Monthly Archives: July 2010

Weekend Music

Rasputina – Holocaust of Giants

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What would have happened if Stieg Larsson hadn’t died…

…and kept the Lisbeth Salander character going forever?  Maybe plot lines like this

A 102-year-old woman in Halmstad in southwestern Sweden wants to get rid of the legal guardian that the municipality arranged for her against her will…

Of course, the dramatic fight scenes would have to be toned down and the courtroom battles might have to change focus a bit but there’s no reason they couldn’t keep on with the ‘edge of your seat’ suspense:

“I cannot hear what you are saying,” Fagerberg answered in a loud voice to the first question asked to her in the courtroom this week. “But I’ll slap my hands on the table like this.”

Exclusive! Early photos of the Armchair Generalist!

Ok, this is totally echo chamber stuff but I saw this and immediately thought of everyone’s favorite chemical weapons analyst (h/t English Russia) …

Kvick Tänkare

The next time your special someone sings that Modern English classic to you, ask them if they’re aware of the serious consequences of their whim:

All Antarctica would be under water at this point. The north polar waters and the water over the vast, recently submerged territories in Siberia and Canada would be getting deeper. At the same time, equatorial waters would be getting more shallow.

Large land areas near the equator continue growing and join with each other. By now, nearly all of Canada, Europe, and Russia are covered by a northern circumpolar ocean.

Peter from the blog The Strategist has returned to blogging life with his observations during a month visiting Vanuato.  His blog is called ‘Archipelago‘.

Speaking of the sea…Palmyra atoll is a mystery.

There is a far higher biomass (essentially poundage) of predators than there is prey, turning the pyramid on its head. How the system can support so many predators is still a mystery.

An article in the Atlantic says that our higher education system is deeply flawed and a waste for most students.

Steve replies ‘nuts to that!’  Well, ok, he said a little more than that.

Corona beer is vile and I won’t allow it in my house.  I apparently not only have good taste in beer but a highly attuned sixth sense for foiling terrorist plots.  Note to al-Qaeda:  You’re going to have to work harder to catch us at that little game.  Really, if you’re going to assassinate someone with beer spend a buck you cheapskates and get a nice microbrew.

EnglishRussia has some really cool illustrations for a children’s magazine.

More WikiLeaks fallout

Dan Gilmor (isn’t he in Pink Floyd? Oh, no, that’s Dave Gilmour) had an article up earlier this week regarding the WikiLeaks data dump that was quite good.  I have nothing to say about their historical (or lack thereof) significance but he does make a valid point when he says:

Whatever our keepers of intelligence secrets do know, and whatever abuses they’ve done to our civil liberties to learn them, they must feel less sure today about keeping it all contained. When that many people have access to information, however compartmentalized their bosses may think they’ve made the system, some of it will get out, which leads to something else we should worry about.

The WikiLeaks war diary will absolutely spur our powerful institutions to look for increasingly draconian ways to clamp down on how we share information. What WikiLeaks represents is what governments and corporations fear: a threat to their cultures of secrecy and dominance in their domains.

And here’s the point.  It’s going to get harder and harder to keep stuff classified in the future.  The only thing we get by over-classifying information is a dilution of the idea of the need to keep some information secret.  That, in turn, leads to people handling such information sloppily or intentionally leaking it.  You can raise the penalties all you want for unauthorized disclosure but with so many people having access to such vast quantities of classified information you’re really engaging in a futile exercise.

So, I suspect we will see new laws and perhaps new procedures which further hamper the ability of people in the field to work efficiently (see: the DoD ban on flash drives which had to be relaxed) but it won’t fundimentally change things.  Better classification AND declassification procedures would be a big help.

Intelligence analysis and the Army – Law enforcement / Counterinsurgency Mashup pt. 5

Just a couple of observations on my most recent drill that saw me interacting with a few analysts.

First, I got to speak with a senior NCO who recently came back from an intelligence school and returned as a newly minted analyst.  I was interested to hear his impressions of the class.  He described his class as ‘very smart’.  Perhaps too smart.  They were so good that no one failed the class exams.  While that would normally be a good thing, Army schools hardwire time in the schedule for study halls and retests.  No failures means that gaps open up in the training schedule.  Apparently the was much gnashing of teeth among the instructors as they had to figure out what to do with the extra time.

