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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Undercover Grrl Band Techno Rave

Friday I had an interesting meeting with Dawn Meyerriecks, who has just begun her new role as the Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Acquisition and Technology. (Read the DNI’s statement on her appointment here in pdf, her bio here, and some reaction – all positive – here and here.)

Never mind what we actually were talking about, she asked me in so it isn’t appropriate to write about that. But to be honest I spent my drive home thinking about the atmospherics and significance of her holding that post in any case.  In a companion post later (“The Purple History of Intelink“) I’ll comment on the significance of her prior background in the Defense Department.

But more striking, right off the bat, is the fact that DNI Dennis Blair has an impressive number of women in high-ranking senior leadership positions. And it’s not just the number, but the particular positions they hold that I like: Dawn Meyerriecks is DDNI/A&T, Priscilla Guthrie is Assistant DNI and Chief Information Officer, Marilyn Vacca is Assistant DNI and Chief Financial Officer. Lisa Porter leads the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency IARPA (I’ve written about her before). Continue reading

DNI Flags at Half-Mast

Only the second-ever Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, resigned today effective immediately. As the Associated Press reported this afternoon in the wake of the announcement, “Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. is temporarily serving as acting national intelligence director… McConnell’s letter did not explain why he resigned before the Senate’s confirmation of his replacement. President Barack Obama has nominated retired Adm. Dennis Blair to be the next national intelligence director.” 
Analysis:  Given the impending Senate hearings on Denny Blair’s confirmation and the expected smooth sailing, most people I know were mildly surprised that McConnell jumped ship today, rather than waiting for a formal turnover to a confirmed Blair. McConnell has had a solid, successful track record of leading the IC in an era of long-needed reform, while contributing to a track record in his tenure of zero terrorist attacks on American soil.

odni-red-flagsBut then my inbox pinged with another notice from the Office of the DNI: release of “The 500-Day-Plan Update at Day 400” (download the PDF version here).  It contained a graphic depiction of the troubling challenges remaining – actually using graphic “red flags” to mark areas at risk.  More on the flags below.

Those who work in and with the intelligence community have been intimately familiar with the DNI’s 500-Day Plan.  When it was first drafted I was still in government and had my tiny slice of input into its composition through the interagency review process. Its release was hailed by some (“ODNI Earns Kudos for 500-Day Plan,” in Federal Computer Week) and greeted with a yawn in some sectors of the community itself. “Another reform plan? I’ll make room on the shelf.” Continue reading

A-SpaceX, Google, and Virtual Tuesday

Yesterday I had a “virtual world vibe” going.  At 5:30 a.m. when my dog Jack woke me up offering to take me for a walk, the first thing I noticed on my mobile was a series of tweets from Chris Rasmussen, NGA’s social software guru, posted the night before.  Twitter is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one is the ability to snatch asynchronous stream-of-consciousness statements, from strangers and friends alike, as they pass by in the microblogosphere conversation.

Chris went on a tear about Second Life, with several hilarious observations and comments within the space of an hour, so here are several from his public Twitter feed:

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So Long, Long Tail?

I’ve been known to disagree with Harvard eggheads before :-) 

 

Chris Anderson's Long TailAnd now, perhaps, another opportunity. A new Harvard Business Review article (“Should You Invest in the Long Tail?” by HBS Professor Anita Elberse) throws water on Chris Anderson’s paradigm, arguing that “hit products” are still more valuable than the conglomerated also-rans in the tail; her research is mostly in retail products. Chris has responded on his blog, sparking many comments and debate, and today the Wall Street Journal covered the back-and-forth debate.

I’m interested in the debate mostly because of the interest in the Long Tail way of thinking in some circles of the intelligence community.  I’ve written about the approach and its relevance to some intelligence issues (see “Tradecraft in the Long Tail” and “IARPA and the Virtual Long Tail“).

I’m just not certain that even a total debunking of the retail-oriented paradigm would undercut its value as applied to intelligence analysis. 

For intelligence analysts, obscure “facts” and patterns hidden snugly within the low-scale noise are all important – whether or not they gain numerative bulk in any accumulative way.  The paradoxical “unknown unknowns” are what’s being sought by dogged collection and analysis, and I’m not sure that’s analogous to Elberse’s acknowledged findings. 

Your thoughts welcome, here or by email back to me.

 
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Innovation in Robotics: Government Uses?

Fact: Last week’s Automatica 2008, the big international robotics and automation trade-show, had “over 30,000 trade visitors from around 90 countries,” visiting 900 exhibitors’ booths, according to the conference wrap-up

Analysis: When I spoke recently at an IARPA conference in Orlando, and was asked to give a glimpse into Microsoft’s vision of R&D trends, one of the possibly surprising areas I highlighted was robotics.  We’re making a major push in that area, for reasons that might not be intuitive based on an old-fashioned impression of what Microsoft offers in the government realm.  More on the intelligence community’s potential use below.

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How to Find Research: Here, There, Everywhere

FACT: The Washington Post today has a story in the Business section (“Intelligence Agency Joins U-Md. Research Center“) about the relationship between IARPA and the University of Maryland, the location of the planned new IARPA headquarters. 

ANALYSIS: UMd has a set of valuable relationships with the public- and private-sector national security community, and the IARPA startup is just the latest agency to benefit.   Proximity is key, for research and bureaucracy.  In Maryland’s case, IARPA Director Lisa Porter told an IEEE interviewer last month that “It’s nice not to be sitting right next to one particular agency. It’s also nice to be near a university because we’re sending a message that we want to bring in nontraditional partners: academia, industry. It sends a nice message that we’re embracing the broad community to help us solve these challenging problems.”

I lament sometimes that Charlottesville (home to my undergraduate alma mater) is a good two hours away from DC, as even that distance puts a frustrating limit on the amount of joint work that winds up being done with Virginia faculty and students. 

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