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30 September 2008

Vacant intelligence posts at the start of the financial crisis

One of the benefits of having become a strange attractor in the highly networked world of privatized intelligence is that our little skunkworks is frequently passed notice of vacancies and tenders. For us, this is largely an academic exercise, and we eventually soon to publish our thoughts regarding the trends that we see from this perspective. However, this does offer other additional benefits. Knowing the landscape helps our students, both those entering the profession and those changing shops (especially since most of the major intel studies academic programs have simply not done well in this area – but that is a discussion for another day.)

But occasionally the items that cross our desks are also more directly of interest to ongoing questions of intelligence import than merely the problem of allocating scarce human capital more efficiently across a complex privatized intelligence market. In this case, it is a vacancy notice from late August 2008 for a competitive intelligence professional to serve the senior management at the now failed Washington Mutual bank. We had asked yesterday what kind of intelligence support was provided to the executives of the institution, and have at least a glimpse into their aspirations – if not their reality.

The position appears to have been offered as part of the card services division, which while at first blush seems separated from the questions of real estate solvency that plagued the house, may indeed have been impacted by higher order effects created by the complex instruments through which the institution’s various debts were packaged.

The position vacancy announcement is very typical of its kind in a number of ways. The level for which the billet was positioned is clearly more senior than the typical competitive intelligence role, but very much in line with the recommendations of most consulting professionals who advocate that internal units have direct access to senior management. (Of course, one must weigh the fact that at many banks, nearly every executive is a vice president of some flavour or another, but we have known a few where intelligence is relegated almost entirely to a support function, removed from the executive level entirely). The candidate requirements are accordingly scoped to a somewhat more senior individual than the run of the mill applicant, although one might question the actual effectiveness of an individual with only two years’ management experience in a ten year career in such a role.

The position’s focus on the regulatory and competitive environment would certainly have lent itself to addressing the underpinnings of the current financial crisis, had the shop’s strategic responsibilities been met. However, it is unclear whether such a shop, structured to meet consumer demand from a variety of internal clients and external business partners, could indeed get beyond the inevitable tactical level demands. Much would depend on senior management, and many at these levels are rarely interested in the views of a “strategic partner” but rather a staffer who can compress complexity and provide insight in support of difficult decisions. One also notes that warning is never explicitly identified as a responsibility for the position or its direct reports.

The full text of the vacancy announcement is reproduced below.

Manager I, Market Research, Vice President. Competitive Intelligence Team

At WMCS, the Competitive Intelligence team works collaboratively with the senior leaders across the organization to support their research needs, monitor changes in the regulatory environment, and determine competitive best practices. This key position will develop, create, and communicate the strategy for the Competitive Intelligence team in key areas of interest to WMCS. This role will partner with senior leadership to identify key competitive intelligence requirements, analyze information from different sources, assess the value of these sources, and merge with insight related to WMCS.

RESPONSIBLITIES: The Manager I is responsible for providing regular updates on the changes in the competitive environment and working closely with other functional areas (e.g., Acquisitions, Customer Marketing, Portfolio Management) to meet their research needs. This person will leverage competitive data to identify industry trends and implications to WMCS’s pricing, product constructs, and creative treatments. This person will be responsible for integrating external data and internal business expertise to determine market trends and their implication on WMCS’s strategy and offers. More specifically, this role will assume the following responsibilities:

* Act as a key contributor to the ongoing monthly investment decision process for both New Accounts Acquisitions and Customer Marketing campaigns by providing information on competitive pricing, mail pressure, and offer constructs across our target customer segments
* Build out the vision for the Competitive Intelligence team and oversee all relevant competitive intelligence activities
* Act as a strategic partner to senior management by fulfilling research requests and by proactively identifying key changes in the regulatory and competitive environment and their implications to WMCS
* Provide regular updates on the changes in competitive strategies, mail pressure, offers, and pricing and identify relevant insights for WMCS’s business practices and marketing strategies
* Partner with the Portfolio Management and Customer Marketing teams to benchmark WaMu’s portfolio performance vs. other leading issuers and identify opportunities for improvement
* Serve as the key source for competitive intelligence information for specific products/lines of business at WMCS
* Partner with the senior management team to create reporting infrastructure and executive level dashboards
* Provide regular updates to senior management and/or business partners on the meaning and application of research findings

The successful candidate will possess the following attributes:

* Candidates must have a minimum of 7 to 10 years professional experience in a marketing, analytical or consultative role at a major Credit Card issuer, or at a major consulting firm supporting a major credit card issuer
* Must have demonstrated ability to insightfully set the vision for projects that require the proper mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods
* Must have 2 or more years experience guiding research – market or competitive -- for a significant business line
* Must be able to thrive in a team environment, by contributing expertise as well as soliciting/integrating input from subject matter experts throughout the company.
* Proven ability to simultaneously manage multiple teams of researchers/analysts
* Proven competency with sharing research results at the Sr. Manager and Executive level
* Must have creativity, tenacity and enthusiasm
* Must possess an analytical mind, strong written and oral communication, the ability to work with individuals at all levels, the ability to manage multiple projects
* Excellent project management, leadership, teamwork, communication, and organizational skills
* A Masters degree or higher is preferred, ideally in a social science or a business field
* Proficiency in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

In short, this billet well represented the current state of thinking in the competitive intelligence field. Such a shop could easily have been part of a distributed warning responsibility, which might have had an impact even at such a late date in the crisis had the billet (and its supporting analytic teams) been fully staffed earlier. The question here appears to be at least in part one of execution. We shall leave it to our counterparts in the business, economics, and history academia for the case study of how intelligence flows actually occurred.

