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31 December 2007

Of PSDs and future assassinations

It is no surprise that highly visible political targets under significant threat would seek the very best protection money could buy. Thus the news that Benazir Bhutto sought to obtain the services of a Blackwater protective security detail prior to her assassination is not entirely without precedent.

However, we are reminded of Mountainrunner’s admonition that private military companies play into US foreign policy overseas – and in particular, US public diplomacy – in a manner that few analysts or decision-makers take into account. Blackwater is among the most visibly associated with US engagements in the Long War – even though it plays a protective rather than offensive role. In the minds of many in the Gap, Blackwater is just another instrument of the United States itself.

In this case, there is little doubt that a more professional PSD would have likely never permitted the risk of moving the principle standing in an open sun-roof, given recent attack history and threat intelligence. The likelihood therefore that Bhutto would have survived the attack – whatever one believes about the mechanism which may have actually inflicted the lethal wound (bullet, blast, or blunt trauma impact) – seems to mark the incident down into the “missed opportunities” column, the fodder for counterfactual analysis and alternative history for a long time to come.

It has long been a maxim that any political target can be taken by a sufficiently motivated suicidal attacker. While modern protective intelligence and operational TTPs have thankfully greatly reduced the margin of success for an attack, the PIRA’s warning to Lady Thatcher after the failed 1984 IED attack still haunts every practitioner: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

Given this backdrop, one can only imagine the consequences of a successful attack should a Blackwater PSD have been engaged to protect Ms. Bhutto. The conspiracy minded would have a field day – and such suggestions have a way of turning to riots in the global Street. Belmont Club has a few of the headlines that we might have seen run in the past few days in such an alternative history.

Any PMC which might take on such a high visibility, high threat contract in the future must be prepared for this kind of aftermath from the start. The State Department should also be planning for such contingencies, both to counter the inevitable immediate reactions as well as the potential long term impact to an American image which is inextricably tied to PMC actions abroad.

More significantly for the purposes of our profession, those engaged in providing protective intelligence support to such engagements must be exceedingly mindful of the possibility that all intelligence activities and products will no doubt come under the microscope of public examination in the days and weeks following an attack. We can think of little better fodder for the kind of damaging political grandstanding that has been favoured in the Beltway as of late, or for the kind of lawfare that has sapped critical capabilities on so many accounts. Even if such protective intelligence is provided under the auspices of official USG liaison, should contractors have been involved in the analysis and production process, we could well see the same sort of scrum develop. (This creates one of the better arguments for defining publishing and release authority as an inherently governmental responsibility, we should think – as it is done in most shops. However, there will likely always be a number of unresolved questions regarding uncoordinated products and unpublished or internal papers sufficient to keep such arguments alive for some time. The buck may stop at a government officer’s desk, but we are sure the damnable lawyers will have their day with the underlying process in any event.)

This has significant implications even in the domestic homeland security environment. Those of the numerous fusion centers and watch desks around the community that have protective intelligence for state and local officials as a secondary (and often implied) responsibility will no doubt face very similar challenges, to perhaps even a greater degree of political vitriol – including the same dynamics that arise with any degree of privatized support.

Let us be clear, though – such issues need not arise from any impropriety on the part of the private contractor capability, be they intelligence officers or PSD operators. This is an emergent property of the current political and media atmosphere that has not yet reconciled to the business of privatized intelligence or PMCs – largely because of the continued illusion that the state can (or should) somehow magically still provide the range of capabilities demanded in the Long War. In a perfect world, it might be so – but as we fight on an ever more specialized basis across increasingly far flung locations, the impossibility of the drain on high demand / low density assets that attempts to service such illusions would create should be ever more obvious, even to the outsider. That the market organizes to meet the unfilled demand should not be such a surprise – and should be rationally discussed rather than sensationalized. Unfortunately, the Beltway and media does not often function on the logic of reality, but rather according the rules of transient political advantage.

Strategic communications, public affairs, and public diplomacy professionals that will have to deal with the consequences of such an incident in the future had best start preparing contingency planning for this sort of political football. It is only a matter of time – and of adversary kinetic and IO action.

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The miserable professoriat

Although we continue to object to the increasing introduction of lawyers into the field of intelligence, we also continue to find interesting parallels between the problems (and successful approaches) of the legal academy itself on the one hand, and those encountered in the hard task of teaching intelligence on the other. (These parallels do not mean we suddenly have shifted course to advocate that intelligence professionals should be taught in the same manner as lawyers – but rather that we see commonalities of issues and solutions that may be approached in a similar manner for entirely different purposes.)

Thus we are greatly interested in the debate over the relative happiness, misery, and edginess of “most” law professors that is currently ongoing between Mike Livingston of Rutgers, Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA, Paul Caron of the University of Cincinnati, Ilya Soman of George Mason, and Dave Hoffman of Temple.

We stipulate that the discussion starts from an unproven conjecture – that law professors are somehow less happy than other professionals in other fields, and that this unhappiness if manifest to a greater degree than in other academic specialties. The resulting responses cover a range of interesting factors both responding to this conjecture as well as challenging its initial formulation. However, while the debate has been re-framed and argued to the wider question of happiness / misery, the original impetus was intended to describe and seek to explain individual unease – “edginess”.

That first question is indeed a slightly different wicket – and one that we certainly ourselves have observed in the intelligence academy. Livingston offers the following towards a more comprehensive explanation of the cause:

“For the professorate, according to my friend, is one of the few activities that is (a) very competitive, (b) primarily personal (that is, noncooperative) in nature, and (c) almost entirely devoid of objective standards that might be used to measure success or failure in the activity. Competitive, both because of the kind of people who go into it and the endless run of tenure, promotions, offers at supposedly better institutions or publications, and so forth. Individual, because our teaching and scholarship is with very limited exceptions done alone. But almost entirely subjective, because beyond the sheer volume of articles or citations, no one has ever come close to a rigorous system for evaluating academic performance or even what such a system would try to measure. The situation is, one suspects, even worse for law teaching than (say) physics or sociology, where there is at least some accepted body of materials one is expected to have read and a more or less established system of peer review for books, articles, and other publications.”

We would concur with these points, and in particular, the difficulties created by a lack of consensus regarding even the skeleton of a canon, and an otherwise immature literature. This dynamic is witnessed by the continual reinvention of basic concepts and revisiting of arguments – starting from first definitions and ranging across every other aspect of the field which is publicly known.

We would also to this attempt at explanation add that the competition for faculty positions in the intelligence field is even more intense, due both to the limited number of billets open as well as the increasing tendency of many schools to fill those billets with individuals who are palatable to the other faculty – but whom have had little place in the intelligence field itself. Many of these individuals would not be qualified to perform even as a junior analyst on a high priority account in a working level shop, yet have been granted a position from which to influence and shape the next generation of intelligence professionals. Little wonder then that they should be uneasy – and that their teaching and scholarship should reflect this. The result is conveyed as a distinct sense of brittleness – when questionable competence in what are basic aspects of the tradecraft is combined with ego, the result is not pretty. (We are the first to admit that a little ego is absolutely necessary to perform the hard task of singing for one’s supper in front of a crowd, day in and day out, but that this typically expands into a far more poisonous sort of thing in the unchallenged and isolated incubator of academia.)

