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24 August 2007

The literature of intelligence and the changing face of academic literature

One of the critical drivers of our Imperative has long been the need for a (better) intelligence literature. We have been sorely disappointed by too many years of attempts to rehash the old tired refrains of the debates that were outdated and overtaken by events long before the world changed and the Long War was joined in earnest. And for all the growth in the number of academic institutions and privatized intelligence shops, we have seen precious little in the way of innovation in the literature. (In part, this is excusable given the innovation which is occurring at the sharp end – and the lack of time and energy to write about them available to those practitioners which are fully engaged in the fight. But this is unforgivable in the academy and in the rear echelons… and note we do not define those solely on geographic terms.)

The stagnation of the field’s intellectual exchange and discourse is in no small part due to the lack of evolution in the major institutions of the literature to keep pace with the times. While some very good papers get written and published, they are few and far between in the major journals traditionally associated with the field. There have been even fewer new publications introduced into the field, despite a scattering of research across a dozen interdisciplinary outlets which clearly indicates a need for a larger publishing base – especially outside of the classified world. (And as much as we love Studies and Tradecraft Review, these august tomes offer very few opportunities to tap into the insights which might be offered by outside contributors. But then again, that was not their original mission, and it would be unfair to criticize a well honed tool such as a scalpel for failing to perform as a hammer…). The major presses in the academic world are too bound up in issues of copyrights and the slow, slow publication processes of yesteryear to effectively transform the literature.

We thus take great interest in the changes which are currently sweeping the academic literature in other fields. Among such changes have been the moves towards open access publishing, as well as the increasing proliferation of non-traditional alternatives for distribution and reputation-based evaluation.

We thus note an interesting concept of “fantasy” journals which was floated in economic circles (along with ideas for other incentives to encourage the growth of that field’s literature.) It is a most interesting idea, which could be rapidly implemented for the intelligence literature, and seems to offer good benefits towards encouraging readership of key papers among the less connected, busier, or newer members of the community which have not traditionally seen the consumption of this literature, let alone the participation in it, as a career priority.

This also brings us also to the idea of a virtual journal, which we have seen floated from time to time. We find it incredibly significant that among the most influential military publications of the day is the entirely virtual Small Wars Journal, which itself must grapple with many of the same tensions of operational security, publication review, and attribution issues that many have claimed would doom such an open publication effort. Yet SWJ successfully offers an appropriate forum for what are among the best writings by the leading thinkers in the counterinsurgency, peacekeeping, and stability / support operations domain. There is little reason to believe that a virtual journal for the intelligence literature would fare worse.

We anticipate the development of such an effort in the very near future. Prospective contributors are welcome to contact us for further details in advance of the initial call for papers.

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23 August 2007

Body shops and the salt mines of the intelligence industry

One of the most pervasive problems in retaining talents and experience intelligence professions is the terrible consequences of dysfunctional HR and line management processes. We have discussed many times the symptoms of these issues previously, especially as they relate to the unique geographic, economic, and social milieu of the greater Washington DC metro area.

Many of these symptoms stem from the same underlying cause – the inappropriate perception of analysis activities within the “business” of the intelligence enterprise. Too often, the increasing push towards layers of middle management and houses ever more fines divided into “highly polished cylinders of excellence” has led to the perception that the first line of analytic production is simply a routine thing that is the inevitable result of assembling junior staff into co-located spaces in some Taylorite fantasy of efficiency and output. The black box of complex knowledge work is not easy to represent in most organograms and process charts, so it is often simply ignored or taken for granted. Thus, there has been a creeping in of far too industrialized a set of metaphors into the lexicon of the cottage industry of intelligence reform and transformation studies. The end result of this choice of the wrong model is a mismatch between working level perceptions, desires, and ultimately morale on the one hand – and on the other, the policies, priorities, and effectiveness of most management.

The business of intelligence is, and will remain, a craft profession. It is distinctly not amenable to industrialization in classic bureaucratic models, and it is most effective when its informal guilds are encouraged to grow organically through the mentoring of younger members in an apprenticeship and journeyman fashion, honed within a common culture and shared sense of community.

In the contemporary intelligence environment, we fear too much of these key dynamics are not only being lost through inattention and misunderstanding, but deliberately being destroyed in the service of flawed ideologies of management. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the convulsive evolution of intelligence privatization. We are strong proponents of contracting activities in intelligence, both as a result of our beliefs in the theoretical benefits of a more market-based approach to utilizing scare talent and other resources more effectively, but also from our personal experiences seeing the flexibility, initiative, and inter-disciplinary / cross-domain benefits brought by the private sector to the intelligence community’s problem space.

Yet the current manner in which intelligence privatization is managed often illustrates the deeper problems which occur when the profession’s craft nature is ignored. We have seen too many contracting shops in which intelligence professionals – particularly those in the analyst, watchstander, and operational roles – fall under structures developed originally for engineering, software development, or even physical services functions. The disconnects that arise in such cases are rarely more clear cut anywhere else in the community. Thus we see a troubling trends in the increasing number of body shops, in which a clearance and a heartbeat are the only pre-requisites for entry, and success is not measured by the quality of the effort but by how many billets (and at what margin) the PM can staff - and the government client manager can command to grow their own personal fiefdom and institutional rice bowl. The line professionals – those that actually are engaged in the art & science itself – are physically sequestered and culturally disconnected at a client site, isolated in practice from corporate structures who do not share their world or even understand day to day struggles and ongoing concerns. The limited contact with higher echelons that does infrequently occur is all too often not a good occasion: contract changes, irrelevant managerial blather, or feel good boosterism that does nothing to speak to the working lives of those at the coal face and does even less to help their morale.