However, such a clear alignment with accepted best practices in the field we believe also points back to the failure of the current paradigm. It is not sufficient to relegate warning to a simply structured occasional effort timed to coincide with some window of management attention, or as a “lesser included” responsibility generally considered under the mandate to “provide update on changes” in areas of interest. Warning has to be baked into the intelligence shop’s most basic foundations, alongside opportunity / action analysis. The very nature of warning's tradecraft must also be re-assessed, to revisit once again the process by which scenarios are created and indicators modeled. This is not to cast aside warning as we know it - but rather to revisit warning's earliest implementations, and rebuild its function for a new era.

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29 September 2008

Financial crisis and changing paradigms of warning intelligence

The continually interesting competitive intelligence forum at Ning has surfaced a discussion which has been much on the minds of a variety of intelligence professionals in both the government and private sector given the cascading collapse of a number of major financial institutions: Was this financial crisis a warning failure? And if so, the natural corollary inquires into the cause and origin of the failure.

In our view, these recent events very much represent intelligence surprise. If nothing else, the unexamined higher order effects of complex financial relationships involving vast sums of cross-border capital flows is far outside the traditional realm of political and economic intelligence, at least as it is usually practiced in the government world. And the rapid contagion dynamics within the financial markets prove that the events are likewise beyond the traditional scope of competitive intelligence, where it is rare that analysis takes into account such sweeping changes across the landscape and its players. Whether this surprise truly rates elevation as a Black Swan, as some commentators have suggested, is itself also open to debate.

There is ample evidence that early indicators were visible, and even that many commentators had previously weighed in on the mounting risks and dangerous uncertainties inherent to the increasingly complex layers of traded instruments, derivatives, and debt that lurk at the center of the current crisis. However, warning is a process – not an event. It matters little that in hindsight one can call out the prescient among the punditry and politicians, and cast blame on those that assumed business would continue as normal against the backdrop of ever increasing housing prices. If warning did not reach, or impact, the right decision-makers – as there is mounting evidence that it clearly did not – then the process of warning failed.

But let us examine this more closely for a moment. Who exactly were the right decision-makers in this crisis? The primary lending institutions? The traders and market makers that were the primary players in moving these instruments? The investors, fund managers, and sovereign wealth entities which funneled so much capital into fundamentally unstable market positions? The risk managers at any of these firms, responsible for anticipating the potential downside of complex financial positions? The world’s various central bankers? The regulatory bodies or their political masters in the parliamentary and executive branches?

These are not questions easily answered. There will be anecdotes aplenty regarding the lack of warning communicated to a wide range of these decision-makers. The first that comes to mind is the ill-fated CEO of Washington Mutual, who was allegedly incommunicado aboard a flight while the most significant transactions in the firm’s collapse were being finalized. This mirrors the earlier circumstances of the CEO of Bear Stearns. While a certain level of plausible deniability may be key to these positions, one wonders what kind of intelligence support these executives enjoyed.

Likewise, if warning was to be issued to an identified group of executives, who would have been responsible for giving such warning? Only a scant handful of the firms involved in the recent waves of disruption could be considered to have a dedicated intelligence function. Of these, few were likely oriented towards a warning posture, as opposed to the many other intelligence functions that constitute the duties of privatized shops within modern enterprises. Among the commercial consulting intelligence providers, the problem can easily have been defined by the lack of articulated customer requirements, and the lack of access and expertise that clearly prevented a more sophisticated appreciation of ongoing events. And one can question whether a warning account focused on what was largely a domestic financial market – despite the dramatic international implications – is at all a proper role for the intelligence community (at least in the United States). Certainly, as it is currently structured, it is nearly impossible to address – and no homeland security function has ever envisioned market shocks as a component of critical infrastructure protection. More damningly, the insights which would have unlocked these mysteries were not secrets to be stolen, but lay in perspectives which were never cultivated.

Again, there are likely case studies to be found in the after action reviews of the wreckage. Lehman Brothers, among the first to fall, most famously hired a former Deputy Director for Intelligence out of CIA to head its Sovereign Risk shop. But the structure and focus that geopolitically focused shop appears not to have been relevant to the manner in which the current crisis developed. Given that Bear Stearns itself allegedly was a leader in providing analytical research and other intelligence products to its investors and clients, the dissemination of these products to the executive level is worth exploring from more than an academic perspective. One can likewise point to other intelligence functions on the Street and elsewhere, stovepiped for threat analysis or market research or technology investment.

What few warning shops which may have existed to cover the sector likely followed the dominant paradigm of competitive early warning, focused on their competitors’ actions, positions, technologies and blind spots rather than the wider political and financial situation. The required optic was simply too large for most shops, whose production is typically serialized in daily or weekly form, no matter how strategic they might otherwise claim to be.

In sum, can one then consider this a failure of warning? There are no simple answers, and we certainly believe that this question will be revisited for years to come in future studies of intelligence surprise. The underlying causes are complex, but are clearly rooted – at least in part – in the lack of systematic warning intelligence coverage of the issues. Whether it was the role of warning intelligence shops to cover these issues is open to debate. However, this may be as much the result of the failure of a warning paradigm developed for a time and place now forever changed. One may liken this change to the decreasing relevance of the traditional state based indications and warning model, now replaced by the emerging strategic reconnaissance paradigm being explored at the cutting edge of the tradecraft.

There are also signs that this is far from over, as we move from the weekend into another turbulent week on the Street (and in financial centres around the globe.) While we may arguably have seen a strategic warning failure (or not), there is still ample need for operational and tactical level warning as the crisis continues. This need creates new opportunities for both the rare successes and failures that will make or break firms and fortunes. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult to surge warning assets to these kind of non-traditional accounts in short order – particularly given the scope of the political, regulatory, and other uncertainties which plague the markets. This is a unique time – and a unique problem set – that will task the professionalism of involved intelligence practitioners beyond measure, given the excessively politicized atmosphere surrounding the issues. There are many intelligence professionals now treading virgin ground, far past the last signpost reading “HC SVNT DRACONES”.