The response created by the pressure of this brittleness too often leads to exactly the worst path an intelligence studies academic can choose. Instead of connecting further with practitioners, and pursuing those aspects of the field which would lead to greater relevance within the field, such a person cuts themselves off still further – welding their own ever more elaborately gilded echo chamber. The detrimental effects of such a path are most clearly observed in the students which emerge from such a style of instruction – arrogant without cause, boastful without substantive mastery, and both narrowly and shallowly constructed. These are students, which like their formative professors, who may never face Smoking Mirror. (Though the smarter – and more salvageable - among them may rapidly evolve after their first bruising encounters with the real world of the intelligence profession.)

There are of course other factors which contribute to uncertainty for those academics that do not have the problems of their counterparts with insufficient credentials. These include the highly variable supply of contract research dollars – much of which is vulnerable to competition from the increasingly far more sophisticated offerings of privatized intelligence shops. Other factors may come into play, such as the role of online and distance learning programs in changing the traditional distribution of student bodies across programs. (Though the growth of such programs for the moment does serve mostly to increase the total pool of students. This does creates its own problems when such programs are not paired with a solid applied and practical component as well as a career and clearance track.)

We view this uncertainty among the intelligence academy in a mixed light. We want a stable and growing professoriat, comprised of professionals from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. But we also are acutely aware of the rapid effects of stagnation in “comfortable” positions, and view a little edginess as a good thing. Of course, this is one of the classic paradoxes of innovation.

Potential solutions to such issues – addressed briefly in the legal academy’s responses - are another discussion entirely. We seek here only to surface the debate, and bring it into the context of our profession and its academy. This is by no means our last word on the subject, as it deserves a far more substantive discussion in its own right.

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29 December 2007

Training versus education in intelligence studies

We have entirely had our fill of the debate over the supposed differences between training and education when examining the development of new entrants to the intelligence profession. This is at its core as profoundly anti-intellectual as it is diametrically opposed to the applied art and science of the field. The argument ill serves both the students it is aimed at improving as much as the instructors and professors that it is designed to elevate.

The typical argument goes something as follows: a particular aspect of professional tradecraft is highlighted and disputed, with the academics claiming that instruction on the topic is “mere training”. From the other side, a complex concept or idea is criticized as being “too theoretical” and of no practical value to the working level analyst. In both cases, it is almost always the subjective biases of the individual commentator that is most clearly reflected. (Though we do allow some small exception, and a full measure of understanding and sympathy for those rare folks – almost entirely within the training model camp - that are simply fighting the never-ending balance of trying to fit too much teaching material to too little student time and attention.)

The predominate origin of this argument is from the perspective of those that would denigrate most tradecraft – especially those fundamental building blocks of the profession - as merely training. We are frankly astounded by this argument. No one disputes the need to teach medical students basic procedures such as incisions or injections, nor budding economists the basics of financial analysis, nor law students the art of legal writing. Yet the argument is somehow given great deference when it comes to applied intelligence practice: in analysis, writing, or the more specialized forms of functional disciplines. Typically, such criticism relies heavily upon an implied appeal to authority, used as the worst sort of bludgeon to halt further debate.

It has taken us some time to understand this dynamic. We are however now convinced that its primary perpetuation comes from the deep unease displayed by many academics towards the actual business of doing intelligence as an activity. We agree that it is a far more comfortable life to offer critique upon the history and current activities of others. This is not a luxury given unto most – and should not be the model to which one’s students should be prepared. Those that are not themselves practicing professionals – particularly given the gap between practitioners and the academy – tend to ignore the very things that are needed most in the cultivation of new intelligence professionals. These things are not valued within their world-view, and are frequently not even understood by those that have not walked within the community (or who did so for too short a time).

This state of affairs is simply unacceptable. We cannot imagine a field in which students emerge after years of preparation nearly unable to perform even the most basic of tasks without weeks or years of further training. We acknowledge that there will be entire realms of new learning specific to their assignment that will always be required – particularly when academic teaching is conducted at the unclassified level. However, let us be done with the specious argument that those aspects of tradecraft commonly deemed “training” are inappropriate for the academic environment. We are not building a generation of comparative theory critics – we are building the generation which will have to fight, and win, the Long War.

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28 December 2007

Virtualizing those critical language resources

In our previous travels abroad, in places far off the beaten track, we have often had occasion to require the kinds of vocabulary not commonly included in typical dictionaries or phrase books. Often, the approximations one must resort to when discussing narrowly specific professional subjects can be quite humorous – especially given our typical none too literate grasp of the local lingua franca in those hotspots where we never personally had expected to find ourselves. (For as much as we encourage those entering the profession to pursue language skills on their target account to the best possible proficiency, we are acutely aware from our own experiences – and those of many of our contemporaries – that with the pace one’s accounts tend to change these days, it is all too often more likely that a mid-career professional will find themselves with a slice of too many tongues at far too shallow a level of proficiency for anything but the more rudimentary of street level conversations. But then again – with only a few exceptions – the members of our skunkworks freely admit to not having much of a head for any language, English included.)

But along the way we have acquired quite a range of more useful texts to help with the problems of finding the right word to express those more obscure professional concepts. These resources usually of military origin, and usually among the older and forgotten sections of the stacks. One of our most useful finds, a number of years ago, turned out to have far greater utility than we ever anticipated as the Long War emerged. Thus we carried for a number of years in our kit an increasingly dog eared copy of a French- Arabic lexicon of military terminology originally authored in the 1920’s – yet surprisingly useful even today.

The long disused texts within the virtual stacks of the major digitization projects (including the Million Books project and Google’s own book effort) have once again provided us with an example which may perhaps be more generally useful for those that do not wish the burden of having to relay their speech through multiple imperfect lenses.

The volume is “English-Arabic vocabulary, for the use of officials in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan”, and was the product of the intelligence department of the Egyptian Army (and its British advisors) in 1905. It is both a “survival” level language resource as well as a compilation of military terminology translation.

Interested readers may also find an English-Arabic dictionary “For the Use of Both Travellers and Students” for from 1882 of some value, although it is far more general in nature.

These are the kinds of things that ought to have been made available through more concerted efforts at the very start of the Long War, as more modern resources were rapidly being created. (Though we do note that Anglo-Egyptian intelligence only came to compile its volume long after the British intervention against the Madhi’s forces in the Sudan…) Nonetheless, in both cases better late than never, and hopefully these kind of resources found in the back archives will prove of some use to those who still find themselves in the far flung locales of the world. We are certain it will prove far less heavy an item on those long treks when one must carry one’s own ruck.

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27 December 2007

Further to the forgotten history of commercial intelligence

Our previous remarks on the loss of the collective memory about commercial intelligence activities in the early decades of this century apparently struck a nerve with our readership. We received quite a good deal of private communication (as well as more public posts) in response, and are glad to see a vibrant discussion in the competitive and business side of the intelligence blogsphere.

