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Friday Fiction

Here is part of a story I’ve been toying around with for awhile.  Enjoy!

1 June 2011 – Twenty thousand feet somewhere above the border between the Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Two minutes!”

The Jump Master was attempting to look calm and composed as he walked up and down the center of the aircraft but Fredrick could tell he was nervous. He could almost see the pent up energy trying to burst out of his small frame. It wasn’t clear why he was so jumpy since in the half dozen times Fredrick had leapt out of a aircraft with this particular Jump Master the guy had never left the plane. He was always yelling and pushing everyone out and wouldn’t be seen again until everyone had made it back to base. What the hell did he have to be nervous about?

“You alright, bud?” Dave kneeled down in front of him and began checking his gear and tightening his straps. He didn’t think they could get any tighter but a good yank elicited a muffled ‘woof’ of air escaping his chest. He liked Dave. Training had been brutal and almost constant but whenever they could they’d spend a few minutes relaxing and playing catch behind the barracks. Kicking off your gear and running around without having to worry about orders or plans or timing was like a bit of heaven. He was pretty sure it’d be awhile before he even saw a ball again let alone had a chance to play.

Dave looked him in the eye. “This is the real deal. You’re heading into the shit. Be careful you sonofabitch.” There was the briefest of delays, most people would never have even noticed it, before Dave smiled. It looked more like a grimace, though, and Fredrick could tell it was an attempt, even if an incredibly poor one, to put a good face on. Fredrick moved to shake Dave’s hand which made the smile genuine and brought out a bit of a laugh. “Yeah, nice to meet you too.”

Fredrick looked up and down the aisle. The members of his small team were on either side of him getting their gear checked as well. Argos to his left and Shuck and Garm to his right. And Morris. He didn’t like Morris at all. None of them really did. He was added to the group rather late and just about everyone had tried to take a shot at him at one time or another. Sometimes the cadre had broken them up in time to prevent any serious damage but Garm had a nasty scar from one of their fights. Nobody would shed a tear if his chute didn’t open although the bastard would probably land on his feet and give everyone one of those crazy looks like it had been his plan all along.

Morris turned his head slowly down the aisle and met Fredick’s gaze. The guy looked bored and like he was ready to take a nap. Once their eyes met he broke out into one of those grins and licked his lips. ‘Great.’, thought Fredrick, ‘My first time leading a team and they give me a psycho to deal with. I really don’t need this.’ Unfortunately, command decided that Morris was needed. He was familiar with the country and had two missions under his collar. That alone made him valuable, never mind his other skills. Still, Fredrick wasn’t convinced Morris was on anyone’s side other than his own.

“Thirty seconds!”

The rear door to the aircraft began to open and the last rays of evening light crept through the cabin of the plane. The team began getting to their feet and shuffling into position with the help of their ‘handlers’. Fredrick always thought that was a strange and somewhat condescending term. The team had trained to operate independently and without outside assistance behind enemy lines for weeks or months and they needed ‘handlers’?

A light near the cargo door began flashing and everyone stiffened in anticipation. It wouldn’t be long. Argos took a quick look back at Fredrick and let loose one of his trademark howls. It was corny but effective as the rest of the team joined in, bolstering their courage for the next few seconds.

Almost immediately after they finished, the light went solid red and before the Jump Master even had a chance to say ‘Go!’ Argos ran out the back of the plane. He always did love that part. The rest of the team followed suit, gathering up as much momentum as they could under the weight of their gear and flinging themselves out of the aircraft.

Fredrick took his leap and felt the satisfactory tug of the static line and the opening of his parachute a moment later. He hated hanging from the chute as it was probably the most vulnerable he’d been since he was born. He also didn’t particularly care for the sensory experience either. Sure, the view was amazing but seeing a lot wasn’t as exciting as seeing well and he always preferred viewing things up close so he could scrutinize them. The lack of smells was also disconcerting. He wasn’t sure if it was the excitement of the jump or just that smells didn’t make it up that high but the lack of any scent just made the whole experience seem unnatural. He barked a laugh at that thought. As if hanging from a piece of cloth at 10,000 feet was natural.

To say the world they were jumping into looked uninviting was an understatement. The rocky, mountainous landscape was almost entirely barren and broken with only the occasional instance of pathetic scrub to indicate the countryside was totally devoid of life. A few miles away a ribbon of trees indicated a stream or small river as did the presence of farmland nearby. Fortunately, the evening sun had sunk over the horizon and the scant moonlight meant they were unlikely to be observed with their state of the art ‘stealth parachutes’. They were made from a material that absorbed and reflected light in such a way that people actually saw through them in light conditions like this.