We are reminded of Joseph Nye’s comments about that terrible day seven years ago: “September 11, 2001, was like a flash of lightning on a summer evening that displayed an altered landscape, leaving U.S. policymakers and analysts still groping in the dark, still wondering how to understand and respond.” Lightning has struck once again in New York, and again without effective warning. We expect the impact to the intelligence community – particularly the community beyond the traditional wheel of the major agencies – will be in its own way as profound.

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26 September 2008

Commercializing clandestine insertion

The flight over the English Channel by personal jet wing was a sight to behold, and warms our futurist’s hearts. We cannot help but contemplate the uses to which such a technology might be put, especially given the historic resonance of the channel crossing for the earliest members of the community.

The night run into France from 1944 until Normandy carried 523 members of the Jedburgh, Operational Group, SO paramilitary and radio operator sections. In addition, some 5,000 containers of supplies and ammunition would be dropped each month to support these men. By the end of the operation, 18 would be dead, 17 missing or taken prisoner, and 51 wounded or injured.

The ten minute flight would no doubt have been far different if it required navigation by instrument alone in unknown weather, into the teeth of prepared defenses, which at the time consisted of up to 40 Fliegerabwehrkanone AA guns per battery, guided by searchlights and radar units. We have no doubt that a low level flight path and the limited radar cross section of the small personal unit would have helped to limit the enemy’s engagement window, but it certainly puts the concept in an entirely different light. Of course, the jet engine had yet to be perfected – and could never have been so miniaturized; making such thoughts nothing more than idle divergence (as opposed to the more respectable counterfactual analysis).

Today, the same insertion faces a far more robust threat environment. No doubt those four 200lb thrust engines generate quite the infrared signature. We would not wish to be on the receiving end of even a SA-7 MANPAD shot, let alone something more sophisticated than the Strela.

The Swiss exercise also reminds us that most of the significant innovation we have recently seen in these areas have emerged from the private sector. One has only to look to the supply drops being executed in Afghanistan by Blackwater, which happen to also offer significant cost savings over classic Air Force profiles.

We still eagerly await smartwheel equipped all terrain remote supply pods (first predicted by jester Bruce Sterling). But then again, we also have been waiting for cost effective cargo carrying cruise missile for quite some time longer, with little result – although the concept of UAV cargo drop payloads may at last bring that concept to reality. Again, these are commercial innovations from far outside of the classic defense and intelligence space, proof that the kind of creativity needed for these operations will rarely be found in career civil service.

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24 September 2008

Online education and the new literature of intelligence

We have recently become aware of a fledgling new journal that will offer its own contributions to the literature of intelligence, sponsored by Henley-Putnam University. This institution is one of the newer of the online intelligence studies programs currently growing to fill the gap in traditional university offerings. The new journal’s inaugural issue is to address “The Future of Intelligence Education”, a timely and relevant subject of great interest to ourselves – and we are certain, many of our readers. We look forward to its forthcoming publication.

It is fitting that this topic should be addressed by one of the newer distributed online programs. Virtual education has for too long been an ignored but game changing force in the professionalization of intelligence. The most significant of these efforts is without a doubt the unique Joint Intelligence Virtual University, but JIVU lacks the key outcome of credentialing (and is largely invisible to those outside of the core IC). We have long been aware of the other major such effort, American Military University, whose program relies heavily upon instructors formerly of the Joint Military Intelligence College (now National Defense Intelligence College). We confess a greater degree of familiarity with those efforts, if only due to their longer histories, but remain interested in new programs and the different approaches that other institutions may bring to the table. However, Henley-Putnam also deserves mention for having signed one of the few “star” intelligence professors currently in the game: Robert Clark, the author of the target-centric approach (which we would rate as one of the most consistently misunderstood and misused texts in intelligence education.)

The volume of students handled by these new institutions each year is absolutely transformative – in the order of multiple thousands per year. (By way of comparison, the longest running of the traditional civilian intelligence studies programs at Mercyhurst boasts a student body of a few hundred overall, with a score or so graduating each year.) One of the key distinctions between these academic programs and many traditional intelligence studies offerings can be found in the composition of their student populations. A significant percentage of those attending virtual courses are currently serving professionals, many deployed widely across the globe in support of ongoing missions. These students bring decades of practical experience to the classroom, and challenge educators to make theory relevant in ways that distinctly improve learning outcomes. This also keeps such courses far “fresher” and more closely in tune with the needs of the intelligence community, as many of these professional students are quite vocal when they feel that they are not receiving adequate value for their investment in time and money. (This unique blending could also go a long way to helping improve the research agenda of the intelligence studies academy, but that is a topic for discussion another day.)

The commitment required of such professionals to continue their education - despite the operational and logistical challenges brought on by the press of current operations – is quite impressive. Answering this commitment in kind is one area where we are certain many traditional intelligence studies programs have failed. Most schools are not friendly to the deployed, nor to those who wish to continue their studies through alternative formats – no matter how many times “independent study” options are thrown about during recruiting pitches. Frankly, this has been the great shame of the intelligence academy for too long. It is unconscionable to punish students academically who offer service in the Long War and other crisis missions, while their counterparts who have never served easily breeze through degree programs in the absence of other pressures. We – and many other employers – know which graduate we would prefer to hire, but it is not always easy to bring individuals onboard who have yet to complete their foundational degree. Online education options offer one of the few solutions we have yet seen to address this failing.

