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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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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Microsoft and Google Look at the World Differently

I didn’t think I would have to write this same kind of observation twice within a year. But today, on D-Day, I notice yet again a striking difference between Google and Microsoft.  And in this case, one can almost read the evidence as a snub from Google to the United States, to the nations who united in sacrifice during World War II, and to President Obama on a day of his personal leadership in commemorating international war and peace.

I made a similar observation on Columbus Day, when Microsoft chose to honor Christopher Columbus and his explorations’ significance to American history and the world, while Google chose to honor – wait for it – Paddington Bear’s “birthday.” (See my post from then here.)

Today is of course D-Day, the 65th anniversary of a day in which over 2,000 American soldiers lost their lives, leading the way in the greatest military operation in the history of the world, as the initial landing to liberate Europe and the beginning of the end of the Nazi empire.

Google and Microsoft are two great American companies, which operate globally. Each has a public face to the world through signature online properties – their search engines. In Google’s case, that page at Google.com is their ne plus ultra public face, since they are at core a mighty search engine.

Take a look at the two pages today. Microsoft’s Bing search-engine uses its home page to commemorate D-Day, with a dramatic photograph of Normandy Beach today, and mouse-over popups providing historical highlights and links to more information on the battle’s signficance to World War II and to world history.

Bing D-Day

Google uses its home page to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the invention of the computer game Tetris.

Google Tetris

The mouse-over popup on the cutesy Google logo reads, “Celebrating 25 years of the Tetris effect – courtesy of Tetris LLC.”  (I suppose one could read that as, predictably, a coporate ad, right there on Google’s home page.)

Just as I noted on Columbus Day, this doesn’t appear to be a localization issue, or an issue of appealing to a global audience – both Microsoft and Google know my location, and in fact each is serving up a page targeted for me in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong: Tetris was an amusing and absorbing game. As a young guy I spent hours dropping the bars and shapes to fit into the rising pile below.

But at certain moments in life, you put aside childish things. Unless you’re trying to make some other kind of statement.

Note: I am a Microsoft employee. But this is not a Microsoft corporate blog, it’s my personal blog – and I’ve been known to tweak Microsoft here frequently as well.  This is my personal observation space.

I have to admit I am puzzled – and personally appalled – by the decision-making over at the Googleplex, and the statement they choose to send to the world.

President Obama is leading our delegation himself at Normandy Beach today, for the international event with other world leaders remembering a moment of global importance.  Self-evidently Eric Schmidt and the Google gang weren’t on board with that, and by their way of thinking saw something more significant to mark. 

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The Scientists Behind the Headline

Obama Promises Major Investment in Science” – AP News story (April 27, 2009)

“The bottom line is that if you’re a fan of new technologies being developed on US soil, you should be pretty damned excited.”Alex Koppelman, writing in Salon.com

President Obama announced today an effort to increase the nation’s investment in research and development spending for the sciences and new technologies.  As Alex Koppelman points out:

One particularly striking point to note about this: That level of funding [an increase to ‘more than three percent of GDP’] would almost meet the amount of money spent on defense. To some extent, that may simply represent a shift in where on the budget certain funds are accounted for, as defense spending has always been a key driver of American scientific research, but it’s still a sharp difference from the normal state of affairs.

I’ve written before (“How to Find Research“) about the need for increased R&D spending, and about the role of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy in its main role: advising the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.

OSTP does the hard work – but it is guided in part by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST.  This group can be a quiet backwater – as it has been on and off for years – or it has the potential to be a dynamic leading voice in advising the Administration on S&T policies, particularly in investments in scientific research and tech innovation.

It looks like we’re on the dynamic upswing, given that President Obama also used today’s high-profile announcement to name his appointments to an all-new PCAST. 

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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

2.0 View of President Obama’s Inaugural Speech

obama-inaugural-word-cloud

A word-cloud produced (quickly) by the Los Angeles Times.  Befiitting the social-media aspect, the paper published it on Twitter immediately; don’t know if it will even be published as a graphic in the day-old “newspaper” printed and distributed tomorrow.  The New York Times, meanwhile, has the same for every previous presidential inaugural address as well – interesting to scroll back and forth to notice trends in presidential intentions.

Which lines was I most struck by? Because of my national-security interests, I was taken by the strong, even muscular statement to terrorist foes: “You cannot outlast us and we will defeat you.”  That followed on his opening with a declarative statement that ““Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.”

Information Week has already this afternoon called it the “First Web 2.0 Inauguration,” arguing that “Web 2.0technologies offered plenty of new experiences and communications tools for those witnessing the historic event.”

Some of the best set of mashups using cutting-edge technology, to my mind, are the photographs from media and members of the crowd on the Mall, being synthed into 3D Photosynth virtual models. Really cool!inaugural-photosynth

 

Twitter and other social-media services and channels appeared to hold up well under the crush of traffic. I was pleasantly surprised with the performance of Microsoft’s official streaming of the entire ceremony for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, using Silverlight (same technology was used really nicely for global streaming of the Summer Olympics last year).  In fact, the online streaming was markedly smoother than the ability of the TV networks to speak to reporters reliably down on the Mall – it appeared that network and cellular traffic was constantly cutting out on remote video and microphones.

A moving day, brought to more people than ever before through technology.

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Swap Panetta and Blair: A Modest Proposal

First, a quick story from when I was working in government.

Not long after the initial establishment of a “Director of National Intelligence,” the DNI CIO held an inaugural “DNI Information Sharing Conference” in Denver in the summer of 2006. I was asked to sit on a panel about “Innovation across the Intelligence Community,” representing the Defense Intelligence Agency and sharing the stage with two counterparts, from the CIA and NSA.  Our panel chair was Mr. CJ Chapla, then the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of the old Intelink Management Office, redubbed “Intelligence Community Enterprise Services,” an office now under the Office of the DNI (ODNI). CJ asked the three of us to describe briefly the goals and projects we were each working on, and in seriatim that’s what we did for 90 minutes or so.

When it was time for questions, the very first audience-member asked: “It seems that each of you are independently working on, and paying for, very similar kinds of technology projects. It would make sense to combine or rationalize the work, so why are you continuing to do it independently?” Continue reading

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