Tag Archives: Intelligence

Tip top secret

When the Washington Post released their Top Secret America in July it was met with almost universal yawns.  They released another part in their series yesterday and while not exactly packed with new information (particularly for readers of this humble endeavor) it’s worth a look.

This article focused on the proliferation of state and local agencies in the intelligence business.

Among their findings:

  • Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.
    • Perhaps expecting the same, cracker-jack results?  Read Sven’s post on this for more.
  • The Department of Homeland Security, for example, does not know how much money it spends each year on what are known as state fusion centers, which bring together and analyze information from various agencies within a state.
    • Are you kidding me?  How hard can it be to count all those flat screen TVs?
  • Napolitano has taken her “See Something, Say Something” campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation’s capital for “Terror Tips” and to “Report Suspicious Activity.”…In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.
    • Uh…you mean the system where we threatened to blacklist people unless they started naming other ‘sympathizers’?
  • there were 161,948 suspicious activity files in the classified Guardian database, mostly leads from FBI headquarters and state field offices. Two years ago, the bureau set up an unclassified section of the database so state and local agencies could send in suspicious incident reports and review those submitted by their counterparts in other states. Some 890 state and local agencies have sent in 7,197 reports so far.
    • And the results?  Five arrests and NO convictions.

    “Ninety-nine percent doesn’t pan out or lead to anything” said Richard Lambert Jr., the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville office. “But we’re happy to wade through these things.”

    • No, it’s not 99% doesn’t pan out…It’s 99.99997% that doesn’t pan out

There’s also a discussion on the rather poor state of analysis at that level with the tendency to throw the term around like it’s going out of style.

“The CIA used to train analysts forever before they graduated to be a real analyst,” said Allen, the former top CIA and DHS official. “Today we take former law enforcement officers and we call them intelligence officers, and that’s not right, because they have not received any training on intelligence analysis.”

This is the result of an assumption (despite what you hear about how important analysts and analysis is) that intelligence work generally and analysis specifically is something any reasonably bright (or not so bright) person can do.

Actually qualified personnel to do analysis?  Bah!  That’s for sissies!

Training gets a long overdue hit as well.

In their desire to learn more about terrorism, many departments are hiring their own trainers. Some are self-described experts whose extremist views are considered inaccurate and harmful by the FBI and others in the intelligence community

Yeah, let’s be clear.  This isn’t only true of terrorism.  Way, way back I did training that I was unqualified to do.  I didn’t know I was unqualified.  I thought I knew what I was talking about but now I shudder when I think about some of the things I said.  Fortunately, the consequences of my actions were minimal.

And there’s plenty of space left for my old bugbear, fusion centers.

The vast majority of fusion centers across the country have transformed themselves into analytical hubs for all crimes and are using federal grants, handed out in the name of homeland security, to combat everyday offenses.

‘Analytical hubs’ seems a bit generous but the jist of the statement is about right.  Many centers prioritize their capabilities and work to the availability of funds rather than any assessment of threat.  That’s why we’ve ended up with the concept of ‘all crimes, all hazards’ which really is just the fusion center equivalent of that dopey color coded threat level thing.

The DHS also provides local agencies a daily flow of information bulletins.These reports are meant to inform agencies about possible terror threats. But some officials say they deliver a never-ending stream of information that is vague, alarmist and often useless.

And, local agencies, suffering from IC envy produce their own useless junk.  But, when your metric for success is how big your mailing list is and how many bulletins you distribute you really don’t care if it’s useless.  Which leads to another problem…no system for evaluating the usefulness and accuracy of published products.  Instead, you see a ‘fire and forget’ mentality in which review and reflection play no role in the intelligence process.

And let’s bring it all home with the inevitable warning that it’s not if another attack happens…but when:

“We have our own terrorists, and they are taking lives every day,” Godwin said. “No, we don’t have suicide bombers – not yet. But you need to remain vigilant and realize how vulnerable you can be if you let up.”

I’ve been listening to people tell me that we’re six months away from a wave of suicide bombers in the U.S. for at least six years now.  While I’m sure we’ll see them some day, as they say:  even a broken clock is right twice a day.


What does Wikileaks have to say about the Swedes?

(Note:  No Wikileaks cables were actually viewed in the writing of this post.  Rather all of the information came from media sources describing the data which, if I understand things correctly, makes them -the stories-fair game to comment on.)

Cablegate (sigh…I guess we’re stuck with that name) has some interesting things to say about the Swedes and Finns.

