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Flight 370: or the search for a landing strip

Monday, March 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- whose own quest is for a long-enough strip of reliable mental silence to land an original thought on ]

Here is Foreign Policy‘s map of landing strips that Flight 370 might have used, offered with the caveat that as with a wiki, individuals may add or have akready have added spurious information or uninformed speculations at this point:

You may of course prefer the greater density and spread of James Fallows‘ offering from The Atlantic — both are interactive, but Fallows’ version as formulated by Atlantic reader David Strip doesn’t allow you to add landing strips if your own devising, though “if you click on any of the individual dots on this map, you’ll see popup information about the site — runway length, location, elevation, etc.”

Thankfully, someone at NASA was not satisfied by the “in the box” thinking for which Google is renowned, raised their scopes to the heavens and looked “outside the planet”:



In the memorable words of Alan Watts: Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown


The Totally DoubleQuotable James Fallows

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Malaysia flight 370 seen through the media glass, darkly ]


Here’s Fallows in The Atlantic on Malaysia flight 370:

As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we “have” to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay.

I would love to DoubleQuote that up with some other specific example — but which?

With the initial reporting that the Oklahoma City bombing was likely Islamic? From the American Journalism Review, Jumping to Conclusions in Oklahoma City?

Within hours of the bombing, most network news reports featured comments from experts on Middle Eastern terrorism who said the blast was similar to the World Trade Center explosion two years earlier. Newspapers relied on many of those same experts and stressed the possibility of a Middle East connection. The Wall Street Journal, for example, called it a “Beirut-style car bombing” in the first sentence of its story. The New York Post quoted Israeli terrorism experts in its opening paragraph, saying the explosion “mimicked three recent attacks on targets abroad.” “We were, as usual, following the lead of public officials, assuming that public officials are telling us the truth,” says John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine and author of a book on coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He believes the media overemphasized the possible Middle Eastern link and ignored domestic suspects because initially the police were not giving that angle much thought. “Reporters can’t think without a cop telling them what to think,” MacArthur says. “If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say this is the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?”

With the student Sunil Tripathi, widely and falsely accused of being one of the Boston Marathon bombers, whose body was later found in “the waters off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island”? As later reported by Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon:

Of all the ways in which last week’s horror in Boston showed the resilience and cooperation of a community in the wake of disaster, the tragedy will also inevitably go down as a shining example of the desperate, despicable scramble to hunt, to accuse, to blame first – and worry about ethics and responsibility later. If ever. We saw it in the epic bungling of mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Post. We saw it in the frenzy of Redditors and overeager tweeters. We saw it, most cruelly, in the story of a missing student, a young man whose body may have been pulled Tuesday night from the Providence harbor:

Sunil Tripathi was already making headlines before the Boston Marathon bombing. The Brown undergraduate was last seen on March 16, wearing “a black jacket, blue jeans and a Philadelphia Eagles cap.” … And then Boston happened. In what was later far too generously referred to as the “confusion” of its aftermath, the amateur detectives of Reddit decided that the missing man could be seen in images at the scene of the bombing. “The photos bear good resemblance… not perfect but there are definitely strong similarities… skin tone, hair color, approximate build, and yes that nose.” Where the whole thing really went berserk, though, was in the rumor, which instantly became a desperately repeated report, that Tripathi, along with another man mentioned by name, had been “identified on police scanner” as a suspect. Tripathi’s photograph was instantly splashed across the world. He was declared unquestioningly in the news feeds of both hasty, news-hungry social media users and several media outlets as a “suspect.”

And so forth…

Or should we go with something simpler and more general, like Moltke the Elder‘s dictum:

No plan survives contact with the enemy

or Philip Snowden‘s:

Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war


The DoubleQuote is a fine and useful form — but deep down, it’s pattern recognition — and as in the present case, a pattern may recur more than once…


In this instance… James Fallows later commented, in Malaysia 370 Update: Landing Strips, Cell Phones, and More:

Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What’s most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight — whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.

It’s possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word “confirms,” before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful “journalistic” figure in the world is … well, it confirms a lot of suspicions about Murdoch.


