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Of actionable and inactionable intelligence

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — nutshell version: strategy should precede tactics as contemplation precedes action ]
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action should be founded on contemplation robert mcnamara

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Let me grab a quick quote from page 4 of Dr. Rob Johnston‘s Analytic Culture in the US Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study, and launch from there:

Warner reviews and synthesizes a number of previous attempts to define the discipline of intelligence and comes to the conclusion that “Intelligence is secret state activity to understand or influence foreign entities.”

Warner’s synthesis seems to focus on strategic intelligence, but it is also logically similar to actionable intelligence (both tactical and operational) designed to influence the cognition or behavior of an adversary.

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Look, I’m an amateur reading professional materials, but what I sense here is a distinction between “actionable” and “strategic intelligence” — which for my purposes as a confirmed Taoist might semi-tongue-in-cheek be called “inactionable intelligence” and be done with it.

But of course while “inactionable intelligence” is certainly intelligence, it is by no means inactionable in any real sense. It is simply actionable at a different level or altitude, one more rareified if you will, closer to the needs of policy makers than those in the field, background hum to the vivid and pressing urgencies and exigencies of battle.

Let me take, from my reading when I began this post a week ago, and without giving them undue priority over a thousand such pieces that you or I might find, three headlines to illustrate my point:

  • American Conservative: COIN Is a Proven Failure; America risks shoveling more troops into Iraq to replicate a strategy that never worked in the first place
  • EmptyWheel: Over $80 Billion Wasted in “Training” Iraqi, Afghan Forces: No Lessons Learned
  • Informed Comment: Iraq Fail: Shiite Gov’t asks Sunni tribe to fight ISIL, but Sentences Politician from Tribe to Death
  • Agree or disagree with those three individual pieces as you may, each in turn depicts a situation where it is not the single raid or drone strike, firefight or rescue attempt, but the wider grasp of a war and its nth-order ramifications that is at stake. And while having a clear grasp of such things (seeing them in a coup d’oeuil, perhaps?) may not save or kill at the individual, small group, immediate tactical level, it can save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, and perhaps even avert entire wars and their deranged after-effects, acting as what I’ll call “actionable wisdom” at higher altitude.

    **

    So we have the proposition: true inactionable intelligence is insightful actionable wisdom.

    Now here’s the thing: everyone knows that actionable intelligence is useful — it is almost something you can touch or see — it gives meaning to the view in a sniper’s scope, it is visceral, present, immediate, concrete, practical.

    By comparison, the high contextual intelligence I am calling “actionable wisdom” is more remote, theoretical, abstract — less tangible, less, let’s face it, sexy than “actionable intelligence”.

    Yet it has a wider and deeper reach, and the potential to offer far more positive outcomes and save far more lives.

    **

    I often refer to Castoriadis‘ quote about how different philosophy would be if our paradigm for a “real object” in consiering what reality is was Mozart‘s Requiem rather than a kitchen table — a table seems more real than music, munitions more real than morale — but are they?

    Or to put that another way — and I’m serious, if mildly metaphorical, in repurposing Stalin‘s quote — How many divisions has the Battle Hymn of the Republic?

    As many as it brings courage to, would be my answer.

    **
    **
    **

    Footnoting that McNamara quote: It’s from Robert S. McNamara in Conversations with History, starting from the question at the 11.21 mark onwards. Here’s a more detailed transcript:

    At times I think there is a tension between what you call contemplation and action. But I think there’s less tension than most people believe, and I myself believe a person of action, or let’s say an administrator if you will, should put more weight on contemplation, what you call contemplation, should put more weight on establishing values in his mind, establishing goals and objectives, for himself, for his organization, and those he’s associated with. Let me phrase it very simplistically: I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between a soft heart and hard head. In a sense, I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between contemplation and action. Action should be founded on contemplation, and those of us who act don’t put enough time, don’t give enough emphasis, to contemplation.

    After a discussion of his role introducing safety features in the 1950s auto industry, he continues:

    There’s no contradiction between what I call a soft heart and a hard head, or there’s no contradiction between what I’ll call social values on the one hand and a firm’s financial strength and sustainability on the other – that’s really what I was first trying to prove to myself and then trying to prove to others.

    Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

    Friday, December 12th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]
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    Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

    Let’s begin here:

    **

    There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

    Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts

    **

    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    Taoism with Intelligence, yeah!

    Monday, December 30th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — this post is useless and a delight, if you catch the same drift I do ]
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    Well you know me, I love juxtapositions and variations on a theme, and I have a keen interest in applying them with intelligence to Intelligence — especially where it meets Religion — so this one’s a natural!

    I mean, you might think the upper panel was an IC logo since it uses the word “intel”, but it’s not — it’s the long-time logo for a brand of computer chips from Intel Corp — now found in both PCs and Macs.

    But the IC was not to be outdone, and — mirabile dictu — has responded with its own “inside” logo. Intel is fine, you see, but frankly Tao is better.

    My own preferred Taoist text is that of Chuang Tzu‘s Inner Chapters — “chapters inside” one might almost say — which you can find translated by the excellent Burton Watson in Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings.

    Open it up, go inside…

    **

    NSA’s Tao source:

  • Der Spiegel
  • America’s Defense Amnesia

    Friday, November 1st, 2013

    (by Adam Elkus)

    Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:

    Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

    The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

    Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.

    After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed.  The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.

    Circa 2007-2009, however, large-scale occupations in the Muslim world began to go out of style. Critics began to clamor for a light footprint approach heavily based around counterterrorism strike forces and standoff firepower. A presidential candidate promised to hit al-Qaeda hard with flexible counterterrorism forces. Reduce the terrorist threat steadily growing in safe havens, he and his staff argued. The zeitgeist began to turn towards a culture of raiding, characterized by some of the very same assumptions about light and lethal forces that were so widely criticized prior to the counterinsurgency era. Manpower-intensive occupations were out, intensive counterterrorism in the dark was in. Instead of stabilizing failed states, America would use a combination of intelligence, special operations, and statecraft to marginalize and undermine al-Qaeda.

    The age of “dirty war”  became a lightning rod for criticism. But one of the most trenchant criticisms was that an obsession with tactical counterterrorism intelligence was harming America’s intelligence agencies’ traditional specialties in strategic intelligence and counterintelligence. The line between military and intelligence was being “blurred.” The larger cost? Focusing so much on short-term, tangible, and easily justifiable counterterrorism intel requirements blinded America to the larger picture that it needed to see. As a result, it would be perpetually surprised by events like the Arab Spring.

    In light of today’s furor over spying on allies, it is worth examining how this line of argument cast the difference between strategic intelligence and strike intelligence as a military-industrial complex analog of the classic dichotomy between basic and applied scientific research. Basic scientific research is often difficulty to justify in the short term, and frequently does not result in immediate payoff. But none of today’s scientific discoveries would have been possible without it. Hence, as Pillar noted in his essay, in retrospect it is easy to see “failures of intelligence” in areas where ambiguity regarding the purpose of intelligence, targets, and immediate payoff motivated hesitation. Ironically, as Dan Trombly tweeted, most of the intelligence community’s “counterterrorism obsession” critics were silent (with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.

    Returning to Pillar’s opening metaphor, it seems that the American defense and foreign policy community is suffering from a collective case of amnesia. A call for counterterrorism, light footprints, and intelligence leads to an intelligence architecture that supports a raiding posture, and is then promptly and widely criticized for focusing so intensely on counterterrorism. A call for counterinsurgency results in substantial investment in counterinsurgency abilities, and then is promptly and widely criticized for its time and expense.

    My analysis is undeniably unfair in some ways. First, the aggregated commentary of the DC defense commetariat consensus as presented here smoothes out meaningful differences, nuances, caveats, and variations. It was not as simple as I make it out to be, but the consensus of a community is not easily described in a single paragraph. Second, each idea also produced data that was (fairly or unfairly) evaluated. Counterinsurgency theory looked very appealing to many analysts in 2006 but was pronounced dead by war-weary Americans in 2011. Compared to Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, drones and special ops seemed compelling . But as the wars drew down and more press attention focused on the ramped-up counterterrorism campaigns, analysts began to have substantial misgivings.