Not particularly surprising yet nice to be explicitly discussed was the American assessment that Swedish neutrality continues to exist in name only.

Wood furthermore wrote that information from Sweden’s military and civil security services is an important source of information for the USA for Russian military conditions and for knowledge of Iran’s nuclear programme.

I did think it unusual that the Social Democrats were so forthcoming about internal political issues to the American ambassador.

The Social Democrats‘ foreign policy spokesperson Urban Ahlin criticised his party’s lack of ideas in meetings with officials from the US embassy, according to US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

The other item worthy of note is the Swedish commitment to the Afghan mission.  Allegedly (because the minister in question is denying the conversation took place) asked for help in getting an Afghan minister to visit the Riksdag in the hopes that the resulting discussion would bolster support for the Swedish mission in Afghanistan.

The CIA did yet another bang-up job.  While flying their prisoners to various black sites around the world, the Swedish government “made it clear that it wanted to know if the United States was transporting prisoners and indicated that future flights would be given closer scrutiny” after receiving reports that planes listed as ‘private’ were in fact chartered by the U.S. and suspected of carrying prisoners.  To verify such things were, in fact occurring:

Confirmation that the planes were transporting prisoners came in April 2006 after a daring “surveillance operation” was ordered by Swedish security service Säpo and carried out without the knowledge of the Americans.

On Säpo’s orders, Swedish military intelligence agents dressed up as airport service personnel and boarded the plane. The agents reported back that the plane was carrying prisoners.

Hey guys.  If you’re moving prisoners around the world and want to keep it secret it’s probably not a good idea to let the catering guy have free run of the aircraft to resupply your stash of peanuts.

Kvick Tänkare

There’s some hypothesizing that one reason dolphins have such big brains is because they have to keep track of a large number of really complex relationships.  More complex than any animal other than humans.

Male bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops sp.) form tight bonds with friends and allies that are as intricate and devious as those of humans. Researchers already know, for example, that males team up as duos or trios—known as first-level alliances—so that they can mate with a female without her swimming away… But rival males will often try to steal the female, causing the duo or trio to join forces with other duos and trios in what’s known as a second-level alliance.

Now Connor and colleagues have found an even higher level of alliance. In the biggest fights, the team found, the second-level alliance may receive help from another group of male dolphins, forming what the researchers call a “third-level” alliance. Even among chimpanzees, scientists have not witnessed such sophisticated partnerships, where one group of animals receives help from another group in a fight.

Brian over at Gamecrafter’s Guild has taken the legend of the tomte and adapted it for 4th edition D&D rules.  First rule to remember…don’t piss off the tomte.

Great story from Sweden:

Swedish porn mogul Berth Milton has come up with an unusual business proposition for his next project: five-star hotels where guests can stay for free in exchange for having their indiscretions filmed and broadcast over the internet.

But hey, Mr. Milton wants you to know that if he builds one of these in your neighborhood, you needn’t worry about your property values falling.

“It has to be a hotel for non-swingers as well — not super-explicit where everybody’s running around naked. That takes the style and class out of it,” he said.

Oh…as long as they keep the style and class.

The balance of this post is NSFW

Even better story from West Virginia.  Police reports tend to be pretty dry and boring affairs.  Still, when there’s a good story it can shine through even the most boring official lingo.  And anytime a police report includes a quote like this you know there’s a doozy of a story attached:

“Somebody is going to eat my pussy or I’m going to cut your fucking throat.”

Oh, and it gets even better.  This story has everything…a marriage on the rocks, a motor lodge, two half naked buddies, and a crazy lady with a knife.  (h/t Balko)

If you’re in the Princeton area today…Updated!

There’s a lecture at the Woodrow Wilson school that sounds pretty good:

“The Politics and Psychology of Intelligence: Iraq and Other Wars”

October 07, 2010 4:30 p.m. 6:00 p.m.

Location: Robertson Hall Bowl 016
If I can make it there, find me and I’ll buy you a beer.  The code phrase is:  ‘Shiloh sent me’
UPDATE:  Yeah, it might help if I could tell the 6th from the 7th.  Not sure if I can make it tomorrow but if I can, the deal is still on.

Kvick Tänkare

Great headline:  Monkeys hate flying squirrels, report monkey-annoyance experts. (h/t Boingboing)

IBM has created a web-based version of the CIA factbook.  There’s enough variables to filter, views to alter and colors to see that even the most jaded of you will start to drool. (h/t sources and methods)

Sitherine is coming out with a new game that looks fun.  Battlefield Academy is based on a free BBC game of the same name.  You can still play the BBC versions with allow you to fight the Battle of Trafalgar or the original games which takes you through Rome, the Middle Ages, Napoleon’s time and WWII.