It is not surprising that such shops face staggering turn-over and declining brand images within a closely knit community comprised in no small measure of professional with prior experience cutting across a number of shops. Many corporate entities are almost entirely unaware of these effects, as they occur not in the shiny offices of a Tyson’s business park but in the back halls of some SCIF floor a “remote” client sites. Such shops often cannot conceive of an alternative, let alone understand how their turnover costs them more than the time a billet is unfilled (or that HR must spend to find a new candidate.) These kinds of shops do not grasp the nature of intellectual capital – and indeed, much of what they rely on in the first place to drive their business came not from the cultivation of their staff but was purchased in the form of prior service employees.

Not all shops in the private sector are so short-sighted, just as many government sections too often share the same flaws and worse. Good shops are becoming increasingly easy to distinguish from the bad ones. Good shops are the ones with senior management frequently on-site, and not just for business development or to watch over the shoulders of their staffers. They are the shops whose authority has been devolved from the unreachable heights of some corporate hierarchy vertical to a flattened structure within easy reach of the line. They maintain robust communities of interest, tying together professionals in billets across contracts and clients, and even outside of their firms. Good shops are the ones in which ongoing training and education is not only available but actively encouraged – and which provide internal and functional alternatives to key government schools which are all too frequently closed to contractors (even if they are staffed but contract instructors, and teach blue badgers with identical jobs as their green badge counterparts.) Most critically, these are the shops in which advancement in the profession is not divorced from advancement in the firm, as is the case for many of knowledge workers with specialized key skills and abilities.

For its part, the government side of the contracting equation must do more to encourage good shops by finding and rewarding these strategies when awarding new work. The IC must provide more opportunities to its contract workforce to pursue their own cultivation – including opening previously locked professional development pathways, even if it means a dramatic expansion in the school houses will be required. The self defeating but ever more common dynamics of treating contractors as second class citizens, seen as necessary but barely tolerated evils, has to end. This also means an end to the too easy attempts at the politicization of privatization as an issue every time a new contract award comes up, or a new study is crafted. Given the percentages of contractors in the community, and the key role they play in major programs (especially in comparison to the kinds of tasks that government assignments often entail), if the IC cannot re-conceptualize itself in a manner that includes such a large part of its contributors, it cannot sustain or grow itself as an institution.

And in turn, if contracting shops cannot re-invent themselves - no matter that origins or culture of their parent company – into agile, knowledge based and analyst/operator centric organizations, they will be unable to survive in the intelligence market over the long term. The IC as a marketplace will not be just another few quarters, but rather decade of change under unique dynamics at the close of a historical epoch and the birth of its successor. Only those shops which can come to terms with this, in a strategic and futures oriented perspective, will survive the shakeups which are most surely coming down the difficult roads which lie ahead.

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22 August 2007

Piercing the mystique of the quant

Continuing our focus on the sudden and poorly considered thrust towards excessively quantitative approaches to analytical tradecraft, we note the following fascinating Economist story of the tumultuous effects this trend within the hedge fund industry. The financial markets are a fascinating leading edge indicator when looking at pure analysis issues, as they are a microcosm of some of the problems and the potential solutions that the intelligence community faces. They also react faster, and provide more learning cases as a result, than the community ever will.

The fact that reliance on these quantitative models appears to be driving losses at Goldman Sachs, Renaissance, and other firms on the Street is fascinating example of both what quant analysis does right and where it goes terribly wrong. Quant models, done well, can generate predictive insights by reacting faster and scanning more comprehensively through very large volumes of raw incoming data – a critical thing in markets which shift profoundly within minutes based on extremely complex conditions and a very diffuse range of information flows. But when the underlying assumptions of these models are breach– usually related to the way in which they were constructed to view the markets – they become dangerously less accurate than human driven analysis.

Note that this occurs within the relatively bounded confines of the market exchange, where inherently quantitative data is readily available – valuation, trading volume, momentum, and velocity. These are hard numbers based on economic events, and it is no surprise therefore that cryptanalysts have made a home working with them.

How much more dangerous then are these models when the underlying numbers are arbitrarily derived as a polite fiction attempting to describe with false precision the difficult shades of uncertainty, confidence, and complexity within the shadowed world of intelligence accounts?

As Zenpundit warns, we must be distinctly wary of “…the hasty selection of particular, reductionist analytical tools that a priori blind us to the nature of the emergent unknown that we are trying to understand.” We must deliberately penetrate the veils which both SME’s and methodologists alike have attempted to draw around their work, and look with clear eyes upon what is we are “as we may think”, and as we face a world without the shield of mystique.

21 August 2007

Warning in Africa

One of the most difficult factors in the current political – media environment is the difficulty in effectively communicating warning across the noise of an ever more chaotic and ever less factual policy sphere. Clear indicators regarding the decline of Zimbabwe have been evident for quite a long time, yet only now, as the final hour approaches, do the elites begin to express surprise at the outcome of a brutal government enthralled to discredited economic fantasies in a neglected corner of a poorly illuminated continent.

We have great pity for the warning analysts who are responsible for the “new” ROW (rest of the world) accounts – i.e., anything other than the two primary fronts of the Long War: IZ and AF/PAK. AFRICOM no doubt has its work cut out for it – and somehow, forces will likely have to be found to support a British-led intervention, if only for non-combatant evacuation, once it all comes apart.

Interestingly, however, this will likely present an ideal test case for a purely humanitarian and peacekeeping mission supported largely by a contractor force package. After all, it is cases like this for which Greystone was created, in order to leverage the weight of the US private military sector towards the “lesser included” missions that current force commitments render untenable.
The intelligence side of such a situation would pose quite a challenge, however, even for the best national capabilities. We greatly wonder how much such an unsupported (even if national government led) operation would spur the concurrent development of private intelligence capabilities. After all, it was in the African brushfire wars of the 80’s and 90’s that small private operators demonstrated the effectiveness of even a limited number of moderately capable technical assets, coupled with good HUMINT and robust cultural intelligence. (And yes, we have not forgotten the Burundi exercise of the value of OSINT…. but OSINT alone does not a deployment of the magnitude and nature support, no matter that it will of course be the source of first resort.)