We thought to offer a few more references, then, from the virtual archives. Unfortunately, many of the references cited have not yet been digitized, and indeed may not survive extant. However, should any happen upon them in the more physical types of archival research there are no doubt additional stories worth telling. Even what scant citation is available tantalizes the mind with the volumes of lost history that could be written by modern scholars of the intelligence studies field. Among the items we surfaced with a short afternoon's research are:

  • A reference to “Sell’s Commercial Intelligence” in 1902, out of London.
  • A 1906 reference to the unnamed works printed by Commercial (Manitoba), “Proprietors of Commercial Intelligence”
  • Eurolaw Commercial Intelligence. 1930. A newsletter, apparently published twice per month and in comprehensive semi-annual editions.
  • Hooper , Frank Wilfred. The Functions of a Bank in Relation to the Capital Market. 1936. A more general management text that nonetheless discusses the staffing and functions of an economic intelligence department.
  • Goldstein, Herbert. Competitive Intelligence in the Chemical, Drug, and Process Industries. Scientific Documentation Associations, New York. First identified reference to the text was printed in 1937.
  • Commercial Intelligence Journal, 1938. It is unknown how long publication continued, or in how many issues.
  • Artis, Michael. Foundations of British Monetary Policy. Oxford University. 1945. Discusses the establishment of a “strong and highly qualified Economic Intelligence Department, whose head should be an executive director of the bank” for “intelligence and analysis”.
  • Administration. Institute of Public Administration. 1953. A more general work that does however mention, in connection with marketing, “each area sales organization has its own commercial intelligence service and a comprehensive system of trader contact”.
  • Business History Review. Harvard University. 1954. This volume references the practice of keeping “overseas sources of business intelligence”.
  • Brech, Edward Franz Leopold. Organization, the Framework of Management. 1957. This text makes reference to the organization of an example Economic Intelligence Unit as supporting the Managing Directors of manufacturing concerns.
  • Alden, Burton. Competitive Intelligence: Information, Espionage, and Decision-making. C.I. Associates. 1959. A similar title by the same name was first referenced in 1957 as a publication “from the students of Harvard University.”
  • The Library Association Record. 1957. Discusses the role of librarians, claiming one “Miss Chevis dealt with commercial intelligence in a way which made it look exactly like special reference library work.”
  • Rose, Harold. The Economic Background to Investment. Institute of Actuaries. 1960. The author identified himself as “head of the Economic Intelligence Department of a large assurance company between 1948 and 1950.”
Further, the older literature also contains reference to additional shops in various commercial enterprises, the history of which could no doubt fill an entire thesis. Among these are mention of commercial intelligence offices, including one Dun & Company, with branches in Mexico City, Havana, Rio de Janerio, and Buenos Aires as of 1914. A commercial intelligence system at Lloyd’s of London is identified yet earlier still, with a mention in 1876 citing “the labour of half a century”. Various references are made to the “Economic Research Unit, Business Intelligence Department, Bank of Ceylon, Colombo” in 1931, again in 1947, and lastly in 1960. The Economic Intelligence Unit of Prudential Insurance Company is also mentioned as active between 1948 to 1958.

A number of sources were found which identified specific Economic Intelligence Departments – predominately (but not exclusively) at major financial institutions, including:

  • Barclay’s Bank, whose Department was identified as the author of a number of publications, the earliest of which dates from 1902
  • Bank of France, first mentioned in 1934
  • Bank of England, cited in 1952 and 1960
  • The English Electric Company, identified as active between 1954 and 1960
  • The Swiss Bank Corporation of London, mentioned as late as 1956
  • Westminster Bank, cited in 1952

Interestingly, older volumes also support the increasingly persuasive argument that the term “business intelligence” has been so diluted in common usage as to become entirely meaningless as a useful label for an organization, activity, or product. In most references prior to World War II, the term referred nearly exclusively to the quality of mind that an individual executive possessed – similar to current delineation of emotional intelligence, or other measurements of aptitude. Between this history and its current bastardization for the sale of data warehousing software, we think it high time the term be retired in favour of an alternative of greater utility and value.

No doubt quite a number of other interesting nuggets still lurk in the backroom stacks, awaiting the enterprise of some young intelligence scholar to ferret them out. Rescuing this history is one of the true needs of the intelligence studies field – particularly as we struggle to understand the dynamics of the privatization of intelligence and the growth of non-state intelligence capabilities, which the literature shows to be a much older trend than most now account for.

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24 December 2007

Systems of systems analysis, with zombies

One of the harder concepts to teach within intelligence studies is the analysis of systems of systems, particularly given the complexities of real world PMESI examples. This is compounded by the natural tendency of students (and instructors with experience on related accounts) to focus on the disruption of systems – terrorism, warfare, economic crisis, etc. – far more than on aspects of resiliency that allow these systems to adapt even under severe strain. (From this originates our most serious criticisms of John Robb’s Global Guerrillas theory.)

Teaching systems of systems analysis in the foreign intelligence environment is one thing. Typically, those students are familiar – or at least interested in learning about – theories of political science, international relations, and macroeconomics that help to understand complex and dynamically adaptive structures. This is not such an easy task when teaching in the homeland security environment. The student population tends towards the far more practical aspects of more narrowly focused and concrete problems – as one would expect from a group comprised largely of cops, firefighters, and emergency medical staff. They also tend to reject what they do not perceive as inherently governmental – no matter how critical the impact of that systems failure might be. Absent a scenario in which they can more readily grasp the implications, it is a difficult if not impossible task to inculcate the perspective required to properly address the evolving all-hazard approaches that homeland security intelligence professionals must grapple with.

And herein lies the rub. Even the most carefully crafted teaching scenario can be challenged by those intent on avoiding the intellectual aspects of the exercise under the rubric of “experience”. Even recent major real world cases, such as Katrina or the California wildfires, are considered to be such anomalous Black Swan events that they are beyond the practical scope of most anticipated homeland security scenarios. This is to say nothing of a potential mass casualty or catastrophic event. This extremeness aversion (covered well within Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s discussions of Mediocristan) makes it exceptionally difficult to address major incident scenarios in a manner that truly engages the participants and forces them to consider the full spectrum of consequence management issues.

One potential answer that we have found is taken from the realm of the jesters that occasionally visit the futurists’ table. Since the fundamental premise of national event training scenarios are often rejected by participants who cannot visualize the circumstances under which they personally would be involved in the response, no matter how plausible the simulated injects, we change the premise entirely. Rather than attempting to force a willing suspension of disbelief in a plausible, realistic scenario – no matter if the participants should believe in the first place – we introduce a completely unrealistic scenario that borders on the ludicrous. However, it is precisely this over the top element that stimulates not only engaged participation but what rapidly evolves into a serious discussion within a more grounded analytical framework.

The scenario, of course, is a wide-scale zombie attack. Yes, as in the undead - not the computer type beloved of the boffins out there. The staple of countless bad movies requires little explanation –almost everyone is familiar with the rules of zombie behavior and infection. (For those that are not, a review of the “literature” is one of the more enjoyable homework assignments, no doubt.)

The underlying principle of why this scenario works to engage even the most reluctant of participants should of course be very familiar to intelligence professionals. It is identical to the purposes of the analytical technique of divergence. And it is an excellent way to keep discussion at the unclassified level when working in mixed groups of professionals that have varying degrees of access (thus preventing arguments based on “inside information” which may or may not actually support the point under contention), in a way that no scenario grounded in a real world event necessarily could.

The real key to making the scenario work for a good systems of systems discussion depends entirely on the ability of the instructor (or facilitator, in breakout session groups) to tie the discussion back to PMESI effects. This can be quite an enjoyable exercise, however, in a manner that avoids many of the traditional objections raised by those insistent on the limited focus of the classic inherently governmental perspective.