Peter talks about the Soviet withdrawal from his country (Hungary).

FBI epic fail.  Wikimedia epic win!  Hopefully the FBI realizes they are in a hole and will stop digging.

Lung Hu has two great posts worthy of your attention both revolving around that Iranian scientist defector/abductee/whatever Sharram Amiri. If you like your international relations with a lot of alternate hypothesis you probably haven’t heard before, check it out.

Pentagon orders barn door closed…

I KNOW there are smart people working at the Pentagon.  How, then, can one explain this massive failure to understand modern technology and culture?

The Pentagon on Thursday urged whistleblower website WikiLeaks to “do the right thing,” calling on the site to hand over thousands of leaked US military documents and halt future public releases.

Ok, let’s leave aside for the moment that this is a ridiculous request.  Wikileaks is clearly opposed to the war in Afghanistan and the idea that they’d now go ‘Oh…I’m sorry.  You wanted those?  My bad here they are.’ just defies reality.

But let’s assume they did that.  Guys, the stuff has been online, available for a download for a week now.  You can download it on bit torrent websites like Pirate Bay which means, it’s out there and it’s never coming back.

The people at the Pentagon must know this which means this must be theater. For what reason remains to be seen.  It better be a good plan, however.  It’s bad enough we haven’t been able to catch a guy who reportedly needs dialysis in the Northwest Frontier Province for 9 years.  Hopefully, the DoD hasn’t just set itself up to get its ass kicked by scrawny, pale Australian.

In other Wikileaks news:  Obviously all the talk about taking out Mr. Assange has gotten him concerned and he appears to have taken countermeasures.

Online whistle-blower WikiLeaks has posted a huge encrypted file named “Insurance” to its website, sparking speculation that those behind the organization may be prepared to release more classified information if authorities interfere with them.At 1.4 gigabytes, the file is 20 times larger than the batch of 77,000 secret U.S. military documents about Afghanistan that WikiLeaks dumped onto the Web last month, and cryptographers say that the file is virtually impossible to crack — unless WikiLeaks releases the key used to encode the material.

That file has been available for download and we can safely assume it’s on thousands, if not millions, of machines now.

Kocher, of Cryptography Research, agreed, saying that the only conceivable way anyone outside of WikiLeaks could decode “Insurance” was if Assange and his colleagues had used a blatantly obvious password or experienced some kind of “catastrophic algorithm error.”

“We’re not going to find out what’s in that file unless somebody reveals the key,” Kocher said.

Looks like we might have a classic Mexican standoff.  But, I just don’t see how the DoD wins this one.  By engaging with Wikileaks and not reaching a favorable conclusion (which I can’t even imagine) which would not only recover all the documents but discourage everyone else from copying the Wikileaks model it makes the national security complex look more and more impotent.

And if the U.S. Government overplays its hand?  Maybe by snatching up Wikileaks personnel.  All you’ll do then is rally thousands of advocates around the world who’ll spread the docs further and turn prying secrets from the U.S. Gov’t into an even bigger prize.

The milk has spilled, gentlemen.  Stop crying and move on.

Oh…and check out this interview of Daniel Ellsberg (the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers) about the WikiLeaks issue.

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.

Top secret is the new black

The first part of the Washington Post special report on the intelligence community is a good overview of the system we have but I’m not sure there’s anything really new to people who’ve been following the intelligence field.  I suspect that even if you’ve just been perusing this blog you’d find some reoccurring themes.  Over classification of information, lack of planning and direction, poor training, an emphasis on shiny objects and the old fashioned belief that the best information is horded.  Still, some of the details are worth noting:

An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

Just a reminder:  Top Secret:  containing information whose disclosure could result in grave danger to the national security; – the highest of the three commonly known levels of national security classification, the others being confidential and secret.

One wonders how many people are running around with Secret clearances.

Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who was asked last year to review the method for tracking the Defense Department’s most sensitive programs….”Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,” Vines said. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.”

