new viewpoints and judgments, actually, even though these are usually among the most peripheral of organizations, focused on niche and specialty problems with a definitely limited organizational lifespan.)

Coordination does not always address all issues, nor does it often settle in the minds of those who have brought their issues to the table and felt their viewpoint “lost” in the process (even though it almost always reflects at least as a dissent if there is any body of evidence in support, and often even in the face of good evidence to the contrary.) Thus, the “civil war” between analytical houses may often spill out long after an issue has been put to bed for the historians to address in the fullness of time.

We are seeing this age old process play out in the recent media reporting regarding the division between NESA and the counterterrorism specialists on the question of Ba’athist Iraq’s ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Definitive evidence to answer the question most certainly exists, somewhere in the vast array of recovered documents, interrogation reports, and the physical evidence from the ground (in the form of the dead foreign fedayeen from the first fights of 2003 – as opposed to those foreign fighters that entered later as part of the evolving AQIZ structures). But it will take the judicious eye of an impartial scholar to judge the matter from a more comfortable distance of the future – say perhaps around the twenty five year declassification mark - and indeed, it is our personal opinion that the failings of both sides of the debate to appreciate the true nature and severity of the problem will be exposed.

But until then, it seems that the unseemly politicization of the debate in the public media – given impetus by figures such as Paul Pillar and George Tenet himself – will continue to attempt to re-write the first draft of that history (no doubt seeking to influence future hands as well as current reputations.) We fear it may unduly influence the intelligence studies academia – if it has not already – and would admonish our professional peers and new students alike to keep in mind the recurring nature of these debates as they look to examine past performance (in both successes and failures) in the popular case studies. Rarely in this world are we given issues to which a binary answer exists, and it is the grossest form of oversimplification to assume otherwise. Debates such as this also reinforce why it is more important than ever to seek alternative analysis through Red Cell and other methods, and to objectively consider those possibilities for which the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – for evidence may be forthcoming, both for and against any given set of theories as the realities on the ground rapidly change, if one has but the eyes and the openness of mind to look.

As for our opinions on the great divide between the two kinds of houses, we find ourselves veterans of uniquely transnational issues, having been subject to every manner of surge and task force and working group and crisis cell, in the most unusual of niches. We prefer to see small, aggressive, ad-hoc structures comprised of both analysts and operators from a wide range of issues and regional desks with interests and equities in the same target which overlaps their accounts. Only then, by throwing everything against the wall in a structure short lived enough to avoid its own bureaucracy, and disconnected enough to be (at least partially) immune from the day to day politics within a given agency or office, have we found the kind of answers we sought regarding the great questions of process.

We strongly believe such radically unstable and short lived environments are most effective because they are the very manifestation of Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction. It is certainly no way to create a sinecure, nor even to build a long term career path – but it is the best way we have found to generate new and innovative approaches and answers to hard target problems, and to the problems others have not yet begun to identify let alone address.

h/t and further at Haft of the Spear

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Visualizations of the internal states of analysis

Via Mindhacks and Neuro Future comes the fascinating work of the Einstein’s Brain Project, which among other efforts has created innovative 3D visualization of EEG activity of participants in various states of mental activity.

This sounds like it has some fascinating potential applications for understanding the unique internal processes of analysis. We have long been intrigued about what makes certain analysts better than others, and the ways in which how different analysts think – not just in approaching problems, but in everything from first principles. Survey instruments and external observation have proven useful tools to help start our limited understanding of these factors, but we’d certainly love to see some applied intelligence research of a similar nature.

In a way, this reminds us very much of the initial work done to assess the cognitive elements of IMINT and other GEOINT analysis processes through eye tracking and other detailed physiological monitoring of analysts conducting real target tasks. These sorts of analysis are very different disciplines than the primarily verbal aspects of most other INT’s, and require a very different sort of instruction and focus. Exploring the specialties of the field can also help bring new ideas into the mainstream of all-source analysis.

Since its hard to get any real work done while sitting in an MRI or a CAT scan, it is interesting to see the development of other sensors that might have utility in helping to understand the analyst’s inner world.