Posts Tagged ‘intelligence analysis’

Head Caseworker

July 28, 2016

Back in the day, I and my colleagues used to amuse ourselves and our newly-recruited lunchtime companions with a simple, politically incorrect quiz game that had no hard-and-fast correct answers.  After a short preamble explaining that we the American people have coined numerous verbal expressions to describe (or label) out-group members of society, and noting that each of us often has a slightly different understanding of what these colloquial terms actually mean, we would pose the following short question:

In your opinion, which of these three informal expressions describes someone with the most serious mental illness?

We usually didn’t ask anyone to justify their choice, and on several occasions our respondents suggested that we add the term “head case” to the list –triggering discussion of whether (and in what way) a “head case” might be a more mild or severe form of mental illness than a “wacko” or a “nut job.”  Sometimes, one of the group might seek to illustrate his reasoning by adding a common verbal intensifier to the chosen term, attempting to argue that a “complete fuckin’ wacko” is clearly crazier than the guy who’s merely “looney tunes.”  This would give us the opportunity to demonstrate that you could add “complete(ly) fuckin'” to any of the original expressions to make it seem worse than those that lacked the intensifier.  But when each term is thus modified the effect is cancelled out:  A “complete fuckin’ wacko” is no better –or worse– than a “complete fuckin’ nut job.”

At the time, the main point of this frivolous exercise was to demonstrate that spoken language –especially colloquial speech– becomes an inexact tool for communication when the semantic linkage between concept and word is highly subjective, culturally specific, and somewhat variable.  What you think you said isn’t necessarily what I believe I heard.


Pivot to Present … and Future

Why bother to mention any of this?  Because modern-day regime preservation functionaries, their advisers and their media propaganda specialists have lately been uncertain about whether to describe the world’s recent crop of ‘lone wolf’ mass murderers as actual terrorists … or just plain crazy.

U.S. officials said they are investigating the role mental health issues may have played in the shooting of police in Baton Rouge and Dallas. In both attacks, the shooters had displayed signs of apparent mental illness and extreme views before their rampages. “When someone with mental health issues [finally] snaps, there usually is some external stimulus that also is involved and provides an organizing framework for the violent act,” noted Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst.

[A half dozen American, British and French] counterterrorism officials told Reuters that the assailants in a recent spate of mass killings all had histories of apparent mental illness. They included the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida; the murder of a British parliamentarian in Northern England; the killings of police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas; the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France; and Friday’s mass shooting at a German shopping mall.  [However,] existing systems for collecting intelligence on extremists are not set up to identify individuals with a history of mental illness who come into contact with people or propaganda that could incite them to engage in violence, the intelligence officials told Reuters.

Okay, so we have an intelligence gap big enough to drive a truck through.  On the bright side, at least the gaps are getting smaller: fifteen years ago you could fly four 747s through the FBI’s blind spots.  Nowadays, something as innocuous as this blog post won’t escape notice and might even trigger (intentional word choice) some petty, spiteful electronic harassment by aggrieved LE personnel or their minions.  But if our most vexing intell vulnerability really is the muttering madman loner, I think I can live with that: the odds are working in my favor (to clarify: as a potential victim, not as a perpetrator).

Unfortunately, the United States is also exposed to a much greater threat of politically-motivated mass violence on a much larger scale than any lone wolf terrorist/madman would be able to manage… and the probable perpetrators are hiding in plain sight.  Last year, Dutch sociologist Avram de Swaan described some of the indicators of incipient organized, large-scale atrocities perpetrated by armed political movements or government regimes:

the foundation for future atrocity is laid when latent social tensions are redefined by political actors to:

  • accentuate social differences and divisions,
  • demarcate boundaries of “compartmentalized” social categories,
  • enact physical/spatial separation of these newly defined social fragments,
  • and accelerate (individual) psychological processes of self-identification, projection, internalization, fervent “othering” (etc.) within increasing numbers of the citizenry.

Do these indicators sound familiar?  Copious open source reporting would seem to suggest so.   And yet this is a threat assessment that regime preservationists wouldn’t touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole. Perhaps because they believe that mass violence of this particular kind will actually preserve their regime rather than threaten it.  Perhaps we’ll see whether this is so.


John Hinckley Jr


Leopard Spotted

January 25, 2016

A few months ago (September 2015) published a brief article by Jonathan Haslam that summarized some basic counterintelligence analysis employed by the KGB back in the day (the 1970’s):

[CIA] officers in the field stationed across the globe under diplomatic and deep cover were readily identified by the KGB.  As a consequence, covert operations had to be aborted as local agents were pinpointed and CIA personnel compromised or, indeed, had their lives thrown into jeopardy. … How could these disasters have happened with such regularity if the agency had not been penetrated by Soviet moles?

[Instead, KGB officer Yuri Trotov‘s method was] a clever combination of insight into human behavior, common sense and strict logic.  Bureaucracies … are fundamentally creatures of habit and, as any analyst knows, the key to breaking the adversary’s [operational security] is to find patterns and repetitions.  From the late 1950s at the Soviet mission in Thailand and later Japan, Trotov first applied his methods to identifying U.S. intelligence officers in the field.  He began systematically combing the KGB archives for consistent patterns observable in the postings of CIA counterparts. What Trotov came up with were 26 unchanging indicators as a model for identifying U.S. intelligence officers overseas.  Why? Because the CIA personnel office in Langley shuffled and dealt overseas postings with as little effort as required.

Some indicators were based on long-standing U.S. government practices established as a result of the ambivalence with which the State Department treated its colleagues in intelligence [who operated under diplomatic cover]. These “structural defects” in the relationship between the United States’ key operational departments responsible for foreign policy [allowed] Trotov to produce telephone book-size volumes listing U.S. intelligence officers for KGB chief Yuri Andropov.


Here are a few of Trotov’s indicators:

  • published biographies of CIA officers contained obvious gaps
  • entry-level pay scale was much higher for a CIA officer than for a State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO)
  • genuine FSOs had to attend the Institute of Foreign Service for three months before entering the diplomatic service, CIA officers did not
  • after three to four years abroad an FSO could return home, whereas a CIA employee could not
  • when CIA officers returned to the US, they did not normally appear in State Department listings, but when they did, they were classified as research and planning, research and intelligence, consular or chancery for security affairs
  • CIA officers could be relocated within the country to which they were posted, FSOs were not
  • CIA officers usually had more than one working foreign language
  • Their cover was usually as a “political” or “consular” official
  • internal embassy reorganizations usually did not change the rank, office assignments or telephone numbers of CIA personnel
  • CIA agents’ offices were located in restricted zones within the embassy building
  • CIA officers replacing one another [at a foreign station] tended to fill the same post within the embassy hierarchy, drive the same make of vehicle, rent the same apartment, etc.


What & So What

Okay, so the U.S. intelligence community eventually figured out how the Soviets/ Russians and their allies can spot a spook. Surely “we” have made the necessary adjustments, right?  Not exactly.

