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26 September 2007

A glimpse of Porter’s Five Forces at work in the commercial imagery industry

Not so long (chronologically) but an eternity (in terms of privatization concepts) ago, the first generation of high resolution commercial space based imagery systems for intelligence came into existence. These architectures – and their operators – spent far longer than they ever should have needed to in fighting for their rightful place at the intelligence table. The very idea of private sector capabilities usurping the government monopoly on overhead systems was so unthinkable for many within the community that had the Long War not gone hot and every second of imaging capacity been desperately needed, we might never have seen the development of the industry – let alone the remarkable directions that it has trended towards in the hands of the Google / Keyhole team.

At the dawn of its earliest, hard fought, and tentative acceptance, another new technology was emerging. Unlike the expensive and arcane world of satellites, the UAV offered an immediate, accessible, and understandable tool to the community. More importantly, it was a technology they could directly control throughout its full life-cycle – and that is critical to a certain kind of procurement and operations mindset.

Needless to say, the UAV has been a Very Good Thing for the GEOINT community – and at the same time, opened new frontiers in the mix between collection, analysis and warfighting. But these systems largely remain dedicated to looking at the battlespace through a soda straw. It is for that reason that many of the proponents of imagery intelligence continue to dismiss the idea that UAV’s will ever compete with the better resourced national technical means – or even their commercial imaging counterparts – in providing theatre-level and strategic IMINT.

The true dynamics of competition are very rarely understood within the halls of government, and too often likewise among the contractors which are ever so sensitively attuned to non-rational markets dominated by government dictum that they can no longer recognize the forces at work in the open market. (There is a reason why the Long War’s most popular acquisition programs have occurred through proponency from the ground up – often by individuals and small units voting with their feet, and government cards.)

Thus we note with interest the first indicators that the received wisdom regarding the relative competitive positioning of UAVs versus other more traditional overhead systems may soon be subject to radical change – brought on by pressures along a different axis of Porter’s Five Forces model.

The home-built UAV market is emerging in fascinating ways from a simple, if obscure, hobby, into much more sophisticated technical and conceptual approaches. Chris Anderson (of Long Tail fame) is doing much to advance it through his own efforts, including integration of imagery collected through these personal UAV systems into a coherent processing framework – in this case, the ubiquitous Google Earth.

In a way, it is fitting to see that private hobbyist efforts may yet open new vistas for imagery intelligence – just as they did in the earliest days of “photographic intelligence” by balloon, bird, and kite.

We certainly think there are a few lessons being taught to the community here. In our mind’s eye, we see these lectures being given by the Mechanical Turk, with texts provided by Yochai Benkler, in a classroom not too dissimilar from what one might find in Second Life.

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25 September 2007

Real strategic communications and the wages of ignoring diplomacy

We have long noted our continuing interest in the world of soft power, and in the intersection between it and the harder aspects of military and intelligence instruments. It seems the topic gains much momentum in recent days, to our great pleasure. Zenpundit brings up a series of interesting points regarding the challenges of the contemporary information operations environment, and how these differ from the world of Kent, Langer, and his younger brother – a pioneer in the field of leadership analysis. The incomparable Mountainrunner has been leading an examination into the continued misinterpretation of Smith-Mundt, along with excoriation of the ineffective machinery for public diplomacy at State – a discussion also joined by Swedish Meatballs and Political Warfare.

In these discussions, several important concepts continually resurface in various forms. The first is that of the information threshold – the sensemaking barrier below which modern attention deficit and information overload so degrades signals in the IO environment as to render them meaningless. Related is the idea that certain actions will always speak louder than words, especially in given unanticipated higher order effects.

It is against this backdrop which we measure the shameful performance of Columbia University in giving a podium to our adversary’s propaganda. Ridiculous though the Persian pretenders statements may be to Western ears, one cannot help but reflect how many times a Farsi narrated video of the events’ dubious “highlights” will be shown to legions of adoring Basiji and the true believers among the Pasadaran.

We feel that one who previously violated the sanctity of international diplomacy should not be allowed to rest secure in its protections when it is convenient for them to seek to do so. In an alternative history, yesterday’s events could have provided a platform for a real strategic communications message of lasting historical import – as opposed to the disgraceful, but ultimately brief, irrelevance that transpired.

