Petraeus as Ozymandias

I only met David Petraeus once before he came to CIA, in 2006 at U.S. Central Command while he was winding up his tour as commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command Iraq (acronymically pronounced “minsticky”), and before he took command of MNF-I or CENTCOM, or the war in Afghanistan for that matter. I briefed him on something topical going on (I was still working at DIA at the time) and we certainly didn’t talk long. In fact I came away with only one impression: not so much about him, but about his already-well-commented-on entourage of “Petraeus guys.” He had a reputation as a fast-moving reformer, but it was an outsized group of admirers, I thought, who showed not respect for him, but devotion – even awe.

They weren’t alone; the man’s been compared as a military leader to “Ulysses S. Grant, John J. Pershing, George Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower” – and that was by his own boss! (That’s the comparison made by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen last year when Petraeus retired from the military to join CIA.)

So, yes, news that the Director of the CIA had resigned because of an extramarital affair hit DC like a thunderclap yesterday.  Check out the volume of this twitter search for the prevailing phrase people uttered when they heard the news: “Holy shit.” It was almost comic that the news broke the same day that the new James Bond film opened in DC. Its plot features an intelligence agency director under personal assault and its title mirrors the mood of many in Langley today: “Skyfall.”

I’m not surprised by the fact that a powerful man was having an affair – heck, I did marry a divorce lawyer after all.  The news won’t affect intelligence operations immediately; the professionals at CIA and the intelligence community are still going about their business and tend to look forward to the horizon, not backward. Meanwhile journalists are already delving into the particulars of this peculiar turn of events. Pundits (and the Congressional intelligence oversight committees) will be exploring any linkages or ramifications of this scandal for the Benghazi investigations, and the candidates for Petraeus’s replacement are already making their direct or whisper campaigns known, in emails already bcc’ing around the Beltway. More on that in due time.

I only have two observations now, one larger in scope and one quite small, at human scale. The first is the question of what the scandal says about the intelligence security practices in our modern national security state. Petraeus held the highest security clearances. He earned the confidence of the President, the trust of his silent warrior employees, the endorsement of the U.S. Senate (94-0!) and the faith of a nation that had cheered his battlefield successes in the Iraq surge and in Afghanistan. Yet the CIA’s confidence in its director was undergirded not only by the Petraeus resume, but by our national security infrastructure of clearances, polygraphs, and professional investigators. Forget the question of one man’s integrity – he was living a lie, big-time, and we missed it. Completely. There will be many questions asked about what that means for other high government clearance-holders, but for now there’s a feeling prevalent in DC akin to what happens when a law-enforcement crime lab discovers shoddy mistakes: all previous convictions are under suspicion and, sometimes, verdicts are reversed. Something to ponder about CIA institutional analytic or operational judgment over the past year….

Secondly, I’m struck by the ironies in the personal side of this affair. David Petraeus grew up as a literature-loving son of a New England village librarian. I know this because I read his biography – yes, the hagiographic book All In: The Education of David Petraeus written by the woman at the center of the affair. Now I may be one of the few in DC who actually read the whole book when it came out – as in, I didn’t just flip through the index looking for the “good parts.”

The book has the literature-loving Petraeus actually quoting poetry at a pivotal point in his life. At his change-of-command ceremony, giving up his praetorian position in Afghanistan, Petraeus gave a thoughtful set of remarks and then chose to quote several lines from an obscure poem by young British soldier John Bailey, serving in Afghanistan in 2008. I say “obscure,” because until today the poem itself appears in only one spot on the Internet: a small U.K. site devoted to British war poetry.  Did poetry-lover Petraeus find the poem there himself, or was it simply good staff/speechwriter work? These are the words Petraeus used, in his “emotional” farewell to the wars he had led, and to his chosen career as a military leader:

And what is asked for the service we give?

No high praise or riches if we should live,

Just silence from friends, our name on a wall,

If this time around, it is I that fall.

– from “The Volunteer” by John Bailey

When Petraeus read out that poem, he was standing like Caesar astride a narrow world, a four-star general having “won” two wars in distant ancient lands and commanded USCENTCOM, whose mission area sprawls across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Perhaps this poetry lover knows Percy Bysshe Shelley well; perhaps like me in school Petraeus read Shelley’s Ozymandias, based on the ironic life of Ramesses II, mighty Egyptian pharaoh. One account writes, “Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of Records all by himself: he built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. And he presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.”