A while back I saw a article on the website of an overseas newspaper in a certain allied nation.  The article announced the arrival of a new U.S. consul in town, illustrated with the official State Department photo portrait of the diplomat in question (U.S. flag in the background, of course).  A brief biography followed, outlining the FSO’s background, education and career.  If I were Yuri Trotov (I’m not), I’d immediately be paying closer attention to this guy, because several of my indicators were there in plain sight:

  • Graduate of a state university in a state with a significant military presence
  • Therefore … possible childhood experiences living in Europe or Asia as a military dependent (see subsequent career)
  • Travel in {Europe1}, {Europe2} and Canada during university
  • Two-year gap between university graduation and entry into State Department: possible military service … or intell training
  • Speaks {European}, Arabic, {Asian}
  • State Dept. career (moderately scrambled/ altered to protect the officer’s identity from less-imaginative “analysts”):

political officer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
assistant cultural attaché in {capital, Asian nation}
public diplomacy officer in Baghdad, Iraq
consular official in Islamabad, Pakistan
consul in {city, Europe1}

In assessing these indicators, I would draw the conclusion that this particular “FSO” is likely to be a counterterrorism specialist focused on Islamist militant groups, and that the consular posting to {Europe1} is either (1) an R & R assignment after years of service in dangerous third-world nations, or (2) a counterterrorism liaison slot in a country worried about terrorist attacks from returning ISIS jihadis masquerading as refugees.  Perhaps both.

Either way, I wish ya the best of luck.  But in any case, stay out of Russia.




Fleurs du Mur

December 14, 2014

A few days ago I was in such a hurry to post last week’s photo of Comrade Bear visiting the Hermitage Museum that I neglected to perform one of my favorite fundamental analytical exercises: an examination and explication of background imagery that often tells a story worth ten thousand words or so.  At the time, I briefly wondered “who are those 18th century gentlemen whose portraits grace that seagreen wall behind the charming hostess and her guest?” It seemed a mere passing thought swept away in the rush to blog about imagined cyberwar.


But the question nagged at the corners of my mind for several hours, and despite an initial reflex that dismissed this kind of research task as too difficult, I finally found a way to identify first one, then another of the portrait subjects. It was even more satisfying to discover the cultural/historical baggage associated with them.  It’s probably not an accident that Comrade Bear’s photo op was staged at this particular location, but it’s also unlikely that he fully grasped the historical allusions –the backstory– suggested by these portraits.

First, the painting on the left.  It’s a portrait of Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1750-1831), a cosmopolitan aesthete who “spoke five languages and corresponded with Voltaire.


Nikolai Yusupov was a Russian nobleman and art collector, the eldest son of Prince Boris Grigorievich Yusupov. He served as Director of Imperial Theatres (1791-1796) under a series of Czars, including Catherine the Great, Paul I and Alexander I. He later served as director of the Hermitage (in 1797).

A patron of the arts and a keen traveler, Yusupov spoke five languages and traveled widely throughout Europe. During his journeys he purchased a large collection of art for the Czars, acting as a middleman between the Czars and European artists.  Yusupov collected for himself as well as collecting for the Czars, and his personal art collection became one of Europe’s richest, including over 600 paintings, sculptures, works of applied art, more than 20,000 books and numerous porcelain objects.

Just the kind of semi-official entrepreneur for which Russia is known even today!  Imagine: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  After the 1917 revolution, much of the Yusupov art collection ended up in the hands of the Soviet state … and eventually in the Hermitage itself.  But in some ways, the origins of the House of Yusupov are even more interesting and resonant than its downfall:

In the 14th century one of Tamerlane’s greatest Tatar strategists settled on the North shores of the Black Sea, establishing the Nogai Horde and laying the foundations for the Crimean Khanate. In the 15th century, Khan Yusuf became the head of the Nogai Horde and allied himself with Czar Ivan the Terrible.  In the 17th century, Khan Yusuf’s descendant, Abdul Mirza, converted from Islam to Orthodox Christianity under the name of Dmitry.  After the conversion, Czar Feodor I bestowed upon him the title of Prince Yusupov.  Dimitry’s son, Prince Grigori Dmitrievich Yusupov (1676-1730) was a friend of Peter the Great, became General in Chief and Minister of Defense, and organized construction of the Russian Navy.

Get the picture? The House of Yusupov [Yusuf] was founded by Crimean Tatars who helped make Russia the great nation it has become.  And whose descendants were essentially the original curators of the Hermitage art collections. Kinda ironic that Comrade Bear’s Crimean “patriot nationalists” are now engaged in wholesale expropriation (theft) of Tatar property and business holdings in newly-occupied Crimea.

Now, the painting on the right.  It’s a youthful portrait of Czar Peter III (b. 1728 – d. 1762), the husband and predecessor of Catherine the Great (he lasted only six months on the throne).  He was the son of Anna Petrovna, daughter of Peter I and Catherine I of Russia.


When Peter succeeded to the Russian throne in 1762 (after 20 years as Crown Prince), he withdrew Russian forces from the Seven Years’ War and concluded a peace treaty with Prussia. He gave up Russian conquests in Prussia and offered to make an alliance with Frederick II of Prussia. Russia thus switched from an enemy of Prussia to an ally. This dramatically shifted the balance of power in Europe.

During his 186-day period of government, Peter III issued 220 new laws which he had developed and elaborated during his many years as crown prince.  He proclaimed religious freedom.  He fought corruption in government, established public litigation and abolished the secret police — a repressive organization started under his grandfather Peter I.  Some historians claim that Peter III intended to expose the czarist police  as betrayer of the state for its mercilessness and torture methods.

He established the first state bank in Russia, rejected the nobility’s monopoly on trade and encouraged mercantilism by increasing grain exports. One of his most popular reforms was the manifesto of February 1762 that exempted the nobility from obligatory state and military service and gave them freedom to travel abroad.  Peter’s short reign also addressed serfdom law and the status of serfs within Russia. For the first time, the killing of a peasant by a landowner became an act punishable by law.

However, this being Russia, things didn’t turn out so well. After six months Peter III was overthrown and assassinated at the instigation of his wife Catherine.  She embarked on a protracted, expensive and ultimately successful public relations campaign to conceal the brutality of her autocratic rule behind a facade of Enlightenment culture and erudition.  That’s why she’s Catherine the Great and why we have a Hermitage Museum today.  The rest became history.  All of which can be considered object lessons for Comrade Bear.  If only he’d get the picture.

Braking Vlad

September 12, 2014

Lunghu hasn’t written about Comrade Bear in a while; not since the relatively early stages of the Ukraine reconquista.  There really hasn’t been much doubt about Russia’s Intent and Capability, so what would have been the point?  But an earlier post about the possible impact of 19th c. Russian literature on Putin’s worldview created modest ripples in the placid pond of Lunghu’s mind that have finally wiggled their way to shore.  If literature –fictional representation of the human condition– can shape human behavior (or intended behavior) long after ink has dried on the page, what other dimensions of existence (real or imagined) might do likewise?

So –in the context of risk/threat assessment– it’s now perhaps appropriate to take up the task of attempting a preliminary definition for the elements of Intent. We’ve previously established that R = T + V and that T = I + C, and we’ve defined some elements of C (Capability), but the underlying formula for Intent is still very much terra incognita.