The new generation of virtual institutions we hope will also be a catalyst for the greater involvement of intelligence professions in the development of the literature in a form that can be shared more widely with the academia as a whole. We firmly believe that publication models such as Small Wars Journal will be the future of the literature. We have also already seen the impact of the virtual on the traditional, as the editorship of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence passed to Richard Valcourt of American Military University. No doubt we shall see other similar effects in the near future, and look forward to the improvement of the literature.

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23 September 2008

A new IC CAE and a new intelligence ethics conference

While the inimitable Dr. Jan Goldman will no doubt still retain his pre-eminence in the sub-discipline of intelligence ethics, we are pleased to see the discussion expanding outward throughout the academy. We note an upcoming conference at the newest of the IC CAE programs, University of Texas Pan American. The focus on border issues – no doubt a result of the proximity of the institution to the mission - we hope shall help to avoid some of the usual distractions of the endlessly rehashed arguments over interrogation methods that has significantly derailed much of the intellectual energies afforded the topic as of late.

If nothing else, we see with some amusement that this program takes the award for innovation in naming, being the first non-DOD program we are aware of to incorporate a superscript character in their acronym. (We look forward to future algorithmic naming permutations as time passes). More significantly however, the school’s program offers language instruction in Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese – language families not always easily found in other institutions. We should have liked to see a greater emphasis on analytic tradecraft and intelligence professionalization in their program – a complaint we have regarding many of the IC CAE structures - but nonetheless we wish them well in their endeavors.

We repost below the call for papers issued by the conference organizers, for those that might be interested in the venue and feel unable to wait for the annual association’s event in February. (And while the timing of the events is nicely spaced, we do hope that the identical paper deadlines will not result in cannibalization of a limited scholarly output, but rather a greater flourishing of the area of inquiry. We hope next year that any similar efforts are better coordinated, as the intelligence studies discipline is frankly too small to long endure competing stovepipes.)

"Call for papers: “Ethics in Intelligence, Security, and Immigration: The Moral and Social Significance of Gathering and Managing Information and Borders in the Global Community”

The University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas will be hosting a conference on “Ethics in Intelligence and Immigration” November 20-22, 2008. We invite submission of papers on any subject related to ethical issues in the fields of intelligence gathering, global security and immigration. Abstracts should be no more than 500 words. Send electronic submissions to: pace [at] utpa.edu

Topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Ethical issues in global intelligence
  • Ethical issues in competitive intelligence
  • Ethical issues in immigration
  • Ethical issues related to the collection, storage, and retrieval of intelligence
  • Ethical issues in privacy and global and national security
  • Codes of ethics in private and public intelligence
  • Open vs. closed borders
  • Ethical implications of a border wall

---Submission deadline: 1 October 2008---

Conference dates: 20-22 November 2008

There is a strong possibility that some or all conference papers will be published in a volume of conference proceedings.Sponsored by the Integrated Global Knowledge and Understanding Collaboration (IGkNU), the Pan American Collaboration for Ethics in the Professions (PACE), and the Office of International Programs at UTPA"

We look forward to the published volume, as well as the future scholarship of the IC CAE.

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22 September 2008

Deliberately ignoring the human terrain

We have rarely seen such a work of profound analytic fallacy as the now much circulated study “Baghdad nights: evaluating the US military `surge' using nighttime light signatures”, which has been making the rounds throughout the blogsphere as of late. This paper purports to declare the Surge a failure based on the lack of increase of overnight artificial lighting, as measured by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) sensors.

This sensor data has previously been used to illustrate the profound gaps between the quality of life in North Korea, when compared to the prosperity and wealth of the South. Electrical usage can generally be considered a proxy for economic activity, particularly in areas where public utilities must be augmented by private generation capacity.

The Environment and Planning paper provides night lights data only to December 2007. And while it briefly displays intensity mapping of sectarian deaths in Baghdad area neighborhoods, it largely ignores the decrease in such violence as the final outcome of “a vicious process of interethnic cleansing” rather than the result of the change in US counterinsurgency strategy and force commitments which was the surge. This is an assumption which cannot be supported merely through imagery analysis.

Needless to say, such an assumption ignores much of the literal reality on the ground – valuing remote sensing over the contemporaneous and local accounts of human sources, military commanders, and reconstruction agencies that have lived through the tumultuous progress of the latter stages of the Iraq intervention. It also conflates economic indicators with stability and security – a fatal assumption that invalidates any conclusions that might be drawn; an observation even an entry level intelligence professional would be expected to note. Further, one might very well question reliance on the relatively low resolution DMSP data for assessing complex urban terrain, particularly given that electrical availability has been a key topic of study for reconstruction planners. At the very least, a comparison of DMSP data against this ground truth baseline would seem to have been required.

Unfortunately, this is the very model of politicized intelligence; a study designed to create a single outcome through the selection of data it chose to present. It is also a profound argument against recent attempts to crowdsource analysis tasks to those who are not intelligence professionals by trade or training.

Against this approach we would cite a far more useful model for integrating the work of GEOINT professionals with that of ongoing counterinsurgency and civil reconstruction efforts, first offered by the National Defense Intelligence College. The paper, “Registering the Human Terrains: A Valuation of Cadastre” offers a far more productive means by which remote sensing data may be used to assess ongoing operational effects in a conflict theatre.

The night lights study is instructive, if only as a teaching case to illustrate the kind of error that self-reflective practitioners must identify and avoid in their own work.

h/t Creative Class

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19 September 2008

A glimpse of a future naval (and network) special operations mission: Google edition

The jesters and the futurists have long featured offshore structures as the future of human activities. Reality continues to bear out these predictions. We have previously discussed large scale offshore habitation structures and their potential impact for future intelligence and unconventional warfare problems. This time around, it is the concept of the maritime data center – previously discussed as a moored vessel – recast as an offshore terminal type platform.