As the ground rushed up to meet them, the team began looking at their landing spot. They had virtually no control over their parachutes or where they would land but it was always helpful to see what sort of trouble one was about to find oneself in. Fredrick saw Argos going down a short distance away from his landing spot but wasn’t able to see him hit ground as he had to focus on his own touchdown. He hit the ground harder than he had practiced and rolled, almost getting caught up in the lines of his chute. Upon contact, the automatic releases freed him from the parachute harness and he got to his feet quickly. He looked to see where the rest of his team was landing, listened for Argos to come towards him and sniffed the air for trouble.

Shuck and Garm came down about a couple of hundred meters to Fredrick’s left but Morris landed directly in front of him. While everyone swore those parachutes were impossible to maneuver, Morris appeared not only to land exactly where he wanted it to but he made it look like he floated to earth like a feather. Morris stared at Fredrick without saying a word but managing to emit both contempt and boredom at the same time.

‘I’m not going to let him bait me…I’m not going to let him bait me.’ Fredrick kept thinking to himself wondering where the rest of the team were. Unable to contain himself, Fredrick met Morris’ gaze.

“Ok…I give up. What?”

“Well,” Morris began “let’s just say I’m not exactly filled with confidence based on what I’ve seen so far.” The team had finally begun to assemble, everyone appearing to have made the jump without sustaining any injuries. “And while I appreciate you all are the ‘rah, rah, do or die’ types make no mistake that I have no intention of turning this into a suicide mission. So, make stupid mistakes at your own risk and don’t expect me to save you.”

“Now, I’m going to check out the area and see if I can find anyone in this country who didn’t hear your crash landings. Try to be useful and find something for us to eat.” Morris said over his shoulder while he padded off into the darkness.

Shuck walked over to a scraggly shrub and sniffed. “I’ve said it a hundred times now. I hate…fucking…cats.” With that he lifted his leg and urinated at the bush.

“Well, then, stop sniffing around the litter box.” Garm replied with a panting laugh as he came over and sniffed the shrub. “Ugh…dude, I thought you stopped drinking out of the toilet bowls at base. What are you, a stray?”

“Enough!” Fredrick snapped. He was always aware that given he was the smallest of the group he had to work hard to maintain his alpha status. “Morris is part of the Pisho Palang unit and the only one of us who’s ever been here in Afghanistan. He might not be as disciplined as us but the bosses decided to transfer him to our unit so let’s just deal with it.” Fredrick jumped up on a nearby rock. As a Jack Russel Terrier the move just brought him to eye level with Argos, a huge Mastiff and Garm, an Akita. “Now, Garm you go and recon the area. Argos, get the food from our jump packs. There’s no need to try to hunt tonight.”

“Got it.” The Akita said as she slid off into the night.

“What about me?” Shuck said. The black labrador looked at Fredrick.

“Why don’t you go with Garm.” Then he thought of Morris again. They said that this mountain lion breed was ‘domesticated and trainable’ but Fredrick couldn’t help feeling like lunch every time the cat looked at him. Even with his Kevlar armor Fredrick wouldn’t last two seconds against the cat. Morris wouldn’t really eat him, would he? He remembered a line from a movie he and Dave would watch after training sometimes. What did that actor say?

‘Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?’

Fredrick most definitely did not.

“On second thought. What don’t you hang around here with me.” We’ve got to come up with a plan to find our target. Those jihadi monkeys have their base around here somewhere and they aren’t going to find themselves.

“Yeah, monkeys.” Murmured Shuck as he sniffed around at a rock that appeared perfect for marking. “Just so long as we don’t have to deal with any more cats. I hate fucking cats.”

Music and intelligence analysis

So, last time I talked about trying to incorporate different sensory inputs in order to improve analytical production.  Now I’m entering into speculative territory here but while I was primarily looking to different types of visual stimuli (the written word, graphics, images, etc.) I’ve been thinking about the possibility of using our sense of hearing to either improve the analytical or production process.

I therefore submit to you, then, this interesting project.  It takes a piece of classical music and, while you’re listening to it, describes it with accompanying text.  In doing so it conveys more information that either the musical piece or the text individually AND more then if you experienced both but separately.  The ‘extra’ value comes from getting the explanation at the same time the music is playing.  That not only reduces the chance of miscommunication (‘Is this supposed to be the teeth chattering or….this?’) but also helps improve the ‘stickiness’ of the information.  Associating the text with the music helps ‘anchor’ it in your mind.  The next time you listen to the music you’ll be more likely to remember the text.