Ah, to be a fly on the wall in their operations center briefings on this crisis… we hope dearly that an intrepid young intelligence officer will have the presence of mind to document the evolution of a private deployment of this nature for the future literature, once the day (whether in Africa or elsewhere) has safely passed into history.

Irony is perhaps also too mild a word if the Zim people should owe their best chances for future stability and reconstruction to the modern international mercenary corps., given the long history of private military options in that sad country. We certainly doubt that any African or UN peacekeeping operation could provide them with anywhere near the same assurances of a good outcome.

h/t Captain's Quarters, related at Coming Anarchy

Also, don't miss the definitive review of AFRICOM at the Small Wars Journal blog

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20 August 2007

The need for an intelligence crucible

We have long emphasized the vital need, in the education and training of new intelligence analysts and operators, to replicate as closely as possible the conditions of stress and uncertainty under which they will be forced to perform in the real world. Too often we see bright young things emerge from the academy, exquisitely poised to debate the ever-finer points of language and probability from the comfortable remove of a classroom or library – but who utterly fall apart under the pressure of a crisis situation, or even an unusually aggressive consumer.

We have frequently cited one of the better implementations of such an environment, once upon a time considered the finishing school within a particular institution (but now sadly discontinued due to a change in staff.) The class immediately prior to the student’s capstone / thesis was dedicated to a key national intelligence issue, with a focus on the substantive elements of the account, and the unique applications of analytic tradecraft against the class of target. Each analyst was further assigned a specific segment of the account, again as might be expected in line production environment. The entire class formed a notional joint intelligence task force or joint intelligence operations center, reporting to a notional command structure (the course instructors) and responsible for providing 24/7 intelligence support (including real-time, surge requirements) to a selected group of consumers (course instructors, other cadre, and outside subject matter experts.) The class was among the hardest task facing any student in that program. It however was largely responsible for assuring a level of competence, and of personal confidence, in students which few other learning processes could achieve. As a tradition it should certainly be revived swiftly in its older home – and as an institutional legacy, it should be swiftly emulated by other newer intelligence academic programs.

We are happy to see a perhaps similar form being trialed at the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies in the United Kingdom. Their Brunel Assessment Simulation Exercise, or BASE, is designed to provide a practical simulation of the Joint Intelligence Committee assessment process. The exercise was profiled by one of the Centre’s founders in the Winter 2006 issue of the Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. We are uncertain of how closely the course models the stresses of a real world environment, let alone the complexities of interagency liaison. However, regardless of its degree of fidelity, it is likely a far better adult learning vehicle than any number of dry lectures on the UK’s national intelligence machinery.

We sincerely hope that the new programs being stood up in the intelligence studies field will take a long, hard look at the institution of the Crucible, used so successfully in a variety of applications through the defense, security, and intelligence communities. The benefits of a holistically integrated, cross-disciplinary, high fidelity simulated practicum are too clear to deny, even if somewhat alien to the normally slower pace and more placid practices of the academy. The next generation needs its Hell Week both to test their professional competence and define their fitness and self-confidence to face the unforgiving exam of real world situations in which reputations - and lives - are at risk.

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19 August 2007

The sins of analytic methodologists

We are strong proponents of improving the rigour in intelligence analysis, and have frequently advocated for the better grounding of new analysts (and in-service training) in formal logic, epistemological theory, and structured technique. At the same time, however, we are deeply mindful of the continuing unmet needs for more creative and imaginative analysis, which moves further afield from the narrowly constructed questions of current uncertainties and into the realm of the unknown unknowns.

We are thus deeply troubled to observe a frightening trend in the work of some methodologists attempting to “solve” the problems of analytic rigour through new tradecraft practices. There is an increasingly common conceit that reliance on the analyst - subject to, cognitive bias, information overload, and human fallibility – can be engineered out of the process of doing intelligence. Instead, certain methodologists would substitute organizational structures, workflow re-organization, and the introduction of supposedly superior quantitative metrics in order to create a new standard for “answers”. The underlying thrust of these efforts is to reform intelligence activities towards a more “repeatable” process, often described by industrial or scientific metaphors such “foundry” or “lab”. These typically originate from the engineering and technical intelligence disciplines, and are usually directed as criticism of typical all source efforts – particularly those grounded in social science fields or qualitative methodology. Among the recent examples of these attempts at “standardizing” the process of analysis – with new emphasis on technical and quantitative approaches – is the 2006 DNI Galileo program paper “Predictive Network Centric Intelligence.”

The fundamental flaw in many of these methodologists' efforts is that they are essentially reductionist attempts to force the difficult and oft-times messy art of intelligence entirely into the narrow box of its scientific side. While there is a place for scientific approaches, particularly in the grounding and validation of assessment, the inherently creative, non-linear, and even non-rational elements of the profession can never be completely discarded. Most recent intelligence failures have occurred, not due to a lack of precision in judgment, but from a lack of imagination in identifying, describing, and forecasting the uncertain dynamics and emerging complexities of fast-changing accounts.

Most methodologists are very good at creating shiny and intricate machines for solving puzzles to produce answers of intelligence “fact” – often with great and noteworthy expenditure of time, effort, and resources. However, the community is challenged most today by mysteries, to which there may never be a single set of answers but rather only approximations and options, set against the backdrop of an ever evolving understanding of situations obscured by the fog of war, time/distance, culture, and levels of commitment.

It is also fascinating to note that many of the methodologists reject individual level approaches to solving difficult intelligence problems, preferring instead to focus on the creation of new systems and processes. It is our contention that the analyst will always remain the heart of intelligence insight, and the things that happen inside the human mind are non-replaceable - and frequently non-reproducible – elements that cannot be dissected and pinned neatly for methodological examination. The analysis “bench” will never be deep enough to support the creation of large structures of process in which analysts become interchangeable parts. Analytic tradecraft can provide best practices to help avoid certain fallacies and other mistakes, and can demonstrate cases in which valuable lessons can be learned, but it cannot by itself produce the innovative and imaginative prediction that will help decision-makers address the kinds of challenges they increasingly face.

