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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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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My bold decision to withdraw from consideration as Obama’s CTO

To: President-Elect Barack Obama

From: Lewis Shepherd

RE: My Imminent Selection as Chief Technology Officer for the United States

Mr. President-Elect, I am hereby reluctantly but insistently withdrawing my name from consideration as your appointment to the newly created position of Chief Technology Officer for our nation.

No, no, please don’t try to persuade me otherwise. My decision is final.

Analysis: My earlier post about John Brennan being President-elect Obama’s “imminent” selection as CIA director is now a curio, given Brennan’s decision yesterday to withdraw from consideration. 

Like any good intelligence analyst writing a balanced assessment, I had included the caveat that the only thing standing between Brennan and the appointment was the likelihood of a last-minute political squabble or contretemps.

This being Washington we’re talking about, that is precisely what happened. 

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John Brennan’s Approach as the New CIA Director

Barring unforeseen Washington politicking at the last minute, John Brennan is being announced later today as President-elect Obama’s choice to replace Mike Hayden as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Quick – What’s Your Idea to Improve Homeland Security?

If you have a brilliant idea for protecting Homeland Security – and your idea can stand up to competitive scrutiny – have I got a proposal for you. The well-respected Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation has extended its deadline for entries for their $25,000 Homeland Security Award program, presented by AgustaWestland (the helicopter giant). Darlene Cavalier of the Foundation asked me today to remind my readers: “Super simple online nomination process: Here’s the Award entry site, and no fee to enter. However, the deadline is this Friday, May 30 at 5pm EST.”

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Is It Even Possible to Connect the Dots?

FACT: Among the inspired ideas of polymath Danny Hillis (pioneer of parallel computing) was establishing the Long Now Foundation, whose projects include the millennial Long-Now Clock (“the world’s slowest computer”) and the notion of “Long Bets.”  A Long Bet is an “accountable prediction,” meaning one that has a specified end-date and a testable, wagerable, proposition.  One of the early Long Bets posted wagers $2,000 that “By 2020, no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.”  That particular bet is one of many signs of scientific skepticism about string theory.

ANALYSIS: Even without the ease of hyperlinks, old-fashioned newspapers foster serendipitous connections between articles, particularly if you’re reading a Sunday morning paper with lots of sections. Sunday the Washington Post did me a service by placing in different sections a couple of articles which I connected, about intelligence “failures” and about stock-market prediction, leading me to some web-surfing about the questionable validity of string theory and some related observations about the difficulty of predicting human behavior.

In the Outlook section, the Post has an opinionated and thought-provoking op-ed piece by Mark Lowenthal, one of the most “intelligent” individuals in the recent history of the U.S. intelligence community (after all, he was the 1988 Jeopardy grand champion, as well as a former assistant director of CIA).

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