A nation that understood the value of actions in its public diplomacy, and the strategic worth of unpredictability, would have seen the Iranian hostage taker seized by the Mobbe – a body of men that would have been comprised of those NYPD, NYFD, and ordinary citizens who remember well the costs of inaction. It would have seen the very cranes once used to remove the remains of the fallen towers now choking the life from a man whose orders are also responsible for the deaths of Americans, in the same manner in which his own regime carries out its hangings in the public square. The image of his kicking feet would have graced the front page of every fishwrapper and news weekly across the globe this morning.

In this alternative history, America’s cowboy image is used as a weapon against our enemies – not as a strategic weakness which must be overcome through perception management and re-branding efforts. It is an alternative history which would have evoked an earlier time, when the affairs of nations were conducted by serious men for real stakes – rather than in the senescent pretence of “dialogue” with one who comes to the table in bad faith, with the blood of our people on his hands from an undeclared war stretching across the decades.

Troubled times call for difficult actions. We fear that only more dark days lie ahead because the nation is unwilling to undertake the kind of messages carried by that brief counterfactual thought experiment.

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24 September 2007

Schooling intelligence

Monsieur Tanji’s posts at Haft of the Spear and SPOT Report - commenting on the merits, and alternatives, to the creation of a national intelligence school - have caught our eye, and are deserving of remark.

For many of the reasons that the learned gentleman points out, we do not foresee the creation of a single “service academy” style intelligence institution anytime in the future. However, in the uniquely American tradition of the federated university system – such as the UC schools – we do see the DNI’s National Intelligence University growing to encompass a wide variety of both traditional and non-traditional educational approaches for intelligence studies.

Among these options we see the major institutions of Kent School and JMIC / (new) NDIC holding primacy, leading doctrine and research in innovative directions closely tied to the community. We see the larger and more established civilian university programs, such as Mercyhurst, UMD, Hopkins, and James Madison providing an important augmenting research capability, as well as a pool of trained students at both entry and (eventually) mid-career levels. And lastly, we see the IC CAE schools and the host of other new programs to follow as broadening that pool with a more diverse set of candidates, and providing opportunities for those outside of traditional pathways to enter to community.

We have expressed our concern that the academic intelligence studies programs continue to prepare their students to face the real challenges of the IC, and to compete effectively for positions in the face of new entrants and changing hiring needs and standards. But that is not necessarily due to the belief we will face a glut of analysts – new types of positions continue to open routinely, from the ever-growing requirements of Homeland Security watch desks and state/local fusion centers to the new importance of the intelligence role in the private business sector. Rather, our concern stems from the ever widening divergence between the research and teaching output of the civilian schools and the real IC’s identified critical needs and gaps – and the immense difficulty that seems to be developing in orienting certain academics to the vitally needed tasks, especially those disconnected by geography and personality.

We recall however that the American way of intelligence is very nearly quite entirely unique in history, and that there are many fine national intelligence institutions whose activities remain cloaked in shadow – and in many cases, almost lost from the pages of even otherwise well known history. (Continuing the shame of the historians and chroniclers, who all too often dismiss matters of the cloak and dagger as irrelevant to the affairs of great men and grand powers.)

Thankfully, we have had occasion to pick up a most excellent work that seeks in part to remedy such shortfalls by examining the unique Nakano intelligence school of Imperial Japan. Authored by former CIA Asia hand (and frequent journal contributor) Stephen Mercado, it is a work that will change one’s understanding of special operations, covert action, unconventional warfare, and intelligence collection in the Pacific Campaign. It is also of profound value to those who teach comparative intelligence traditions, or wish to help their students avoid mirror imaging and other cognitive bias problems.

We are glad, however, that US intelligence schools do not place the same emphasis on their school song as did the 1930’s Japanese establishment. We would hate to hear anything approaching music so badly butchered as we know ourselves, and most of our contemporaries, would mangle the tune.

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20 September 2007

The genteel competition among allies

It is a maxim that one never has true alliances in intelligence, only mutual interests. The longstanding UKUSA intelligence liaison, as well its Four Eyes partnerships with the other countries of the democratic Anglosphere, if often held to be a counterexample to that dictum. And given the levels of cooperation in the Long War – especially involving special operations and other operational activities – one can see the merit to the argument.