We are enthused by the possibility of seeing a real life data haven come into its own – and run by a professional multinational entity (rather than the sad sort of anarchist disgrace that was Sealand). But one can easily see the fascinating potential for convergence of a whole range of threats directed against such facilities, involving both naval and network conflicts.

Once again, our froggy friends will no doubt be forced to ponder such actions. And while there are no doubt legions of would-be hackers just waiting to strap on a wetsuit to live out their own episode of the Rock against a network contagion, they are apt to be disappointed. One suspects that the signals intelligence folks will be far more likely to have to come to terms with what the widespread proliferation of such offshore datacenter platforms will mean in an environment where bandwidth and storage are nearly infinite and entirely cheap, and may be rented from the cloud through a complex and shift network of shell companies, taking advantage of low staffing levels and limited oversight incentives. The Russian Business Network’s latter day successors will no doubt be wet.

h/t Futurismic

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18 September 2008

Contagions and their higher order effects

Anyone who attends conferences or tradeshows on a routine basis is painfully aware of the risks of common illness created by bringing thousands of strangers together in a small series of rooms for several days – especially when programs seemed entirely designed to keep participants on the move, and consuming either the typical rubber chicken plates – or worse yet – boxed meals.

Thus it was from the recent DNI OSINT conference. There seems to our (admittedly anecdotal sample) that most attendees last week have fallen ill within a short number of days. Of course, there has been significant overlap with enough other events within the relatively small conference circuit for intelligence professionals, creating a more ideal environment for incubating pathogens. After all, September has been the INSA’s Analytic Transformation, NDIA Disruptive Technology, DNI OSINT, and DNI Proteus conferences.

However, while this year’s sicknesses are merely the usual expected issue, our Red Cell attuned eyes do wonder what the potential impact of a targeted, small scale biological attack would be for such an event – particularly given the highly cross disciplinary, interagency nature of these kinds of conferences. Of course, this is exactly the value which brings participants together, but a longer incubation strain could inflict significant damage.

This potential for damage is nonetheless offset by the nature of who typically attends such conferences. After all, the working level grunts usually can’t break away for an event, nor get travel approvals through layers of management. Perhaps the net result might even be an increase in productivity, assuming that the chain of infective transmission doesn’t spread too widely within the vaults once participating managers are back at their home agencies…

While this has been an idle thought experiment, and we are rarely given to commenting on the reasons for our little band’s absence from blogging, suffice it to say our group’s interest in the abstract is driven by personal experiences (admittedly of an entirely more mundane nature) in this matter. At the very least, it was the conversational upside of inevitable biological realities. And we would not be surprised if next year on the conference circuit we see the comeback of the Asian style designer medical masks, as well as the increased presence of indoor biodetection sensors – if only for the experimentation, modeling & simulation folks to mull over in a very different kind of crowdsourcing exercise.

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15 September 2008

Document marking and handling systems in private firms

We have long been fans of exporting the concepts behind document marking systems from the public sector to private firms. Many problems created by the improper handling of sensitive corporate information could simply have been avoided by such a system, and the cultural indoctrination that accompanies these systems. When conducting wide ranging and multi-domain analysis, security markings help provide a sense of boundary between the internal and the external. In some cases – particularly with analysts not yet attuned to the impact of cognitive biases and priming effects – this can create issues if the boundary is allowed to become an artificial distinction within the analytic product itself. However, for those that understand underlying purposes and intent, such systems allow for a degree of liberation – enabling more robust conversations during analytic outreach given knowledge of the essential elements of what must be protected from public knowledge, and what may be safely discussed without risk to client or reputation.

Yet we abhor those firms which have adopted wholesale the same language of classification used in the government itself. Those specific words have driving legal force - and for those individuals which may work between both the commercial and government world, such as defense industry firms or intelligence contractors, these words carry significant psychological freight when it comes time for the inevitable polygraph.

We are reminded to the increasingly widespread nature of this problem in a recent news item regarding an industrial espionage case involving the chipmakers Intel and AMD. (H/t to the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, who deserve mention as they continue to offer increasing utility through their situational awareness efforts in the industry). Among the documents in question in the case are those which originated from Intel’s most closely held programs, carrying a specific marking first used by the government.

While we understand that such markings allow lazy information technology professionals to simply adopt wholesale the information processing systems used to protect classified information from inadvertent disclosure over open networks, and to enable more rapid review of document discovery requests. Nonetheless, the problems such markings may create are legion – and best avoided.

We thus greatly appreciate the efforts that a number of firms have gone to in order to avoid creating conflicts in this area. We particularly like several of the marking structures we have seen in firms that do business across the Commonwealth countries, as these mirror to a historically pleasing but not otherwise problematic degree the older markings from the dawn of the intelligence community itself. We think this carries a degree of gravitas that is otherwise too often lacking from many commercial endeavors, and is a subtle reminder of the history that both the public and private sector’s intelligence activities share. Such markings, including “Most Sensitive” or “Commercial in Confidence”, are clearly observable yet do not invoke the same considerations as “Company Confidential” or more directly copied national security marking systems.

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11 September 2008

Memory and the Long War

Patriot Day.

Never forget.

No end until victory.


10 September 2008

Crowdsourcing OSINT


Now that the deadline for submissions is passed, and thus our comments cannot unduly influence responses to the DNI’s Open Source Innovation Challenge, we wish to revisit some of the strategies that emerged in response to the exercise.