It is for this reason that we continue to emphasize the importance of the cultivation of the analyst above all else. We would hope that the methodologists would at least consider pursuing research, which rather than seeking to radically restructure the forms of complex intelligence activity that have evolved under brutally Darwinian pressures, will instead support the pursuit of excellence by individuals facing hard challenges in the face of serious consequences. The analytic house neither needs nor particularly wants shiny new puzzle machines – but is desperate for additional tools and techniques which can be called upon to address mysteries in times of crisis, and when other sources of inspiration have run dry.

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18 August 2007

Watching the source of first resort

There has recently been a tremendous amount of movement in the open source intelligence space. The sea change in the information environment, whose earliest glimmer became apparent over a decade ago, has now created tides which now batter the intelligence community in an undeniable fashion.

To our eyes, however, much of the current discussion surrounding open source intelligence is like a drowning man flailing for a life raft. Too many individuals are looking for magic – the idea that information will simply appear, for free, out of the technological changes which have shifted the nature of what it means to do intelligence as an activity. Worse yet, we see a number of organizations frantically scrambling to find a way to re-establish their role as a gatekeeper, and to ensure their centrality in the future intelligence environment.

We thus are uncertain of what to make of the new CSIS report discussing a “Trusted Information Network” for open source intelligence production. We are unabashed proponents of OSINT - having both cut our teeth in its earliest (modern) community iterations, and having long attempted to understand its evolution in the wider context of the privatization of intelligence.

We are also keenly cognizant of the growing importance of public/private partnerships which enable the intelligence community to tap into unique pockets of expertise, particularly for transnational issues and homeland security accounts. The government has for a long time now seen its monopoly on certain subject knowledge eroded to the point that it is barely even able to compete in certain fields. Others were never previously considered a domain in which the intelligence community should maintain competence – until the unanticipated emergence of higher order effects of critical national security import.

We think however the key to getting OSINT right is not the creation of another network of gatekeepers and filters, but rather the deliberate cultivation of catalysts whose interaction with the wider environment will produce strange attractors around which unique new collects and innovative analytic insights will naturally accrete. It is that organic development that we believe will be most critical to developing the kind of OSINT capabilities that can survive in the heavily engaged information environments of the information operations / strategic communications / public diplomacy battlespace. OSINT must contend daily with the problem that as a discipline, it is essentially drinking from a poisoned well.

Turning that tainted water – replete with the corpses of hostile ideologies, the detritus of senescent and irrelevant ideas long past their time, and the constant buzz of noise and falsehood – into a fountain from which analysts and decision-makers may drink will never be an easy task. It will require new forms of tradecraft, and new concepts of organization and activity that will greatly push the boundaries of the wheel and redefine ideas of what the intelligence community will itself be in this new environment.

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13 August 2007

Numbers game

With the increasing proliferation of intelligence studies programs within academia, and the ever growing size of classes within existing intelligence academies, we have begun to ponder in discussion the question of what do with these volumes of new graduates. After all, most academic programs have pursued growth in the inevitable pattern of most fiefdoms (for good or for ill), in order to be able to afford instructors, buildings, and all the interesting toys of the trade. But to what end?

To be sure, there is a significant need for additional intelligence professionals, and the creation of a good analysts and operators is the work of years, perhaps even decades. Those entering as freshman undergraduates will not be in the workforce until four or five years hence, and even then will most likely assume entry level positions. (Although more than a few stellar individuals may emerge to build entire new programs, as we have seen in the past, having worked for years during their time in school.) A decade hence, the majority will most likely be just coming into their own as senior analysts and junior managers.

But as we contemplate this pipeline from the perspective of the community, we seriously question whether the existing clearance system will be able to handle this volume of new, entry level recruits – particularly when they are geographically concentrated in a handful of areas. While the hiring sprees of the post 9/11 period were impressive, the creaking system shows no sign of reform. Given that less than a third of that population will be eligible for clearances in the first place (assuming no change to existing standards), we are looking at a glut of graduates entering the workforce that will not be assuming traditional roles within major agencies.

Of course, new positions within homeland security, at lower clearance standards, have been opening up – particularly in the state and local arena. Likewise, there are a number of non-cleared, intelligence related positions in marketing / business development and other proposal work, technical writing, open source intelligence and media analysis that have been emerging among the contractor shops. The private military companies are another outstanding question mark, for their eventual growth and shape is extremely difficult to predict at the moment.

The corporate world takes its percentage, with the ranks of competitive and business intelligence growing year by year (although constantly in the fight for budget, resources, and management attention in most shops – or in the consultants continual dance.) So too the new roles within corporate security and related critical infrastructure protection, closely tied to homeland security responsibilities but often even more global in perspective. There are even a few consulting roles in that space, for non-combatant and medical evacuation operations, travel intelligence, and political risk analysis.

As we contemplate the shining young faces of this years’ cohort, we greatly wonder if the programs that are taking new students’ money - and given the current costs of higher education, quite a lot of it indeed - are investing enough in the actions required to ensure placement in the field later on. In part, this is a matter of relationship building, most critically with the agencies and contracting shops that can expedite clearances for new hires, across a diverse enough set of offices and locations to be able to absorb the ranks of the freshly graduated. But it will also entail the cultivation of entirely different sorts of employers in the private sector, to take those whose past, or even current inclinations (rather than derogatory records), would have them seek work elsewhere within the field.

We also wonder if these programs will be able to incorporate the development of the kinds of skills these students will need to survive in the private sector (as we have seen more than occasional trouble among those that went directly into the contracting route, let alone a world in which classic tradecraft is adapted to entirely new ends).

In many ways, despite the ongoing demographic revolution within the intelligence community, it is a profession which has forgotten how to incorporate its apprentices. As a craft-based vocation, in which guilds are enshrined and mythos most sacred, it is critically important to bring the new initiates into the fold through a deliberate and considered pathway. This is not to say such efforts can ever be perfect, but all too often we see ad hoc hires, body shop dynamics, and the terrible calculus of immediate billets over-riding the longer term cultivation of the essential next generation.