Notice that Lunghu said “take up the task” and “attempting” and “preliminary definition”.  Those weasel words should signal –nay, proclaim– that these inchoate thoughts are still very much a work in progress, if indeed progress is to be made at all.  So, to begin, let’s ground our quest in current events and work our way back from there.  It will be ‘rewind analysis’ of a somewhat different kind.

Russia’s navy announced the successful launch of a Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile from the nuclear submarine Vladimir Monomakh on Wednesday.  Addressing a Kremlin meeting on weapons modernization, Putin warned that U.S. missile defense plans and its use of the crisis in Ukraine to reinvigorate NATO have [undermined] Russia’s security.

“We have warned many times that we would have to take corresponding countermeasures to ensure our security,” Putin said.  “I would like to underline that we only take retaliatory steps.”  He and other officials have repeatedly boasted about new Russian nuclear missiles’ capability to penetrate any prospective missile shield.

Rather than focus, as so many will do, on the superficial content of Comrade Bear’s words, let’s instead briefly examine the cultural/symbolic allusions that permeate Wednesday’s missile test.  What’s a Bulava?  And who is Vladimir Monomakh?  It’s a good idea to ask.



  • In the Ukrainian language, a buława or bulava is a mace or a club, in both the military and ceremonial senses.  Historically the buława was an attribute of a Hetman, an officer of the highest military rank or the military head of a Cossack state (Cossack Hetmanate).  The bulava is also an official symbol of the President of Ukraine.
  • Hetman (variants: Otaman, Ataman, Wataman, Vataman; Russian: атаман) was a title of Cossack leaders of various kinds. In the Russian Empire, the term Otaman was the official title of the supreme military commanders of the Cossack armies.  The Ukrainian “Hetman” form may derive from the German Hauptmann by way of Polish, like several other titles.  During certain historical periods, the supreme leader of Ukrainian Cossacks was called Hetman.

So:  the bulava is simultaneously a ceremonial accessory of the President of Ukraine (symbolizing his authority) and (historically) a badge of rank for the supreme military commander of the Ukrainian Cossack army under the Russian Empire.

Vladimir Monomakh

Grand Duke Vladimir Monomakh (1053 to 1125) was the last grand prince of Kiev able to unify the Ancient Rus’ within a coherent polity.

  • Kievan Rus’ was a loose federation of East Slavic tribes in Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. The peoples of present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia all claim Kievan Rus’ as their cultural ancestors. The Kievan state prospered due to its abundant supply of furs, beeswax, honey, and slaves for export, and because it controlled three main trade routes of Eastern Europe.  Kievan Rus’ attained its greatest territorial extent under Yaroslav I (1019 to 1054); shortly after his death his sons assembled and issued its first written legal code, the Rus’ Justice.
  • The term “Kievan Rus'” (Ки́евская Русь) was coined in the 19th century by Russian historians to refer to the period when the capital was in Kiev.


  • Vladimir Monomakh was the son of Grand Prince Vsevolod I of Kiev’s Rurik Dynasty and Anastasia of the Byzantine Empire.  Anastasia is believed to be related to the family of the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, from whom Vladimir derived his surname.  Beginning in 1094, Vladimir’s chief patrimony was the southern town of Pereyaslav, although he also controlled Rostov, Suzdal, and other northern provinces.  In these lands he founded several towns, including his namesake, Vladimir, the future capital of Russia.
  • In 1107 he and his army defeated a Cuman invasion of Kievan Rus’ territory. When Grand Prince Sviatopolk II died in 1113, the Kievan populace revolted and summoned Vladimir to the capital. He entered Kiev to the great delight of the crowd and reigned there until his death in 1125. These years saw the last flowering of Ancient Rus, which was torn apart 10 years after his death.  Succeeding generations often referred to Vladimir’s reign as the golden age of Kiev.



What might observers reasonably infer from the cultural touchstones associated with historicized symbols such as the bulava and Vladimir Monomakh?  Let’s review:


a symbol of the authority of Ukraine’s President.

an emblem of rank for the military commander of Ukranian Cossacks in the Russian Empire.

a warclub for smashing the skull of one’s enemy.

Vladimir Monomakh

defender of Kievan Rus’ from barbarian invasion.

unifier of the Rus’ nation and protector of the people.

founder of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity in Kievan Rus’

Executive authority.  Military command.  Defense against barbarism. A united people.  Fond memories of a Golden Age.  These are just some of the cultural themes evoked by two simple(!) terms.  That is to say, these are the themes evoked in Slavic minds, among people deeply familiar with Russian history and culture.

Elsewhere, in Western Europe and on the American continent, ‘bulava’ and ‘Vladimir Monomakh’ are nearly-empty nominal labels, which merely designate particular Russian weapons systems with particular capabilities. The larger cultural meaning is completely opaque to such observers. And that’s more than a pity, because it’s also a strategic Vulnerability.  When you don’t understand your adversary’s Intent, you can’t properly assess the Threat he may pose, and thus you don’t understand the Risk you’re implicitly, blindly accepting.  C – (I) = T^2 = R^3

Back at the beginning of this post, Lunghu made some broad, grandiose, sweeping claims about attempting a definition of the elements of adversary Intent. It might be better to describe the effort as one of groping toward the barest glimmer of a shadowy twilight from the depths of a pitch black cave.  John Boyd, the 20th C. military strategist perhaps best known for his use of the OODA Loop concept, made the claim that all men (and, Lunghu would add, women too) are motivated by the desire to preserve maximal freedom of action in building a better life for themselves and their kin.  In this context, the better life each seeks to build is one that each imagines for himself –or in concert with like-minded others.  Their imaginations may be shaped by literature, myth, dreams and visions, religious doctrine, or a historical narrative with particular emphases of one kind or another.  In this way, people who share a common culture construct a collective vision of their desired future by reconfiguring and redefining their collective memory of a partially imaginary and sometimes romanticized past.  What do they Intend?  They may not even know themselves.


Change of Fuels

January 10, 2013

Whether you call them ‘revolutionaries-in-waiting’ or ‘governance transition scholars,’ students of regime change have an abundance of works-in-progress available for their critical review at this particular time.  Life lessons lie thickly strewn across the terrain in places like Mali, Libya, Central African Republic, Italy and (of course) Syria.  There’s certainly more than enough material to serve as a basic armature for a fully fleshed-out chapter or two of the Idiot’s Guide to Regime Change.™   F’rinstance:

Rebels fighting Assad say they have set up [an intelligence service] of their own to “protect the revolution,” monitor sensitive military sites and gather military information to help rebels plan attacks against government forces. “We created the unit formally in November.  It provides all kinds of information to (opposition) politicians and fighters. We are independent and just serve the revolution,” said a rebel intelligence officer who uses the name Haji. “Our work is organized, we have internal regulations and we are committed to international laws and human rights,” he said, speaking briefly over Skype.

Intelligence agents are also documenting [crimes by rebel forces themselves, such as] … torturing and summarily executing opponents, looting state and private property … so that the perpetrators could be held to account. “We are watching everybody. We have gathered information about every violation that happened in the revolt,” he said. “Those we cannot punish now will be punished after toppling Assad. Nothing will be ignored. We have our members among all the working brigades. They are not known to be intelligence officers and they operate quietly [ undercover as activists, citizen journalists or fighters.]”