Fortunately, we recently found an excellent work of fictional speculative “history” that presents an excellent look at the higher order effects of such a scenario, called World War Z. While it goes far beyond the level we typically would focus on for a homeland security class or table top exercise, it is quite well executed and entertaining in its own right. Its interview style structure gives it unique potential value to the educator, as most of the presented chapters can be used in whole or in part to introduce the scenario. For this, we actually recommend the audio book version, with excerpts played as scenario injects or to introduce break out discussion sessions.

As an instructional exercise, this becomes certainly a far more ludic activity than we traditionally seek in the serious business of thinking about the unthinkable. Nonetheless, we see it as an excellent way to introduce some difficult high level concepts to audiences which might not otherwise want to engage them. We think the results are far better than the limited appreciation retained after a dry lecture, or a hot but entirely off topic debate over the plausibility of underlying events of a different scenario.

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21 December 2007

Explaining the limited impact of university level intelligence scholarship

Among the more damning aspects of the current state of intelligence studies academia is the near irrelevance of what few contributions to the literature that it does produce – at least in its incarnations at civilian universities. Our continued search for interdisciplinary contributions in no small part stems from the need to fill this void – and especially to find something other than the tired rehashing of reform discussions and notional sketches of some ideal fantasy of a unified new organization chart.

The khaki tower – the military service institutions and war colleges – has done more than its fair share to advance the field in new directions. In fact, without this literature we might be looking at a far sparser landscape of research and writing on those subjects most critical to our field. Unfortunately, for reasons which at this point are beyond irrational, we continue to observe that the civilian academia largely ignores these works no matter how key their contributions. The standards of scholarship and academic rigour at many of the khaki institutions are by any objective measure equal to the best universities in the world – and far exceed that which frequently serves to pass muster at the middle tier civilian schools. Yet the civilian university has offered little in its own right as an alternative.

We do not seek here to re-fight the debate over the relative levels of theorization in intelligence, and the relative importance of such theory. (Dr. Andrew and Dr. Davies carry that banner far more persuasively, whichever side one might choose to believe.) Instead, we question why what few contributions to the literature that have emerged from the civilian university have had such limited impact within the intelligence community as a whole?

We freely admit the question far exceeds the capacity of a humble blog to answer. We may point towards a few elements which we think contribute to the problem, but the issue will by no means be an easy one to fully trace – let alone resolve.

The first underlying factor we might identify stems simply from the limited circulation most civilian academic work receives within the intelligence community. At most, only a few copies of any given paper or journal might be found in the stacks of the major agencies’ own libraries. And these are institutions rich in resources indeed when compared to their counterparts in more isolated locations, or at less rarified levels. While electronic databases may solve this problem for some of the major publications, the range of access to these is also limited (though, to be fair, improving.)

But these databases do not encompass a wide range of publications which float in the gray literature – review drafts, conference notes, or other items which might never see the light of day. Many are held onto jealously by their authors with the intent of commercialization in some unspecified future manner. And while we are the first to wish them the best in those endeavors so that their future contributions might be encouraged through good incentives, we have seen too many promising works fail to materialize entirely when a publishing deal fell through or the realities of the industry’s profit and loss calculus became clear.

In comparison, the works from the khaki tower – and in particular those institutions which will make up the National Intelligence University system – are typically far more readily accessible. One has to look only to the spread of such pieces as Heuer and Davis in comparison. (And while we have often criticized the fifth generation photocopy style samizdat model which served as the primary dissemination mechanism for much of the literature in years past, we must admit that electronic publishing is now doing much to remedy this. And even so, the older models of informal networking seem to have been reasonably effective – if not terribly efficient.)

This dynamic is further aggravated but the limited attention that the serving community has to devote to academic matters. Practitioners might typically only have time to peruse a few articles over the course of each month. As much as we would prefer otherwise, the demands of staying current on one’s own accounts – to say nothing of overarching issues and potential upcoming assignments – leaves little time for casual reading for all but the most dedicated of self-reflective practitioners. Thus there is a distinct bias towards a power law distribution of readers’ time and attention to the more general works in the field – despite what should be a significant long tail demand given the numbers and diversity of those within the field.

Given these factors, we might therefore endeavour here to surface from time to time a few of the overlooked works of scholarship emerging out of the civilian university, in attempt to at least increase what attention might be paid to otherwise undeservedly ignored pieces by playing the role of guides in dark territories.

More systematic efforts however are surely needed, starting with the university presses themselves – and indeed, the very cultures which dominate the major civilian intelligence studies programs.

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20 December 2007

Interfacing with the future

We have long had a fascination with the emerging edge of new interface technologies, if only because we frequently encounter the need to work with these Babbage engine contraptions under a variety of circumstances far outside those envisioned by the original designers. While we are quite aware that the space is quite littered with the remnants of failed attempts at new concepts and the broken dreams of the paleo-future, we nonetheless hold out hope for certain new technologies from time to time – a triumph of optimism over experience.

One technology – the interactive multi-touch style of whiteboard / display – has in particular caught our attention. It is a curious artifact, insofar as it was most famously profiled (in stunningly attractive set dressing) in the science fiction film Minority Report. In an unusual reversal, however, it was the jesters that invited the futurists to the table. Peter Schwartz, of the Global Business Network (and the Art of the Long View), was among those commissioned to enhance a number of the forecasted technological and social changes that provided a good number of “eyeball kicks” in the movie.

We are pleased to note that the ever innovative folks at Carnegie Mellon University are struggling to make this sort of technology a reality. Even more interestingly, they are doing so using low cost commoditized components repurposed from popular entertainment systems. The street does indeed find its own uses for things, in the famous formulation of another jester.

Whether such a technology will actually prove to be of value for the intelligence professional remains to be seen once working implementations are available for testing. We can however already think of certain scenarios – including in VTCs, watch operations centers, and situational awareness applications – where such an interface would be of great value for collaborative discussion and production. Coupled with the right big board type display, and driven by one of the better fusion portals, we could certainly see this garnering the same kind of rave reviews that first greeted the trials of the Knowledge Wall.

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19 December 2007

Strange meat in the cooking pot

When instructing intelligence professionals, it is often difficult to find cases which can be used for exercises designed to improve political, military and transnational issues assessments in short sessions – particularly those conducted at the unclassified level - without touching upon accounts in which one or more of the students may have previous experience. While expertise in intelligence is never usually a bad thing, it does introduce distorting effects to the instructor’s attempts to evaluate a student’s mastery of core competencies and learning objectives. We will not go so far as to say it is an unfair advantage for the knowledgeable student – after all, they did invest the time and energy to understand often complex subjects, and this will serve them well in other aspects of their professional life. Nor can we expect students to come to our classroom tabula rasa – in fact, a good organization’s selection process should ensure that even entry level professionals (or academic students) bring something unique to the table; and we by no means are solely responsible for teaching only new candidates in the field.

Further, when finding the teaching cases and other examples to be used in the classroom, we emphasize the need to select the kind of edge incidents which exist at the intersections between a number of accounts. Nothing turns a student off more quickly than thinking a case does not apply to their assignment and needs –particularly so if that student has rarely rotated between organizations and billets, and has a narrowly constructed view of what it means to be engaged in the activity of intelligence. For this reason, we constantly quest for new material which may feed into the kinds of innovative and unconventional cases and exercises that will challenge students to get out of their existing mindset and truly begin to master their craft.