Yet at the same time a genteel competition between the cousins still takes place, with small victories substituting for times when grand policy changes are inappropriate or impossible. This is most often expressed in the subtle manner of counting coup – forcing a liaison officer to inadvertently exceed his brief, or worming one’s national way into another country’s unilateral operation. Its usually nothing more than a fun game, resulting in bureaucratic embarrassment and individual red faces at worst – and good practice for the day when one must liaise with a “partner” in the multinational environment whose interest are not nearly so benign. If take too far, it sometimes can result in ruined operations and burned programs – but usually there are plenty of older and wiser heads around to ensure the game doesn’t stray too far outside of bounds.

Thus we note with amusement the purported cryptologic success of the Australian Defense Forces during the 1980’s, during their attempts to enhance capabilities against opponents using other than Warsaw Pact standard equipment. One can surmise that this included Identification Friend Foe (IFF) systems as well as other electronic warfare (EW) programs - such as jamming pods and their related processing databases.

For as much as those in Oz may express frustration at the American’s purported unwillingness to share their toys in this case, one should remember that one of the great publicly debated “intelligence failures” of Desert Storm - only a few short years later - was the supposed lack of non-Warsaw Pact EW intelligence. Given the large numbers of Western systems in use by the Ba’athist Iraqi forces – much of French origin – the Cold War postured US forces were alleged to be poorly prepared to address this wider spectrum of threats. Similarly, many of the regional threats (or competitors) faced by Australia during the 1980’s (and today) may well have utilized systems that the 1980’s US EW establishment was simply not postured to address.

All in all, a fascinating bit of history and a good lesson in the difficulties of liaison relationships over the course of the Cold War. One can reasonably surmise that while the issues at hand may change in the new environment, many of the same dynamics will persist. For those interested in further exploring the history of the Wizard War during that time period, we recommend highly the Journal of Electronic Defense, which often includes not only case study articles but an excellent series of first person oral accounts from those that worked those accounts back in the day.

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19 September 2007

Understanding the evidence of events

A few items have continued to trickle across the nets which bring the all too often forgotten works of AFRICOM to our attention.

The first of these comes from the ever perceptive folks at Coming Anarchy, who note the continuing engagements involving host nation and US forces tracking irregular forces in the wilds of the Sahel. The Taureg rebellions in Mali and Niger are in one sense the very real stuff of which 19th century adventure novels were written, yet at the same time they are the concrete manifestation of the Global Guerrilla / 4GW+ problem set in a small, poor, and out of the way place in the world. A place that just happens to border key areas with other known problems also involving restive populations heavily influenced by militant Islamist ideology….

More troublingly, though, we also note the Economist’s puzzling reaction to the body of public press reporting regarding Islamist – and in particular, Al Qaeda, activities in the region. They editorialize in an article on the dynamics of the rebellions: “But apart from the odd smuggling deal over guns, drugs or cigarettes, no solid links… have been established”. This despite continued open source information regarding the continued expansion (or retreat, depending on one’s perspective) southward of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, who have re-branded themselves as the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. (And while we may not always agree with their analysis or policy recommendations, International Crisis Group has published to its usual standard of excellent research regarding these issues, as has the inimitable Douglas Farah – perhaps the first journalist to seriously cover the lesser known transnational aspects of global terrorism networks operating in Africa.)

We find a persistent form of cognitive bias in this sort of thinking as demonstrated by the Economist, which would deny the evidence of events. It is one that has increasingly come to dominate policy and intelligence related discussions in many institutions. Let us call it the dissociative fallacy.

The dissociative fallacy is the tendency to ignore linkages between issues based on pre-concieved ideas regarding how such linkages manifest - ideas typically based on unarticulated assumptions, and frequently informed by popular stereotypes and other fictional information. It rejects the actual form of associations when they do not meet an idealized a priori postulate.

The dissociative fallacy is a natural development for those that perceive their role to be primarily centered around minimizing disruption and managing crisis, particularly as those acting in such roles often encounter deeply entangled issues which are not amenable to solutions in part. It is understandable, if not acceptable, that they should then seek – consciously or unconsciously – to reduce the number of factors at play in discussions regarding the issue. But it is a dangerous way of thinking that just as surely leads to intelligence failure and intelligence surprise as any other form of cognitive bias.