Haji said most of the [organization’s] members were army defectors and former intelligence officers, and that the information they gathered was distributed to all anti-Assad factions and rebel brigades without discrimination. The organization appears to operate independently from the main opposition Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army, effectively answering to itself alone.

Morale of government officials is low and many are secretly helping the rebels as an insurance policy in case they win.  “They approach us and they give us information. We do not pay them.  They say all they want is protection for their families later on.”


Learnable Lessons

  • Intelligence is an indispensable component of regime change capability. Therefore, the logistical process of transforming information into intelligence should be understood as indispensable for regime changers.
  • Expertise is needed to reliably process information into intelligence.  If the insurgency hasn’t developed its own expertise, it must be ‘borrowed’ from those who already have it: disaffected “army defectors and former intelligence officers.
  • Some functionaries in regime preservation agencies have a strong sense of social justice, ethical responsibility, and a personal moral compass.  That’s why they’re defending the established order in the first place.  But they will defect once the insurgency has demonstrated a stronger commitment to justice, ethics and morality than the incumbent regime.  John Boyd can tell you why.
  • Security is the core social service.  “All they want is protection for their families.
  • Fear and security are Siamese twins.

“The word ‘security’ should mean the security of the people,” said an opposition activist. “Unfortunately, the regime’s security bodies changed it to mean preserving the security of the government against the people.”


Unanswered Questions … for seminar discussion:

  • Who’s paying the freight?  The concept of an all-volunteer people’s intelligence operation is certainly an inspiring and almost noble one, but collecting and processing all-source information into intelligence is a protracted and costly logistical undertaking.  Does the Free Syrian Intelligence Service have a reliable, culturally acceptable revenue base?  Or is this organization actually the stalking horse of a shadowy foreign power?
  • Is there any kind of  framework in place to guide and prioritize intelligence requirements?  Would anyone other than an intell geek care?
  • To what extent should this Reuters article be viewed as an information operation in its own right?  Whose interests would thus be served?  See Question #1.

Idiot’s Guide to Regime Change: Preface

November 30, 2012

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blogpost in order to bring you a public service announcement.  Before diving once more into the devilish details of Sherman Lai‘s Shandong saga Springboard to Victory, Lunghu thinks it would be appropriate to review some of the fundamental concepts currently guiding the regime preservation industry.  That’s because those who wish to change a regime hope to do so by preventing its preservation.  In this context, Sun Tzu (guess what:  born and raised in Shandong) counsels us to “Assess them to discover their plans, the successes as well as the failures.”

In the intelligence analysis domain, there’s a fundamental technique that’s used to imagine the ways that seemingly unlikely events might potentially occur.  It’s called ‘rewind analysis‘ –a term that probably needs to be updated since it’s based on obsolete technologies from the realm of celluloid film and magnetic tape recording.  However, although VHS video won’t be missed by most, the rewind analysis technique still has merit in particular situations. Unexpected regime change is one of them.  Time and again, the CIA, Stasi and similar intelligence services appear blindsided by regime change they didn’t instigate themselves.  Whether you take the examples of the Soviet Union and GDR in the 1980s or more recent cases such as Tunisia and Egypt, intelligence ‘surprises’ are a staple of analytical training.  Therefore, analysts studying regime change would use rewind analysis to envision the unforeseen outcome and then retrospectively imagine (in reverse chronological order) the most likely intermediate steps that led inexorably to the culmination of regime collapse.

Thus, in the same way that a rocket launch counts backward from T-minus-x to Zero, the step-by-step checklist progression from entrenched regime to regime change is best understood when traced back from some fixed –-but perhaps arbitrary– starting point or another.  Ideally, that starting point will be a moment in time before the regime’s running-dog lackeys begin to feel the ground actually shift beneath their feet (paws?).  So, in order to identify some of the necessary ingredients for regime change, let’s work backward from the basic formulae used by regime preservationists to assess their own safety and security.  These simple formulae are the ABC’s and 123’s of security agencies and intelligence organizations throughout the bourgeois/imperialist sphere of influence  —and beyond.  Everybody in the (English-speaking) regime preservation industry immediately recognizes these cryptic notations and knows what the letters stand for.  Whether they fully understand the implications is another matter entirely.

R = V + T

Risk equals Vulnerability plus Threat.  The continued existence of any government or public enterprise is at Risk when its Vulnerabilities can be exploited to disrupt or destroy the essential activities, services and functions it performs on behalf of the populace.  Once that happens, its legitimacy is in serious jeopardy.  At its most basic, this formula means that a regime with no Vulnerability … is not at Risk.  Moreover, even if there are vulnerabilities, there’s no (or low) Risk in the absence of a Threat with the potential to exploit them.  R = V + T  Since both variables on the righthand side of the equation are necessary but not sufficient, you also gotta have T to get R.

The regime preservation industry (should we lower ourselves to its level by using an acronym to denote a multi-word phrase?) hasn’t yet devised a dumbed-down formula to describe and define Vulnerability (this might itself indicate a regime vulnerability).  Security professionals believe that they know a vulnerability when they see one, so who needs a formula?  Of course, it’s those >         < vulnerabilities that get you every time…  In the absence of an official definition of Vulnerability, all that we have left to work with is a succinct formula to describe and define Threat:

T = I + C

Threat equals Intent plus Capabilities.  Once again both variables on the righthand side of the equation are necessary but not sufficient.  That unshaven guy mumbling incoherently on the street corner might Intend to destroy the solar system with a massive gamma ray blast, but he’s not a Threat until he gets his hands on supersized gamma ray generator Capability.  Similarly, the British Navy has submarine-launched, nuclear-tipped ballistic missile Capability that could destroy Washington, DC but because this is 2012 rather than 1812, they don’t Intend to incinerate the White House (again). You get the idea.

But we still have two undefined variables in this simple equation: what counts as Intent, and what exactly is Capability?  Let’s take the easy one first —-Intent.  In the regime preservation industry, Intent equals whatever the adversary or putative Threat says (or indicates) that s/he means to do.  Despite the fact that the United States is one great poker-playing nation, the regime preservation industry in this country generally (steeply) discounts the possibility of bluff and assumes that folks actually mean to do (Intend) what they say they will do.  You’d think that decades of listening to Congress would lead them to a starkly different conclusion, but some people never learn –or pretend not to.

But what about Capability?  As far as Lunghu knows, the regime preservation industry doesn’t actually have a snappy formula that neatly defines Capability.  They mostly think in terms of weapons systems, and believe they know a Capability when they see or hear it.  If it goes boom or bang, it’s a Capability.  Electronic/cyber-conflict is changing that perspective because it involves a Capability that can’t easily be defined in those classic terms.  Therefore, Lunghu hopes to do everyone a favor by modestly proposing a simple pseudo-equation that describes Capability.  It’s derived and adapted from verbal, categorical descriptions of Capability that are used as the framework for military intelligence assessment of the adversary’s Capability, but Lunghu believes that he’s the sole inventor of this pseudo-equation:

C = F + L + K + E

Capability equals Finance plus Logistics plus Kinetics plus Expertise.  Lunghu suspects that the actual formula is something much more like C = ((F + L) * K)^E [Finance plus Logistics times Kinetics to the power of Expertise], but let’s not get crazy here!  Most functionaries in the regime preservation industry can barely manage addition: algebraic calculation might leave ‘em flummoxed.  Polynomials?  Fuhgeddaboudit!