Let us hope that the new academic programs - and their more established but rapidly growing counterparts - take close heed, and pursue now the long term investment in their programs that will be required to support growing populations of graduates and alumni moving forward.

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12 August 2007

Undiscovered countries

It is telling, we think, that one of the premier authors of speculative fiction has chosen to abandon the search for futures in favour of works chasing, in various ways, the mysteries of the intelligence world. It is perhaps the defining element of our time, the ways in which the hitherto invisible world continues to intersect the common planes of existence – usually with dramatic and difficult consequences.

William Gibson conceived of cyberspace simply by looking at one of the first Apple advertising posters, and wrote of the virtual world on an old typewriter. His most recent work, Spook Country, is not so much a matter of de novo creation but rather the innovative weaving of threads of stories which touch upon the very root of the world in which we work. In a way, should he continue to explore these themes in his work, and eschew the easy answers of existing monologues in favour of his own unique voice, he might just become the voice of a new generation of intelligence literature in fiction – in much the same way that early Le Carré became quietly internalized in the narratives of an earlier generation. (In fact, a former SVR officer we once knew had an entire monologue regarding the works of David Cornwell, but that’s another story…)

We have never cared much for spy novels, nor other elements of such popular fiction. (Our interest in science fiction as the jester at the futurists’ table is a different matter…) But there is something in the better iterations of these works which has long served as a kind of metastructure and mythology for the shared endeavor – something one is full free to never take seriously as a real professional, but is acknowledged as a sort of gateway to attract and captivate young minds on the way to their own understanding of the real profession. For years, the literature of intelligence fiction even provided case studies for use when real cases were not available, allowing the very carefully selected expression of maxims and lessons within an unclassified context. Now, the collected volume of recent history is on the side of those who teach intelligence, with quite a bit of authentic declassified material to support a wide range of instructional cases. And for a long time, the literature of intelligence fiction has trended more and more towards the spectacular, and entirely entertainment focused – perhaps good yarns, but nothing that could be an assigned reading section. We think the profession is long overdue for a change – and very much needs the kind of fiction that can articulate the underpinnings of the intelligence instrument of national power.

We do not yet think Gibson gets there quite yet, but he is well on his way should he desire to pursue such a path. We think what small success he has had in setting forth fictional keystones of the intelligence profession’s ongoing narrative is entirely coincidental and unintentional, but there is great promise in what he might accomplish. After all, it is in the unanticipated interaction of things that the most interesting stories of the Long War are emerging, and he has a knack for capturing the essence of such intersections well. Whether in the systema inherited from the failing days of the DGI, reinterpreted through the lens of an entirely new kind of service, to the expression of rumours of a new kind of surrogate proxy in the far waters of Asia – the author has a distinct knack for envisioning higher order effects.

And it is this kind of speculative imagination that needs to be nurtured, not as the reality of the profession’s days, but in the campfire tales of evening and the dreams of its long if unquiet nights. For far stranger things will emerge to challenge the next generation of intelligence professionals, and it is in the quality of their imagination that they will first stand or fail when facing these new challenges. It is difficult to cultivate the sparks of vision, and far harder to sustain. them If a few pieces of fiction can help along the way, we would be glad to see it.

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10 August 2007

Considering again the very smallest of stuff

We have previously mentioned the key Proteus Insight of Small Stuff. It remains one of the more visionary aspects of that groundbreaking study, and the one in which we have observed quite a bit of movement within the intelligence community. It is difficult to understand new accounts in the community, such as pandemic monitoring and other emerging disease related medical intelligence, alongside the increasing importance of other targets, such as network warfare, absent an overarching strategic framework of concerns.

Smalltech is not only the stuff of futures studies, but rather also serious scientific examination. We note a fascinating piece from the National Academies Press - Nanotechnology for the Intelligence Community. This study concludes in part:

The IC should develop a strategy for exploiting smalltech areas of special promise mentioned in this report...
Search for quasi-commercial technologies.
Develop a methodology for producing non-commercial technologies for use by the IC.
Develop a mechanism for monitoring and supporting enabling technologies for smalltech breakthroughs.
Build up long-term, in-house technical expertise in areas related to smalltech; in the near term, seek expert advice regarding investments in areas of high technical risk or uncertainty.

For those young analysts seeking to find the accounts which will define their careers, one could do much worse than a focus on the Small Stuff. (In our humble opinion, this is likely to be far more useful and actionable an intelligence endeavor than the politicized reaches of climate Wx… particularly when “scientific consensus” continues to avoid peer review.)

UPDATE: Via Instapundit this afternoon comes the following presentation on "Nanotechnology and the Future of Warfare", from the "Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. Interesting presentation and fortuitous timing...

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09 August 2007

Geospatial intelligence standards evolving

The US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation is an interesting effort to address some aspects of the need for further professionalization in the intelligence field. It has chosen to focus on the boundaries of one of the least well understood disciplines within the field, the emerging concept of GEOINT – a melding of IMINT, geospatial analysis and services, and elements of MASINT (which for a very long time have had no overarching home, being essentially programmatic orphans in whatever organization owned the asset.)

The teaching of GEOINT has long been interesting to us, not least due to the increasing importance of commercial overhead imagery sources and commercial off the shelf imagery and geospatial analysis systems within the community. While one often finds ex IC members working in these commercial firms, there are non-overlapping sources of expertise from the scientific and industrial remote sensing world which have great applicability. There are quite a few academic programs which teach remote sensing applications for the extractive, deep sea, and forestry industries; as well as strictly scientific explorations. Many of their graduates do however go on to employment in the darker side of the house, and should not be overlooked.

The following press release from USGIF therefore marks an interesting milestone of sorts.