We see this fallacy at play in counterproliferation discussions, used to explain away any given set of dual use or even prohibited materials as unrelated to a weapons program end use. The thinking goes that unless it the material under examination is part of a “stockpile” – with attending implications of bubbling vats and ranks of missiles arrayed in Soviet era precision – that it shouldn’t count. (Something all too common in the post OIF era, as the “lessons learned” of the pre-war estimates continue to be applied before the final judgment of history – and the full accounting of the regime’s activities during the 2002-2003 time period – have been reckoned.)

We see it frequently cited in counterterrorism cases, in which travel linkages, communications exchanges, ideological references, and self-identification are discounted in favour of theories of self-radicalization and explainable mental disorders. And for as much of a threat self-radicalization does actually pose to permissive democratic civil societies, all too frequently in recent experience substantive associations to more organized terrorist entities have emerged during post-incident investigations of supposed “lone wolf” actors. But since most of these relationships do not fit the Hollywood-driven assumptions of how terrorist associations are formed, they are unremembered until after the next attacks.

The fallacy itself is perhaps most prevalent in other transnational issues area, where single case study examples of an incident type are merged with implicit assumptions regarding organized crime or other threat activities, creating a “standard” model which does not begin to encompass the range – and frequently, the strangeness – of real world cases.

For as commonly as it appears, there is very little in the literature on this point. There is a clear need for academic research in this area. Perhaps some bright young thing from one of the better institutions might taken an interest, and grace us with unique study and innovative insight into the nature of the problem.

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18 September 2007

A launch not to be missed

For those of our readers with continuing interest in space operations and GEOINT, we highly recommend the launch show for DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-1 tomorrow (and for those with invites, the launch party...)

Commercial imagery has come a long way indeed, largely a result of the unprecedented demand for IMINT in the post 9/11 world, but also driven by new commercial markets and unimagined systems of access and display that broke overhead systems out of the realm of the arcane and into Everyman’s reach.

These birds were a story of dot com innovation and the bruising realities of the bubble (does anyone recall how many failed to make orbit successfully? … especially those on the Russian PROTON launch vehicle… but in the 90’s, surplus Soviet ICBM boosters seemed like a cheap orbital access option. In retrospect, perhaps not so clever, but it was the era of early post-Wall globalization.)

Space operations are incredibly demanding, but those involved in birthing this amazing capability in its first private sector incarnations rose to the occasion. It is impossible now to imagine how we once taught the art and science of imagery analysis outside of the classified realm (using only the few dozen of declassified images released from national technical means, usually from air-breathing platforms and always highly obfuscated.)

The new generation of systems will offer half meter resolution – something deemed impossible (for the private sector) less than a decade ago. And most critically, commercial imagery has won over the last bastion of resistance – not the cloistered world of the IC (who at least recognized a good thing when they saw it in operation), but the insular world of the academics who are the primary users of overhead imagery for scientific research. The argument has advanced a long way from the early days of the quasi socialist impulse of free “open access” to all imagery “in the name of science”, regardless of acquisition, transmission, and storage costs. (While we support open access to publications and journals, and might have supported it for overhead imagery of scientific value, we recognized that the capabilities required a market mechanism to support its continued operation and development. Open access journals have gone much further to solving that – albeit for a function requiring smaller cash outlays.)

The continued expansion of commercial imagery constellations raises fascinating issues for space control debates, especially given the recent hostile actions demonstrating PRC anti-satellite and counterspace capabilities. The spectre of space warfare has the potential to dramatically alter the insurance implications for operating an expensive and difficult to maintain on orbit asset, complicating private sector efforts in the area. Likewise, engagements of private sector systems by nation-state offensive capabilities will raise not only the prospect of conflict initiation, but also a host of legal and financial repercussions which are difficult to predict in advance. Indeed, the prospect of court ordered asset seizures in compensation for the loss of the platform may at some point even weight into the balance of deterrence (assuming rational actors and a continued desire on the part of the hostile country to maintain ties with the global economic system.)

The first generation of academic papers – most out of the khaki tower of the military war colleges and service schools – helped pave the early way for what would happen when commercial imagery became operational reality. (Even if, as always, real world events progressed far faster, and far stranger, than any prediction could foretell.) Much remains to be explored in terms of how the capability might yet evolve, and the new structures and systems that might yet be forged to exploit these unique eyes to solve new geospatial problems.

h/t O’Reilly Radar

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17 September 2007

(Black) Markets in everything

There are few things more bizarre for those of us in the transnational issues side of the intelligence business than to observe the development of new black markets based on government distortions of functioning economies – usually for short sighted political regulation attempting to accomplish what otherwise would be a difficult proposition to sell through free competition.