What does Lunghu mean by these terms?  Rather than subjecting the patient reader to yet more equations, Lunghu will content himself with preliminary verbal descriptions that can be disputed now and refined at a later date.  He’s also eminently willing to entertain the proposition that Finance is really just a special subset of Logistics rather than a completely distinct variable in its own right.  Be that as it may:

  • Finance is the accumulation and circulation of monetary instruments used to facilitate the goals of the individual or organization.
  •  Logistics is the set of methods and practices used to assemble, transport, store and distribute the physical resources required for the activities of an individual, organization and/or related enterprises.
  • Kinetics is the ability to apply energy or force (boom, bang, zap, etc.) in order to achieve a desired effect.
  • Expertise is a body of information organized in a way that can guide and adapt repeatable behavior or action.

These terse definitions provide only a hint of the way in which each element contributes to overall Capability and the ways in which they interact.  Each of these components will necessarily receive fuller treatment (perhaps a chapter each!) in the complete Idiot’s Guide.  For now, suffice to say that once again, each of the variables on the righthand side of the equation is necessary-but-not-sufficient to create Capability.  Kim Jong-Eun‘s fissible nuclear material (Kinetics) isn’t actually much of a Threat Capability until his scientists solve the Logistical problem of getting a functioning warhead (Expertise) far enough off the ground to clear the 38th Parallel.

So What?

What’s the point of all this tedious explication? Simply this:

  • if regime continuity and preservation requires a perception of legitimacy, and
  • if (as John Locke would have it) claims to legitimacy are mainly derived from the regime’s implicit promise to safeguard the physical security of its populace,
  • then the populace must believe that its security is threatened in order to tacitly concede that the regime is at least partially legitimate.

Thus, a predatory and corrupt regime can maintain minimal public tolerance of its manifold other deficiencies if it is able to sustain the perception that grave perils await outside the gates. For this reason, regime preservation is most easily accomplished amid a fearful populace. When people live in fear, they can be more easily controlled. So it’s not surprising that the past half-century provides numerous examples of the dishonest calculus used in public discourse by regime preservationist fearmongers around the globe, for whom:

  • virtually any Capability is a grave Threat, and
  • any Threat is a grave Risk.

Given the structure of the Risk and Threat formulae, these preemptive conclusions implicitly contain a pair of basic assumptions:

  • Vulnerability is omnipresent and nearly infinite.
  • Intent is almost always malevolent.

Reader take note: these deeply paranoid assumptions reveal that it is regime preservation functionaries who are the most fearful of all.  And that is the key to regime change.


Arbeit Macht Drei

September 5, 2011

Special Labor Day edition –dedicated to all those hard-working guys and gals on the shores of Tripoli.

When dynasties fall/ old titles must go
— Water Margin

The building was relatively undamaged by air strikes. Its rooms had instead been broken apart by people searching through cabinets and closets.
— Al Jazeera

Welcome to Phase Two of the Libya Campaign –Tripoli: the Afterparty.  All kinds of messy things occur on the cusp of regime change:  summary executions, dramatic (almost miraculous) changes of allegiance, interruptions of food distribution and utility services, and (best of all) the sudden revelation of jealously-guarded intelligence secrets.  Sometimes (and this is one of those times) the manner in which those secrets are revealed is just as revealing as the secrets themselves.  Or perhaps more so.

Let’s take a quick look at the way various world media outlets have reported the Libyan rebels’ seizure and occupation of Gaddafi’s intelligence headquarters.  In the chaos of the battle for Tripoli, journalists and NGO workers had partial (guided) access to various buildings in the intelligence compound.  They poked through the offices of the defeated(?) regime, viewed (and in some cases spirited away) abandoned intelligence files, and took photographs or video for posterity.  What has been made public thus far?

Al Jazeera :
Influential Americans tried to help Gaddafi cling to power
Gaddafi Had Spies in Rebel Camp

Al Jazeera’s reporting emphasizes current or recent events.  One story highlights “a top-secret document …found in a sealed envelope… that appears to be a briefing for Libyan intelligence mastermind Abdullah Senussi.”  To Al Jazeera, the intell report suggests that “Gaddafi had spies at the highest levels of the rebel movement.

However, in focusing on the here-and-now, Al Jazeera does not ignore international dimensions to the Libyan revolution.  Its initial story described a meeting in which Bechtel executive David Welch (former Bush regime ASecState) counsels Gaddafi underlings on their damage control options.  The same story cites other documents which purport to describe efforts by Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to assist the Gaddafi regime.

The official state media provides a bland, superficial gloss:

“the documents illuminate a short period when the Libyan intelligence agency was a trusted and valued ally of both MI6 and the CIA.”

The Guardian (UK) :
Spies at the top of the rebel movement
Sir Mark Allen: the secret link between MI6, the CIA and Gaddafi
Libyan papers show UK worked with Gaddafi in rendition operation
NTC Commander Abdul Hakim Belhaj demands apology over MI6 and CIA plot

The Guardian concentrates its extensive coverage on Britain’s intell cooperation with Gaddafi’s government, and some of the aftermath:

“Sir Mark Allen Allen, formerly MI6’s director of counter-terrorism, left MI6 in 2004 … to join BP, for which he later helped arrange lucrative oil and gas contracts in Libya.”

The Independent (UK) :
Gaddafi, Britain and US: A secret, special and very cosy relationship

In-depth review of Libya-UK rapprochement in 2003-2004 and beyond.  Much of the story’s focus appears to be on heaping opprobrium and blame onto Tony Blair’s Labor government of the time.

New York Times :
Files Note Close CIA Ties to Qaddafi Spy Unit

NYT [1] distances itself from the material by attributing its provenance to “journalists and [NGO] Human Rights Watch;” [2] focuses the story on “ancient history” –Bush-era rendition activities of the CIA; [3] subtly develops the sub-theme of Islamist extremism within some elements of the NTC; and [4] mentions but minimizes the involvement of MI-6 in rendition of Islamist suspects to the Gaddafi regime.  Must have been all the news that was fit to print.

“While most of the renditions referred to in the documents appear to have been CIA operations, at least one was claimed to have been carried out by MI-6.”

Los Angeles Times :
CIA once handed key Libya rebel figure to Kadafi, documents show

Quotes a retired CIA official affirming Abdel-Hakim Belhadj’s extremist credentials.  To show its fairness and balance, the LA Times also presents Belhaj’s side:

He said his group had rejected overtures to affiliate with Al Qaeda and that Libya’s new government will not be Islamist.
“We believe that Libya should have relations with all nations,” Belhadj said at his heavily guarded seaside complex in Tripoli. “We Muslims need to interact with all other nations, and all other religions. This is what Islam tells us.”

