zenpundit.com » CIA

Archive for the ‘CIA’ Category

From the caliphate to Ferguson and back, it’s a small world

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- starting with the news, closing with Jay Forrester & the impact of systems dynamics on our understanding of cause and effect -- a catchup post ]

Clearing the decks grom the last few days, I found this DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ferguson staring out at me from my twitter feed — suggesting just how intricately interwoven our world really is:


Souad Mekhennet has a piece titled Even the Islamists of ISIS are obsessing over Ferguson in the Washington Post:

You can understand if President Obama would rather talk about the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, where he has scored some victories, than talk about the unholy mess in Ferguson, Mo. Surprisingly, though, ISIS militants are following developments in the St. Louis suburb, and some of them would rather focus on that. According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb, where protesters and police have clashed. In it, they see opportunity.

Here are a couple of ISIS-fan tweets:


Look, the point I’m making isn’t about Ferguson, it isn’t about the Islamic State, it has to do with the way that an event in one place whill have myriad unexpected effects downstream. The classic case which really opened my eyes to this was Aum Shinrikyo — the group that released sarin in the Tokyo subway system — sending a planeload of its members to Zaire in an attempt to collect Ebola samples for their biochem weapons labs.

Someone in a medium size yoga cult in Japan read the New Yorker and learned that Ebola esisted and was lethal, and the next thing you know there’s a religious terror group, led by a guy who reads Nostradamus, Asimov and Revelation — and has been granted a photo op with the Dalai Lama — working diligently to get that capability.

That was back in the last century, but Ebola’s in the news again these days, and it turns out that epidemiology needs to take into account pervasive belief in some affected corners of Africa that the whole business is a conspiracy designed to imprison Africans in “clinics” — the result being riots against at least one clinic, and blood-stained bedclothes and live virus carriers being dispersed into a poorly protected slum.

Epidemiology as theorized and modeled should be cleaner than that. But then there are other factors — in the case of polio, there’s CIA use of a vaccination team as cover for an attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA in Abbottabad, resulting in widespread rumors of conspiracy, refusal of vaccinations, and a resurgence of the disease.


Big question: how can you figure out the unknown unknowns represented by riots affecting quarantine? words spoken when a mic supposedly off is in fact on? the impact of large scale climate engineering.

One of the ideas that has most influenced me in my thinking about games, simulations and models over the last dozen or more years comes from Jay Forrester. I’ll quote him from section 4.1, Cause and Effect Not Closely Related in Time or Space, in his 2009 paper, Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century, though I think I first ran across the idea in one of his books, probably Urban Dynamics (1969) or World Dynamics (1971):

Most understandable experiences teach us that cause and effect are closely related in time and space. However, the idea that the cause of a symptom must lie nearby and must have occurred shortly before the symptom is true only in simple systems. In the more realistic complex systems, causes may be far removed in both timing and location from their observed effects.

From earliest childhood we learn that cause and effect are closely associated. If one touches a hot stove, the hand is burned here and now. When one stumbles over a threshold, the cause is immediately seen as not picking the foot high enough, and the resulting fall is immediate. All simple feedback processes that we fully understand reinforce the same lesson of close association of cause and effect. However, those lessons are aggressively misleading in more complex systems.

In systems composed of many interacting feedback loops and long time delays, causes of an observed symptom may come from an entirely different part of the system and lie far back in time.

To make matters even more misleading, such systems present the kind of evidence that one has been conditioned by simple systems to expect. There will be apparent causes that meet the test of being closely associated in time and in location. However, those apparent causes are usually coincident symptoms arising from a distant cause. People are thereby drawn to actions that are not relevant to the problem at hand.

That stunned me. But it gets a little worse:

Comments such as I have just made about cause and effect carry little conviction from being stated in a text. Only after a student has repeatedly worked with models that demonstrate such behavior, and has had time to observe the same kinds of behavior in real life, will the idea be internalized and become part of normal thinking.

I don’t think that’s quite right, I think we’re now seeing generations arise for whom system dynamics and networked thinking seem progressively more “intuitive” — more in tune with the zeitgeist.