Many of these illegal markets are driven by burdensome and typically ineffective “environmental” legislation and regulation. One can point to the much lampooned cross border trade in high flush capacity toilets - or to the more serious illegal business of Freon smuggling.

We note a warning scenario for yet another such black market in reaction to overreaching green legislation – this time for the humble incandescent bulb. One commentator at Chronicle of the Conspiracy predicts stockpiling as “some folks will back up the SUV at Wal-Mart and buy cases and cases of the old standby…”

What next, an illicit market in washing machines?

We hear also there may be a new source of machinery and spare parts for phosphate separation (always important for high quality cleaning) on the market soon… seller reports condition, slightly used with occasional catastrophic kinetic damage from falling Israeli iron and energetic materials. Be sure to check the UN trade leads postings for Syria, or contact your local AQ Khan network representative...

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16 September 2007

Markets for prediction versus prediction from market data

Our readers will recall that we have long been fascinated by the potential for new concepts in analytic methodology which might allow the imperfect instrument of predictive intelligence to be refined and applied under new conditions. Among the vehicles which have emerged over the past few years that might seem to offer promise is the idea of the prediction market – instantiated in various forms under DARPA, Long Bets, and other iterations.

We have yet to see any truly definitive examples of such a market’s utility to the practical and very real problems of forecasting for intelligence issues. We are also increasingly mindful of the new issues which emerge during the implementation of such markets – especially those related to strategies which successfully game the market from the perspective of an individual “trader” (responding correctly to market conditions to create “wins” for his own portfolio), but which degrade the pure anticipatory value of market based information due to meta-strategies focused one the market itself rather than the issue to be predicted. In this, we recall Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s admonition regarding successful trading strategies that only require one good year in a century to produce a profit, and who insulate against major losses through a strategy of slow cuts.

We thus were initially quite interested in a new paper which attempts to evaluate the Surge through the lens of a prediction market approach. However, the key difference we note is that the paper is an attempt to measure not a market consisting of predictive judgments, but rather to derive predictive value from a market of financial judgments. In our view, the attributing causalities to the decisions of finance is a far more difficult business, and so prone to errors of bias that we would question its practical utility.

However, it is an interesting example of the difficulties of cross disciplinary applications in the intelligence space. (And a clear definition of why intelligence is an art and science worthy of study of its own, as opposed to merely a bastardized aggregation of various social sciences – as some critics have in the past charged.) We encourage such efforts, not because we hope to gain transcendent insight on specific issues through any particular experiment, but so that we can continue to incorporate new approaches into the business of intelligence through trial and error. Identifying a dead end pathway is as valuable as finding the next new thing.

To this end, we would also recommend our readers to the excellent item at Mapping Strategy regarding the perils of actuarial approaches to prediction, in which we would heartily second the call for caution in making assumptions regarding the predictability of events based on their historical occurrence. (This is one of the reasons we have been so critical not only of Schneier et al’s comments on counterterrorism issues, but also of Pape’s work regarding suicide attacks.)

h/t Marginal Revolution and Economist’s View

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14 September 2007

Web n ruminations for the IC

Whatever network one routinely uses to conduct the business of intelligence analysis and production, the idea of Web n technologies and innovation has certainly begun to creep into common discourse within the community. Whether through Intellipedia, A-Space, reputation systems, or other still emerging variants of the wiki and the blog, there has been an encouraging degree of movement in recent years.

We are unabashed fans of experimentation in these areas. Unfortunately, too few times have the results of these experiments been examined with a dispassionate eye, nor recorded in formal publication – particularly by those not immediately involved in acting as proponents for the new technology. This alone has meant the art and science cannot advance beyond the basics of advocacy in this area, and into the hard business of implementation, refinement, and normalization. To move forward an idea is to find its flaws and correct its weaknesses through repeated efforts, rather than the repetition of the same effort.