Washington Post :
Gaddafi assisted CIA rendition efforts

Its only coverage of this story is an AP reprint:

“An embarrassing example of the U.S. administration’s collaboration with authoritarian regimes in the war on terror.  The documents mention a half dozen names of people targeted for rendition, including Tripoli’s new rebel military commander, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj.”

The Post’s own reporters prefer to focus on political developments in Tripoli, and accentuating the positive.  The head and subhead:

Reining in Libyan rebel commanders: civilian rulers take control of military chiefs in effort to ease internal strains and curb Islamist influence.”

What can we learn from this?  Several things.  First, the chaos of regime change is the perfect time to run a disinformation operation, so there’s no guarantee that all of the documents conveniently exposed for journalistic review at ESO headquarters are actually genuine.  Maybe they are, and maybe they’re not.  Lunghu can envision a scenario in which the Tripoli representatives of various competing intell agencies had to take turns planting fake documents in ESO offices once the buildings were captured.  Perhaps they drew up an access schedule in advance, in the spirit of international cooperation which has thus far distinguished the Libyan revolution.

why is this file upside-down? ... and what USED TO BE on the shelf below?

Second, regardless of the authenticity/veracity of this document trove, NTC decisionmakers are likely to take future action as if much of the material is true (minus whatever disinformation they themselves fed to Gaddafi’s intell crew).  This implies that certain nations and corporations may well be viewed with less favor than others by a governing NTC.  The primary goal for all the NATO/EU players sniffing at Libya’s oil is now to minimize their past sins and emphasize their current sanctity.  In this respect, France (despite being tainted by association with Ben Ali in Tunisia) can plausibly claim to have mostly steered clear of Gaddafi.  Italy, Germany, Britain, the USA, Russia, and China –not so much.

... just make sure you count your fingers afterwards.


Third, let the games begin!  The desert dust has far from settled in Libya.  The moving and shaking, deal-cutting, back-stabbing, coalition-building and tit-for-tat assassination have only just started.  Each of the major European and Asian powers has its own set of favored sons whose factional interests they will seek to promote:  the last ones left standing will be in charge of Libya’s territory, polity and natural resources.  Naturally, their external allies –who see themselves as sponsors but are viewed by Libyans as a temporary expedient– will seek recompense for prior services and assistance.  The bargaining should be interesting to watch.  In’shallah.


Sacré Bleu

September 4, 2011

Lunghu doesn’t often talk shop on this blog, but when he does … XXpect the unXXpected.

The occasion for this brief(?) departure from precedent is provided by two IBM acquisitions during the past week:  i2 (a British software house) and Algorithmics (a French-owned Canadian firm).  What does this mean?  Why should Lunghu care?

Let’s take these rhetorical questions in reverse order (sort of).  First and foremost, these acquisitions resonate for Lunghu because i2 dominates the market in law enforcement/ military intell analysis network visualization tools with its Analyst’s Notebook product.  This software generates graphical representations of criminal/ terrorist network structures, communications, and relationships.  It also has features for depicting multi-thread timeline event flows (such as those that occur during the course of a criminal conspiracy or terrorist plot).  In theory, such data visualizations can accelerate, improve or refine the process of intelligence analysis itself, but in the real world i2 charts are primarily used as a storytelling device, to explain a complex conspiracy to bonehead bosses or arrogant, self-important prosecuting attorneys.  Far too often, Analyst’s Notebook is used to produce a bogus corporate-style “table of organization” that purports to illustrate the network’s so-called (and sometimes imaginary) command-and-control hierarchy.

Lunghu has been using various versions of i2 software for about a dozen years, and he’s delighted that IBM has bought the company.  That’s because i2’s software –from an intell analyst’s viewpoint– pretty much sucks, and now there’s hope (however faint) for real improvement once some Armonk coders get their heads under the hood of this creaky old British jalopy.  Here’s a brief enumeration of the principal defects that a longtime user sees in i2’s flagship product:

  • Analyst’s Notebook’s market niche is in depiction/ visualization of network relationships –”link charts” in intell-speak.  However, the software has no social network analysis tools —nothing to assist in exploring network structure.  The software doesn’t have features to help the analyst identify cliques, cut points, k-cores … nada. Instead, users/analysts have to manually impose their own structure on the data visualization by dragging nodes to new locations on the chart.  i2 apologists might claim (with some jsutification) that the LE/mil intell industry doesn’t want all that high-falutin’ pointy-headed academic analysis capability  –it just wants to know who to go out and shoot.  So Lunghu poses the question: which is a better downrange use of your expensive munitions  –spray-and-pray or sniper fire?
  • Analyst’s Notebook generates only flat, 2D representations of mixed-mode network relationships.  It doesn’t have the capability to depict the interrelationships of multiple networks in a “layered” visualization –something that an i2 executive dubbed “2½ D” when Lunghu tried to explain to him why that would be useful.  It has a kludge that lets the user selectively filter out entire categories of nodes, but this feature is only marginally useful.  Analyst’s Notebook also cannot readily depict changes in a network over time – a 4D capability that is highly relevant to many aspects of intell analysis.  The current software requires the analyst to generate two (or more) 2D charts at different timeslices, and then (like a spectator at Flushing Meadows) scan back and forth between them hoping to notice all the changes.
  • Analyst’s Notebook link charts cannot be exported from the program to other applications: not as graphics, not as PostScript files, not as meaningful datasets, nothing.  This really annoys the military, which wants to see everything in a Powerpoint slide for briefings to command.  A grainy lo-res screenshot of your link chart doesn’t overly impress the 3-star, and makes your captain look bad.
  • Representation of network nodes is icon-based, which is okay as far as it goes, but the standard icon set looks dated, cheesy, and Brit-centric.  The software is picky about what types of graphic formats it will accept for substitute icon images, and does not allow image files to be substituted for node icons: they can only be superimposed on the icon, obscuring but not replacing it.  This means that when you want to represent a person, place or thing as a node on your chart, you can’t just use a filename or hyperlink for the visual representation of that node –you have to laboriously navigate a menu-driven wizard to select the file and place it on the chart.  Then you have to use another menu tool to tweak the formatting, size, etc.  For each such image …
  • Analyst’s Notebook is not well equipped to handle communications analysis.  Granted, that’s outside the scope of general intell industry practice at the national level in both the USA and UK, where NSA and GCHQ handle SigInt for the big boys.  However, within law enforcement, it is often the grassroots intell analyst who has to handle analysis of call records and intercept data.  The market leaders in this sub-niche are PenLink and JSI, both of whom focus most of their development efforts on administration of wiretap information: data collection, storage, and (generally) rudimentary reporting.  i2 has carved out its own space by specializing in the visualization of telecom data, basically as an extension of its link charting feature.  But as with social network analysis, i2 is weak on providing actual analysis tools to deal with telecom data.  Its principal product offering in the telecom analysis space is PatternTracer 2, which the company asserts …

Automates pattern analysis tasks within telephone call data
Identifies communication patterns happening around events of interest
Identifies repeating groups of calls (clusters) and patterns of calls within these clusters (the telecom equivalent of market basket analysis)

Lunghu’s principal problem with this tool is that it’s [1] outrageously expensive for what it does, [2] an opaque blackbox that uses algorithms of unknown precision and reliability, and [3] it doesn’t allow the user/analyst to specify, tweak  or weight any of the parameters used in analysis.  It’s not encouraging that i2’s sales and training staff has difficulty explaining what PatternTracer does and how it does it.  The good news is that these deficiencies inspired Lunghu to write his own telecom data cluster analysis subroutine … which actually works as intended!  And, since Lunghu knows what the algorithms are, and can specify the parameters before each analysis run, he has much more confidence in its output.  And guess what —the data can be imported into Analyst’s Notebook for visualization.  Fortunately for America’s civil liberties, no one cares and he never uses it.

