Monthly Archives: October 2010

Zombie crocodiles…game over, man. Game over

Oh yeah, the end is totally near.  Now crocodiles are bringing down planes

A crocodile on the loose is being blamed for the crash of a small plane in the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed 20 people after passengers panicked and stampeded down the aisle.

…a passenger had smuggled the reptile, whose size wasn’t noted, on board in a sports bag. It somehow got loose on a domestic flight from the capital of Kinshasa to a regional airport in Bandundu,

The panic started when a terrified stewardess “hurried” toward the cockpit, followed by passengers. That threw the small aircraft off balance, sending it into a field of thatched huts “despite the desperate efforts of the pilot,”

But that’s not the weird part (believe it or not).  Ready?

Even though 20 people died in the crash, the crocodile survived!  It was killed after the crash by person or persons unnamed with machetes.

I’ll bet it was killed in the traditional way…

 

The Prince (analyst edition)

Warning:  I was a bit unsure about the wisdom of posting this since I suspect it may very well be the most pretentious drivel I’ve ever written (and, let’s face it, that’s really saying something.  eds.) but one of my blogging rules is not to censor myself so I’m going to give it a go.

Recently I was talking to an analyst who had been moved to a new job within their same agency and wasn’t particularly happy with the move.  Apparently, her new position involved an almost exclusive focus on data entry and retrieval and virtually no analysis.  While her pay and title remained the same, in terms of job responsibilities this was clearly a very big step backwards.

‘If something doesn’t change this will BE my job forever’ she said (opportunities for advancement or even lateral moves are vary rare) ‘and there’s no way I can do this for the next 20 years!’  Her personal/professional situation rules out relocation and the current economic climate means that other opportunities in her area are virtually non-existent.  She was (well, is, I guess) pretty stressed out.

And so I began thinking, what advice could I give her to at least improve the odds that this need not be her lot in life?  As I’ve said repeatedly, analysts tend not to have much power or influence (and, as usual, I’m talking not talking about the Federal IC but rather analysts in the law enforcement (federal, state, local), homeland security (regional, state, local), et. al.).  They’re relative newcomers to the field, rarely have a seat at the table in terms of…well anything really and so have few opportunities to use official levers of power to change things.  This is why I’ve often advocated ‘guerrilla analysis’ where analysts have to use their skills to force their organizations to change.  In my earlier writings I’ve been pretty vague, however, and what’s probably needed is a bit more in terms of specifics.  So, in what may  be the first of a multi-part series, I’m taking inspiration from my old friend Nicolo and offering my own humble thoughts on how an analyst should act in a situation in which they find themselves seemingly powerless against individuals or institutional forces  which work to undermine their role.

For while we may not be princes, we certainly fill the role of counselors.   It is we, after all, that best fit the description of the types of people the prince should surround himself with in order to give him advice:

…a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, …he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred;*

Chapter 1:  On the sources of power of councillors (hint:  Ms. Joplin is relevant here**)

When one thinks of analysts, one rarely considers them the repository or ‘power’ or possessing much influence in shaping the environment around them.  Rather, they’re often seen (even amongst themselves) as powerless when compared to the forces around them and see little choice other than ‘going with the flow’.  I believe in many cases that’s due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the environment that they find themselves in.  They do, in fact, have power to wield.  Allow me to propose several examples:

  1. In many cases they’re civil servants.  This usually means that they’re affiliated with a union of some sort and so the probability of dismissal or any serious punitive action is relatively small, especially if your ‘friction’ with the organization is centered around recommendations to the existing system (including the pointing out of flaws).  While I have, on occasion, heard analysts cave into institutional pressure citing the fact that they didn’t want to risk their job, the fact is I’ve never heard one able to describe a situation where an analyst had been fired.  They had just been so conditioned by our private sector culture they weren’t able to see how their situation was different.
  2. In addition to not needing to be particularly concerned with punitive action, among analysts there is little opportunity to be ‘rewarded’ by ‘playing ball’.  Since many agencies have refused to develop or implement a career advancement program for analysts, sublimating your sense of how intelligence analysis should work in the hopes of reaping professional rewards later will have about as much chance of success as winning the lottery.
  3. These factors are important when considered in combination with the fact that analysts are usually surrounded by people who have opportunities for advancement or banishment (virtual or actual) to various nether regions.  Analysts can exploit these facts by supporting or undermining the professional agendas of those people (as opposed to the mission of their agency which they’re ethically bound to support).