    That said, the problem is that while the world certainly changes fast, it has not changed fast enough to justify the kind of analytical mood swings that have frequently occurred since the beginning of the COIN era. If one took the last 12 years of national security commentary as gospel, they would believe that some seismic, worldview-invalidating event occurred every 1-3 years and necessitated a wholesale rejection of the policy the previous worldview-invalidating event spawned. Events have complicated and qualified—but not wholly invalidated–the merits and demerits of COIN, special operations and counterterrorism, and strategic intelligence (which includes spying on allies). While all of the arguments I’ve summarized here contradict each other, I can’t say with confidence that any of them are completely wrong.

    The problem with America’s defense amnesia is not “be careful what you wish for.” No one can know exactly how their policy preference will work out. It is not even “remember what you wish for.” Rather, the lesson is to keep in mind that however fast events may move, there are larger and systemic factors and tradeoffs that stimulate day-to-day policy problems. These systemic factors change very slowly, and remain fairly consistent across administrations. Why we cannot comfortably dismiss any of the varying defense memes I’ve cataloged is that each dealt with a segment of a larger problem.

    Being conscious of the unchanging challenges of American national security, from the difficulties of maintaining local outposts of American hegemony to how America’s national position produces incentives for perpetual war, has important intellectual benefits. We can avoid calls for dramatic course correction over hysterias of the moment and keep the longer term in mind. And we gain an appreciation for what has changed and what remains the same. A wider view tells us that war is not more complex, the calculus of strategic intelligence is not simple, and there are costs to both counterinsurgency and standoff counterterrorism that must be evaluated.

    Moreover, we gain a greater respect for the policymakers who must deal with underlying manifestations of deeper and systemic problems instead of behaving (as even I sometimes do) like we have cracked some secret code unavailable to the idiots in Washington. There is some truth behind the disdainful phrase “good enough for government work.” But if the national security and foreign policy problems that government tackles were as obvious or linear as today’s criticism often implies, would our policy demands oscillate as wildly as Pillar alleges? It seems that unless we start tattooing relevant names, events, and information on our bodies (like Pearce’s Memento character does to help him remember), we won’t remember enough to answer that question. Such is the life of an amnesiac.

    Madame Feinstein and the NSA

    Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

    Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Ca.) is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She and her closest aides are privy to some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets above and beyond that of an ordinary member of the intelligence committee. When a highly sensitive covert operation requiring a presidential “finding” be reported to Congress hers is one of the very few offices in the loop and one of the first to be briefed.

    Senator Feinstein is also suddenly shocked that the NSA, which was set up to spy on foreign governments and has been briefing her for years – is allegedly spying on foreign governments:

    “It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community,” Feinstein said in a statement to reporters.

    “Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed.

    With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies – including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany – let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.

    Lest you be forgiven for thinking that Senator Feinstein was chairing an intelligence committee in some other universe than the one in which we live, she recently had this to say about NSA domestic mass surveillance of ordinary Americans (which the NSA is not supposed to be doing at all except in very narrow circumstances):

    The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight. Above all, the program has been effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the U.S. and our allies. Congress should adopt reforms to improve transparency and privacy protections, but I believe the program should continue.

    The call-records program is not surveillance. It does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations. The NSA only collects the type of information found on a telephone bill: phone numbers of calls placed and received, the time of the calls and duration. The Supreme Court has held this “metadata” is not protected under the Fourth Amendment.

    Set aside the cutesy and deliberately misleading part about the underlying metadata case which was decided in a radically different context than NSA mass surveillance – these two statements together effectively mean that Senator Feinstein is ok with the NSA functioning unfettered as the world’s most powerful secret police agency but not as an agency tasked with acquiring foreign intelligence. Doing things, like, you know, espionage to discover the real views of other world leaders….

    WTF?

    Now fairness admits that there are other possibilities for Chairman Feinstein’s public statements:

    • Senator Feinstein is giving “cover” for allied leaders to save face with their domestic critics up in arms about US spying by throwing them a bone to help them calm their voters and media.
    • Senator Feinstein is playing to the Left wing of her own Party and in the California electorate
    • Senator Feinstein is sticking a well-deserved knife in the backs of a few people high up in the NSA and the White House for previous slights directed at her personally and her committee
    • Senator Feinstein sees herself presiding in nationally televised Church Hearings II, starring the heroic Diane Feinstein
    • Senator Feinstein is a loose cannon

    Your guess is as good as mine, but the idea of America getting out of the foreign intel business or taking German crocodile tears at face value is harebrained.


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