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17 March 2008

Considering immunity

While there are those that believe the world of polite conversation and “good faith” in arms control and disarmament can trump the hard realities of proliferation, we see a world in which the technologies required to assemble and deploy a credible threat are increasingly within the reach of the most mundane of non-state actors. While we are rarely given to dwell exclusively on issues of threat, as threat is not always in fact the most interesting aspect of a particular problem account (despite what many outsiders may believe), there are a few areas in which our nightmares are never far from fruition in the hands of the wrong actors.

This is especially true in the areas of emerging biological threats. While we are very much aware of a particular academic effort that examined the matter recently, we found its results disappointing, to say the least, largely because its work focused far too much on an assessment of the present vice a truly predictive and forward looking estimate – one that would help to bound the future space of uncertainties, and would identify the drivers and forces moving on the horizon.

Nonetheless, we continue to see the faint indicators of these forces from time to time. These are best captured not in some formulaic collection of wiki pages dedicated to a highly geographic scope – as if disease somehow respected national borders. Rather, one looks for the trend lines, and those areas in which black swans may emerge without warning as sudden shocks to the unprepared perspective. And while there are those that will insist that a black swan event is inherently unpredictable by nature, we are reminded of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s original formulation of the turkey’s day. The black swan event of meeting the butcher is only a shock to the turkey after a thousand days of being fed and cared for by other humans; it is an entirely normal course of a day’s work for the butcher. Likewise, for those who shift their perspective to the edges where the future is not evenly distributed, there may one find the first seeds of those events sown.

The difficulty of course lies in winnowing the signals of true predictive value from the noise of the overwhelming range of possibilities and potentials. This is fundamentally an insight problem. And the difficulties faced in approaching these problems are the epitome of the danger of treating mysteries as if they were puzzles suited for deterministic approaches and linear solutions that can be tied up neatly in sections and a nice cover page.

We happened to glance today at just such a faint indicator in which the merest hint of future insight might be reflected. It comes to us by way of the scientific community – always fertile ground for an intelligence professional to mine when examining fundamental issues of the physical and the living (as opposed to our more usual domain of the virtual and the dead). We find the development of simple replica immune systems for rapid testing of vaccines quite interesting in its own right, with the prospect of accelerated (and more accurate) clinical trials as the first clear benefit.

But our darker minds also take hold of the concept, and ponder the dual use implications that such a technique might offer in the hands of an adversary seeking to accelerate testing of modified biological agents designed to defeat immune resistance - whether human or otherwise. The footprint of such a facility would not be large, and would pose a very different kind of challenge to the intelligence community of tomorrow than the classic concept of an offensive bioweapons program. Threats abound in most futures that are easily envisioned.

At the same time, the technology presents the potential hope of opportunities not yet conceived. Just the other day before the University of Maryland findings began circulating, we found ourselves listening to an interesting discussion of the value that captive wildlife populations might bring to large scale bio-surveillance programs, both for sentinel warning as well as novel agent detection. The potential for cultivating accelerated immune responses as test models by which we might know the signs of outbreaks through wildlife (or domestic animal) populations is quite intriguing, especially given the other utility brought by captive populations in the urban settings of major zoos.

We ponder this as case study not solely in pursuit of any account in its own right – as that is more properly the domain for the line analyst, but rather as a teaching example. The case illustrates well the difference between intelligence done off a checklist which presumes a puzzle to be assembled from some mythic collection of dots, vice the kinds of implicit linkages that can only be found through creative exploration driven by fruitful obsession. Whether that which has been sketched here has any true value is a matter for the more disciplined application of analytic tradecraft. However, if one is not preparing analysts to begin to find reflections in the endless stir of these echoes that they may seek to later crystallize through more formal methodology, all that they will have to work with will be checklists and formulaic incantations - which alone will not keep the dark at bay.

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