Now, I’m not advocating being a jerk but these factors do give you a degree of freedom to speak ‘truth to power’ and you should exercise that freedom for all it’s worth.  Just remember a couple of ground rules:

  1. Put it all in writing.  Yeah, informal conversations and water cooler discussions allow you to blow off steam but since there’s no record of them their effect will begin to dissipate the moment the words come out of your mouth.  Write it down in a well organized, thoughtful way.  Lay our your arguments and make your recommendations.  Oh, and keep copies of everything.
  2. Know your audience(s).  Look, let’s be honest.  There are a lot of vested interests in every organization and analysts generally don’t get a seat at the table.  So, you need to be aware of which one of those interests might want to use you (and your ideas) to further their own agenda and figure out a way to make sure they know of your existence.  Just make sure you leverage any such opportunity to benefit yourself and your fellows and, as much as possible, avoid becoming an foot soldier in someone else’s factional fight.
  3. Increase your profile.  There’s a cliche about the impossibility of being a prophet in your own land.  Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t.  What is true, however, is that you’ll never be a prophet if no one hears you.  Recognition outside your agency (ideally by entities which command the respect of your agency) not only increases the chances that your lot will improve but makes it more difficult to dispatch you to the equivalent of Siberia.  So, all that stuff you were writing?  Make sure you distribute it…widely.  Start a blog.  Take every opportunity to speak publicly you can (even if you hate public speaking).  Get out there.  Keeping your head down, plugging away and keeping a low profile will usually guarantee you of blending into the woodwork and being taken advantage of.  It may not be fair but that is the world in which we have found ourselves.
  4. Know what you’re talking about.  Chances are few others do.  Take the time to learn about your profession and understand the current thinking about it.  Understand your agency’s (stated) mission.  Figure out where the two coincide.  That’s the sweet spot.

*I could go on at length about that passage and how Niccolo essentially identifies the need of princes to have a strong, coherent planning and direction process but that may be for another time.  Given that one of my central tenets is that such a process is almost universally lacking my advice has to also revolve around how an analyst can guide ‘their’ prince to wisdom.  Or, at least, away from ignorance.

**Or, ‘Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose’.

The Machiavellian Renaissance

I’m not sure why or how but occasionally I feel like I’m tapping into the great hive mind.  Just as I’m thinking of writing a post about Machiavelli, I see a story on Cracked that mentions him.  Then, the next day Boing Boing writes that he’s everywhere (although they only provide one link to back up that statement).

But…that link is golden.  It is to Don MacDonald’s comic (uh…graphic novel) rendition of Machiavelli’s life.  Absolutely brilliant.  The guy clearly has a good handle on the source material, going beyond the Prince and delving into the history of Florence in the early 16th century and using Machiavelli’s letters and contemporary sources to flesh out his story.  Very nicely done and we can only hope that when he’s finished, MacDonald will bundle the whole thing up and offer it as an eBook or in hard copy.

Oh, and I found this link buried in the BB comments section about a recent book by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff trying to link the Blair government with the wisdom of Nicky.  Just for the record, that is the same idea I presented to my undergraduate adviser way back in 1992 (although, admittedly, not about Tony Blair).  Perhaps it was too ambitious a project for one such as me but I have to admit I’m a little peeved that I knew there was a book in the idea but my adviser smothered the idea in its crib.  Well…nertz to you, dude!

But, this post isn’t about me (Yeah, who are you trying to kid.), it’s about Machiavelli.  So, here’s a recommended website of Machiavelli miscellanea you might enjoy.