We are thus grateful to tdaxp for pointing out recent media coverage of the tribulations of the pygmies of the Congo (DRC). Amongst the other savagery of the continuing conflict in the troubled country – already an excellent teaching example for a variety of counterinsurgency, counter-smuggling, and other transnational issues problems – recent reporting now adds the problems of human trafficking and cannibalism. This is not the first time such stories have surfaced, but UN investigations are another thing entirely.

We have previously written about earlier, effective teaching exercises involving organ smuggling and corpse trafficking conspiracies. Such teaching cases have been greatly enhanced by the recent media coverage of the bone trade from India, which serve to illustrate well the complex relationships between black markets and legitimate industries in these spaces. We have no doubt that a case built upon the Congo incidents will also be effective in introducing a new set of problems and perspectives for the analyst and manager alike – especially as it more deeply reaches into the challenges of understanding events amongst “people of whom we know nothing”.

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18 December 2007

Other intelligence histories

The history of intelligence, for as much attention as it receives within the comparative confines of the intelligence studies field (especially in comparison to the hard business of actually doing intelligence through analysis or operations), still is practically unexplored territory in so many respects. Likewise, what has been explored has been so poorly communicated back to the mainstream of academia. We recall a conversation, not too long ago, with a respected doctor-professor of diplomatic history at a major institution (name omitted to protect the guilty), in which this supposed subject matter expert admitted he had never once heard of the use of cryptanalysis in decoding intercepted diplomatic and personal letters throughout Europe from the 1500’s onward through the Peninsular War (the rough span of his supposed preferred period of study.)

Real intelligence history requires primary sources, and that requires work beyond the typical rehashing of tired tropes that characterizes so much of the cottage industry of intelligence reform. But if the intelligence studies discipline does not involve its counterparts in other departments, particularly amongst the historians, there is little hope of surfacing further source material from the deep archives and scattered collections of surviving material. This especially challenging given that the field has never been itself a primary subject of index, and that those unacquainted with the practice of the tradecraft are often hard pressed to recognize the materials which reference activity (versus organization or declared intent).

We, as a field and as scholars, must also give credit where it is due, and diligently reference the works of those historians which have pursued the hard work of uncovering and interpreting real primary sources. There is much that has been overlooked in the stacks, and the cross-pollination of these ideas from other areas would do much to enlighten our chosen paths of study.

For this reason we would like to bring particular attention to the often overlooked work of Dr. Karl De Leeuw of the University of Amsterdam, who has done much to shed light on unique aspects of intelligence history from a Dutch perspective. In particular, several of his more interesting pieces (from our humble vantage point, anyhow) have focused on cryptographic history to a quite surprising depth.

Among these publications are several articles in the journal Cryptologia (itself too frequently forgotten amongst the more qualitative practitioners of intelligence studies due to its high levels mathematical content), including “Johann Friedrich Euler (1741-1800): Mathematician and cryptologist at the court of the Dutch Stadholder William V” and “The Dutch invention of the rotor machine, 1915-1923”. Equally interesting is a piece in the Historical Journal, which examines “The Black Chamber in the Dutch Republic during the War of the Spanish Succession and its Aftermath, 1707–1715”.

Students and other self-reflective practitioners would be well advised to acquaint themselves further with the overlooked segments of research applicable to the field that circulates in areas outside of the well-trod paths of their contemporaries.

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15 December 2007

Arguments in intelligence history

We occasionally note the scrum which emerges as the topic of intelligence history is approached within the context of larger political science debates. In this case, Sic Semper Tyrannis has resurfaced the debate over the utility of social science derived approaches to intelligence analysis practice; centered around Sherman Kent himself and the original Ivy League influenced R&A, first raised back in 2005. The current piece expands the discussion into a wider examination of the use of intelligence within a supposed political school of thought allegedly shared by several recently prominent decision-makers. Though we find the formulation “neo-con” to be a particularly unhelpful analytical framework, both too heavily influenced by recent political rhetoric and prone to use as a shorthand masking too many anchored and unexamined assumptions; the piece does offer some value in summarizing a set of arguments of the contemporaneous back and forth of Soviet analysis that is rarely well captured in modern study. Also quite interestingly, whatever one’s take on the issues themselves, the discussion does illustrate the impact of the academic and privatized intelligence tradition on key community history, influenced which are too often overlooked and thus all too rarely taught.

We also note the very differing perspectives on the first exercise of alternative analysis, the famous Team B studies, to other views about the experiment referenced by Former Spook over at In From the Cold. It’s an old stalking horse of the intelligence academia, and in our opinion, too much of the subsequent debate over these cases has been influenced by contemporaneous political maneuvering intended to protect a government monopoly on intelligence in the face of a unique privatization challenge. We note that alternative analysis has now been enshrined into community practice – thus the lessons of the original competitive analysis exercise could not have been nearly so negative as many subsequent commentators would insist, whatever one might believe about the relative estimative accuracy of each team’s conclusions. Tradecraft may well be advanced by even imperfect experimentation, so long as methodologies are refined in subsequent iteration.

We also wish to thank Non Partisan Pundit for the kind words in the comment thread, and hope we may continue to strive to earn the appellation “not only well written and informative, but it's also refreshingly free of politics.” An intelligence practitioner is always intended to be professionally apolitical – a fact that we believe is not stressed nearly enough to the younger generation in an environment of highly politicized media, and the ongoing football between the Hill and the Administration (and back again). We see not only the ethical obligations inherent in this requirement, but also the practical benefits to the apolitical approach, as exemplified in Tetlock’s research into expert judgment, best approached through his recent work cast in Berlin’s metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog. We also look forward to the Pundit’s further examination of intelligence studies issues, such as the discussion of the effect of “yes men” within closed regimes.

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14 December 2007

Filling those iPods, intelligence edition (part II)

It’s time again to revisit the playlists as we head into the holidays, spending longer and longer in traffic – or taking those long trips to family and friends in the flyover country or other unknown places outside of the Beltway. We received such strong positive feedback on our first set of resource pointers that we believe our readers might enjoy another set of a few of our favourites. And after all, we all do have to do our bit to contribute to the exaflood's use of bandwidth.

Not all of the links we point out are easily captured in podcast form. Some require a bit of digital witchery to transform into something useable on the road. However, given the dearth of material of interest to the intelligence professional, we think that it is often worth the effort to get some of this material into portable form. And of course, for those unwilling or unable to spend the time (even if it becomes an automated background processing task with only a little experience), there is always the holiday need for some background listening that isn’t the same inevitable themed music that has been playing since Thanksgiving when assembling decorations, toys, and other tasks which engage the hands but not the mind.