"USGIF Launches Geospatial Intelligence Certificate Program

Herndon, Va., Aug. 8, 2007 The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) today announced the launch of its Geospatial Intelligence Certificate Program to support the professional education needs of the geospatial intelligence tradecraft. Colleges and universities are encouraged to apply to accredit their geospatial intelligence certificate program based on the criteria developed by USGIF. Applications can be found online at http://www.usgif.org/About_Committees_Academic.aspx.
Applications must be submitted by Oct. 31 for evaluation starting in November or by February 2008 for evaluation in May 2008.

The Foundation’s vision for this Geospatial Intelligence Certificate Program is to uphold an accredited institution to support the professional education needs of the geospatial intelligence tradecraft, said USGIF President and Chairman Stu Shea, thereby assuring a continuance of qualified geospatial intelligence professional to support a critical part of our national security.

The USGIF Geospatial Intelligence Certificate Program will assure that students at accredited colleges and universities are familiarized with a broad set of technical and critical thinking skills, as well as provided with knowledge relevant to entering and fostering a career in the geospatial intelligence profession. The Certificate Program, offered by accredited institutions of higher education, will complement a college degree, support career development and provide professional recognition. USGIF will present students with a geospatial intelligence certificate upon successful completion.

The accreditation panel for the USGIF Academy spent more than a year working to create the program. The USGIF Academy Panel comprised representatives from academia, industry and government to establish curriculum guidelines, accreditation standards and processes for geospatial intelligence academic courses and certificate programs.

This is an exciting new program in the geospatial intelligence community, said Aimee Correnti, USGIF vice president of operations. USGIF is not only contributing to the workforce needs of the future, as expressed by the Labor Department study on the top high growth technology areas, but also is ready to further support our nation’s critical national security mission."

We have long expressed deeply mixed feelings regarding “standards” efforts for the art and science of intelligence analysis - even as we strongly support the development of model intelligence curriculum efforts. On the one hand, we wish to strongly encourage the promulgation of analytic tradecraft and the growth of the literature of intelligence. However, many standards efforts have in the past displayed far too many unpleasant aspects of rent-seeking behaviors, particularly by those who would use the idea of a standard to bludgeon others into an all too narrow range of behavior and assignments.

We would argue that intelligence as a profession has grown and changed far too dramatically since the inception of the Long War to be adequately captured in most standards as they are currently articulated, and that additional changes may well render the any attempted version laid down along the same lines obsolete before the ink is dry on the paper. After all, where does a wiki gardener fit into the “standard” roles of intelligence, or a computer network defense specialist who happens to produce analysis based on forensic examination of malware sit within the hierarchy of production? Current “national models” focused on producing generalist and all source analysts have failed to take into account the mind boggling diversity within the field. And while they are to be commended for attempting to create wider exposure to core analytic tradecraft across accounts and applications, we are deeply suspicious of any effort which claims to be the “standard” for the entire community.

For this reason, though, we think that the USGIF effort has hit upon a unique niche. The GEOINT discipline in particular has been more widely scattered than most, and evolved in a much shorter timeline (given the technology dependent aspects of the collection and analysis mechanisms which define this –INT). Its academia, while in many ways far richer in terms of established programs and publications, share far less of a common understanding of their field than do strict intelligence studies practitioners. And defining a standard for an –INT specific discipline is a far less Herculean task than attempting to weld together the lowest common denominator for all sources and all accounts. It remains to be seen if such an effort is replicable outside of that unique niche for other disciplines and issues.

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07 August 2007

Evaluating judgment

One of the most difficult aspects of the art and science of intelligence is evaluating judgment. To weigh the accuracy of any given forecast requires review after the fact, and in this field there is rarely the closure that allows one to go back to the historical record and call a deterministic score. Doing so in any timely fashion is ever more suspect – after all, the definitive review of Pearl Harbor was not completed until more than 20 years later.

However imperfectly conducted, the task is still a necessary one – particularly when the lessons learned are vital to the conduct of the ongoing Long War. There are dangers in internalizing the wrong lessons, and in fixing too much any particular mental model. But there is equally danger in a lack of self-reflection.

The ongoing press of current operations too often robs us of the chances for such reflection. And what after action analysis does occur is far too often driven by politicization or by attempts at justification, neither of which are at helpful to the practice of the profession.

It is thus pleasant to find occasionally an author whose work on epistemological matters transcends particular political eras and the crisis of the day. Dr. Tetlock is one such writer and researcher, whose work is a must read for all intelligence professionals. He spoke recently at the Long Now Foundation, which has a podcast available (for those of us who don’t have pre-filled iPods handed to us for the commute), even if their summary does not quite reflect the true nature of the discussion (being more of a pitch than an abstract).

Among the more interesting points Dr. Tetlock makes is that good analytical judgment is directly at odds with expressions of confidence. While it is a common maxim as of late to attempt to reduce the caveats normally associated with the language of prediction, his research shows that this is a dangerous fallacy. Writing for intelligence is not Hemmingway’s fiction – complex concepts must be expressed in nuanced terms, and the analyst will do his consumers a disservice if the shades of gray within these issues in favour of a false certainty to ease communication.

He also cites an interesting point regarding the true manner in which the human mind considers estimative probabilities. While the recent trend has been for many researchers and academics to push to greater ranges of strict quantitative expression, the statistical importance of such subtle distinctions are lost in the verbal and quantitative minds of the consumers. There is a good reason why levels of probability and confidence are expressed as they are in the community, and those who would seek to impose change in favour of their own pet theories should be most cautious when doing so. (For one of the better explanations in the open literature, see the declassified key findings from the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which include the section “What We Mean When We Say: An Explanation of Estimative Language.)

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06 August 2007

Consequences of the leak culture

We do not as a matter of discretion comment on individual cases involving alleged incidents of deliberate improper disclosure of classified information. However, we have long been on record as decrying the damnable culture which has driven the leak of so many programs in recent years. Hardly a month passes in which one of our colleagues does not report to the watering hole with a tale of woe, having had a program burned from under them and in the ensuing political maelstrom found themselves no longer able to function effectively. The operational costs are incalculable, and the human costs are very real – one reason the community cannot retain its best and brightest, or even continue to motivate those who stay when they know that all of their efforts can so quickly be rendered for naught with a single press item.