Is there any value in incorporating music into the production process?  Might customers retain more with particular accompaniment?  Could music be used to emphasize particular pieces of information?  How about in terms of explaining probability, risk or threat?  Does the human mind respond consistently to certain types of music and sound or is the process so individualistic that the incorporation of sound is just as likely to hinder the transference of meaning as enhance it.

Up to now I’ve been talking about the production part of the intelligence cycle but music might have an easier fit in the analytical part of the cycle.  There’s evidence that distraction can assist in problem solving, particularly in helping identify weak connections between items or when thinking about difficult problems with multiple variables.  Sitting down and trying to force yourself to solve problems doesn’t work well when compared having your subconscious take a crack at it.

The goal is to get into the proper mental state:

It means not actively working on a problem but instead letting yourself happily mind-wander, freely associating and relaxing into a quiet mental state. It is like being okay to feel how you feel when you first wake up in the morning – relaxed, with diffuse, easy attention.

I’ve found that some of my best insights came about when I was most definitely not working on the problem that needed solving.  Running, reading, sleeping or…yes…listening to music.  I began wondering if there was any possibility tapping into that insight potential collaboratively after playing with my latest time sink, turntable.fm.  Is there any benefit to having analysts, working on the same problem, simultaneously sharing something like music playlists and listening to the same songs at the same time?  If you assume that a person’s choice in music is a reflection of their mental state and preferences, would sharing music give you a glimpse into how other analysts are thinking?  If so, would that help to look at problems through a slightly different perspective and, therefore, improve you problem solving skills?

Many questions for which I have no answers but interesting to think about.  Now, time to listen to some tunes….

Crowdfunding intelligence

You may not have seen it in the news but lately poachers have been killing animals at alarming rates in Africa.  Rangers aren’t only frequently outgunned (with reports of poachers not only using military weapons but also relying on aircraft to find animals) but usually outmaneuvered since they have huge areas to cover while the poachers hold the initiative of when and where they’ll operate.

One conservancy in Kenya has decided to embrace technology to address some of these problems through the purchase and use of an aerial drone.  Their program to fly a drone will allow them to cover significant amounts of territory, providing both real time visual data and, through a program of implanting RFID transmitters in some of the animals in the park, through tracking key members of the animal population.  They did have a problem, however.  How does a non-profit afford a drone aircraft with all the associated training, maintenance, etc?

They decided to launch a crowdfunding appeal on indiegogo.  They requested $35,000 and surpassed that with ease, thanks in part to pretty significant press coverage.

Allow me to take this opportunity to recycle a post of mine from almost one year ago where I spoke in a bit more detail about the potential of crowdfunding the analysis process.  It’s probably not efficient for a long term strategy but such a method could be used for a very specific program like this when more traditional funding isn’t available or would be too slow.  Of course, you’d have the regular problems with crowdfunding such as over-promising and under-delivering in various forms but they can be mitigated.

But beyond that, I’ve been talking to people about intelligence training.  Across the field training is pretty spotty with tons of beginner level training out there (of varying qualities) and much less advanced training, especially good advanced training.  There just doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of people who need such advanced training in a place that would justify the development and presentation of that sort of thing .

Would be possible to crowdfund intelligence training as well?  hmmm…more to think about.




If you aren’t reading Paul Pillar…

…you should be.

With far more clarity and deftness than I can muster up, he manages to discuss and raise a number of worthwhile questions about our (American) assassination program, entrenchment of institutional interests and inertia, and the (perhaps unintentional) use of language to convey subtle messages.  On that last point, allow my to butcher a passage of his (please read it in full) about the naming of the counter-terrorism manual a ‘playbook’.

In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play….But the playbook doesn’t provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game…By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will give less consideration than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.

This sort of analysis can go too far at times.  As the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes words reflect poor word choice, limited vocabulary, or some other factor.  But, at times, it can provide some extra insight.





Countdown to 2014

Everyone is in full wind down mode with regards to Afghanistan and we seem to be entering a period of neglect for just about everyone who isn’t actually there.  By the end of 2014, it looks like we’ll still have a military presence in the country but it’ll be small enough that we can all pretend that it’s not a real military mission.