  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center podcasts – For those working homeland security or law enforcement intelligence accounts, the Legal Division at FLETC has prepared an excellent series of podcasts of their lectures on a diverse set of issues including search and seizure, FISA, GPS tracking, covert entry warrants, military cases, and the use of force continuum. (Helpfully pointed out by the conspirators at Volokh).
  • Center for Strategic and International Studies events – The well known think tank offers audio and video from a number of its recent forums, including presentations by some very interesting foreign speakers as well as round table discussions across the spectrum of global issues.
  • Centre for Counterintelligence & Security Studies – These podcasts run the full gamut from short promotional pieces pitching this organization’s classes to longer interviews of notable names, along with some whimsy in the discussion of fiction. We highly recommend the speech given by the Soviet-era defector Yuri Nosenko – it is a quite fascinating look into the thinking of the KGB’s 2nd Chief Directorate, along with the troubled history of a few famous cases, including the speakers’ own treatment by James Jesus Angelton.
  • National Institutes of Health videocasts – The NIH is one of those frequently overlooked repositories of exceptionally valuable expertise and learning that intelligence professionals would be well advised to tap into. They offer a number of medically related lectures and courses which have great utility to those serving homeland security, counterproliferation, or counterterrorism accounts (in addition to items of interest to the medical intelligence professionals out there.)

We have also been remiss in not previously mentioning the rather quite recent entry to the blogging scene of one of Mercyhurst College’s intelligence studies professors at the Sources and Methods blog. Among other posts, the gentleman mentions a list of useful Library of Congress webcasts that may be of interest, covering a good range of topics.

We do hope these help our readers to more enjoyably pass the time spent in holiday gridlock or escaping the Beltway, since we doubt that we shall be offering any podcasts of our own any time in the foreseeable future.


13 December 2007

SIGINT in the exaflood environment

There has been a lot of talk recently regarding the implications of the rising rate of data exchange for policy issues such as network neutrality and broadband penetration. The term exaflood - coined by one particularly lobbying group - is apt enough, even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with their proposed solution approaches.

There has been however little discussion of the implications of this expansion for the intelligence community – at least in public and academic circles. The current debate is too much caught up in the things of lawyers and politicians, wrangling continuously over legislation drafted when networks were switched by telephone system hardware and connectivity not much different from the transoceanic telegraph systems of a century previously. Those are questions of whether or not the US should even be engaged in such activities, and are far too closely reminiscent of the short-sighted political decisions which resulted in the closure of the Black Chamber – with the potential for equally devastating consequences.

Traditional SIGINT techniques – even within the relatively new realm of digital network intelligence – are the products of an earlier era, in which the target set and its emanations were distinct enough from its environment to be amenable to capture and analysis using a certain degree of discrimination. The kinds of intelligence that will be required against the adversaries of tomorrow will be increasingly less able to rely on the traditional tradecraft which is undergirded by such assumptions.

We do agree with the statement, frequently attributed to former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis & Production Mark Lowenthal, to the effect that “there is no such thing as information overload, only poor analytical strategies.” However, the exaflood will challenge both collection and analytical strategies such as never before. Against this backdrop, we look to the continuing infrastructure, language, and human resources challenges faced by those in this section of the community, and greatly wonder if our future community will be adequate to the task.

This is an intelligence challenge that goes far beyond the classic view of conversations that is implied with the COMINT model. Critical value will be found in the relationship and intentionality of information within the digital deluge as much as the actual items itself. One need only look to the importance of identifying individuals in video and photo, such as VOA Iran scandal or the as yet unresolved counterintelligence questions surrounding the relatives of Nada Prouty, for a glimpse of the future impact of such changes on the way the community does business.

Short of some unexpected development in artificial intelligence which will allow for a weakly-godlike appreciation of this overwhelming mass of largely undifferentiated packets, new approaches will be desperately needed. One can only get so far with human-centered processing strategies (at least without introducing a much large pool of vetted practitioners in a Mechanical Turk like system.) And we will still face the essential limitations of time – the time needed to immerse, incubation, and cultivate a longer term appreciation of the narrow windows into complex issues SIGINT will provide, even in the new environment.

It is our contention that the native competency of intelligence in the cyber environment has yet to be recognized. The nature of cyber intelligence in its mature form will have shifted so far from its roots in the SIGINT and even OSINT disciplines that it may well be unrecognizable to the practitioners of today (no matter how complex the Large Scale Internet Exploitation System or how many dark web projects are built for OSINT purposes).

We do not yet know what the new discipline will look like, nor how it will ultimately be shaped. But we are very interested to observe its evolution, and are privileged to be present at its creation.

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12 December 2007

Riding the coffin

We have been taken to task recently by several of our close friends on the sharper side of the profession for focusing too much as of late on the analytical and privatized segments of the field. While we are the first to note that it is far harder to write in the public forum regarding the darker aspects of the intelligence professional’s world, we have indeed been less focused on those rare opportunities which might serve to inspire discussion and debate regarding the history and future of the operational house.

Thus we are pleased to note, via Aviation Week’s Ares blog, the following glimpse of the future of covert insertion techniques that would no doubt make even an OSS or SOE veteran wince. It enters the public sphere tucked away in a longer discussion of future warfighting concepts.

“The spookily labeled Coffin In The Sky (CITS) concept was a result of Northrop Grumman's engineers talking to SOF operators. The bomber would carry up to 12 modified Conventional Air Launched Cruise Missile (CALCM) weapons, each fitted with a pressurized life-support container for one person. After launch, the missiles would fly deep into hostile territory, pop the containers open and release the operators for a HAHO (high altitude, high opening) parachute descent.”

Any piece of equipment named the “coffin” does not exactly inspire confidence, and reminds us of the old expression from the first days of discussing the probabilities of success of early orbital recovery systems – “NASA odds”.

What amazes us is not that the oddity of the concept, but rather the fact that is now a rational part of military futures exercises. This was once the stuff of pure science fiction – and as always, the jester’s at the table forecast it more accurately than the think tanks. The concept joins a rapidly growing list of successful predictions by author Bruce Sterling – who foresaw something very closely akin to the technique, including the consequences of a failed landing, in his short story Taklamakan. (Among his many other insights were the use of armed UAV’s for selective assassination and the rise of Islamic insurgency as a defining problem in Africa – envisioned in the 1980s’, no less.)

We have in our time done a lot of dangerous - and some might even say, foolish - things on the way into, and out of, some very bad places in the world. While we are not eager to repeat them unless absolutely required in pursuit of the mission, this new concept sounds at least as safe as riding in a taxi in some parts of the disconnected Gap, and certainly about as comfortable as the Fulton skyhook….

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11 December 2007

Understanding the village

The following piece from Marginal Revolution catches our attention as yet another example of the growing utility of interdisciplinary approaches to those aspects of the intelligence that have not been traditionally served by the national and technical collection apparatus.

The tool is strikingly simple – a piece of software designed to ease data collection and processing burdens for studying epidemics in developing nations. The package will run on common mobile phone platforms, typically ubiquitous in such environments – or otherwise exceptionally cheap to obtain and circulate. Strategic communication branding, anyone?

The potential applications however go far beyond epidemiology – or even other aspects of medical intelligence. We can immediately see a use for such a tool in a number of information operations, civil affairs, and cultural intelligence settings – not to mention any of the political intelligence activities that require survey information. Less obvious mechanisms for overt human derived reporting also suggest themselves, given a degree of preparation and planning.

There are distinct limitations to what might be accomplished using this approach, but with those limitations in mind it is quite possible to develop new and innovative collection programs leveraging this capability against the kinds of questions it may suitably answer. This is precisely the kind of experimentation – and extensible designs – that ought to be coming out of the intelligence studies academia, in support of forward deployed intelligence professionals.