Why does he assume that the purpose of the intelligence industry is designed to make us safer?  If you assume that the purpose of the community is to enlarge itself and justify its existence by pointing to a flurry of activity which focuses on production over utility than you’d expect to see things like this:

  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
  • Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year – a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
  • at least 263 organizations have been created or reorganized as a response to 9/11. Each has required more people, and those people have required more administrative and logistic support: phone operators, secretaries, librarians, architects, carpenters, construction workers, air-conditioning mechanics and, because of where they work, even janitors with top-secret clearances.

Heh…and here’s a quote worthy of Sir Humphrey…

In an interview before he resigned as the director of national intelligence in May, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair said he did not believe there was overlap and redundancy in the intelligence world. “Much of what appears to be redundancy is, in fact, providing tailored intelligence for many different customers,” he said.

Yes…some require reports in Times New Romans and others in Courier.

At least 20 percent of the government organizations that exist to fend off terrorist threats were established or refashioned in the wake of 9/11.

And 80% of such agencies all had to have flat screen TVs after 9/11 too….

Turf wars, institutional inertia, and of course, status seeking behavior.  It’s all there in its green tinged glory.

SCIF size has become a measure of status in Top Secret America, or at least in the Washington region of it. “In D.C., everyone talks SCIF, SCIF, SCIF,” said Bruce Paquin, who moved to Florida from the Washington region several years ago to start a SCIF construction business. “They’ve got the penis envy thing going. You can’t be a big boy unless you’re a three-letter agency and you have a big SCIF.”

Oh, it’s not just in D.C. and it’s not just among three letter agencies.  It’s 2010 and we still can’t shake the insane idea that higher classification equals more credibility, reliability and importance of information.  I’d really like to see a comparison of intelligence products which matches up one developed at each level of classification (or at least unclassified, Secret and Top Secret) and then measure them in terms of accuracy, reliability, time from assignment to dissemination and a test of how widely its findings are disseminated (the best intelligence product in the world if no one is cleared to look at it).  Actually, I’d like to see a lot of comparisons like that because I’m confident that the products written at a lower classification level would be superior in almost all cases.

And keep in mind…these are the agencies at the pinnacle of the field here in the U.S.  It’s all downhill from there.  Regional, state and local intelligence agencies have fewer resources than their federal counterparts, have less money to offer their personnel in terms of pay, equipment and training leading to them hiring employees who can’t get jobs with federal agencies/contractors (a pretty significant feat during the gravy train days) or people who are tied geographically to an area.  That puts serious strains on your talent pool over time.

Rather than look at what a particular agency can be good at, everyone looks at where the money is going to come from.  Grant money for prison radicalization?  Oh…let’s form a center of excellence!

Something I didn’t see reported was the challenges of security clearances themselves.  You see, not ever agency recognizes security clearances granted by other agencies.  Agency X might not accept Department of Defense clearances….who might not accept them from Agency Y.  Perhaps that’s an official policy or perhaps it’s some local fiefdom flexing it’s muscles but it happens often enough to get to the water cooler during ‘WTF?!’ sessions.

Yes, we have met the enemy and he is us…

Law Enforcement / Counterinsurgency Intelligence Mashup Part 2

One of my central tenets is that even a very bad police department is going to have a better grasp of its operating environment than a very good military unit engaged in COIN.  This may seem a bit basic but allow me to point out some reasons why I think this is so:

  • Cultural familiarity – It’s common for law enforcement officers to come from the communities in which they work.  That means they know the physical layout of the area, the language, those with influence and other cultural factors
  • Institutional knowledge – It’s common for law enforcement officers to serve in one jurisdiction for their entire careers further enhancing their knowledge of their environment.  Further, institutional knowledge is passed from senior members of law enforcement to junior members through formal mentoring and informal information sharing.

Now the military can try to replicate these effects of these factors but the fact is cultural awareness classes, interpreters and after action reviews will, at best, only give you a fraction of the picture that a law enforcement agency has.  Even if you were to universalize a program like Afghan Pakistan Hands you’d have to wait years before you could approach the same level of understanding that a law enforcement agency has.

The military can (and should) spend money on language and cultural awareness training but those things aren’t going to do more than give you a superficial understanding of the environment.  At best they’ll give troops the tools with which to develop and contextualize their new environment.

Another way forces have traditionally addressed this knowledge shortfall is to rely on local security forces (I guess this needn’t be limited to security forces.  We could include any proxy relied upon to provide military counterinsurgency forces an understanding of the environment) to provide this information.  Unfortunately, that relies on the assumption that the local security forces can be 1) counted on to provide an understanding of the operating environment without adding their own biases or spin, 2) that the orientation and institutional biases of the local security forces matches up with those of the military exactly or 3) the military will understand the biases of the local security forces and be able to correct for them when analyzing information they receive.