We thus hope the new Mercyhurst Intelligence Studies program’s student blog at Web 2.0 and the Intelligence Community will evolve beyond mere advocacy and into solid academic research into the effectiveness and limitations of the tools and techniques of the driving philosophy of the next generation Web. It is fitting perhaps that it is not the established academics that will lead such research, but rather the students themselves – the next generation of professionals which will soon enough enter the community but who already demand the very cutting edge of commercial best practices.

h/t once again to Haft of the Spear, and to Zenpundit for the reference to A-Space at Network Weaving

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13 September 2007

The strange higher order effects of post Soviet organized crime

We have recently had occasion to note the increasingly strange ripples throughout areas of interest to the intelligence community, particularly those interests in the transnational issues space, created by developments in post Soviet organized crime. Whether one believes in the model of the Kombinat, or merely in the inevitable cycles of anarchical decay and authoritarian response that may be giving rise to, in the words of the Economist, a “neo-KGB” state - it is clear that the problem set is far from a dead issue, no matter how long ignored in many circles more focused on the immediately pressing problems of the Long War.

One of the largest growth businesses in Russian organized crime occurs in the Parallel World – or whatever cyberspace is becoming in its evolving ubiquity. Cyber attack against financial institutions and consumers is fast creating entirely new classes of network warfare tools and TTP, and forcing defenders to rapidly develop the sophistication of their own responses. The driving energies of these defensive efforts are not merely privatized, but almost entirely the result of the efforts of critical infrastructure owners who have been essentially abandoned by governments which lack the priority focus, the resources and the key people to even begin to discuss the problem set, let alone begin to address action. The developments in this space thus tend to occur along entirely unique and frequently unanticipated lines, with innovation flourishing from far stranger soil than the results of the typical government RFP.

Thus we note with interest a new European toolset designed to expedite analysis of compromised machines for forensic examination. The tool itself seems more an evolutionary advance on previous packages, but it is good to see movement in the space. The recent Estonian flap has definitely driven new interest within Europe on many previously poorly understood aspects of what are in that context intensely regional problems, and it is good to see our allies begin to move towards unique contributions to the shared defense in areas where they might be able to bring new competencies (vice legacy systems and logistics demands). We also immediately would note the potential utility of the item for DOMEX efforts, long languishing in need of further attention (as frequently discussed at Haft of the Spear.)

We hope to see further developments of this nature in the unanticipated higher order effects of otherwise nearly intractable problem sets. The potential benefits to the IC from finding, and exploiting, these reservoirs of expertise and pathways of alternative development could be quite incalculable.

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12 September 2007

National Applications Office - the natural home of new intelligence professionalization efforts?

The higher order effects of investments in key intelligence areas have always led to the most interesting of spin-offs in the civilian environments. Google Earth is the indirect result of the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative program’s focus on small satellites for the Brilliant Pebbles anti-ICBM mission, which led directly to commercial imagery platforms that produce the take which Keyhole / Google has so brilliantly rendered into a user friendly application. And for every one of these stories which is commonly known, there are dozens of others which remain obscured by the arcane nature of technology transfer and invention.

We thus watch with great interest for new developments to emerge from the revamped National Applications Office, whose mission is to apply intelligence community technologies and skills to civilian applications in the law enforcement, homeland security, and civil sectors. There is plenty of historical precedent for these engagements, and much potential for new partnerships with entities in the public and private sectors.

However, we would also hope the new National Applications Office will create a home for one of the more neglected aspects of information sharing and collaboration – the cultivation of the tradecraft and training of those engaged in the hard business of intelligence in new areas outside of the legacy community. There are too few good sources of training and education in intelligence studies for currently serving professionals in law enforcement and homeland security studies (outside of going back to university for another degree), and even fewer for those engaged in critical infrastructure protection efforts in the private sector.

We believe that NAO would be a natural home for training outreach efforts designed to bring the best practices of the core community’s long history and experience to the newcomer state, local, tribal, and industry participants. There is a wide field of practitioners and educators to draw upon, and a range of proven models for delivering the kinds of coursework and practical experiences that will be needed to ensure further professionalization – especially for those who may be subject matter experts within their specific domains, but who lack any prior community experience.

In a September 12th world, much still remains to be done in breaking down traditional barriers, forging new partnerships, and creating new models to ensure that we can truly say “Never again”. This is exactly the kind of step that is needed on that road.

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11 September 2007

9/11 + 6

Remember the lost.

Never forget the righteous anger.

Do not lose the realization of the mission that came on the terrible day of aluminum rain.

Press on with the fight, no matter how dark the night may seem.

No end but victory, no rest until the enemy is no more.