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10 December 2007

Once and future NIE’s on space programs

One of the great benefits to intelligence scholars in recent years has been the great number of declassified documents released from the archives, carrying significant – if often obscure – historical value. We speak not of the too common game that attempts to use such releases to catch out some supposed error of process or embarrassment of policy from decades past, revived into the current political debate. We feel such shallow attempts serve only to discredit too much of what real history can be pursued using these unique primary documents. Unfortunately, too many of those now writing on intelligence are not interested in history or tradecraft, but rather sensationalism and agenda. Despite this unhelpful trend, there are many fascinating elements to be found in the old documents for those truly interested in the study of intelligence.

Among these items, we often find surprising parallels that help to instruct perspectives on current situations through the examples of the craft of an earlier time. Our case study today comes out of our continuing interest in the development of non-state space programs, and the intelligence challenges and opportunities that these programs represent.

We note the recent news that low cost private space launch will feature prominently in the international scene during 2008 with new initiatives by a major corporate player. The news itself is interesting for those grappling the questions of assured orbital access and space control – something that the industry investment analysts are no doubt covering to a far more comprehensive degree than the intelligence community itself at this point. (After all, even NASA is seeking to leverage private sector capabilities in this area.)

Yet historical synchronicity comes when one reflects upon the older (and now declassified) National Intelligence Estimates discussing the Soviet space programs of the earliest generations in the 1960's, through the late stages of the Cold War in the 1980’s. (Many of these products may be found at the Federation of American Scientists site.)

One cannot help but be struck by a sense of having seen this before, in slight variation. While any estimate of current and future commercial space operations would certainly not be in itself a threat assessment, the framework from which most analysts would begin to approach the questions of dual use and non-state capabilities begins to hint at the what might emerge in the long out years given the inevitable involvement of other, less reputable firms as the industry matures and barriers to entry decrease. We think such an assessment – from a notional futures scenario perspective – would make for an excellent student exercise aimed at encouraging more creative, imaginative, and strategic intelligence analysis.

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05 December 2007

The students which endure in the cold

The expansion of the intelligence studies field as an academic discipline in a number of institutions around the country has not been an easy endeavor. Even in the post 9/11 world, facing the hard realities of the Long War, there remains the stubborn and reflexively anti-government radicalism of many entrenched faculty and their indoctrinated followers in the student Mobb.

We know the phenomena well, having faced first hand the protests against even the most scholarly of historical educational activities – often nominally driven by issues so far removed from the real activities of the intelligence community as to be the stuff of tinfoil hat madness (and we might uncharitably say, laudanum or analogous substances frequently consumed in the dorms of many schools). But we have recently been encouraged by the increasing mainstreaming of the profession – and the continued honorable and upstanding conduct of the students which seek to pursue its study. Thus we frankly had allowed ourselves to forget the open hostility which many students must continually endure in order to continue their chosen course of intellectual inquiry.

A recent editorial in the Mercyhurst College student newspaper has given cause to remember this unthinking rejection of an entire field, out of the dictates of a politicized worldview distinctly at odds with collegiate ideals of intellectual freedom. An otherwise entirely unremarkable student writer chose to give written voice to what is likely quite literally a sophomoric argument under the guise of examining whether an intelligence program “belongs” at the school – though unfortunately an argument also heard frequently from some faculty at the institution itself. To the College’s shame, a program which has brought record enrollment and outside funding into what otherwise would be a small, failing and scandal plagued liberal arts school in a decaying industrial town, remains both literally and figuratively out in the cold. It is unsurprising then – though still disheartening - that so many of the recent developments in the intelligence studies academia have bypassed the first civilian university to enter the field more than a decade ago.

But we also note the overwhelming response by a far more articulate – and accomplished – group of intelligence studies alumni and current students in correspondence with the Merciad. (UPDATE: We note regrettably that these some dozen letters or so at the previous link have now been removed from the paper's website.) Perhaps one might have reminded the original piece’s author that while the freedom of expression and the press are among fundamental right of the democratic society that these students have dedicated themselves to protecting, these are not a grant of immunity from criticism and response – especially when debating with individuals that also buy their pixels by the barrel. If nothing else, it is fascinating to see the numbers of successful students that can now speak from their experiences in the program. They as a group – engaged, outgoing, and openly able to cite their contributions to both the community and to society as a whole – are a far cry from the few quiet individuals, tucked away in unacknowledged intellectual labour at all hours of the day and night, that characterized the program in years past.

And if the institution cannot address the problems of its narrow-minded and anti-intellectual culture, perhaps it will find that student body, alumni contributions, and research funding departing for far more hospitable climes (in both the scholarly and meteorological sense) of the educational alternatives that are now developing elsewhere. Then one might well consider the question of what best “belongs” on that excellent piece of real estate up on the hill.

But it is still worth sparing a thought – and kind word - for the hard working young intelligence students which must constantly struggle in the face of this kind of sentiment – and in the face of very real consequences to their grades (and levels of personal stress), at a time when they are fighting to break into one of the most demanding and elite of professions. The program might not today have the same brutal attrition rate of years past, but it is by no means a cakewalk - and these kids deserve far better than to be made pawns in political games on campus.

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04 December 2007

Breaking the barrier between the academics and the practitioners

We note the following from Harvard, via the folks at Volokh, regarding efforts to introduce more current practitioners into the faculty of the law school.

“one of the reasons so few practitioners are hired by law schools these days is that very few people with substantial practice experience are actually putting themselves forward for entry-level academic positions. The market has shifted such that a much higher percentage of applicants are coming straight from law school or a fellowship.

Part of this may be due to the difficulty of producing published scholarship while working as a practicing government, nonprofit, or private sector lawyer. "I think that's a shame," said Kagan. "We'd like to see people with more practice experience who also show scholarly potential…”

We could not agree more with these observations when it comes to similar issues the intelligence field. We have seen too much recently of those with little real world experience suddenly holding forth in the halls of institutions which entrust to them those that will become the next generation of the profession. Lacking in-depth target knowledge, substantive understanding of applied analytical tradecraft, and relying on a too short tour (if even that) at a three letter organization or two, the result becomes a sort of punditry entirely divorced from the profession itself. The heart of intelligence scholarship must start with self-reflection, and is adrift when absent a body of personal experience upon which to reflect. It is for the same reason that those with uninteresting lives produce execrable novels – there simply is not enough formative material to work with, no matter how much the would-be author reads of others’ stories.

We know a few recent exceptions, where experienced professionals do indeed accept positions in academia, but generally it is not a welcoming place for those whose credentials are well nigh unrecognizable, except to others likewise in the know. But unfortunately, it is precisely those credentials which are needed most in order to build an independent and rigorous intelligence studies discipline – as opposed to one which is a pale copy of history, political science, or (shudder) even philosophy.

And while we are great fans of knowledge transfer between the generations, the profession needs more than just the war stories of the retired GS’ers attempting to augment their pensions and fill their days. As much as also believe those stories need to be systematically captured and explored for lessons learned, the new face of the community is very much needed in academia. It is a tough thing to accomplish, as the demands of the current craft - especially in the teeth of the Long War – are diametrically opposed to the kind of time and energies that must be devoted to successful education and research. But nonetheless, it is increasingly clear that if the academy is to continue to have relevance, and to produce the kind of education that will successfully shape a new cohort of professionals grounded both in theory and application, it must reintroduce those that actually do intelligence back into the halls where it is discussed.

