An Afghanistan Echo from 1986

In all the hubbub over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disastrous Rolling Stone profile which sparked an international furor today, I notice there hasn’t been time yet for most Beltway armchair analysts to focus on the article’s actual depiction of the state of American policy in Afghanistan.

To sum up: grim.  The quotes from McChrystal’s team reinforce the assessment – there’s little confidence on display. (Here’s the full article in pdf, it’s worth the read.)  As the RS article’s last lines put it: “There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.”

Is that an unfair assessment, too bleak? I’ve been a fairly consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war since the inception, but even I was struck that a “senior military official in Kabul” is quoted in the article saying: “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here.”  So even hypothesized success of McChrystal’s current surge would result in more troops, not less, heading for the fight – a decade in. 

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Slate of the Union Day

Today is “Slate of the Union” day, when the two most charismatic individuals in recent American history go on stage and attempt to reclaim mantles as innovators. I’ll leave aside the fellow with lower poll numbers for now (President Obama). More eyes in the tech world will be watching as Steve Jobs makes his newest product announcement, the Apple tablet/Tabloid/iSlate thing iPad (it’s official).

Back in the late 1980s I worked for the legendary “Mayor of Silicon Valley” Tom McEnery (he was actually the mayor of San Jose), and we did many joint projects with Apple, particularly with CEO John Sculley, a great guy.

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To fix intelligence analysis you have to decide what’s broken

“More and more, Xmas Day failure looks to be wheat v. chaff issue, not info sharing issue.” – Marc Ambinder, politics editor for The Atlantic, on Twitter last night.

Marc Ambinder, a casual friend and solid reporter, has boiled down two likely avenues of intelligence “failure” relevant to the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his attempted Christmas Day bombing on Northwest Airlines Flight 253.  In his telling, they’re apparently binary – one is true, not the other, at least for this case.

The two areas were originally signalled by President Obama in his remarks on Tuesday, when he discussed the preliminary findings of “a review of our terrorist watch list system …  so we can find out what went wrong, fix it and prevent future attacks.” 

Let’s examine these two areas of failure briefly – and what can and should be done to address them.

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Cruise Missiles and Yemeni Neighborhoods

“The US is planning retaliatory strikes in Yemen against al-Qaida over its attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight on Christmas Day.  American officials [...] warn that finding those responsible is unlikely to be swift and say that identifying other ‘high-value’ al-Qaida targets for retaliatory attack would also be a priority.” – The Guardian (U.K.), 12/30/2009

As U.S. officials are quoted mulling cruise-missile strikes on Yemen, it should be noted that the Yemeni government, such as it is, has already been fighting the hard slog – on the ground, rooting out Al Qaeda in Yemeni neighborhoods and villages.

Below is an interesting 7 minutes of film fresh from Yemen,  just posted to youTube today:  a moment-by-moment video documenting the Arhab raid by the Yemeni Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) on an Al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula (AQAP) safe-house, on 17 December, the same day as a coordinated U.S. cruise missile attack on another site.

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Inside Cyber Warfare

One year ago, the buzz across the government/technology nexus was focused on a pair of political guessing games. Neophytes mostly engaged in debating over whom the newly-elected President would name to be the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer. Grizzled Pentagon veterans and the more sober Silicon Valley types wondered instead who would get the nod as President Obama’s “Cyber Czar.”

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The Cyber Trough of Disillusionment

I’ll call the moment: the cyber security field is now past its giddy buzzword peak.

Gartner is well known for preparing “hype cycle” analysis of technology sectors, as in their recent publication of the 2009 “Hype Cycle for Social Software.” That report got a lot of attention on Twitter and in blogs, naturally; social medians are nothing if not self-reflective regarding their community. I thought an interesting take was by an IBM developer, who compared the 2008 version against the new one, measuring the changes in predicted “time to maturity” for individual technologies, and thereby coming up with something like a measure of acceleration. By that measure, individual blogging and social search made the most rapid gains.

But I notice something missing on the full list of 79 Gartner hype cycle reports: there’s not one about “cyber security.”

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Seeking Semantics in Government

Anyone who uses Twitter and has to cram thoughts in to 140 characters knows that technology doesn’t always mix well with “semantic meaning.” That reminds me of an old Hollywood story (here’s a version from Wikipedia):

Cary Grant is said to have been reluctant to reveal his age to the public, having played the youthful lover for more years than would have been appropriate. One day, while he was sorting out some business with his agent, a telegram arrived from a journalist who was desperate to learn how old the actor was. It read: HOW OLD CARY GRANT?

Grant, who happened to open it himself, immediately cabled back: OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

WashTechWashington Technology magazine has a long (overly long) feature today about semantic computing, entitled “Open Government Looks for New Technologies.”  It has nothing to do with Cary Grant, but I have a few minor quibbles with the article (written by a freelancer from New York).

The premise is in the subhead: “Web 3.0 could help make Obama’s dream of government transparency a reality.”  The article goes on to give a basic – very basic – primer on semantic tagging and its potential application in government uses. Underline that word, “potential.”

Aside from the new Data.gov website’s use of minimal Dublin-Core metadata, there’s no actual government use cited. In fact, despite the premise, the article actually contains more evidence that government agencies are actively shying away from adopting semantic approaches. A spokesperson for GSA is typical, saying only that ““We are monitoring the situation as the technology matures; it is not factoring into our business requirements at this point.”  And a spokesperson for the site at www.Recovery.gov, now controversial for the manner in which it was contracted out, says they are “focusing on other priorities.” 

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