The 1995 Burundi exercise sought to use a direct privatization model, in which contractor resources and analysis were directly compared to the IC’s production. Subsequent production level OSINT efforts have rarely involved such an either / or choice, but rather focused on augmenting community capabilities. The original model was largely collection focused, as were most OSINT efforts of the day (and regrettably, far too many even now). The choice of a single firm (admittedly, one of the only in the USG facing OSINT game back then) offered a degree of centralization of efforts and commonality of response. In reality, that single firm pursued an acquisition strategy which leveraged a number of other commercial vendor’s products in specialized areas, from gray literature exploitation to commercial overhead imagery re-dissemination and analytic outreach.

Thus far, we have observed that responses to the latest challenge appear to have fallen into roughly three categories. The first were the highly competitive offerings by subject matter experts and related small teams with prior intra-group connectivity and affiliations, typically executed rapidly and in a low profile manner. The second were the aspirational offerings, typically by individual practitioners, interdisciplinary academics, or smaller firms. These offerings often involved those without direct community expertise covering the identified target set, but who acknowledged a desire to participate in the field. Neither were unexpected responses.

The third class of response, however, is destined to perhaps be the most controversial. It has been described as a “crowdsourcing” approach. To date, we are aware of a singular such effort out of Mercyhurst College’s intelligence studies program, which has also been something of an outlier in the field. Now, the term crowdsourcing brings immediately to mind its alternative label, the LazyWeb – and we are also reminded of the comments by the bright folks over at Oracle’s think tank AppLabs, in which the subtext of such efforts to leverage the wisdom of crowds are revealed.

However, one can rarely call the highly motivated students at Mercyhurst lazy. And while application of this new aggregation model for open source acquisition – we would hesitate to call it production, at least as we currently know it – is indeed innovative, it raises as many questions as it might produce answers.

In this, the crowdsourcing model reminds us of an earlier effort at Mercyhurst to trial new intelligence production approaches using another Web 2.0 technology. We do sincerely hope this effort is more successful than the last. UPDATE: And so it came to pass, with the Mercyhurst effort taking a win alongside the submission from the commercial intelligence firm iJet, out of twenty four total entries. Congratulations are in order - and the first round for the winners is on us.

The most critical issue that we see in crowdsourced OSINT strategies is the problem of denial and deception. One of the enduring tenants of OSINT tradecraft is that the sources consulted ought not ever know the use to which the information will be put. The divorcing of content from use context goes a long way towards reducing the problems created by sources which may attempt to influence rather inform (at least in terms of deliberate active messaging tailored for IC audiences). Rigorous analysis must still be applied to identify and eliminate the effects of source bias and implicit messaging directed at other audiences, but it is far harder for an adversary to coordinate a passive deception campaign seeded into open sources if they are unaware of the OSINT effort, its key intelligence questions, and its collection methods.

Crowdsourcing seems particularly vulnerable to denial and deception given that it relies on explicit calls for participation. Further - beyond mere knowledgability of project topic and intended audience - the publication of the specific indicators sought by the project coordinators essentially provides a roadmap for potentially successful deception themes and associated messaging, as well as the essential elements of information to be protected by adversary operations security and other denial measures. While source validation measures may provide some defense against such deception, it is unlikely to defeat a well crafted campaign executed through appropriate cover organizations and other agents of influence.

Timelines do play a role – short deadline production efforts are less likely to attract deliberate deception. However, if crowdsourced OSINT becomes commonplace, it may serve an adversary’s interests to establish latent architectures which would enable rapid response active measures campaigns designed to exploit the lack of time available for validation and other testing. One could particularly see such a structure evolving in advance of planned actions which an adversary foresees would provoke a high profile international crisis. The information advantage that could be offered in such a situation should such deception efforts influence a targeted decisionmakers' response would be priceless – especially in the critical first hours of a 3 a.m. moment that developed without earlier warning.

One could easily envision an experimental research series which would evaluate the potential susceptibility of crowdsourced OSINT to denial and deception. We hope to see some young researcher take up this effort in the near future.

We would also be remiss if we did not note that another contemporaneous effort – the Gray Goose project - has emerged to address a similar real world OSINT problem using a very different production strategy, one that might be termed rapid community of interest formation relying upon self-affiliation of interested subject matter experts. This effort bears greater examination in depth, particularly as it deliberately – and hopefully more productively - channels behaviors we have previously observed in surge intelligence responses to other crisis events. It also appears to be at least in theory more resistant to denial and deception, but that is a discussion for another day.

While the DNI’s challenge has overall generated a great of discussion, it remains to be seen whether that energy translated into truly innovative finished OSINT products. We eagerly await further conversations on the topic at the conference later this week, along with what we hope will be a future overview level assessment and compilation to be published under the DNI’s auspices. From the perspective of intelligence studies theory, it has been a most fascinating exercise to observe, and no doubt much will continue to come of it.

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09 September 2008

The privatization of intelligence history

The preservation of iconic history is one of the most important cultural and institutional tasks that the intelligence community can perform to ensure the continued relevance of its traditions as an intellectual pursuit among the generations of professions which follow. A shadowed profession needs more than most the few tangible symbols of what it is we stand for, what we have accomplished, and what we ought to emulate – if not in strict form or function, than in spirit and ideal. It is these few tokens (and their stories) – whether the odd item somehow passed down from those that were there, or the unique place which by virtue of the accidents of geography and function became key to a major program or structure – that also help to cement a shared vision of an increasingly distributed profession.

Many IC leaders agree to this principle in theory. Yet when the heart of the World War II cryptanalytic effort at Bletchley Park was left to decay, the international intelligence community of the Allied powers paid little attention. Of course, this is not a new problem, but efforts to preserve the history of intelligence have ranked low on the priority list in the face of unprecedented wartime demands coupled with the critical need to re-capitalized aging operational infrastructure neglected during the lean years of the 1990’s. And while some might say this is strictly a British problem, the long history of the special relationship – and particularly the key role played by shared signals intelligence efforts in creating that relationship – dictates American concern (and like concern for the rest of the Five Eyes partners).