0990142-R1-039-18 Small Afghan village circa 2003(Photo credit: me)

And what will Afghanistan (and Pakistan) look like?  Well, it looks like the safe money is some sort of frustrating stalemate where we provide enough support for the current regime to maintain control in the cities and along major lines of communication while the hinterland falls under the control of the Taliban and various insurgent groups.

I read this article over the weekend which gives a great feel for what this dissolution looks like at the micro level.  As I read it, I couldn’t help feeling that a very similar article could be written in the Western Roman Empire in the mid to late 5th century.  Borders are shrinking, increasingly conflicts are resolved (even if only temporarily) through co-option rather than forcing submission as overwhelming force is no longer as available as it once was.  This leads to a dilution of distinction between the competing sides as both have to take on attributes of the other.

And that’s yet another problem we’ve had thinking about this conflict.  Despite the numerous warnings we’ve continually measured the Afghans against our own standards.  It’s little wonder we’ve been disappointed:

Afghan soldiers do have difficulty making appointments on time, it’s true. They also don’t like to stand in straight lines or dress according to regulation or march in step or do so many of the things intrinsic to a Western notion of professional soldiering. When a lieutenant calls a formation of Afghan privates to attention, they will inevitably resemble, as my drill sergeant used to say, “a soup sandwich.”

This would be like Roman legionnaires looking at the Parthians with disdain because they couldn’t form a testudo to save their lives.   Of course, that road can lead to ruin.

And as this proceeds…Al Qaeda continues to fade from significance and Afghanistan returns to chronic disorder it gets harder for those serving there to understand why they’re actually there.

There might have been a time early in the war when most American soldiers and Marines genuinely believed that they were fighting to protect their homeland, their watan. But those days are over now; they have been for a while. You can feel it just as surely as you can feel that for soldiers like Karim they will never end.

How else does dissolution manifest?  Well, the U.S. embassy in Kabul is reported to be less than secure.  The fetish with privatizing everything (‘The market is efficient!’) leads to security being handed off to contractors whose primary goal is maximizing profits.  The result?

One of the biggest problems, guards say, is that their team has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end and too few people to do the job. Guards have worked 14- and 15-hour workdays, for six or even seven days a week, with limited days off or leave time, sources said. That, in turn, has led to high job turnover, low morale, and other problems, they said.

Remember home economics 101:  You get what you pay for.

For a more macro view I can recommend ‘Little America‘ which describes the lead up to and execution of the Afghan ‘surge’ of 2009-2011.  If you’ve been following Afghanistan here you hear anything shockingly new (you’re probably too calloused and cynical for that) but the book does a nice job of painting a more complete picture than you’ve had before.  And lest you fear that our actions in Afghanistan reflect some new level of bumbling or incompetence, worry not!  We’ve been screwing up there for half a century!


Intelligence analysis, avalanches, and Sally Fields

An excellent article by the BBC that uses archival footage to talk about the mutually dysfunctional relationship between Israel, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Also demonstrates that while we often think the Arab-Israeli conflict has been unchanging for the last 60 years, there has, in fact, been significant changes in attitudes on both sides…and not for the good.

Speaking of interesting ways to present information, check out this amazing use of video and graphics to convey information about an avalanche that swept up a group of experienced skiers.

These sort of stories are fine examples of how information can be transmitted more efficiently and effectively through the use of mixing media.  We’re all familiar with the trope that people learn information differently and we also know that the more senses we can engage with a piece of information will make it more ‘sticky’.  That’s one reason, for example, that the Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012 were insistent that campaign people have at least three contacts with voters they were looking for.  Voters that had such contact were more likely to vote for the President.  Now some of that might be a result of voters saying ‘Hey, they like me!  They really like me!’

Some of that, however, is due to the voters internalizing the positions of the campaign by hearing the arguments repeatedly through different mediums.  A phone call, a knock on the door, an email, you get the point.

So, why not think about that in terms of intelligence products?  Frequently, products come out in one format *cough* pdf *cough* but why?  I’m convinced that a lot of it has to do with ingrained prejudices about what products are ‘supposed’ to look like.  But c’mon, that’s all based on style guides from 50 years ago when people were using typewriters and carbon paper (look it up).  At that time, strict uniformity made some real sense since we’re no longer getting out information primarily from the physical, written word.  Whole new venues have been opened up and yet the conventional wisdom seems to be that we should try to make our digital products mimic paper ones as much as possible.

That’s kind of like inventing the airplane but then only using it to taxi to where you want to go.