Our hatred of leaks, and leakers, has only grown as the scope and impact of unauthorized disclosures has worsened over recent years. We condemn not merely the media – though they ought to display a greater measure of reluctance when approached by those seeking to involve them (and their publication) in an illegal act; but most resoundingly of all those that would casually break their sacred oath and forsake their duty for some temporary and partisan objective. Programs costing billions of dollars and decades of efforts have been destroyed for the most transient of advantages in the political fight which is the Beltway, and if this continues apace, the intelligence community will slowly go blind without key new capabilities innovation, and in the face of adversary denial and deception efforts.

We greatly wonder, however, if the community will ever be able to impose specific consequences on the leakers (and their enablers within the media) to match the damage done by these illegal and utterly dishonorable acts. The framework within the law (and contractual instruments) is clear and strong, but it is a matter of seeing the investigations and enforcement through. However, with recent allegations surfacing of leaks not only for partisan politics, but involving disclosures to foreign officials, it seems that the potential penalties are insufficient deterrence given the scarcity of their actual application.

Such acts are not whistleblowing, they are not dissent, and they are certainly not “speaking truth to power” as some have suggested. There is no other word for this behavior but treason. It is not made noble by the “calling” of the journalist – indeed, if there were any other organizations engaged in the conspiracy to illegaly obtain classified information for profit on an ongoing basis it would be called racketeering at the very least.

There are additional higher order consequences to the leak culture which directly impacts the intelligence studies field. As the damage mounts, so too does an unwillingness by honorable professionals to discuss even unclassified and historical matters, lest an otherwise innocuous conversation be turned into a media spectacle – as has happened in a number of cases where journalists continue to seek the kinds of sensationalist headlines which they have come to rely on. This will inhibit learning within the profession in areas which might otherwise have been suitable for more public discussion. As proof of this, we have but to witness the explosive growth in categories of SBU designations, systems which are in no small part the reaction to poorly written hit pieces which do not even attempt to understand the difficult issues they seek to publicize to no end but their publications own ratings (and advertising profits).

The strength and success of the community will depend on being able to support the robust learning and growth of the next generation of intelligence professionals – many of which who are now learning their trade first in an unclassified and open source only environment. Just as the next generation of secrets will depend entirely on reversing the course of the leak culture, and preserving the commitment to the silent professionalism of service which may never be acknowledged.

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04 August 2007

Mirror imaging of emerging threats

Private sector intelligence firms face a not inconsiderable challenge in marketing intelligence and security solutions to the corporate audience. Many multinational firms absolutely require robust intelligence support to tackle a wide range of transnational issues, many the very leading edge of emerging threats that will later become major interests for their counterparts in national intelligence organizations. The response within the corporate framework is often fragmented between various elements of the hierarchy, and between various functional areas and business units. The use of external vendors has been on the rise for at least a decade or more, but augmentation often occurs on an ad-hoc basis with little overall strategic perspective. It’s a devilishly difficult thing to get right – putting a new perspective to the arguments of those who complain about the growth in contracting in USG intelligence agencies. Thus, there are only a few variants on the “successful” formula which appeals to the corporate buyer of privatized intelligence and security services.

Recently, one of the information security vendors launched a new marketing campaign which is notable for an unusual display of creativity – not often a characteristic one associated with computer engineering. Hackistan is a fictional national adversary, complete with backstory, internal politics, and a national flag, that has become the vehicle used to pitch their product lines.

At first glance, it’s good for a laugh. And were it not for our personal experiences with particular flavours of Russian and Middle Eastern influenced threats, we might even fight it whimsical. However, the very resonance which makes the campaign successful from a branding perspective also gives us pause upon reflection.

It is not just the corporate sector which is seeking a more easily characterized adversary in a world of rapidly shifting amorphous threats. We have seen too many in even the best intel shops attempt to carve out their own version of branding for targets and issues. Sometimes, these are helpful mental models in the short term, creating better briefings and faster break in periods for new analysts. However, too often they are subtle traps for a whole host of cognitive biases, used to gloss over the difficult to answer uncertainties and the hard gaps. They allow mysteries to be recast into the familiar boundaries of yesterday’s puzzles, and offer the seductive but utterly false promise of understanding to which both good analysts and false prophets alike are inevitable drawn.

We have seen these crutches employed across accounts without regard to their utility – the recasting of the complex discussions of organizational theory around clandestine and covert threat groups into “terrorism, inc.”; or the attempts to simplify the shifting alliances and constant political interchanges between various warlords and chieftains through throw-away references to centuries’ old ethnic and tribal conflicts.

It takes real discipline to separate convenient metaphors from the necessary abstractions of analytical frameworks. It requires constant reminder that the map is not the territory, and that the familiar assumptions of our environments – be they political, military, social/cultural, or economic – may not serve us at all outside of our boundaries. And the future is just another abstract line of demarcation, constantly pressing in against the edge of the battlespace.

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03 August 2007

Backlash against conference season

Former Spook has an interesting item regarding political backlash against the long established tradition of the conference season.

While we are no defender of government waste and abuse, and can list a few dozen conferences which are nothing more than the fig leaf over vacations for senior managers with no real responsibilities of their own, we find ourselves troubled by the implications of this exercise – not of legitimate oversight, but of the continuing game of political “gotcha” that has so bedeviled DOD and the IC in recent years.

At the same time we are attempting to revolutionize both military affairs and the intelligence community through information sharing, and break stovepipes and fiefdoms through collaboration, we are not supposed to spend funds on travel and convention rooms to do it?