I asked him for his impressions about the threat training and how they were preparing analysts to do their jobs in a COIN environment.  I was therefore shocked to hear that threat training continued to focus on conventional forces arrayed in the Soviet model.  To some extent that’s fine.  I guess North Korea’s forces are probably close enough to give such training some value but perhaps it’d be better to talk about conventional forces more generally by picking out forces of a two or three nations (perhaps North Korea, Sudan and Venezuela as three suggestions off the top of my head.  Anyone else have alternate possibilities?) that could be used to highlight differences in their structure and operations.  That way they could teach how such differences impact how analysts do their jobs.

What was even more shocking was hearing that there was NO instruction about intelligence analysis in a counterinsurgency environment.  Are you kidding me?  What the hell has the Intelligence Center been doing for the past nine years?  Apparently their capstone exercise involved a COIN operation but if they hadn’t given the students any context on how analysis there differs from analysis in conventional fights they really didn’t do anything except set the students up for failure.

Second, I got to speak with some younger analysts and was just chewing the fat (so to speak) when I mentioned the Afghan restaurant that I recently went to.  I mentioned, since most hadn’t deployed yet, that if they want a little taste of cultural flavor they might want to stop by and get something to eat.  Afterwords, I overheard a couple of the more senior people talking and one said that a few soldiers live in the area of the restaurant and were uncomfortable going there.

Now, that’s disappointing for a couple of reasons but particularly from an analytical perspective.  We all have biases and operate with unexamined assumptions but one rarely finds a decent analyst who isn’t intellectually curious and willing to at least consider alternate perspectives.  If your job is likely to involve analyzing the Afghan environment it seems the least you could do is become familiar with some basics like food.  How in the world are these soldiers likely to act if they really do deploy and have to engage the local population?  Ugh.

And this feeds into another problem.  At least among some, there’s a belief that analysts can do their job entirely in front of a computer (in fact, my S3 tried to push that crap on me – the guy was a total douche).  There’s no way I would expect anyone from a lowly infantryman to combatant commander to trust analysis about Afghanistan (or anywhere else) from someone who had never walked through an Afghan village, driven down a road, talked to locals or been outside the wire – especially if they refused an opportunity to do so.  I’m not saying analysts need to go out on every patrol but it is very difficult to do analysis under the best of circumstances.  To do it while intentionally shutting off an avenue that would allow direct experience of the subject to be analyzed is just crazy.  And if analysts (particularly military analysts) have a problem with that, it’s time for them to find a new line of work.  Analysts should be chomping at the bit to see the stuff they’re analyzing.

So…linking back to my posts of last week.  These are reasons why I say prescriptions demanding ‘better analysis’ just aren’t going to get us very far.  We recruit analysts based on their score on a bullshit multiple choice test and then don’t train people for the situations they find themselves in.  Should we be surprised that they don’t produce high quality, thoughtful and thorough analysis that unlocks the secrets of a country with different language and culture?  I suppose our current system keeps out the functionally illiterate but that’s about all you get.  Otherwise, you have to hope that people self-select into the field.  Let me rephrase that…our best hope that we’ll get good, qualified analysts in the Army is that 18 year olds will recognize they they possess (or not) raw analytical talent and decide to volunteer for that position.

Now think back to when you were 18.  Is that the person you want selecting who’s qualified to be an analyst?

And, just to put things in an even rosier perspective…as bad as this system is that I’ve just described?  Analytical selection and training in law enforcement is worse.  MUCH worse.

Intelligence update

I’ve been wicked busy the past couple of days and it looks like I’ll be in the same circumstances for the next week or so.  Still, the blog must go on, dammit!

I haven’t had a chance to digest the wikileaks story in the detail I’d like to (I was out catching some fish during the revelation).  It seems to me that while everyone is stumbling over themselves to proclaim how there is nothing new  in the 92,000 (!) classified documents for someone with even a passing understanding of the war in Afghanistan, they’re missing the deeper story.

According to the NY Times:  “Most of the incident reports are marked “secret,”…”

Ok…so, what exactly is ‘SECRET’ information?

Well, according to the NY times it is “a relatively low level of classification.”

But…according to wikipedia:

This is the second-highest classification. Information is classified secret when its release would cause “serious damage” to national security. Most information that is classified is held at the secret sensitivity.

Hmmm…that’s interesting.  How can it be both a low level of classification AND liable to cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if released?