But we might want to think about this not just in terms of production but also analysis.  If one of the cornerstones of analysis is trying to understand some aspect of our environment by reducing bias and making connections maybe there are ways to engage multiple areas of the brain at once.

More on this later….

Components of threat (another view)

Lung Hu presents an exceptional view of a topic I’ve written about here over the years: The components of threat and risk.

He defines risk thus: R = V + T

And, of course, threat is defined as: T = ntent + apabilities = ntent * apabilities to account for the fact that without both intent and capabilities there is no threat.  The same would apply to the risk equation as well.]

Lung Hu does some yeoman work here and brings up some very important points that are worth repeating and thinking about.

Intent: While this should be a fairly ‘easy’ component to threat (and risk) to consider, we continue to have a great deal of difficulty in plugging it in to the equations. Intent often becomes a tool by which security (civilian or military) forces can use to push their own agendas or project their own fears.

Back in the late 1990s street gangs were the big rage. Warnings were issued with a regularity you could set your watch to that various gangs had expressed the intent to form highly centralized and organized nationwide organizations that would control a wide array of criminal activity. Never mind that these plans were usually written in a run down basement or a jail cell and each would be modern criminal Napoleon had difficulty in securing the loyalty of more than a handful of (usually) talentless flunkies. And even those who were able to demonstrate skills and ability were lost in a sea of criminality which expressed no desire to be tamed or placed under the yoke of some criminal mastermind.

Tis better to reign in petty crime squalor, apparently, than serve in the world of a criminal mastermind

But intent was intent. Lung Hu describes this as a function of American culture and I suspect there’s some truth to that. Among the descriptions I’ve heard of Americans by others is that we do tend to say what we mean. And, an old bugbear of intelligence analysts when trying to get into our adversary’s mind is when we project our own cultural and personal biases and beliefs into our foe. Then allow the madcap hilarity to ensue…

Why would Saddam not open up his chemical facilities? No self respecting, corn-fed, middle American farm boy would act so deceptive if he had nothing to hide. Therefore, he must have a fully functioning chemical and biological weapons capability.

<laugh track> Ooops!</laugh track>

The past decade is littered with alerts, notifications and grant requests all built around the intent of adversaries that had virtually no possibility of becoming reality.

It works the other way as well. Is it politically uncomfortable to pay attention to an ideologically motivated threat because they have sympathetic elements associated with one major political party *cough* right wing militias/white supremacists and the Republican party *cough*? Well, ignore their actions (and accompanying rhetoric) and voila(!), no threat.

Get a bunch of 20 somethings hanging around in a drum circle and advocating alternatives to the unregulated derivative market? Well, Rush Limbaugh won’t be mobilizing the masses if we crack some of those heads so let’s go boys!

In that vein, allow me to recommend this article from Outside. I did consider building a whole post around it but the story is a familiar one.  FBI looks to make a big counter-terrorism score to make careers and justify budgets so they find some knuckleheads who don’t like the status quo, plant a source to rile them up, goad them to action and provide them with the ‘materials’ to conduct an attack.  It should sound familiar as it’s been the playbook of most of the domestic terrorism arrests we’ve seen over the past few years.

The problem, as it appears from this and similar stories is the apparent disregard of threat as a consideration of priorities and focus.  And while I am loath to suggest that any sort of rigorous thought process governs law enforcement/homeland security investigative decision making it appears whatever thought goes into such a decision looks like this:

T = Pi (Possible intent) + Pc (Possible capabilities)

In this equation we no longer need to concern ourselves with what sorts of actions people actually (or even probably) will engage in and you can base decisions on speculation about what people might do if they get access to the appropriate capabilities.

So, let’s work though the scenarios which make up most of our counter-terrorism ‘success stories’.  Someone is displeased with the status quo and considering taking violent action in response (for the purposes of this little experiment, let’s say they’re serious and have actual intent to do harm but keep in mind that this is often less than certain).  Unfortunately for this prospective anarchist, jihadist, etc., they don’t have the technical know how to carry out their plot .  They can’t build their bomb, culture their anthrax, whatever.  They also lack access to that knowledge from whatever social network they are plugged into.  They lack, in short, the capability to carry out their attack.