But enough about i2 …

What’s the meaning of these IBM acquisitions in the larger picture?  Conventional wisdom might well have it that this investment in data analytics is a defensive move on IBM’s part, a reaction to HP’s purchase of Autonomy or Google’s recent buying spree (PostRank, PittPatt, etc.).  Lunghu thinks not.  Instead, these acquisitions suggest a keen awareness of the operating environment –and market opportunity– on IBM’s part.  Let’s review the bigger picture:

❖  The post-9/11 defense boom is just about over for the worldwide military/industrial complex.  Bucketloads of counter-terrorism money from DoD, DIA, and CIA gave new life to i2 just as its core law enforcement market was approaching saturation, but the bust cycle is about to begin in that corner of the ‘security’ industry.  i2’s technology is showing its age, but it’s still a recognized brand name in government and industry, and that’s what IBM bought.

Algorithmics, incorporated in Delaware as Fitch Risk Management, Inc, is a member of Fitch Group, majority owned by Fimalac, a holding company based in Paris, France. Fimalac is around 80 percent owned by its Founder, Chairman and CEO, Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.  Algorithmics is the world’s leading provider of risk solutions for market, credit and operational risk.  Financial organizations around the world use Algorithmics software, analytics and advisory services to help them make risk-aware business decisions, maximize shareholder value, and meet regulatory requirements.  Twenty-five of the top thirty banks and more than two-thirds of the CRO Forum of leading insurers use Algorithmics analytics software and advisory services. Clients include The Allianz Group, BlueCrest, HSBC, Nedbank, Nomura, Societe Generale, and Scotia Capital.

Algorithmic’s focus on credit, market and liquidity risk, as well as key customers in operational risk, will strengthen and expand IBM’s risk consulting services.  Algorithmics risk analytics software and services, combined with IBM’s acquisition of OpenPages and recent investments in predictive analytics, will provide clients with the broadest range of business analytics solutions.

❖  To summarize, the salient features of this newly-acquired IBM capability are [1] Anglo-Franco-Canadian-American business presence and corporate relationships; [2] market leading position in law enforcement intell and investigative-support analytics and [3] market leading position in financial industry risk analytics.

❖  So, where do the vectors of law enforcement, finance and risk assessment intersect?  Market surveillance, oversight and regulation, that’s where.  Lunghu believes that these acquisitions are an indication that IBM has (or hopes to have) the inside track on a massive technology support contract for an in-depth SEC/ FINRA/ CFTC/ Fed/ Treasury market surveillance and enforcement program.

Of course, this could just be wishful thinking on Lunghu’s part, since he believes such measures are long overdue.  But there certainly are signs that the US regulatory authorities may finally be beginning to walk the walk behind their somewhat tougher talk.  Stated intent from SEC, FINRA, et al. indicate that securities fraud, insider trading, market manipulation, tax evasion and related criminality are once again high enforcement priorities.  In order to investigate far-flung transnational criminal networks operated by and for the speculative degrees, regulators need network analysis capability.  In order to detect market manipulation within the gushing torrent of global trading data, regulators need risk analysis and pattern matching capabilities.  Without in-house expertise to develop such capabilities themselves, they’ll have to buy or lease it from someone who already has the capability.  A trusted vendor with whom government has had a century of  experience.  Someone like Big Blue.

Further afield, the inclusion of British and French components within IBM’s analytics effort may indicate that the United States is undertaking this market surveillance/enforcement initiative in actual, concerted partnership with regulators in London and Paris.  By insuring that everyone’s interests are represented to some degree or another, you build a measure of trust and get additional buy-in.  Kinda like Libya, Part Deux.

Best of all, for IBM this is an opportunity to expand markets in both the public and private sectors.  Financial industry players who are operating in grey areas of the regulatory space (and that would be just about all of ‘em) may well see the benefit of hiring the services of IBM’s risk consulting group … just on the off chance of catching hints about what capabilities the feds might be developing.  That’s what counter-intelligence is all about.  And on the public sector side, there’s no need for IBM to confine itself to federal government.  Each of the 50 states operates an employee pension fund and a bond financing department.  Plenty of risk to be assessed there.  Plenty to be investigated, too.  If individual states can’t afford IBM’s consulting fees (and most states are deeply in the red), perhaps they can pool their resources and take a regional approach.  At least, that could be IBM’s sales pitch.

Will any of this occur as Lunghu has foretold?  Who knows?  On verra, on verra ça. … Mais pas çe soir.  Demain, demain, toujours demain.

Tuesday Belgium

May 1, 2011

Because he himself is trespassing in the exformation webspace, Lunghu occasionally checks in on Stijn Debrouwere’s blog to see what’s brewing (cross-lingual pun intentional) in the information architecture domain.  Stijn is a programmer/web designer/self-coined information architect based in Ghent, Belgium who blogs in both English and Dutch about the need to improve the ways that news content providers  on the web… um … provide news content.   Stijn posts even less frequently than Lunghu, which gives him time to actually craft some high-concept material and hammer home the relevant rhetorical points.

[Lunghu takes a different approach: for certain strategic reasons he usually prefers the scattershot, hit-and-run, all-over-the-map, death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach.  But enough of these trivial matters —read Sun-tzu if you would know why.]

Since Stijn’s posts are infrequent, Lunghu checks infrequently (RSS?  Probably not).   In mid-April Stijn had something to say about the importance (and difficulty) of providing context along with news content.   Some of his points intersect with aspects of intell analysis that are poorly understood within the intell domain and are even more poorly implemented just about everywhere.   Therefore, as a public service, Lunghu will first provide a gloss of Stijn’s views on news context and then will comment on the topic from the perspective of ongoing research into factors that contribute to information quality.   If boredom doesn’t set in beforehand, there may be time to outline the similarities with analogous problems in the intell analysis domain.   But maybe not.

Stijn’s main (only?) point in his April post is that news providers don’t do a good job of furnishing their customers with context for the news stories that stream past in a linear, no longer cyclical, flow.   Here’s some of what he says about information presented as news:  paragraph numbers from the original are included so that readers who wish to do so can check the verisimilitude of Lunghu’s characterizations.  [Material within square brackets is Lunghu’s addition, clarification or gloss.]

¶ 19:     [any news story is] “a tiny fragment of a long and complex issue.
¶ 23:     [journalists should be] “ … meeting people’s information needs.