Wei Wu Wei, or the inactionable option

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- the excellence of today's piece by Joshua Foust and the importance of intelligence that is not actionable, with illustrations from Zenpundit, Dickens and Shakespeare ]

Kate Bosworth peers out from under a blindfold in the 2010 movie, Warrior's Way


Josh Foust just posted an important piece in his Atlantic column and on his American Security Project blog titled Myopia: How Counter-Terrorism Has Blinded Our Intelligence Community, with the subtitle:

The United States’ overriding interest in “actionable” information on terrorists has produced a dangerous form of tunnel vision.


This is important, and I’ll circle back to it. But first, please follow the full arc of the circle…


I post little headers at the top of all my Zenpundit posts these days, to let people know where on the irrelevance scale my latest offering should be placed — I guess the idea came from the 19th century practice of offering “synoptic chapter headings” to titillate the reader of novels, as when Mr Dickens titles one chapter of The Pickwick Papers:

Chapter XVIII. Briefly illustrative of two points; first, the power of hysterics, and, secondly, the force of circumstances

I digress.

Some while back, I posted a piece called The Haqqani come to high Dunsinane here on Zenpundit, and gave it the header:

why is non-actionable (useless) intelligence sometimes the most intelligent (useful)? – importance of multiple frames for complex vision

The piece was about the Haqqani network, but obliquely so — I was leaping from an image in a video where a cluster of Haqqani-guys in training were running around dressed as trees, to a similar image in Shakespeare‘s Macbeth:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

Well, that was the prophecy, and Macbeth took it to mean he’d never be defeated in battle:

That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements! Good!

Prophecies and portents are notorious for their double meanings, however, and this one’s fulfillment comes when Malcolm gives the order to his men:

Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him. Thereby shall we shadow
The numbers of our host and make discovery
Err in report of us.

Heh — “discovery” here means what today we’d call “intelligence” — and notice the importance here of reading multiple meanings out of a single sign.

A while later, a messenger arrives, and declaims:

As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look’d toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.

This turns out to be true enough, for in the next scene Malcolm, now before Dunsinane, gives the order:

Now near enough: your leafy screens throw down.
And show like those you are.


Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath,
Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.

And so it goes.


Let me emphasize, this is not, definitively not, actionable intelligence that I am in any way attempting to offer as such to anyone engaging in close-quarters combat with the Haqqanis.

Our arc is almost complete at this point, so let’s take a closer look at Josh Foust’s piece:

Large areas of the IC have move away from their traditional role of analyzing a broad range of current events for policymakers and toward supporting the global counterterrorism mission. News stories about this shift suggest the counterterrorism mission has become the overarching concern of the national security staff.

This shift in focus can create blind spots that pose unique challenges for the president. If branch chiefs and the policymakers they support value “exploitable” information over deep understanding, they might be ignoring potentially vital information that doesn’t seem immediately of interest.

Imagine an analyst finding reports of a growing discontent in a Middle Eastern country’s politics; if that does not provide immediate benefit for a decision-making process for targeting suspected terrorists, it can easily be ignored in the avalanche of targeting information.

Blind spots, eh?

Those would be “the dots” in the “larger picture” that you can’t “connect” until it’s too late. And where are they found? In “information that doesn’t seem immediately of interest” — intelligence that’s not “actionable” in other words.

Or to put that another way, what Josh calls “tunnel vision” comes from staring at what’s “actionable” — whereas vision that’s “out of the tunnel” comes from noticing what’s in peripheral vision.


Wei wu wei? It’s a Taoist motto: literally, it means “action without action” though it can also be translated “effortless action”.

I know, I know, this is a useless post. But you know what Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu?

I have a big tree of the kind men call shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!

And you know what Chuang Tzu said in response?


Quick update / pointer: GR & AZ on prisoner release

Friday, October 12th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- prisoner releases in Arab springtime, abu Musab and Dr Fadl; Daveed G-R and Aaron Z; two major rules of expertise: detail and humility ]

video edit-bay photo credit http://www.cdmastercopy.com


When you watch a well edited movie, the experience is seamless — despite the fact that the film itself was made with hundreds of cuts and splices. Film critics, mavens and the director’s fellow auteurs who make close readings and detailed studies of the film will see and appreciate the juxtapositions and graphic matches, the fine-tuned timing of the edits and the rhythm they give the film — but for the regular viewer, one continuous fabric of story unspools from opening to final credits. The editor’s skill lies in getting the splices right to a degree beyond the perceptual acuity of the audience.