Now, according to the threat equation that’s kind of the end of things.  If intent is particularly strong you can do some investigative due diligence like doing some checks to make sure they don’t acquire the capabilities portion of the equation or even just talk to the suspect.  Reading over these cases, one gets the impression that many of the suspects are people who get caught up in ideological echo chambers which serve to escalate radical thought.  There are simply few opportunities to bring these people back to the reality of shared cultural norms.  A visit from the feds could be that shock to the system that lets the knuckleheaded 20 something know (s)he’s actually messing around with serious issues that have serious consequences.  I’m not so naive to believe this would work in all cases or wouldn’t, particularly when talking about emotionally disturbed persons, result in an escalation of intent but the point here is to give us options for reducing or eliminating threat at the lowest level of suppressive/oppressive force.  It’s one of the tenets of intelligence led policing (and, for that matter, counterinsurgency doctrine).

So, we’ve got aspiring terrorist ‘X’ who has the intent to do some mischief but not the capabilities and no way, close at hand, to get those capabilities.  What to do?  Quick! To the interwebs!

Here’s where things get really weird.  In order to get something in the ‘capabilities’ column terrorist X goes on the web and finds some forum or social network that he thinks contains members who can help him out.  So he goes on and, sooner or later, posts something like ‘Anyone know where I can get some C4?’

Now, it’s important to realize the assumption wrapped up in classifying this as a threat.  What is needed is, at the same time mind you, someone who actually has access to or knowledge of this capability being in that location.  So, let’s say you’ve got your hands on 50 pounds of primo plastic explosive (never mind where you got it…let’s just assume you found it at a yard sale).  Maybe you’re a true believer (well, not that true of a believer or you’d use it yourself, right?) or you just need some cash.  How in the world, would you convert all that sweet, sweet explosive power to money?  Respond to an anonymous request on an internet forum asking for explosives to blow up a government building?

Sure, why not.

To summarize, we need someone with intent who has no clue about capabilities.  We need someone with capabilities willing to transact with the perspective terrorist.  We need both to be connected to the same social network at the same time AND we need  neither to be distracted by deception operations.  Oh, and ideally we’d also need them both to confine their monumental stupidity solely to the area of how these two meet and communicate so that they can find each other but not botch every other aspect of whatever plan they come up with.

That’s a tall order in itself and recent terrorism cases give some hint at how difficult it is to get those stars to align.  The homeland security complex frequently has to rely on generating both sides of the equation in order to get an arrest.  It both has to encourage potential terrorists to action sufficient to meet the conspiracy threshold AND provide the capabilities.  Certainly, many of the people arrested have demonstrated some willingness to discuss violent action but what isn’t clear is if this talk goes beyond what’s considered within the normal range of current behaviors.

Can we really say that we’re any safer by having these sorts of investigations occurring where

So, how could (or dare I say it, should) these sorts of things work?  Well, I’ll start by saying what it doesn’t have to be.  There’s no need for an adversarial system (after all, that’s what’s court can be for) where someone plays a permanent role devil’s advocate.  You could use that system but I don’t think it’s necessary.  What does seem imperative is a viewpoint hardwired into the system which has a different orientation than the one that views success in terms of arrests and seizures.  That means people whose careers don’t depend on being involved in ‘successful’, complex cases.  Intelligence personnel could fill that role but only if the source of their power becomes independent from the prosecutorial system which now runs the whole show.

An independent intelligence function (without arrest powers) could fill that role, forwarding cases to law enforcement that meet some criteria for their attention and forwarding (or ignoring) others based upon their threat and the most effective method for dealing with them.  One of the problems with our existing system is that it presupposes the best solution (investigate, arrest, imprison) in all cases.  When that’s your solution then you have to rig the threat equation in such a way to make it look that everything deserves that level of attention.

And then, you find yourself hiring a 17 year old to play the role of agent provocateur, and encouraging a bunch of people to commit terrorism so that they can be arrested.


Boobs for freedom

Last month the Atlantic ran a profile of the Ukrainian activist group Femen which is worth your consideration (and I mean read the article, don’t just look at the pictures). The group has become (in)famous for conducting demonstrations on a variety of issues ranging from prostitution and human trafficking to religion, the environment and economic issues. Sure, lots of groups protest issues like this but none do it like Femen. Femen does it in various states of undress (usually topless) which guarantees generous media attention and (equally important) interesting responses from security officials.

FEMEN FEMEN (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m unsure if Femen arrived at their strategy independently or if they took a page from the playbook of CANVASS (Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies) but they hit upon one of the central tenets of success for a small activist movement in a state with a significant security apparatus: make the security forces appear foolish and play the role of bullies in order to undermine their authority.

