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A Dearth of Fresh Ideas

Money & Technology Will Not Save Us: Clear, Original Thinking Will

By Michael Tanji | January 16, 2008

From a security and intelligence perspective, the new year in the long war has started out like previous years. Faced with serious and often overwhelming problems, the government proposes several solutions aimed at improving our security that are almost certain to fail to achieve that objective.

The FBI for example, would like to build a giant biometrics database to help identify terrorists and other evil doers. Additionally, the Director of National Intelligence is about to argue that the intelligence community should gain access to all Internet traffic transiting the US.

Neither of these proposals, or their previously floated predecessors, is earth shattering in originality and there is a good reason to question their ultimate effectiveness. The government's general approach to any sufficiently challenging problem is to throw money and technology at it, as if what is accounted for in a quantitative sense will overcome very real qualitative problems. It apparently goes unrecognized that by trawling through impossibly large amounts of data we will net innocents along with bad guys. Or that searching for original thought for its sake alone results in ventures likely to fail at both their stated objective and in the advancement of thought on these matters.

Take the case of DNI McConnell's new proposal. This image reflects why the government is arguing that it needs more insight into what flows across the wires, cables and airwaves of this country. It's not a question of listening in to the private conversations of U.S. citizens; since much of the world's communications transit the US it is simply a case of listening where the information and communications are.

And there is quite a lot of data. This is not a case of the needle in a haystack problem; it's a needle somewhere in an unidentified field in the western portion of Nebraska. Providing a vacuum like solution where data is collected wholesale, even with significant machine-based filtering, does nothing to resolve the enormous piles of hay that much still be search by an intelligence analyst seeking a single needle or more accurately - seeking pieces of the needle.

A more appropriate strategy in the long war - a significantly intelligence driven war - is to put more boots on the ground in the world's dangerous places and among the world's dangerous people. For the uninitiated it doesn't necessarily follow that more human intelligence (HUMINT) will help solve a signals intelligence (SIGINT) problem. The dirty little secret is that this isn't a SIGINT problem. Widespread surveillance efforts aren't likely to catch those who would do us harm. Experience and a look at realities of our efforts would show that tip-offs from informants, investigations and other human driven methodologies results in a higher likelihood of interdiction when followed by SIGINT efforts to 'refine' the targeting.

If this sounds like déjà vu all over again it is because it is a variation on the theme that played out over the last 15 plus years as the intelligence community degraded HUMINT in favor of technology derived intelligence. It is a by-product of failing to replace cold warriors and 'leaders' who are out-of-step with the nature and scope of the problem at hand. Just as our military has seen transformation enthusiasts who've failed to recognize the nature of the enemy, as they were singularly focused on transforming the military, the intelligence community has become information addicted and often fails to formulate strategies based on the task they are charged with addressing.

Your author is fully aware of the hazards associated with putting American's in harms way, as well as the reluctance to undertake "diarrhea missions." But unless we start infusing some clear, original thinking into our intelligence and security problem-solving efforts, we resign ourselves to old-think, improper solutions, and future intelligence failures.

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4 Comments

Our lack of language skills kills us. Even Americans of the ethnicity of the target society rarely can pass for indigs once they open their mouths.

Look how hard it is to recruit and keep TS-cleared terps. Then tell those terps they have to go back to Dirkadirkastan and blend in and live a cover and avoid their relatives and build a network for the next 20 years. Is it any wonder we get few takers? What monetary and intangible incentives do we offer?

American HUMINT must necessarily depend a lot on bribery, blackmail, lies, deceptions and association with unsavory and politically incorrect furriners, and the United States Congress stands ever ready to cut the throats of our operators.

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/17/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

How to help troubled countries in a troubled world expand and succeed within their geographical and politicaly assigned limits, while maintaining or improving your own position , without encourageing unmanageable counter reactions, nor cedeing your own built advantages and morals.I have traveled widely and unfortunately found that at the very least there are few societies of the world that cannot raise the banner of hypocrisy or distaste in the direction of the USA should they feel inclined. Reality may convince or even oblige otherwise, but sentiment is long lived and powerful,and any mans conclusions may only be drawn after a lifetime of experience and contemplation, let us hope that the verdict passed on to those around him of you ,in the distant future is sincerely positive.

We are accustomed to talking about silos and stove-pipes with regards to information, but the dynamics and processes that create and perpetuate those phenomenon have deep roots, and from those roots spring other manifestations of that set of attitudes. (Isn't it, at base, attitudes that in-form our thinking and thereby our activity?)

Innovation ... "not invented here" is perhaps the most familiar phrase ... innovation is likewise blighted by walled gardens.

Until and unless pragmatic rationalism comes to be valued as highly as is ambition and manipulation we're no more than snippets of paper in the winds of outrageous fortune.

But then I'm biased. I'll say I know my biases well ... it's like Kentucky windage; we can compensate when we have cultivated a disapassionate appreciation of phenomenon and events.

--bentrem