To be sure, VTCs have brought us a lot of benefits, as have more persistent collaborative environments such as Groove/Jabber, Intellipedia, and many of the various account specific portals created within the several classified and SBU networks. We have high hopes for similar benefits from virtual worlds such as Second Life. But we have found that collaboration in those environments works best when individuals periodically have a chance to meet face to face, and especially when they can have discussions on informal ground in less than official contexts.

The conference season for has some time been for us a time of renewal, in which we are energized by exposure to other issues and accounts, and through these exchanges find new ways of thinking and new players in the professional space. In many cases, it may be the first time that introductions are made that will later be of immeasurable import in a crisis – because the first time you exchange business cards shouldn’t be during or immediately after a major terrorist attack or other intelligence failure.

We know a number of good young analysts which count on a single conference a year (if they are lucky, and mission requirements do not suddenly interrupt) as a rare chance to get out of the office and meet others, both working similar accounts as well as those in unrelated but intellectually stimulating fields. Several may even use their limited leave time (and personal funds) to attend – or volunteer to perform administrative scut work far beneath their normal responsibilities simply for a chance to be in the room. We have seen firsthand the benefits to moral and productivity that these occasions create, and the damage over time that is caused to shops which do not encourage such interactions.

Frankly, the typical DC venues used in the conference season are one of the primary arguments in favour of the “centralized” community in the greater Metro area. But we have found that we greatly favour the offsites out of town, where other players from dispersed geographies can also come out to play, and where the temptation to head back to the office in the middle of the day to deal with “pressing demands” are reduced – and where participants are more likely to hit the bar after a long day, allowing for far better networking, than to head home and maintain their pockets of splendid isolation.

Nothing good comes for free, but the higher order effects of the conference season are well worth the investment required to bring it about. And after all, cramped economy class seating, less than favourable flight times, sub-economy class rental cars from off brand chains, dingy “government rate” hotel rooms, and a per diem that barely buys a decent steak dinner are hardly the luxuries of say a typical Congressional junket, let alone a normal function in corporate America.

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02 August 2007

Cultural intelligence and the underground economies of the dead

Once upon a lifetime ago, there was a particular course on strategic intelligence analysis that was offered by a contractor (which shall remain nameless, to protect both the guilty and the innocent in the spirit of the Chatham House rule) in a number of USG and foreign government iterations (one of the few to span so many different countries, from the UK, to Sweden, to Australia, and even South Africa.) The primary audience for this course were law enforcement types, usually at the national level (this was also around the time of the first steps of the UK’s National Intelligence Model) – but these were also the halcyon days of the pre-9/11 world, in which matters of crime and disorder were enshrined by PDD-35 as among the top intelligence priorities for the community. Thus the audiences in some offerings tended to be quite a bit more diverse, so to speak, as an entire generation struggled to come to terms with transnational issues.

One of the more memorable exercises from the course involved class groups assigned to develop what essentially amounted to mission management planning for intelligence issues that were far outside of the current mainstream. The point was to get students out of their comfortable headspace and familiar issues and attack problems de novo. This was usually quite an interesting discussion, and although it was biased towards smaller agencies and functions, it was generally worth the time.

One of the unconventional intelligence issues sometimes presented for class discussion was a semi-notional problem set involving the illegal market for human organs. The initial scenario was based on a popular urban legend of the day projected into a futures scenario, but what was most fascinating were the real world events and incidents that were crystallized into an intelligence problem by many of the more imaginative of the students. Far from viewing the scenario in criminal analysis terms, with simple scams and investigative case outcomes, outlines of entire illicit medical structures and market exchange mechanisms that would be required to support organ harvesting activities emerged – touching on insurance fraud, professional and official corruption, pharmaceutical diversion, customs and border control weaknesses, and the very real challenges of collection against non-traditional targets spanning both domestic and international environments.

We are reminded of this exercise by the following item from the Economist, regarding the growing market for “ghost brides” in the PRC. The practice is a fascinating intersection of centuries old belief systems, draconian and disastrous Communist population control policies, and the emerging illicit markets in a country which knows almost no normal market structures in the first place.

The Chinese practice also recalls the Shi’ite tradition of seeking burial near the tomb of Ali in Najaf, Iraq - where it is believed that the rigours of death will be eased and their entrance to Paradise made faster. Since the medieval age, it has been common for bodies to be sent from around the Shia Islamic world for internment in what has become one of the largest necropolises in human history. This difficult terrain embodied entirely new operational challenges for urban combat during the 2004 actions against the Jaish al Madhi of Moqtada al-Sadr. The practice also spawned an entire industry of professional mourners, supported by unique memorial foundations and other funding structures that developed under the atypical constraints of Islamic financial restrictions – structures which to this day represent serious challenges to the financial intelligence community seeking to track and interdict terrorist funding sources.

Under the British Mandate, a Western power previously had cause to reflect upon these Shia burial practices as an intelligence challenge. The transport of corpses from abroad was restricted on the basis of sanitary considerations, with regulations prohibiting the transport of “wet” remains, and requiring that all bodies have been temporarily interred for at least one year before being permitted passage through the border as “dry” remains (with less likelihood of creating certain classes of disease in the wake of their passage). However, the psychological impact of this regulation, particularly on the devout near the seminary city of Qom in Iran, was far more serious than the British would have ever contemplated. A brisk smuggling trade thus emerged, in which the recently dead of the particularly religious would be moved across the border with false documentation, bribery, and a variety of other means of concealment. These smuggling routes exist to this day, some of them no doubt now being used to transport Iranian manufactured EFP IEDs to cells in Iraq.

We can think of few better examples of the kinds of cultural intelligence challenges that will increasingly come to define the hardest issues faced by the community in assessing the developing world, especially when those are mission critical issues encountered in the context of ongoing stability and support operations. It is exceedingly difficult to inculcate the flexible mindsets and analytical tradecraft practices that will be required to meet these challenges in the future, and this is perhaps one of most significant areas in which the intelligence studies academia could offer substantial contributions to the community. But thus far, cultural intelligence and related transnational issues (especially in the information operations realm) have been regrettably too long ignored…

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