Download my COIN presentation

Submitted for your approval…my COIN presentation from 14 October.

My slides and the chat log are available for download.  I’m not sure if audio will be released but if it is I’ll link to it here.

Thanks to those who attended and stuck through the whole thing as well as the positive comments afterwards.

This doesn’t sound good…

The Swedish sniper story gets weirder and weirder.  Now, ‘former’ (ahem) gang members have decided that they’ll hunt down the sniper.

According to the local Sydsvenskan newspaper, the former leader of one of the town’s largest criminal networks is among a group of “old friends who have stuck together” and who are now actively looking for the gunman which has left Malmö’s immigrant community gripped with fear.

“He had better hope that we don’t find him first,” a man who referred to himself as “Leo” told the newspaper during an interview in his apartment in the city’s Rosengård neighbourhood.

The man believes he and his friends have better knowledge of the area where the shootings have taken place and will likely find the gunman before the police.

“It will be much easier for us to catch him than for the police,” he told the newspaper.

I find this interesting since I can’t recall (although I haven’t really sought out this sort of information) any similar instances where criminal groups (hey! that’s former criminals to you!) have publicly announced that they were going to

The bikerless biker gang (now with fewer bikes!)

Outlaw motorcycle gangs in Europe are a pretty interesting lot and Der Spiegel doesn’t disappoint in a story about a potential conflict between the Hells Angels and a newly formed chapter of the Mongols MC (man, they have a nice website.  I’m not sure is outlaw motorcycle clubs should have facebook pages though.  Seems kind of weird.)  in the city of Bremen.

There are a couple of added twists to the story, however.  First the Mongols are made up of Kurds who are part of a community that immigrated to Germany in the 1980s.  Second (and most strangely for a motorcycle gang), these guys apparently didn’t have motorcycles…

According to investigators, the new bikers have neither motorbikes nor the requisite motorcycle license. Whenever they cruise through Bremen’s downtown area, they drive powerful cars. Mustafa B. was the only member of the clan who had actually gotten his license, two weeks before his untimely death.

So now German authorities are concerned about two potential scenarios:

  1. The Mongols and Hells Angels (the dominant motorcycle gang in Bremen) start to battle it out over control of illegal markets and turf
  2. The Mongols and Hells Angels cooperate to form a criminal partnership

Neither one of those is desirable to German authorities.

Afghan Roundup

Ok…this is total confirmation bias here but after such a long period of bad news about Afghanistan how can’t one link to a story with a headline that says:

Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region

‘Rout’ has a nice ring to it.  Now we just have to hope it’s true.  I’m not sure entirely why, but this statement makes me a bit nervous:

Some of the gains seem to have come from a new mobile rocket that has pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile — and has been used against the hideouts of insurgent commanders around Kandahar.

Really?  So the answer is rooted in better military hardware?  Hmmmm…Is this how the NYTimes is making ends meet in these tough economic times?  Product placement ads to arms manufacturers?

Two paragraphs below that we see the sort of thing we would hope to hear in a COIN environment:

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

Good news/bad news:  Recommending talking to insurgents is no longer automatically grounds from hysterical charges of treason but the much ballyhooed talks with the Taliban aren’t much to get excited about at this point.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban and co-editor of a recent autobiography of a top Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, is skeptical about all the hype. He calls it a “blunt force PR campaign” released by the U.S. military and certain government officials, hoping to prop up flagging enthusiasm at home for what more and more Americans see as a losing battle.

“Certainly, what’s going on is nowhere near as exciting or progress-filled as the media are making it out to be,” he said. “If you dig down deep into the sourcing on a lot of these stories, it’s all still rumors and shadow-play.”

The inherent contradiction and confusion inherent in publicly supporting a COIN campaign and talking about withdrawal in a relatively short time frame leads to statements like this from insurgents:

“Now many people are travelling to Afghanistan because they hope that the Western troops will soon pull out of our country and a new future will start.”