So, here’s my question.  Given that no one is expressing much surprise at the documents that have been released, is it possible that this is an example of the rampant and pathological over classification that so many have been bemoaning in the past (oh, yes.  because it’s all about you , isn’t it?  eds.)  Think about it.  92,000 documents have been released, each one apparently so sensitive that they were determined to potentially cause ‘serious damage’ to national security if released.  And the result after they’re vomited out into the interwebs?  A huge yawn.

Now, I’m not sure what Wikileaks’ ‘harm reduction plan’ is but imagine, like the mainstream media outlets that are reporting on the story, they’re redacting names and, for the more current stuff, operational specifics.  But really, did all of this need to be classified?

For example, the only thing I could find in the area/time I was there was one lousy report (What the hell were you doing there?  Eating kabobs and buying rugs?  eds.).  Really, is this the sort of thing that needs to remain classified for 25 years?  or 5?

The problem is that our classification system gums up the works.  We classify stuff so that potential partners aren’t allowed to see it.  And really, nothing instills confidence in partners then giving them the feeling you have information that could impact the lives of their soldiers but you’re intentionally withholding it while asking them to risk their lives.

So, I’ll leave you with a practical implication of what I’m talking about.  Way back in the day, we had a British officer imbeded with our unit.  One of his tasks was to write a base defense plan.  Well, when he completed it and submitted it to the powers that be, they thanked him and promptly stamped it ‘NOFORN’ which means, ‘not releasable to foreign nationals’.

Just to recap.  A foreign national created a document for the U.S. military who then promptly forbade foreign nationals from seeing it.  I guess that would just be a routine SNAFU except some wiseguy at the MOD actually had the nerve to request that this officer convey a copy to British HQ (I guess so they could verify that he didn’t spend his whole tour eating kabobs and buying rugs).

What happened then was a very interesting game of ‘who’s on first’ where (if I remember right, my memory is getting a bit hazy) we were saying our hands were tied and couldn’t release the document (and do I remember a brief attempt to argue that we couldn’t even acknowledge it existed or what that have been too perfect?) and the Brit was getting increasingly frustrated.  It all worked out in the end at levels way beyond me but it was a ridiculous farce that consumed far to much time.

It appears that the NOFORN problem was addressed (a year later) but, this remains a serious issue.

On the whole, I think Wikileaks is a good thing.  Despite repeated guidance, rules and admonitions, classification of information is not always about security.  It’s about protecting screw ups, trying to establish credibility via limiting access and a lack of understanding of the process.  Hopefully a few more incidents like this will get some knuckleheads to focus on classifying and securing what really needs to be and let everything else go.

Ch-ch-ch-ch Cherry Bomb!!! (Music Monday – Tuesday edition)

I watched The Runaways last night.  They had broken up by the time I really started to enjoy music so I didn’t know much of the band’s back story and never really gave their catalog a listen (But he still has a crush on Joan Jett.  That’s gotta count for something.  eds).  Maybe because I didn’t have a good connection with the music the movie didn’t really resonate with me other than as a cliched tale of rock n roll excess only this time with teenage girls.

The movie really focused on Joan Jett and Cherie Currie rather than the band (I think Lita Ford has about 90 seconds of lines) and the other band members are really there just to hold the instruments…totally forgettable.

Still, it wasn’t bad.  Kristen Stewart was really good as Jett.  This goes a long way to making up for inflicting the Twilight movies on civilization.  And Dakota Fanning might be on her way to a successful transition from child to adult (no, not that kind of ‘adult’) actress.  There was one scene where her acting was wooden but it could have been bad writing.

The movie also did a great job in capturing the concert feel.  So….here’s The Runaways.  First the actual group in Tokyo and then the video for the movie.

What is Hoffman talking about?

In an article for the National Interest, Bruce Hoffman talks about the threat of terrorism in the U.S. but I’m not too impressed.  He lists some new ‘disquieting trends’ that we’ve seen recently including…

…the conventional wisdom, which long held that the threat to the United States was primarily external and involved foreigners coming from overseas to kill Americans in this country again has been shattered. Third, the comforting stereotype that terrorists are poor, uneducated, provincial loners—and thus are both different from us and can be readily identified—has once more been compromised. And, finally, that the American “melting pot”—our historical capacity to readily absorb new immigrants—would provide something of a “fire wall” against radicalization and recruitment has now fallen by the wayside.