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10 September 2007

Fighting plagiarism beyond academia

We have lost track of the number of times in which we have had to gently (or perhaps more sharply, in a few cases) remind colleagues that the admonition against plagiarism is not merely a conceit of the academic world. Unattributed verbatim copying of others’ text is not an acceptable practice given the importance of national intelligence, and the need to be constantly vigilant against the possibility of deception.

If nothing else, we should think that the rather high profile plagiarism case of the British intelligence “dossier” in the lead up to the 2003 start of operations in Iraq would have provided ample warning to those in the community of the dangers, and the embarrassment, of recycled texts. Regrettably, this is not always so – and with the advent of so many new intelligence shops (particularly those at the state, local, and industry level within Homeland Security), this is one of the lessons of good tradecraft all too often forgotten, or never learnt in the first place as struggling new analysts attempt to meet implacable production demands by shuffling and re-shuffling derivate reporting into ever more diluted distributions.

We recall one particular case in which a senior executive would routinely hack together documents consisting of nothing but large chunks of text copied and pasted into some semblance of a paper – often with inexplicable digressions and other non-sequiturs as the inevitable result. (This individual’s behavior was driven in no small part by the common practice in OSINT of the 90’s – where he spent a good deal of time – of assembling “summaries” consisting of the full text of various news articles pasted into a single document – a glorified clipping service. Bad habits die hard, even years later.)

We note a recent case of explicit sanction against such behavior in the legal profession, courtesy of the Volokh Conspiracy. It seems one lawyer, attempting to shortcut his workload (and no doubt generate additional billable hours), was caught recasting the text of legal articles as “arguments” in a brief presented to the courts. We were not aware that this was considered not only gross professional misconduct but actually the offense of misrepresentation – as well it should, upon reflection. In this case, the offender was sent to remedial law classes – no doubt as much for personal embarrassment as professional education.

We believe it is time that managers in many intelligence shops institute similar sanctions. And of course, intelligence studies academia must instill into its students the absolute taboo against plagiarism – including even too frequent copying of attributed data such as the citations lists noted in the Volokh cases- something that has not always been a priority in many classrooms. We recall recent products which included verbatim sections of popular community reference resources such as the Factbook… and while one can argue whether such material is plagiarism under the legal precedents noted above (even if clearly marked as to origin), it is certainly a poor production model.

Consumers do not need recycling of the dry statistics of other shelfware products – they need unique insights, clear writing, and strong assessment based on solid sources and analytic tradecraft methods. Padding merely detracts from these objectives, and is certainly achieves the opposite of the presumably desired effect of displaying a semblance of rigour not otherwise earned. Students do not need to be taught to fill in checklist style product templates in which form trumps content, but rather they should be encouraged to choose among the many models within the community and develop their own unique approaches consistent with the blending of best practices from multiple agencies and traditions.

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09 September 2007

Brandy with the Mechanical Turk

We have long been staunch advocates of commercial overhead imagery systems, and from the earliest days of their uncertain launch and performance we would vocally proclaim their potential to any and all – most of whom who would darkly mutter about NIIRS, classification, and mission availability.

However, commercial IMINT has so far exceeded any hopes we could have dreamed in the early days of the 90’s, having been brought to widespread use by Keyhole / Google on a scale previously unimaginable. The resulting sophistication of new processing techniques – from humble mash-ups to the surprising benefits of the open source model of many eyes – has given us great reason to reconsider the infamous “bottlenecks” in the architecture of other national technical means. Perhaps it is not the nature of the problem that has so bedeviled those of us seeking to expand the percentages of raw take examined for interpretation and analysis, but rather the model of the solution which is defined so very much by implicit and unquestioned assumptions.

The strange case of a missing billionaire “adventurer” has given us further evidence that other production models may well exist. High resolution imagery was acquired by a private donor’s tasking of the DigitalGlobe constellation, and it has been populated into Amazon’s innovative Mechanical Turk system – a fascinating technology designed to facilitate the development of architectures of participation to effective harness ad-hoc volunteer efforts. The system’s name, of course, derives from the famous chess playing automaton of the 18th century Austria-Hungarian court.

We wish the searchers bonne chance, for we know well the damnable difficulties of wide area search problems. We would also hope that any of our readers in the professional geospatial community might consider lending their unique talents and expertise to the search. (Those wishing to do so may contribute at the Steve Fossett Missing Mechanical Turk page.) We hope that a suitable flask of good brandy – in the model of the Saint Bernard rescue dogs – is close at hand on the day of the searcher’s success.