And there are few ways to do that then to have lots of photos and film of big, burly cops, loaded for bear manhandling half naked women. ‘Why did they need three cops to throw that girl to the ground and cuff her?’ Well, you’d have a pretty tough time claiming it was because she might have a concealed weapon. Even if the security forces aren’t too heavy handed in their approach Femen can always take a page from professional soccer and ham it up for the cameras making a walk to the squad car look like a torture session at Gitmo.

For better or worse, one of the very things Femen most objects to, the patriarchal society, is their greatest source of strength. Show a half dozen 20 something men getting roughly handled by police and no one will blink an eye. Show the same number of half naked young women getting treated that way and the image itself is likely to elicit sympathy regardless of the politics. It is the very image of the weak against the strong which tugs at our deeply held beliefs in fairness and reason for society.

And we’ve seen similar things recently in protest movements here. If you think back to the Occupy movement, which were the images which roused the strongest emotion? The two girls who were trapped and then pepper sprayed by the NYPD. The students who were sitting down and casually sprayed by the now notorious Lieutenant John Pike. The veteran who was shot in the head.

All cases of people who clearly posed no threat yet were the victims from a security service which clumsily used its power.  We’ll have to see if these protest movements are just interesting footnotes or can actually lead to change (or, at least keep opposition movements alive until they can generate the numbers and influence to present a serious challenge the status quo.

The (anarchist) Men Who Made America?

I recently got a chance to watch the History Channel mini-series ‘The Men Who Made America’ about the rise of robber barons in the late 19th and early 20th century. The series isn’t perfect and suffers from many of the flaws all too common in basic cable documentaries but even so it is remarkable and worth you time for several reasons.

While the series ends in a clumsy way, making Henry Ford look like the major progressive force behind the 8 hour work day, fair wages, and improvements in working conditions throughout the country and putting forth the argument that the robber baron era was essential to making the U.S. the best est, most civilized, and greatest nation on the face of the earth’, the rest of the series is much less certain on that point. In fact, there are elements of the series that are downright subversive.

The series mentions the Anarchist movement in two places in the series and, in both cases, in a favorable light. That’s surprising because both mentions revolve around activity that today would most definitely be classified as terrorism. The first was the attempted assassination of Andrew Carnagie lieutenant Henry Frick. Frick was depicted as a cruel, exploitive ogre who got his hands dirty with the business of extracting labor from employees so Carnagie wouldn’t have to. In the end, Frick’s callousness contributed to the Jonestown flood and violently putting down strikes. The filmmakers were clearly setting Frick up to be the ‘bad’ robber baron who deserved to be struck down by an assassin’s bullet (Frick didn’t die, however) so that the ‘good’ robber baron (Carnagie) could ride in and save the day by firing Frick and beginning his campaign of philanthropy.

Later in the series, Carnagie and the others engage in equally rapacious behavior yet it is portrayed differently than Frick’s episode. The latter had a vignette with workers huddled around the body of a dead co-worker, struck down by the unsafe working conditions. The former was merley done in a brief voice over with various pictures of life in late 19th century America and designed to not stick in the mind the same way as the latter.

The second act of anarchism was the assassination of President William McKinley. McKinley was a wholly owned creature of the robber barons, not even given a part in the series and clearly not worthy of respect or consideration. His assassin was described sympathetically as a man at his wits end after being thrown out of his factory job. The assassination signaled a serious blow against the robber barons by ushering in Teddy Roosevelt presidency and the era of trust busting.

President William McKinley, half-length portra... President William McKinley, half-length portrait, seated at desk, facing front (cropped) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In both cases, reform (really the only significant reform in the series before Henry Ford’s appearance) came about through the application of politically motivated violence, against the agents of capitalism. For the History Channel, I find that message curious and can only wonder at the underlying message there. Is this basic cable’s attempt to plug into the anti-capitalist sentiment of the 2008 crash and Occupy movement? If so, one must applaud the subtle way in which they did it. Superficially, the series is an homage to capitalism and entrepreneurs (and while the interviews with modern ‘mogels’ add nothing to the story, they do provide an interesting view of self-absorbtion and hubris) but I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else going on underneath the surface. The section of Ford seems hastily added on and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the narrative (and no mention of that whole Protocols of the Elders of Zion thing which, admittedly,  would have been awkward). I can almost imagine some producer saying there needs to be a clear captialist hero and Ford was the one who fit in the time frame (or, perhaps, History Channel was hoping for a huge ad buy from Ford).