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03 December 2007

Intelligence in the (proto) UN system

Much as we previously remarked upon the true but too oft forgotten origins of commercial intelligence, we have also recently had occasion to be reminded of the obscure history of another overlooked facet of comparative intelligence traditions.

Throughout the confusion of the 1990’s in the emergence of the new world disorder, the requirements of intelligence in the international system were fiercely debated. Along the way, the naive ideals of too many abstract theorists came to dominate, insisting that organizations such as the United Nations did not need, and should not employ, the activities of intelligence – even when forward deployed in support of contingency and peacekeeping operations. This overly idealistic thinking met bruising reality in the conflicts of the Balkans, and the legacies such as Srebrenica live with us still to this day. The Netherlands Institute of War Documentation’s landmark study was only completed in 2002 – including an examination of intelligence operations and liaison relationships notable for its astounding access to primary Dutch sources (if not perhaps its accuracy in other more speculative areas involving the services and activities of other nations.)

But despite the protests of the modern theorists who would fashion the international community in a softer image, there is indeed nothing alien regarding the idea of intelligence in transnational bodies. The use of intelligence for negotiations between alliances of like-minded states, dealing with countries outside of the normalized system, dates back at least to the diplomacy of the Elizabethan age. The collection and analysis of information in support of a variety of intergovernmental purposes continued unabated, even to inclusion under its overt nomenclature in one of the first transnational deliberative bodies.

Once again, via the newly liberated electronic ghosts of tomes from the deep archives, we note a small but overlooked piece of that historical puzzle. It takes the form of a 1934 volume published by the Economic Intelligence Service of the League of Nations. It is the surviving (and now digitally enduring) member of a publication series begun in 1931, providing basic intelligence on international banking systems worldwide dating back 1913. As typical of economic intelligence reporting of the day, the volume is largely a dry compilation of reference level materials, though its analytical framing is rather sophisticated for its day. Unsurprisingly, source material from the Economist is cited frequently – which will no doubt please those at the Economist Intelligence Service who can now lay claim with stronger evidence to a far older intelligence tradition than is commonly recorded.

A subsequent volume was published in 1935, but the next digitally available volume dates from 1942, for which the Economic Intelligence Service’s Financial Section then director, a monsieur A. Loveday, again penned the introduction - noting the publication changes wrought in post-War volumes. From this we might surmise an interruption in publication – or at the very least, distribution - during the turmoil of the intervening years.

This history casts the debates over the role of intelligence in the UN system during 1990’s in a most unfavorable light. If intelligence was suitable for the rather more mundane applications of economic and commercial consumers during the earliest days of what was arguably an even more idealistic international organization, then the application of the same tradecraft to the preservation of effective peacekeeping options – and the lives of those allegedly under the protection of a UN deployment – should have been far more readily acceptable.

Selective memory and forgotten history can have terrible consequences. We doubt there was ever a more compelling case demonstrating the need for rigorous intelligence scholarship, supported by a robust literature.

This incident also reminds us that it is not enough for academics to claim the distinctions of scholarship – they must also write, in a manner that does not merely rehash old arguments and recycle the same primary source set. New research and the rediscovery of older sources are needed, and the writings which result from these studies must have relevance and reach to influence the world of the practitioner. The field cannot afford disconnected abstractions of no applied merit, nor can it endure to see its history and lessons learned to be lost in the dusty stacks for another generation.

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02 December 2007

Blinded panopticon

Continuing the weekend’s brief examination of the more public aspects of operational tradecraft, we briefly wish to touch upon the growing phenomena of surveillance cameras in the UK.

The Ring of Steel has been heralded as the most significant implementation of ubiquitous imaging in an urban environment ever created. However, its effectiveness for primary anti-crime purposes has been questionable given the continuing increase in all manner of offenses, against the backdrop of an ever less engaged policing strategy and an increasingly dysfunctional justice system.

Nonetheless, such as system creates clear difficulties to clandestine operations in London and environs – as do less sophisticated implementations throughout Europe. But it is these program’s lesser cousins that draw our attention now – the automatic speed camera, as they have apparently also drawn the attention of less than happy local residents.

The revenue generation purposes of speed cameras and red light cameras have been debated against their efficacy in reducing traffic accidents and fatalities. However, there is definitely something highly intrusive in the state’s constant, automated presence in even the remotest parts of the countryside. This has clearly produced a significant reaction, as documented in a number of attacks designed to disable these surveillance systems.

We find it even more significant that the most effective attack is apparently a variant of necklacing, in which a subject is imprisoned within a tire doused in gasoline and set aflame. The tactic was most famously applied to human victims in South Africa and Haiti, particularly in cases where the individual was suspected of informing to authorities.

We would venture to guess that there is a psychological message here, above and beyond the practical considerations of effective TTP for attacking such installations. No doubt we will see other attacks against future autonomous capabilities also modeled on such resonant histories. (Perhaps this is an area to be further explored through efforts such as Mountainrunner’s research into the psychological impact of unmanned systems in the battlespace.)

There are also lessons here for any designer (or collection manager) responsible for large scale imaging (or biometric) installations, particularly for counterinsurgency applications and other situations where the communities under observation may share cultural commonalities to such reactions – and especially if a mediated reinforcement mechanism is developed to popularize and celebrate the results of successful attacks.

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01 December 2007


On a lighter note for the weekend, for those that haven’t yet read William Gibson’s Spook Country, one of the key plot points of the novel is a fascinatingly abstracted variant of operational tradecraft the author calls systema, the bastard hybrid of Cuban, Vietnamese, and Russian intelligence training filtered through the unique lens of a transnational organized crime family.

One of the more interesting aspects of the systema protocol is the incorporation of urban free-running techniques. This is the second time in recent intelligence fiction that free-running has been featured prominently, following on the heels of the Bond film franchise’s return to the harder edged roots of the original novel’s style in Casino Royale, which included a scene involving the pursuit of a suspected IED expert making extensive use of some very cinematic free-running.

Of course, one can question the utility of the sport in practical application, given the requirement to carry certain kinds of equipment in most forward deployed operating environments that seems to be quite at odds with the typical dress of most free-runners. And unfortunately, it is the kind of training that only really mastered by those with a lot of time, and very little to lose (and therefore concurrently little fear of serious injury resulting from poorly judged movements). It would be very hard, we should think, to justify the kind of medical leave rate that such training would impose on a typical rotation.

Practical or not, one could see situational applications for the skillset. Perhaps it is one of the things that could be introduced at the university level for those wishing to enter the profession, as such students typically have the required free time and disregard for their own mortality their older counterparts may lack (though we have no idea how the liability problems would be resolved). It would certainly add a degree of unique differentiation to a resume for those seeking the operator’s path, even if it is only seen as another variant of sport by the recruiters (in much the same way that mastery of martial arts skills are viewed). We know we would have loved to have had a few practitioners along at certain points in our own operational history – even if only as a confidence technique during the instruction of indigenous forces.

Either way, it remains a thing of awe to watch. Via the author’s own blog, he points to a demonstration of “heavy systema”, featuring an excellent Russian practitioner of Parkour in the decaying concrete ruins of the post-Soviet environment.

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