But the decision makers? As far as I can see, they are largely impervious to the kinds of thinking necessary to navigate our complexly interwoven envirorment.


I have set before you life and death

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- tasking Heuer's ACH theory with the old question of revelation vs scientific discovery? ]

For a very pithy take on the pivotal question facing those who adhere to the literal interpretation of a given scripture as God’s infallible Word, try these two quotes:

A very similar question, it seems to me, can be put to those who hold that science, by virtue of its falsifiability, moves in a manner that will be seen to be asymptotic to infallibility.


I’m not saying the two options Pastor Hagee Jr offers are the only options, nor that Christianity is the only religion whose scriptures pose this sort of question to its followers.

However, there are two fairly clear general options laid out here, and they cut across many fields, from “what sort of biological education would you like to see implemented in schools?” via “how should we respond to warnings of the accelerating risks associated with global warming?” to “are the Iranian nuclear negotiators bound by their concepts of Shia theology, and if so, how does that affect our analysis of their strategic thinking?”

Let’s call the competing hypotheses here “revelation” and “discovery”. One interesting question: does each of them require evidentiary validation, or is one of them “obviously” self-validating, and if so, how?

I ask this, partly because I just obtained ACH software, where ACH refers to the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses as described by Richards Heuer Jr in his Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, and specifically in chapter 8.

Pitting an “infinite and revelatory” hypothesis against a “finite and discoverable” one is one way to test the limits of the ACH system — either it’s a totally irrational and foolish use of a rational tool, or a western equivalent of the zen koan system, depending on your — eh? — hypothesis.

Life or death? Science or revelation? Which is which?

How do you know? How can you be sure?


In the ballpark, btw?


Steven J. Brams, Biblical Games: Game Theory and the Hebrew Bible


Echoes: Boko H and the LRA, Ray Davis & others anon

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- following up on Boko Haram "makes Kony look like child's play" while continuing my explorations in stereocognition, along with two dazzling quotes about music ]

It happened to be the tweet from Elizabeth Pearson in the upper panel above that alerted me to the LRA’s 1996 abduction of schoolgirls in Uganda, which Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria echoes and amplifies — so I have matched it with another of her tweets, lower panel above, offering an equivalent headline for the Nigerian girls.


The parallelisms.

My purpose, explicitly stated, is not to equate but to compare the two incidents, and more specifically to allow the acts of the purportedly Christian extremists in Uganda to be in the back of our minds as a comparative, while we consider the current spate of appalling actions of the supposedly Muslim extremists in Nigeria…

And the differences.

I won’t attempt to detail the parallelisms and differences as I see them here, primarily because it’s the habit of analogical thinking I am exploring, not any single (“double”) instance.

A stereocognitive view will add nuance — an additional depth dimension to our perception of these two instances — without losing the detail of either one, just as stereoscopic vision and stereophonic hearing give additional depth to our visual and sonic views of the world.


Here’s another one — this time triggered by an Emptywheel blogpost today. Marcy Wheeler has been following the Ray Davis story for quite a while, so I’ve matched her post noting the echo betwen “JSOC and one CIA official killing attempted abductors in Yemen” and the “Ray Davis episode in Pakistan” with an earlier post on Ray Davis.

You know, if “news echoes” of the sort both Lizz and Marcy are noting were discussed in musical terms — rather than as history repeating itself, say — we’d call them fugal motifs, or if we’re more into Wagner than Bach, leitmotifs perhaps.


As is widely known, Dan Drezner views his interest through the lens of the undead in his book Theories of International Politics and Zombies — I’d like to view mine through the lens of music, as in these two quotes I’m fond of repeating — they’re a bit long to fit readably into DoubleQuotes format, so I’ll just put them in blockquotes:

From Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments

Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

and from Edward Said, Power, Politics, and Culture

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.


Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]

Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.


I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.


If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…


Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]

CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt


Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.


For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.


Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works –


Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.


I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

— and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:


Switch to our mobile site