Yet Ramesses is mostly forgotten now, and Shelley’s poem about him captures the fall of great men in a short, powerful sonnet. When I first heard the news about Petraeus from my wife, this is the poem I thought of, and I believe its irony pairs with the lines Petraeus quoted quite sadly.

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Increasing Jointness and Reducing Duplication in DoD Intelligence

Today I’m publishing an important guest-essay, with a brief introduction.  Last month the Wall Street Journal published a 12-part online series about college graduates and their paths to success, featuring surveys and input from job recruiters. One thing caught my eye, at least when blogged by an acquaintance, Prof. Kristan Wheaton of the Mercyhurst College Institute Of Intelligence Studies. The WSJ’s study included a look at recent graduates’ job satisfaction in their new careers, and as Prof. Wheaton strikingly put it in his own blogpost:

Intelligence Analysts are Insanely Happy.” 

I’m pretty sure that’s not really true by and large; Prof. Wheaton seems slightly dubious as well. Many readers of this blog are intelligence analysts themselves, so I’d love to hear from you (in comments or email) about your degree of giddyness….

We all know that the intelligence-analysis field as currently practiced in U.S. agencies bears many burdens weighing heavily on job satisfaction, and unfortunately weighing on successful performance.  Our youngest and our most experienced intelligence analysts have been battling those burdens. 

One analyst has now put constructive thoughts on paper, most immediately in response to a call by Defense Secretary Bob Gates asking DoD military and civilian employees to submit their ideas to save money, avoid cost, reduce cycle time and increase the agility of the department (see more about the challenge here).  

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Contributing to Intelligence Innovation

Below are two ways to contribute to innovation in government, and specifically in intelligence matters. One is for you to consider, the other is a fun new path for me.

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Your choice, Dataviz as event or book

A friend wrote asking if I could make it to an event happening this week near DC. I can’t make it, but fortunately he also mentioned as consolation that he has a cool new book on the cusp of release – and I’ve now ordered my copy.

The Friend: legendary visualization and HCI guru Ben Shneiderman (Wikipedia entry). Ben is a computer-science professor at the University of Maryland and the founder of its well-known Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory (HCIL), as well as an ACM Fellow and AAAS Fellow.  He has done government a million favors over the years, consulting for agencies, including his recent work on the Recovery.gov site to help that platform of data – from hundreds of thousands of sources – organize, host, and visualize the data for millions of visitors.  I first got to know Ben through his support for better intelligence analysis – he helped invent a longtime intelligence analytics tool, Spotfire (see his article “Dynamic queries, starfield displays, and the path to Spotfire“).  Ben’s also well-known for his award-winning 2002 book Leonardo’s Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies, which I enjoyed and still think about when brainstorming new techie toys.

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Bing vs Google, the quiet semantic war

On Wednesday night I had dinner at a burger joint with four old friends; two work in the intelligence community today on top-secret programs, and two others are technologists in the private sector who have done IC work for years. The five of us share a particular interest besides good burgers: semantic technology.

Oh, we talked about mobile phones (iPhones were whipped out as was my Windows Phone, and apps debated) and cloud storage (they were stunned that Microsoft gives 25 gigabytes of free cloud storage with free Skydrive accounts, compared to the puny 2 gig they’d been using on DropBox).

But we kept returning to semantic web discussions, semantic approaches, semantic software. One of these guys goes back to the DAML days of DARPA fame, the guys on the government side are using semantic software operationally, and we all are firm believers in Our Glorious Semantic Future.

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Simon Moves On

Jim Simon at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt

One indulgent use of a personal blog is to drop a nod in the direction of a salutary individual, and I’d like to do so for my departing boss, Jim Simon.

Jim has been the founding Director of the Microsoft Institute since 2004, when Bill Gates and Craig Mundie personally decided to establish a small outfit to use the benefits of Microsoft’s advanced research and development activities against intractable problems for the global public sector. They had been talking with Jim for several years, back when he was a senior executive at the Central Intelligence Agency and after, to understand how to improve government’s adoption of modern technologies.

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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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