Thus we find privatization emerging in a new and unexpected manner. In this case, it is a fundraising effort led by the IBM and PGP corporations, designed to remedy with private donations the gaps left by government abandonment. This is a development which resonates on multiple levels.

PGP as a firm arguably exists as a privatized solution to another government shortfall – the need to protect sensitive corporate and critical infrastructure communications from unauthorized intercept. In the early days of the Cold War, this was considered an inherently governmental responsibility – and one that early cryptographic policy reserved only for an exceptionally small segment of the corporate world, usually only directly associated with a highly limited number of defense industrial base or Federal level financial institutions. This deliberate omission of protection for the vast engine of much of the countries economy led to innovation and the re-birth of an entire commercial market. For like in many aspects of intelligence, the state monopoly of the WWII and early Cold War era was a historical anomaly. Commercial codes had long been in use for protection of sensitive international business communications. Yet the advent of professional cryptanalysis organizations – and the computing resources that they developed to aid them in their tasks - would destroy most pre-war systems based on too simple substitutions or primitive algorithms.

While the techniques of public key encryption by which PGP became the world’s standard for commercial communications security were indeed invented anew without prior knowledge of government activities in the area, it is now well documented that these techniques originated much earlier in the darkest corners of the intelligence establishment. However Non-Secret Encryption, as it was then called, merely serves to illustrate the gap between protection offered to the public versus the private sector. (One can make allowances, however, for the desire to keep all aspects of technology possibly used to secure nuclear weapons Permissive Action Links entirely out of the public view in any form. But thus has the world changed now.)

While contemporary industry's interest in Station X is no doubt driven more by the history of computing itself than the preservation of an intelligence icon, it is fitting to see the structures which emerged from the Black Valley step up to ensure that this monument will continue to endure - especially given that no such symbols remain of their own struggles.

h/t Slashdot

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08 September 2008

Correlation of academic performance to professional success in intelligence studies education

Courtesy of Trinity University’s Intelligence Center (a program which few may recall pre-dates the success brought by the more prominent IC CAE now hosted there) comes a piece which surfaces the fascinating history of the less distinguished of the graduates from one of the most elite institutions in the country, the US Naval Academy.

These are stories well worth the read, and we are grateful to the good doctor for recounting them. And while we remain strictly and professionally apolitical as to their import in the current election cycle, we however would ponder the perhaps unintended parallels one might draw regarding the students emerging from the intelligence studies academia itself. In this new enterprise, it has been all too easy to focus on the bright young things and rising stars. But is success in the cloistered ivory tower really a determinant of future excellence in a profession which has grown increasingly distant from the sterile models and dated theories too often propounded by those outside the walls of the vault?

This is a question which truly remains unanswered. There simply has not been a sufficient sample size across an adequate longitudinal depth given the emergent dynamics of the field. Further, the unsettled nature of the generally accepted unclassified curriculum has also worked against such observations. A number of institutions once focused tightly on producing graduates capable of answering the requirements of the working intelligence professional now seem to be increasingly at variance from the community’s needs, while a number of newer schools are simply untested. While we have great hope that from out of this current state the engine of creative destruction will drive new and better approaches, we have yet to see but faint indicators of regeneration.

However, while the plural of anecdote is not data, we do have a few observations that might be called out for future study against the fullness of time. For example, Trinity’s program itself has produced more than its share of intelligence scholars – including those recently minted undergraduates accepted directly into further academic studies at the National Defense Intelligence College, a singular and rare achievement which is clearly indicative of great potential. And the older program at Mercyhurst has produced a number of alumni who were brought into the community even in the leanest years of the hiring freeze by virtue of exemptions granted to those with exceptional academic records.

Yet the concept resonates with the experiences we have seen in others. There have been the equivalent of the anchormen and goats from those institutions (and others in the intelligence studies field) over the years, and many not by virtue of insufficient talent but rather the inevitable result of efforts focused more intently outward against real world objectives vice the acknowledged artificial standards of the classroom. The challenge, of course, lies in distinguishing between those individuals and their counterparts who truly lacked the preparation, initiative, and raw intellect to perform in this demanding field. At the same time, the task is not really easier for those who face the disappointment of having invested in a promising and high scoring young candidate only to find that the professors’ pet cannot perform under real world pressures where the right answer is not simply repeating a canned school solution.

We would daresay the best means of addressing this dilemma is to ensure that the intelligence studies academia always tests its candidates in conditions which mirror as closely as is possible stressors found in the professional intelligence environment. It is for this reason that we emphasize the need for an intelligence crucible when cultivating new professionals.

Regrettably, it appears that this is an idea which has not been popular as of late, especially as class sizes balloon and attrition rates shrink at many programs. While this may be profitable for the institutions concerned, it may prove to be a disservice not only to the agencies and firms which hire untested candidates but equally so to the candidates themselves. Failure in the classroom, even one which may cause an individual to re-assess the course of their future professional options, is far easier than dramatic self-destruction in the face of a burden the individual simply cannot carry. Unfortunately, this is a thing we have seen all too often – especially given the hiring surges of recent years.

While this is not a phenomenon unique to the intelligence profession, we think that it is indeed more pronounced. For this is a field of thinkers and of talkers, and therefore values these skills highly, as a result often seeing such competencies mirrored in the strong academic performers. Yet there is a greater gulf in this profession between the accomplishments of insight or communication, in contrast to the mimicry or sophistry which underlies some successful but otherwise hollow academics. The same can be said of some instructors in the field, as much as of the students. Indeed, one is often found at the root cause of the others.

