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The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.

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Fair and balanced, eh?

Monday, January 21st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- Guardian reporting on Gaza and Mali, weighed in the balance and found wanting? -- with Fox News for company ]
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I frankly don’t for a moment buy that Fox News is fair and balanced, but then I don’t know if any news source is, so let me try to be a little even-handed here myself, and take a gander at a couple of recent Guardian headlines, using my SPECS format to display them:

I’m not the first one to juxtapose these two headers — there’s a site called CiF Watch that monitors the Guardian (specifically) for signs of “antisemitism, and the assault on Israel’s legitimacy” and it brought these two Guardian posts together with the comments:

The contrasts in language, tone and narrative focus between a report by Harriet Sherwood on Israel’s November conflict with Hamas and a recent Guardian report on the French war against Islamists in Mali represent an exquisite illustration of the paper’s egregious double standards. …

In Sherwood’s report, the deaths of Palestinian children represent the overwhelming narrative focus. The fact that the IDF was attempting to target Hamas terrorists is only mentioned in the strap line, and even then is qualified with the word “believed”.

In the report by Hirsch and Hopkins, on the other hand, we are informed via the headline that militants are killed, while the deaths of Mali children are only noted at the end of the strap line.

On the one hand, I appreciate this kind of close reading as an analytic technique, while on the other I can’t really expect editors to check previous possibly comparable events to make sure their treatment of breaking news is immune from this kind of criticism.

That’s a quandary, IMO — but not yet a quagmire.

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Forget the question of whether Fox News is more or less biased than the Guardian – or should I call them Faux News and the Grauniad? — and just think again about our passions, about how they can blind us, and about how that blindness can manifest in emphases, in choice of words or images — in so many conscious and unconscious ways.

We need to deploy considerable mindfulness if we are to explore, read, filter, balance and comprehend the world around us — with anything like the nuance required for making wise (rather than lop-sided) choices…

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Sources:

  • Mali conflict: militants killed as French air strikes pound rebel camps, Jan. 13, 3012
  • Gaza: four children killed in single Israeli air strike, Nov. 18, 2012

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    Book Review: Thucydides:The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan

    Thursday, July 5th, 2012

    Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan 

    Donald Kagan, who has been a professor of history and classics at Yale University almost as long as I have been alive has written a provocative book about Thucydides that challenges both conventional scholarly wisdom regarding the man who shares the title of “The Father of History” and the purpose of the book Thucydides meant to be “a possession forever”, The Peloponnesian War. In Kagan’s interpretation, Thucydides is the father of historical revisionism whose careful methodology furthered a political agenda: to defend the record of the Periclean state in Athens, where democracy was moderated by the wise statesmanship of the old aristocratic elite; and lay the blame for the downfall of Athens at Spartan hands on the vulgar hubris of radical democracy of mob and demagogue.

    Thucydides is tightly focused argument about Thucydidean omissions, juxtapositions and treatment of sources and bias in his analytical rendering of military events and debates in the Assembly, not a comprehensive examination of  The Peloponnesian War. Specifically, the treatment of Pericles and Nicias (whom Kagan argues Thucydides favors and whom Kagan blames for failures of strategy and execution, especially the latter) vs. that he meted out to Cleon, Alcibiades and Demosthenes. Kagan criticizes Thucydides for the deliberate omission of speeches of Periclean opponents in debates where he  had been present and purporting to know the thoughts of actors where definitely had been absent, in exile; of faulty military analysis of the situation of the Spartan garrison besieged on Sphacteria due to personal enmity with Cleon and of the original expedition to Syracuse, because of favortism toward Nicias.

    On Nicias in particular, a fellow aristocrat in favor of strategic restraint whom Kagan ascribes blame for the disaster in Sicily, did Thucydides seek a radical revision of the contemporary Athenian opinion. It was Thucydides belief that the post-Periclean democracy was a reckless, superstitious and greedy mob that led him, Kagan argues, to craft his narrative as an apologia for the inept statesmanship and incompetent generalship of Nicias that brought Athens to utter ruin in Sicily. Kagan’s accusations of bias on Thucydides part are more persuasive than his contention that the original expedition to Syracuse of sixty ships was a justifiable and sensible endeavor.

    Kagan’s charges against Thucydides indirectly raise the larger question of politics in postwar Athens. A democracy shorn of it’s empire, long walls and fleet, defeated in external war but triumphant in brutal civil strife over it’s internal oligarchic enemies, was in all likelihood a dangerous place. Xenophon felt as a follower of Socrates, who had been associated with the reviled Alcibiades and Critias, that it was politic to leave Athens for his march upcountry under the banner of Cyrus. Socrates was unjustly put to death by the democratic faction. Writing from retirement in the luxury of a distant estate was a wiser option for a man of Thucydides’ opinions in that era than a return to the political fray in Athens and in part, would explain his supposed “revisionism”.

    Strongly recommended.

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    The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis

    Friday, June 22nd, 2012

    Recently, commenter L.C. Rees brought to our attention  Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J.  Heuer, one of the rare sort of CIA officers who spent decades in both the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence.  I have been thumbing through Heuer’s work and if you have an interest in metacognition, analytical clarity, and cognitive biases, this book is for you.

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    Guest Post: Blip 02: Anecdote before Statistic

    Sunday, October 17th, 2010

    Charles Cameron is the regular guest-blogger at Zenpundit, and has also posted at Small Wars Journal, All Things Counterterrorism, for the Chicago Boyz Afghanistan 2050 roundtable and elsewhere.  Charles read Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, under AE Harvey, and was at one time a Principal Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies and the Senior Analyst with the Arlington Institute:

    Anecdote Before Statistic

    by Charles Cameron

    Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, one time commandant of the Army War College and author of books on strategy made one of those observations the other day that catch my attention out of the corner of my eye, and trigger a mini-avalanche of thought in response. What Scales said, in an interview with Government Executive, was:

    Armies break anecdotally before they break statistically

    Scales was discussing the dispiriting recent upwards trend in Army suicides, which has been discussed here and elsewhere – but that’s not what caught my eye or triggered the mini-avalanche.

    What struck me was the pairing of the words “anecdote and “statistic”. Because that’s a pairing that’s already very prominent in my own thinking. So let me just say this:

    When we think about “connecting the dots” and the intelligence community — whether it’s to discuss how the IC failed to notice this, or was overwhelmed with that excess of data, or might like the other form of massive data visualization tool — we generally think in terms of vast quantities of data, and technical means for making the appropriate connections.

    My own focus is on anecdotes, not data points – on individuals and their thoughts, rather than on groups and their statistics – and on the human, pattern-recognizing brain, rather than on high tech tools and their associated budgets.

     Look: Gen. Scales is right, anecdotes come first. And whether we’re thinking about our own troops, or our involvements with others in Afghanistan, or Yemen, or wherever, let’s remember that anecdotes convey morale and context in a way that statistics never can.

    So let’s begin to think a but more about our best human analysts, working with anecdotes rather than data points. The statistics and the data glut can follow later

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