Coming to DC, One-Day Delivery from Jeff Bezos

If you read this blog you care about government and technology. And whether you’re a technologist or not, you can see the tech forces shaping and sharpening the uses of digital capabilities in accomplishing the ends of government, whether that’s citizen-service delivery and local law enforcement, or global diplomacy and nation-state combat. I’ve worked on and written about them all – from intelligence to space to AI, or the quantification of Supreme Court humor, even “Punk Rock and Moore’s Law.”

Understanding and forecasting that radical pace of external change is difficult for government professionals, and they need help doing that. Let’s say you wanted to tap someone to offer insight. Who’d be on your dream list? At the top of my dream list – my absolute “if-only-I-could-ask” list – would be Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.

So I’m going to sit down with Jeff Bezos on stage later this month, at the annual AFCEA Intelligence Symposium, for a conversation about areas where technology critically intersects with the nation’s response to enduring challenges and opportunities, such as artificial intelligence, digital innovation, the revolution in cloud computing, and commercial space operations. (Alongside my day job at Deloitte, I serve as national Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee at AFCEA, the 35,000-member Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association.)

photo: AFCEA Symposium Invitation

The 2017 Symposium features, as usual, a stellar line-up of top leaders in national security, with panels on Advanced Conventional Threats, the Contested Environment of Space, Terrorism, Cyber Threats from Nation-States and Non-State Entities, and Gray-Zone Conflicts/Hybrid Warfare (topic of last year’s Defense Science Board study on which I sat). All sessions feature senior thought-leaders from government and industry.

Jeff Bezos might be new in that particular mix, but you can understand why we invited him. He has been TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year (early in his career in 1999), Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year, topped the Forbes annual list of “World’s Greatest Leaders,” and our rationale for this conversation is his long track record of revolutionary contributions to international technological/economic advance, as well as to US national security. AWS is now of central importance to the public sector (including intelligence), and the broader contributions of Amazon and Blue Origin to the nation’s economic future and success are incalculable.

Jeff Bezos Space

 

If you have a Top Secret/SI/TK clearance, you can attend the Symposium – register. [Update: sorry, 2017 Symposium = sold out]

There’s a longstanding meme that government should be “run like a business.” I typically don’t think in precisely those terms, having been on both sides and recognizing the significant differences in intent and stakeholders.

photo: Lewis Shepherd; Gen. “Wheels” Wheeler (Ret.) of DIUx; Russell Stern, CEO Solarflare

Panel on Defense Innovation and DIUx

I’ve been more interested in helping each sector understand the unique contributions of the other, and the complexities inherent in their relationship. (See for example my recent post on DoD Innovation and DIUx in Silicon Valley.)

But the “run government like a business” impetus is understandable here in the United States as a reflection of dissatisfaction with government performance in meeting its own goals, and the expectations of the citizens it serves. President Trump recently assigned Jared Kushner to lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, and Kushner told the Washington Post “We should have excellence in government. The government should be run like a great American company.” Graph - Govt like a BusinessThe Washington Post (coincidentally owned by, yes, Jeff Bezos) ran a piece exploring the history of that thinking, dating its surge in popularity to the early 1980s under President Reagan – a timeline borne out by running the phrase through Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart).

The last time I invited a smart young billionaire to come speak to Intelligence Community leaders, it worked out pretty well for the audience (see Burning Man and AI: What Elon Musk told me and the role of Art). So I’m aiming even higher this year…

If you don’t have a Top Secret clearance, you can’t get into the Symposium, and won’t be able to hear Bezos firsthand on April 27. But here’s a substitute, nearly as good: this week Bezos published his annual Letter to Shareholders of Amazon. Most people in the business world know about his legendary 1997 “first annual letter to shareholders” in which he laid out an extraordinary long-term vision for his company. The 2017 version is also extraordinary, and I urge you to read it in full. My friend Jeff Jonas, former IBM Chief Scientist for Context Computing and now founder/Chief Scientist at Senzing, calls it “the most impressive annual letter to shareholders I’ve ever read; this line of thinking leads to greatness.”

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For some parting eye-candy, here’s video from last week’s annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where attendees got a first-hand look at the historic Blue Origin New Shepard rocket booster (first to land vertically after spaceflight, first to relaunch again, and now a five-time-reuse trophy), and an inside tour of the crew capsule with “the largest windows in space travel.”

 

 

Through the Afghan Looking Glass

The news today that the United States government will be paying $367 million dollars to Russia, for 21 Russian Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters for use by Afghanistan’s military, for some reason made me recall something I heard Monday.  I was talking about the Libya crisis to an E-Ring friend and former colleague in the Pentagon who told me, “the difficulty in Libya is that this is all new territory for us, new because it’s more complex, and so we have to figure it out as each new complication comes along.”

That’s one way of looking at modern life, as if drowning in too much data. Perhaps there’s another, driven more by longer memory, and analysis “à la recherche du temps perdu.”  Let’s set down some facts, past and present, and see if any lessons emerge. With apologies to Mark Twain whose forward to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reads:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author”

Once upon a time, not so long ago (the 1980s), the United States armed Afghan “rebels” against an oppressive central government and its foreign puppetmaster patron, the Soviet Union. The rebels pre-existed the foreign involvment; in fact there is difficulty finding a historical point in the region’s history when there weren’t “rebels” against anyone claiming to be “the government.” (If it’s easier for you, imagine the residents of the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.)

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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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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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Net-clever personal PSYOP targeting

In a way I’ve been studying Information Operations (info-ops, or IO) and Psychological Operations (PSYOP) all my life. We all have – particularly if you grew up in the marketing-saturated post-World War II United States. But I also started reading intently about those practices when I first worked at the Cold War Pentagon in the mid-1980s.

Those two terms have specific meanings in a military and international-relations context. The Pentagon’s official doctrinal definitions can be found in Joint Publication 3-13, “Information Operations” (updated in 2006) and in Joint Pub 3-53 “Doctrine for Joint Psychological Operations” (dating back to 2003). They make plain that PSYOP is one of “five core IO capabilities: electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, operations security, and military deception.”  As the latter manual states, “The overall function of PSYOP is to cause selected foreign audiences to take actions favorable to the objectives of the United States and its allies or coalition partners” (page xii).

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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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