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Archive for November 13th, 2012

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?

New Book: The Rise of Siri by Shlok Vaidya

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

The Rise of Siri by Shlok Vaidya 

Shlok Vaidya has launched his first novel,  dystopian techno-thriller in e-Book format entitled The Rise of Siri.  Having been the recipient of a late draft/early review copy, I can say Shlok on his first time out as a writer of sci-fi has crafted a genuine page turner.

Companion site to the book can be found here –  The Rise of Siri.com

Blending military-security action, politics, emerging tech and high-stakes business enterprise, the plot in The Rise of Siri moves at a rapid pace. I read the novel in two sittings and would have read it straight through in one except I began the book at close to midnight.  Set in a near-future America facing global economic meltdown and societal disintegration,  Apple led by CEO Tim Cook  and ex-operator Aaron Ridgeway, now head of  Apple Security Division, engages in a multi-leveled darwinian struggle of survival in the business, political and even paramilitary realms, racing against geopolitical crisis and market collapse , seeking corporate salvation but becoming in the process, a beacon of hope.

Vaidya’s writing style is sharp and spare and in The Rise of Siri he is blending in the real, the potential with the fictional. Public figures and emerging trends populate the novel; readers of this corner of the blogosphere will recognize themes and ideas that have been and are being debated by futurists and security specialists playing out in the Rise of Siri as Shlok delivers in an action packed format.

Strongly recommended and….fun!

The 2012 Warlord Loop Reading List at SWJ

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Small Wars Journal has published the national security reading list  composed by members of  The Warlord Loop, a private listserv run by Colonel John Collins (ret.). You will find a wide-ranging list of titles in history, IR, strategic studies, military history, political philosophy and other fields recommended by experts and operators, soldiers and scholars and even a blogfriend or two. More than enough books to help fill out the empty shelves of your antilibrary.

The 2012 Warlord Loop Reading List

The U.S. national security community contains a slew of superlative political, military, economic, sociological, technological, and other specialists, but comparably qualified generalists prepared to cherry pick their products, then produce integrated policies, plans,  programs, and conduct operations that best suit this great Nation’s needs, are exceedingly scarce. The Warlord Loop’s 2012 reading list, which features interdisciplinary topics that cover the conflict spectrum from normal peacetime competition to what Herman Kahn’s classic On Thermonuclear War called a “wargasm,” is explicitly designed to help correct that imbalance.

Contributors include active and retired officials in executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government, news media representatives, college professors, and   military personnel from every service who range in rank from noncommissioned officers to four-star generals and admirals. Males, females, liberals, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, nonpartisans, assorted age groups, and a few foreigners span the complete range of public opinion. The Warlord recently challenged them to identify two books apiece that would help practitioners and concerned citizens better understand increasingly complex problems and optional solutions despite mutating situational changes that now circle this globe at bewildering speed. A cross-section of responses appears below. Publishers, dates, and synopses are available on the Internet.

Brigadier General Chris Arney, USA (Retired), a professor of mathematics at West Point, focuses on information networks, modeling, intelligence processing, and artificial intelligence.

          Mario Diani and Doug McAdam, Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action

          Howard Steven Friedman Howard, The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing               

Lieutenant General David Barno, USA, (Retired), who saw combat in Grenada and Panama, commanded all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003-2005. He now is a Senior Advisor and Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.   

          Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command

          Colin Gray, Another Bloody Century

Captain Sean Barrett, USMC, is a Fellow for the Marine Corps Director of Intelligence, Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Department of Treasury. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Intelligence Officer.

          Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

          George Orwell, Animal Farm

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman, USA, formerly Office of Net Assessment, currently in International  Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan.

          Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought

          John Lynn, ed., Feeding Mars, Logistics in Western Warfare, from the Middle Age to the Present   [….]

Read the rest here.

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