Similarly, a fine carpenter will often want to make joints that are imperceptible to the client, seeking a sensitivity to changes in height that is an order of magnitude greater than that required for the quick, cheap performance of the same task.

True expertise is at least one order of magnitude deeper and more self-critical than it needs to be to satisfy a cursory examination.


Thus when Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Aaron Zelin tackle the important — and easily overlooked — question of How the Arab Spring’s Prisoner Releases Have Helped the Jihadi Cause in the Atlantic, they offer us both far more than we knew we needed to know, and yet less than they themselves know about the topic, let alone the broader current of jihadist movements of which this particular topic is a single strand.

It’s a significant topic, though, as their opening paragraphs neatly show:

The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens — limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI’s access to the site –has begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.

This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.

I recommend it highly, as does at least one other more knowledgeable than I.


A short piece in the Atlantic is just right for an overview, but not the place to lay out the next level of detail, though — and there are three people in particular whose names I am always on the lookout for, names of people who vanished from public view into some form of imprisonment, and who are of considerable interest to me personally — primarily for their theological significance.

The first of these is the Imam Musa al-Sadr, whose “disappearance” in Gaddafi’s Libya at the age of 50 in 1978 deprived the Lebanon of an inspiring leader — in a manner that eerily paralleled the ghayba or “occultation” of the Twelfth Imam of the Ithna ‘ashariyah.

The second would be Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif, aka Dr. Fadl, whose book The Essentials was one of the major works of AQ ideology and the #2 jihadist manual downloaded from the net according to the CTC Atlas (p.10), and who recanted it from Egyptian prison, writing his Rationalizing Jihad in Egypt and the World which so severely critiqued AQ-style jihad that al-Zawahiri felt obliged to pen a 200-page counter-argument. In Dr Fadl’s case, the interest would be to see what he would say if liberated now.

And my third “person of interest”? That would be Mustafa Setmariam Nasar aka Abu Musab al-Suri, whose massive Call to Global Islamic Resistance is a key document that chides bin Laden for “leading them to the abyss”, says “Al Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be. It is a call, a reference, a methodology”, and calls for “terrorism created by individuals or small autonomous groups (see Lawrence Wright, The Master Plan). Abu Musab, who may have been released from prison in Syria recently, is of interest to others as potentially the jihadi’s foremost strategist — and to me chiefly because of his use of apocalyptic forecasting in his Call.


Since their Atlantic piece was a short context-setter rather than a longer analytic paper, I asked Gartenstein-Ross and Zelin — Daveed and Aaron — net acquaintance and friendship is a funny thing, we haven’t worked out the etiquette as yet — about Dr Fadl and Abu Musab, not mentioned in the piece itself but surely not far from their thoughts.

Twitter, of course, is even more drastically reduced than a piece in the Atlantic, so you can think of their tweeted responses as something along the lines of snapshots of footnotes. Nevertheless, they give me, as an inquiring mind, a quick glimpse of what a couple of those at least an order of magnitude deeper into these things know or conjecture about two people whose names and potential activities we should all keep stashed quietly away on some easily accessible mental shelf.

Three things emerge from these tweets — how little we actually know, how important what we don’t know may be, and how honest the best analysts are about the limits of their knowledge. I’d tweeted, congratulating them on their piece and saying:

hipbonegamer: i note no mention of Musab a-S – any idea what’s up with Dr Fadl? Dead? Released? Still held?

And they responded:

Aaron Y. Zelin: Details still too murky on Abu Mus’ab and no info on Dr. Fadl.

D. Gartenstein-Ross: However, I think the question “where is Dr. Fadl, and why haven’t we heard from him?” is important for many reasons.

D. Gartenstein-Ross: But Aaron is right: I haven’t seen any open source info that speaks to his fate.

That’s two things at once: not very much, and a great deal.


So if lesson #1 of this post is that True expertise is at least one order of magnitude deeper and more self-critical than it needs to be to satisfy a cursory examination, lesson #2 must be…

True expertise never claims knowledge that is one order of magnitude deeper or more exact than is actually known.