Geez…straw men everywhere!  Are there really a lot of people who still think terrorists are ‘poor, uneducated, provincial loners’?  Wasn’t that myth blown away in 2001?  I know every time there’s an attack or attempted one news organizations go with the ‘I’m shocked, SHOCKED to discover someone with an education would do this sort of thing.’ but what person even casually following terrorism doesn’t know that terrorists (and not just Islamic ones) commonly come from the ranks of the educated middle class? Yet, Hoffman goes on at length disputing ‘conventional wisdom’ that I’m not sure is all that conventional.

And that conventional wisdom.  There are somewhere between 1-5 million Muslims in the U.S.  Hoffman points to 2009 as a ‘watershed’ of “[a] record nine jihadi incidents, jihadi-inspired plots or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training, and one tragically successful attack at Fort Hood, Texas, that claimed the lives of thirteen persons, occurred.

Sorry, but I do have a problem calling a .00036% rate of terrorism among a population a ‘watershed’.

I know…I know.  It only takes one person to nuke a city, release weapons grade anthrax and kick our dogs from a secret moon base.  Let’s not make this out to be some mass movement, however.

But my main objection is his ‘evidence’ that the idea of the American melting pot as a bulwark against radicalism has fallen by the wayside.  Is he really basing that on a handful of incidents in 2009?  Holy crap, I like to engage in baseless speculation as much as the next guy but this is too much even for me.

Ah…but let’s whip up that fear machine again.  Don’t get too comfortable just because we haven’t had a significant terrorist attack in the U.S. since 2001.  Hoffman’s here to tell you it’s not a matter of if…it’s when.

In this respect, what appears as “amateurish” may in fact be more a reflection of the attack having been rushed.

Yeah…Islamic terrorists have been so busy over the past nine years with keeping up with their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and putting out magazines that their problem has been that they haven’t had enough time to plan and execute an attack in the U.S.  If only they could get a prescription of Ritalin to help them focus they’d be launching highly effective, mass casualty attacks all over the place.

Perhaps it’s even more sinister than that.  Al-Qaeda inc. has a plan to just act completely incompetent.

…this is part and parcel of an al-Qaeda strategy that it also has pushed on other groups. It is a strategy that is deliberately designed to overwhelm, distract and exhaust the terrorists’ adversaries. Thus already stressed intelligence and law-enforcement agencies are deliberately flooded with “noise”: low-level threats from “lone wolves” and other jihadi “hangers on”—e.g., the “low-hanging fruit” that are designed to consume the attention of our national-security apparatuses in hopes that this distraction will permit more spectacular terrorist operations—such as the al-Qaeda-directed plot uncovered last September to attack the New York City subway system—to go unnoticed, sneak beneath the radar and therefore succeed.

Yeah, well I guess that strategy isn’t working out too well for them.  But, even if it were, he’s cutting those poor, stressed intelligence and law enforcement agencies way too much slack.  If they’re overwhelmed it’s because they choose to be, deciding to freak out every time some knucklehead upset from a custody hearing or whatever sends some soap shavings in an envelope to a courthouse.  That isn’t al-Qaeda’s doing.  That’s our doing.  We could refine our filters to ignore that ‘noise’ and pick off the low hanging fruit without obsessing over it but we don’t.  It’s too hard to do that.

He ends his piece with a number of questions we haven’t addressed and need to.  My favorite is the first:

What do we do when the terrorists are like us? When they conform to the archetypal American immigrant success story? When they are American citizens or U.S. residents? When they are not perhaps from the Middle East or South Asia and in fact have familiar-sounding names? Or, when they are “petite, blue-eyed, blonde” suburban housewives who, as the infamous JihadJane boasted, “can easily blend in” to our society to perpetrate terrorist attacks?

What?  Racial profiling might not work?  Oh, I guess I’m all out of ideas then.  Can we panic now?

Really?  Really?  ‘What do we do when the terrorists are like us?’  Yeah, I guess the 1960s and 1970s never happened.  I guess it’s also a good thing that criminals all are conveniently ‘different’ from us so they’re easy to identify.  Otherwise, how ever would we find them.

Where can a guy get a good Balanee around here?

If you happen to be in Central New Jersey and have a hankering for some Afghan food, check out the Afghan Kabob and Grill.  I was there yesterday and the food was most excellent.  The owner, Omar, is super friendly and if you want to talk Afghanistan you’ll be in luck.  It was a particularly good day to go since I’ve been jonesing for Afghan food for a bit now and the smells and tastes brought back some good memories.

Prices are very reasonable, portions generous and taste is very good.

Now, if I can just find someone who imports Afghan melons….