Theory derived from lived experiences is all well and good, but validation is needed through more rigorous empirical research. That, we fear, will be a matter that must be left to the historians of the generation after next, for only then may the full measure of a cohort’s deeds be taken.

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05 September 2008

Forecasting through games

There is a long history of modeling, simulation, and gaming within the intelligence community, dating back to the Prussian General Staff’s Kriegsspiel, wherein the intelligence of the day, such as it was, would be used to determine the enemy strength and disposition to be set for the initial conditions of the map board. (An early American adaptation of the wargame – itself arising out of the intense interest in military professionalization in the latter half of the 19th century - can now be found in the digital stacks. It is worth a glance for those inclined toward matters historical but lacking either access to the original text or the German language skills with which to comprehend it.)

One can trace a direct lineage from such explicit gaming structures through the modern evolution of many forms of exercise and drill. Such efforts are increasingly reflected in new training and education efforts within the IC, such as the recently publicized virtual incarnations of several analytic exercises at DIA. The exercise materials themselves have a far longer history in more prosaic incarnations. The tanker war exercise that is the heart of Vital Passage, for example, has been used for teaching analysis of competing hypotheses for years using nothing more than paper and pen. The new immersive formats are clearly of value in capturing the attention of those students who have not yet been caught the more abstract means of envisioning crisis. It also serves as a good transition towards the application of the methodology in more complex, non-deterministic problems – particularly given the new emphasis on using assistive software to help track larger scale issues. (We unfortunately continue to encounter a number of younger analysts –products of the civilian university - that are unable to distinguish between ACH as an analytical methodology and the software used to automate that methodology. But that is another matter, and points to a failure of instruction at certain institutions rather than flaws in computer aided analysis or exercise).

For too long, though, gaming has stagnated essentially unchanged from its earlier incarnations. It has been left to the jesters and the speculators to push the boundaries of the tool, pointing the way to new directions and new uses. The most provocative of these suggestions – as is frequently the case – came from a jester at the futurists’ court, examined the potential utility of an alternative reality game structure as a recruiting and coordination mechanism for HUMINT operations involving unwitting participants.

A more immediate implementation has also now appeared, attempting to use massively multiplayer structures for long term analysis challenges. The Institute for the Future will launch its new project, Superstruct, on 22 September, which will attack what appears to be a catastrophic scenario using an alternative reality gaming architecture for distributed participation. It is a unique approach, described further through a FAQ here, and we can already see the benefits that the transparent and free form ludic design brings to the table. (We would note this to be a distinct difference from other crowdsourced analytic projects that we have recently seen attempted). We also have high confidence in the intellect and insights of the team that is executing the Superstruct project, having followed their work for some time, as well as having attended a fascinating discussion with other ARG designers from the original "I Love Bees" team at a Second Life salon hosted by The Electric Sheep Company a number of years ago.)

We have long been on record as highly skeptical of the efforts to use the intelligence community as the instrument by which to assess the uncertainties of future climate change, and have debated the issue with others of discernment who hold differing views. Yet the IC responded to the requirements levied upon it by Congress – as it always should. The resulting assessment, and public testimony, is a model of intelligence professionalism in the face of intense politicization. We find Dr. Fingar’s responses during questioning – clearly outlining the uncertainties of the scientific data, and the limitations of the IC’s resident expertise on the topic – a perfect teaching example of effective intelligence communication.

We think however that efforts such as Superstruct may be a better venue for exploring these questions, at least until the window of likely impact falls within the long range horizons of the intelligence community’s estimative views – be that fifteen, thirty or fifty years hence. It is also a fascinatingly cross-account and interdisciplinary issues – as well as a frankly lower priority intelligence problem – that is perfectly suited to experimentation with new analytic methodologies, novel analytic outreach, and new distributed production models.

We wish the project good fortune, and look forward to the after action assessment for any lessons learned that might be applied to future analytic tradecraft.

h/t Smart Mobs, and the Business & Games Blog

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03 September 2008

Commercializing the honey trap

Japan has long been one of the world’s leaders in the privatization of intelligence functions. Hand in hand with this privatization comes the blurring of the distinctions which define intelligence as a profession itself, and that which are incorporated across a range of interdisciplinary areas. In the 1980’s, the rest of the world most famously became aware of the commercialization of these activities in the realm of scientific and technical intelligence obtained through a variety of joint venture structures and other business alliances. The trend has continued, albeit in new areas and different forms.

Japan is also noted for the relentless consumerization of ideas and concepts into marketable goods and services. Their retail sector evolves at a blistering rate, making the Tokyo schoolgirl the most sought after youth demographic to test new fashion trends and other memetic products.

Thus we are unsurprised to note the intersection of these two trends, profiled in a recent UK article regarding professional sexual entrapment services. The cases are interesting in that they demonstrate both classic human intelligence approaches across a variety of cases, but also in that they represent an apparently profitable market segment. In the United States, private investigators have long known that spurned spouses – and their lawyers – are an easy source of income. Such has been the stuff of a certain genre of crime novel for decades. However, the Japanese incarnation is more subtle, in that the primary focus is on influence operations designed to alter the target’s behavior and perceptions – typically to overcome cultural factors in what is still largely a conservative and tradition oriented society.

It seems to us there is a growing body of lessons learned that might be culled from the cases handled by such services. No doubt none of these lessons are new, nor terribly unique, as the lusts of men and women change little over the years. However, the experiences of these professionals (and equally importantly, the handlers which conduct the equivalent of targeting analysis and other operations management functions) do represent a unique aggregation of unclassified examples which could be used to augment academic studies of what is otherwise the most clandestine of intelligence activities.

No doubt for a young researcher such studies might also be uniquely rewarding. One should hope however that the debriefer is otherwise unattached prior to embarking upon the project.

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