Putting that in other terms: having an accurate mapping of one’s archipelago of knowledges within one’s oceanic ignorance is a highly significant form of meta-knowledge, lacking which one’s knowledges have blurred edges and little definitional value.

And that in turns means — especially in terms of human intelligence — humility.


It’s Follow Friday (#FF) on Twitter: @DaveedGR and @azelin are two folks you can follow and trust.


Games of telephone and counter-telephone?

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- embassy or consulate -- a minor detail for an editor, perhaps, but all the difference in the world for Ambassador J Christopher Stevens ]

Here’s a screen grab of a piece posted on the Atlantic site today:


The article itself is worth your time, and I’ll get back to the screen grab later. Here’s the text para that interests me:

In the famous “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, one of the major analytic points was that “Al-Qa’ida members — including some who are US citizens — have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks” (emphasis added). Notice that this analysis uses two hedges in a single sentence. Given the lack of certainty on the issue, such linguistic dodging made sense — as it does in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.

Leah Farrall has been tweeting about the way this characteristically cautious phrasing used by analysts gets lost as “the higher up the food chain an analytical report goes the greater the tendency for bosses in [the] food chain to add their two cents worth” — so that by the time it reaches the politicians, “there is absolutely WMD.”

The shift from “apparently” to “absolutely” is an interesting one.


The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate featured a section on the nomenclature of such distinctions, which I trust and imagine was directed more at its readers than towards the analysts who produced it:

What We Mean When We Say: An Explanation of Estimative Language

When we use words such as “we judge” or “we assess”—terms we use synonymously — as well as “we estimate,” “likely” or “indicate,” we are trying to convey an analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment, we do not have “evidence” that shows something to be a fact or that definitively links two items or issues.

Intelligence judgments pertaining to likelihood are intended to reflect the Community’s sense of the probability of a development or event. Assigning precise numerical ratings to such judgments would imply more rigor than we intend. The chart below provides a rough idea of the relationship of terms to each other.

We do not intend the term “unlikely” to imply an event will not happen. We use “probably” and “likely” to indicate there is a greater than even chance. We use words such as “we cannot dismiss,” “we cannot rule out,” and “we cannot discount” to reflect an unlikely—or even remote—event whose consequences are such it warrants mentioning. Words such as “may be” and “suggest” are used to reflect situations in which we are unable to assess the likelihood generally because relevant information is nonexistent, sketchy, or fragmented.

In addition to using words within a judgment to convey degrees of likelihood, we also ascribe “high,” “moderate,” or “low” confidence levels based on the scope and quality of information supporting our judgments.

• “High confidence” generally indicates our judgments are based on high-quality information and/or the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.
• “Moderate confidence” generally means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views, or the information is credible and plausible but not corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.
• “Low confidence” generally means the information is scant, questionable, or very fragmented and it is difficult to make solid analytic inferences, or we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.


You could think of these as counter-telephone measures — attempts to avoid the distortions and corruptions that tend to arise when a message is passed from one person to another, And that’s important a fortiori when an ascending food-chain of transmitters may wish (or be persuaded) to formulate a message that will assure them the favorable attention of their superiors — but also because the higher the report goes, the closer it gets to decision-time..

As the Atlantic article says, this kind of “linguistic dodging” (aka attention to nuance) makes sense “in report after report where individuals are discussing information below the level of actionable intelligence.”

Inevitably there’s a shift in tempo between contemplation and action.


Anyway, messages tend to get distorted as they’re passed along.

Consider, for instance, the caption to the photograph that graces the Atlantic piece at the top of this post:

The U.S Embassy in Benghazi burns following an attack in September. (Reuters)

There’s only one problem there. The US didn’t have an Embassy in Benghazi — they had a Consulate — and that’s not a distinction that lacks a consequence. Whatever else may be the case, Ambassador Stevens would certainly have been better guarded had he been back in Tripoli in his embassy.

Whoever wrote that caption wasn’t as deeply immersed in the situation as the former CIA analyst who write the article. And when you’re not deeply immersed, it is perilously easy to get minor but important details wrong.


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