Maybe I should back up a bit…why is an understanding of the operating environment (apart from traditional enemy information) important?

From Gen. Flynn’s ‘Fixing Intel‘ about the state of intelligence in Afghanistan now:

This vast and underappreciated body of information, almost all of which is unclassified, admittedly offers few clues about where to find insurgents, but it does provide elements of even greater strategic importance – a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself.

Gen. Flynn’s report makes a number of suggestions (orders?) in an attempt to address the problems he identifies but upon reflection I think he misses an important point.  Most of his recommendations focus on the collection and analysis phase of the intelligence cycle.  Those are the big, glaring shortfalls and the ones, I suspect, that will really require the most in the way of deep structural change.  By that I mean addressing things like the selection and training of analytical personnel, evaluating the structure of analytical organizations within units, etc.

What I don’t think he addresses sufficiently is address the collation and dissemination phases.  I suspect we could make significant gains in intelligence capabilities by looking at these phases while adhering to my initial criteria of avoiding potentially disruptive systemic change.  Where we can get some bang for our buck is in leveraging the strengths the military already has to replicate the the advantages law enforcement has in its knowledge of the operating environment.

Next:  Let’s start talking specifics…

Profiling again

Sjponeil linked to this website whose focus is on aggression in the workplace and their comments on profiling.  I can’t verify the system used for rating violent behavior but his underlying assumptions seem spot on:

Until we isolate aggressive behavior and judge it on its merits, will we be unable to identify, measure and thereby manage emerging aggressive behavior.

The use of profiles is not effective either for identifying students who may pose a risk for targeted violence at school or – once a student has been identified – for assessing the risk that a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence.” It continues; “An inquiry should focus instead on a student’s behaviors and communications to determine if the student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack.”

There’s no reason to assume that the same isn’t true for terrorists either.  We should be looking at behaviors rather than biological characteristics.

After all that’s what cops do when you hear about them breaking up or stopping a crime just before it was to occur.  When most criminals get ready to commit their crime (an armed robbery, say) good police can detect that something is amiss from the suspects behavior.  They move in ways different from people going about their (law abiding) business, they show stress and anxiety in their behavior, they may constantly reach in their waist band where a weapon might be hidden.  None of those things rely on the race, religion or age of the suspect.  In fact, a demographic based profiling system can act as an obstacle to behavior profiling.

Now, Byrnes claims that the system I understand to be considered cutting edge in terms of behavioral profiling “requires far too much sophistication for most to use effectively”.  I can’t speak to that being unfamiliar with the science of it and I’m not sure what he means practically when he says the solution is to “utilize a continuum of intent-driven Cognitive Aggression, i.e., learning and applying the precursors to an act of violence with objective, culturally neutral, distinct body language, behavioral and communication indicators of emerging aggression.” but I know it’s got to be better than demanding that we strip search every Muslim male between the ages of 18-28.

Don’t tell that to James “I do NOT need working neural networks to be a senator” Inhofe.  Courtesy of Spencer:

I’m, for one — I know it’s not politically correct to say it — I believe in racial and ethnic profiling. I think if you’re looking at people getting on an airplane and you have X amount of resources to get into it, you get at the targets, and not my wife. And I just think it’s something that should be looked into. The statement that’s made, it’s probably 90 percent true with some exceptions like the Murrah federal office building in my state, Oklahoma. Those people, they were not Muslims, they were not Middle Easterners. But when you hear that not all Middle Easterners or Muslims between the age of 20 and 35 are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims or Middle Easterners between the age of 20 and 35, that’s by and large true. And I think that sometime we’re going to have to — at least, I’m going to have to have a better answer than I give the people back home, when people board planes or get into environments such as the environment we’re dealing with with this report.

By and large true…Oh yeah.  I can imagine that excuse working when a non 20-35 year old Middle Easterner/Muslim (isn’t that the same thing?) male blows up a plane.  I’m sure Republicans would cut the President some slack (or, truth be told, the Democrats if the power structures were reversed) if he said something like:  “Well, we are stopping terrorists…by and large.”

Yes…let’s focus on demographics.  After all, we all know that real human beings (those of us who were raised in the Western world that is) would never commit terrorism.

“Described by one American official as ‘blond-haired, blue eyed-types,’ these individuals fit a profile of Americans whom al-Qaida has sought to recruit over the past several years,” the report states.