The whole series could use a good editing and be brought down from it’s existing six hours (well, 8 with commercials) to a tighter, more effective three or four hour piece.  Reviews have been rather ‘meh’ overall but my quick review of them all seem to take the show at its most superficial.  There’s gold (well, ok, maybe electrum) in them thar hills!

On circular reporting…

Just two observations about the recent shooting in Connecticut.  The first is kind of a policy thing and the second is how this event relates to intelligence analysis:

I honestly can’t figure out if people are honestly surprised and horrified by these events.  After all, it’s not like mass shootings are a rare occurrence in the U.S.  Consider the following:

  • We have absolutely NO way to track the vast majority of firearm ownership changes in this country.  We can figure out who purchased one from a dealer but at that point they enter a big black hole, never to be seen again.  And we’ve got a LOT of guns:

  • While the mentally ill aren’t that much more violent than the general public (does that make you feel better?) our mental health system and culture towards it is so atrocious that there are few opportunities to intervene in many instances.  Basically, we hope the worst of them will get strung out on illegal drugs and self-medicate themselves to death, allowing us to ignore the problem.

Now, in intelligence analysis threat is defined as the intersection of capability and intent (more from me about this here).  Yet again, however, we’re about to forget that equation. If you want to reduce the threat you either have to reduce the capabilities of those you’re worried about (and here we’re talking about their ability to access firearms, ammunition and/or their targets) or reduce their intent.

We don’t seem to be able to even talk about limiting gun ownership in any way (even requiring all owners have firearms training will be portrayed as a totalitarian blow against freedom) so, despite the post shooting gnashing of teeth from those on the left, I think that’s going to go precisely nowhere .

And let’s be honest, does anyone see increased funding for mental health happening?  The right will say it’s yet another example of creeping socialism and the left is going to stamp it’s feet about guns all day.

So, events like last Friday are tragic but they shouldn’t be shocking or tragic.  Someone once said that Americans get the government they deserve (or something like that).  Well, we also get the crime that we deserve.  If you want unlimited gun ownership and consider mental health an issue of ‘personal responsibility’ then you’re going to get events like this.  If you want, you can hire more cops, give them bigger guns and more power to peep into your lives but do you really want to live in an armed camp for the rest of your lives?


Ok, so onto implications for intelligence analysis.

Since our law enforcement/homeland security community is essentially a competitive beast, what you will see (or would see if you could peep behind the curtain) is a mass of products flooding the system about this event.  Almost all of them will be meaningless drivel.  Cut and paste summaries from open source news outlets with some boilerplate language lifted from DHS’s ‘How to respond to an active shooter’ booklet.  These products are going to ping around the system like pinballs, filling up inboxes and (for the most part) going unread.

Why will so many of these repetitive products be made?  Because every agency needs to appear to be doing something.  To paraphrase Sir Humphrey:

must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement.

That way, when budget time rolls around they can proudly point to product X and say ‘We disseminated a product to all the schools within 4 hours of news of the shooting.’  What you won’t hear is anything concrete and measurable about the utility of said product.  That’s because usually there is very little.

Of additional concern is the use of resources in cases like this.  Does anyone think that North Carolina’s and South Carolina’s (purely a hypothetical example) take on this event will be (or should be) substantively different?  Rather than each devoting anlayst(s) to craft a product might it be worth while to produce one that applies to both.  Perhaps, in cases like this, even a national level product?

But that doesn’t happen.  So, beginning on Friday you had agencies all over the country and at all levels crafting products that were essentially the same thing.  Those were resources that could have been devoted elsewhere, perhaps to more credible, local purposes.  Given the sketchy details in the first few hours and the unremarkable aspects of this particular case a fairly generic piece that applies broadly would be fine here.

The other problem with all these reports is their impact on perception of a problem.  Even though these reports will all contain virtually the same information, the number number of these reports (I suspect) has some subconscious impact on perceptions of what threats are most likely and most dangerous.

For example, there have been a number of high profile mass shootings since the summer.  The open source media has reported on them quite heavily and the public safety community has an irritating trend of only following news items that appear on CNN or Fox.  So, in the wake of each shooting has been a flood of official products regurgitating the same information.

The problem is that few, if any, are looking at whether this is something substantially different, a spike in incidents that statistically happens occasionally or just the result of increased media reporting.  And since no one asks that question, people impose their own, evidence free, interpretations on these events.

And that, in turn, can lead us back down to focusing on things we shouldn’t.