The effort is a dramatic example of innovation, however, that will have utility to the GEOINT community long beyond this crisis. This may well be the esteemed Mr. Fossett’s greatest legacy to the intelligence community – although we do hope he returns safely to provide many more candidates for nomination. We could easily see a trial program initiated for similar analysis of open source imagery and geospatial extraction, through an albeit less public architecture. USGIF certified schools and other intelligence studies programs would be a natural first home to such an experimental platform. This may also bring IMINT and geospatial analysis instruction into the mainstream of the intelligence studies curriculi, despite having long languished in the backwater of a narrowly perceived technical corner.

h/t Slashdot

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08 September 2007

The role of intelligence producers in national policy debates

A new chapter of intelligence – policy relations has been firmly cemented with the release of the latest UBL message (no matter to what degree it was staged and altered in AQ’s propaganda shops). The fact our of most hated enemy has taken to citing US authors and domestic political debate talking points in support of his (and his organization’s) cause has been a disturbing development dating back to at least 2004. However, when the enemy cites the work of a former intelligence analyst due to the level of unseemly publicity that individual has attracted, it is time to question the role of the “retired” community members that now speak so frequently in national media. (This is to say nothing of the entirely contemptible leaks by intelligence insiders that have so damaged the country’s capabilities across its most sensitive programs in favour of transient political advantage.)

Some speak from positions of substantive experience at pivotal moments in history, some attempt to leverage marginal roles from decades ago into a platform supported by their association with the entity rather than the value of their ideas. The number of these individuals, and the impact on public debate, is an unprecedented thing in the history of the US intelligence community, even given the typically difficult tensions between intelligence producers and their policy level consumers. The business of intelligence deals often with inherently political subjects and judgments, and it is a constant struggle for those serving on the line to defend against politicization (of their own bias, or of the temptations of external pressure). Yet those who no longer face the constraints of the line seem often to become very political creatures themselves.

In one sense, this may be legitimate, were they seeking policy positions as office holders or even appointees. However, the endless circuit of talking heads and pundits that have emerged, feeding from the trough of ratings created by scandal, is another matter entirely. There may even be legitimate roles for a former intelligence professional in the media – the help contextualize and inform regarding complex events and situations, for instance – the lack of which has been a defining feature of the failures of the media’s coverage of many recent cases. But there is a distinct difference between discussion and advocacy, which is as clear of a bright line as any found in between analytical judgments and policy proponency.

There is in journalism the old adage that a reporter of the news should not himself become the story. Perhaps there is also a corollary that should be penned as similar admonition to those that serve (or have served) in the intelligence field. Our honours come not from praise in the public forum, but from the quiet acknowledgment of our peers over a lifetime of silent service that yields good outcomes which only history shall chart - long after we have gone to our graves.

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05 September 2007

Further to the perils of (quantitative) prediction

Yet another example of the sins of the analytic methodologists who overemphasize quantitative approaches to intelligence problems – or at least their academic counterparts – has crossed our desks thanks to Mapping Strategy (and Zenpundit).

We would strongly second these statements, especially when discussing the vital importance of distinguishing between the elements of the actuarial – essentially the use of historical analogies, albeit in numerically more precise form – versus the critical contributions of imaginative speculation grounded in the rigorous examination of competing qualitative factors in forecasting future events. The call for more creative and strategic intelligence is one driven by the recognition of the need for far more imagination and vision in the analytical process.

As we have said, quants have their place and quite often will have unique value. But intelligence failures are rarely the result of poor numbers. Rather too often we see the inability to construct coherent narratives from overwhelming flows of rapidly changing information, or the limitations on describing the gaps in our knowledge to permit the development of new collection approaches in order to begin to fill them. We see the lack of willingness to challenge conventional wisdom – not as the result of politicization, but out of the lack of desire to do the hard work of defining and defending alternative viewpoints; coupled with the unwillingness to face the potential that while the alternative might be equally wrong, you stand alone in that error (whereas the group’s error allows you to avoid personal blame.)

We would also venture that the most recent examples too often cited as high profile “intelligence failures” owe far less to errors in methodology as they do to a much deeper failing of the community’s processes for sensemaking and explanation. But these are far more difficult to teach and to manage than another numbers crunching apparat – though that is another discussion entirely.

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