But wait!  If journalists should be providing context in order to meet information needs, let’s define terms.   What does Stijn mean by “context?”   Since he doesn’t provide a clearcut semantic statement such as “context is X” we’re obliged to infer his meaning by reference to several descriptions of context that occur throughout his post.

¶ 4: [the information needed (context) is] “the chunky bits … the longstanding issues.
¶ 1: [Context corresponds to] “the background information [about a topic already] in [the readers’] brains.
[Lunghu notes that this sounds like a lot like “exformation.”]
¶ 16:     [Implicitly, context is the bigger picture]: “[some journalists] are telling the bigger picture through databases and visualizations.
¶ 13:     [Context is not merely] “additional background information.
¶ 11:     Context [is related to] analysis.
¶ 14:     (Elise Hu asserts that) [Context is] “the minimum you need to understand a topic … [plus more] as your need for more information increases.
¶ 15:     [Context is] “not just [what] information you provide, but also how you provide it.

These would seem to be rather widely dispersed attributes of context rather than a succinct definition.   Since we don’t have ready recourse to the seven Indian blind men who clustered around that elephant …  what IS this thing called context?

If Wikipedia doesn’t have the answer we want, perhaps academic researchers do.   Scholars at MIT and Univ Arkansas-Little Rock have been examining the topic of information quality for more than a decade:  what is it that makes information more —or less— valuable?   This is a question that’s more than academic:  it is (or should be) at the core of every web entrepreneur’s business plan.   But how many web designers have even heard of Wang, Strong, and Lee  –let alone know what they’ve discovered about information quality?  [Rhetorical question only.]  Read their papers if you would know … and/or read Lunghu’s gloss immediately below.


Lunghu’s gloss

Wang et al. have combed through two decades of research literature to identify (several dozen) factors that contribute to information quality.  These factors can be grouped into four categories:  intrinsic, representational, access, and –wait for it– contextual.   That’s right, context is just one fundamental dimension of information quality, and is itself composed of several factors or attributes.  Ignoring (for now) the representational and access dimensions of information quality, let’s take a closer look at the factors that comprise information’s intrinsic and contextual dimensions.  Intrinsic factors are those that inhere in the information itself, regardless of who uses the information or for what purpose.  Contextual factors are those that are contingent on who is using the information and how they’re using it.  Although various interested parties have proposed more than two dozen factors within these two information quality categories alone, Lunghu has whittled that list down to a manageable “top ten” set of information attributes (five factors each in the intrinsic and contextual dimensions) along with a brief description/definition.  Bear in mind that these are not mere binary factors that are absent/present, but instead each constitutes a scalar continuum from non-existent all the way up to optimal.

Factor Category Definition
Accuracy Intrinsic degree of conformance with actuality
Precision Intrinsic extent to which the parameters being described/ measured are defined/articulated with maximal specificity
Consistency{Coherence} Intrinsic degree of conformance w. prior information on the topic … OR … extent to which internal contradictions are absent
Credibility{Probability/Plausibility} Intrinsic extent to which the information can be believed
Objectivity Intrinsic degree to which reporting bias is absent > minimized >
explicitly defined.  
2 kinds: of the info source/
of the reporter
Note: specific numeric values assigned to the following contextual dimensions of information quality will vary depending on the needs of particular information users.
Currency Contextual degree to which information records an up-to-the-moment “snapshot” state of actuality
Timeliness Contextual extent to which information is available to the user when its content is needed [for decision-making or other processes]
Relevance Contextual extent to which information addresses the user’s implicit or explicit information needs
Quantity Contextual degree to which information contains all or most of the data elements needed by the user for the purposes at hand
Level of detail Contextual extent to which the information’s Precision matches the “granularity” needed by the user

This table of definitions doesn’t adequately convey the interactions between these factors, so Lunghu has helpfully provided a pair of diagrams that outline his view of the relationships that characterize the way intrinsic and contextual IQ are formed.   Of the intrinsic factors, and their cross-dimension interactions with contextual factors, we will speak no more … at least not right now.   For the moment, let’s focus on the contextual factors alone.  Note that Lunghu gives “relevance” the preeminent place among contextual factors:  information is relevant because it’s timely/current/at the proper level of detail and in the quantity that the consumer requires.   In other words, relevance is a supra-factor … in context.

However, what this means is that relevance of any information (news) item will vary from user to user/consumer to consumer.  Not every reader needs the same quantity of information or level of detail.  These will vary in inverse proportion to the exformation that each user already possesses.  Put another way, prior consumption/ retention of information on a particular topic (at various levels of quantity and detail) is what determines a big chunk of the consumer’s information needs … and her need (or not) for context.

[The nature of the decision against which the information will/may be applied is another major aspect/determinant of the user’s information needs.]

Quo Vadis?

Obviously, this view of information context has some rather significant implications for news providers  –or information providers of any kind.  If your (potential) users have wildly varying information needs, you’ve got unpalatable choices to make:  load up on background material for your lowest-common-denominator reader and thus alienate sophisticates; assume high levels of exformation and talk over the heads of the masses [the usual Lunghu approach], or attempt to steer a middle course and satisfy no one.

The good news is that there may be a way out –if content management technology can be imaginatively deployed in novel ways … and if information consumers are willing to specify their information needs to news providers in advance.  Think of it as “feed forward” rather than “feedback.”   Recall that contextual information quality factors can be thought of as “a scalar continuum from non-existent all the way up to optimal.”   The inverse/isomer of this idea is that customers’ information needs can also be situated along a scalar continuum  –one with multiple dimensions that roughly correspond to the attributes of intrinsic and contextual information quality.

Consider the graphic equalizer tool embedded/hidden in the interface of every installation of Windows® Media Player (granted, very few actually use it): ten slider bars adjust audio frequency bands from high to low, thus subtly(?) altering the user’s listening experience.  A similar “info equalizer” tool can be imagined that would allow information consumers to preemptively specify what levels of detail, quantity, currency, precision, objectivity, etc. they want in the content they seek.  These settings would probably vary from topic to topic for any given user, in addition to varying from user to user.  Default settings of the info equalizer tool might continue to deliver the mediocre news content we see today.  Some users (accustomed to Fox News) might want little more than maximal currency:  who cares about accuracy and objectivity?  Others might want to crank up the gain on level of detail and see what they get.  You probably get the idea already… no need for further examples.

On the content provider end, news items would have to be re-conceived as something other than self-contained information units existing in time and space.  Instead, it might be more useful to view information/news as custom-built niche products assembled on-the-fly from a multi-source, just-in-time logistics supply chain.  If each of the numerous sub-components carries its respective information quality metatags (visualized in the form of a radar plot?) from the cradle to publication, it may be feasible to match information inventory with customer-specified information needs.  Not easy, but feasible.

Before anyone starts sputtering “but-but-but, how do we do this?” let’s remember that Lunghu is a high-concept guy and is not about to start wrangling with all the niggling little implementation details that actually doing this would inevitably entail.  (Not unless his palm is crossed with silver and he hears the cash register ka-ka-ching!)  First let’s argue over/acknowledge the possible merits of this approach and then deal with the best way to make it work.  After all, we gotta slither before we can crawl.

Be seeing you!

Next time / some other time:  the implications for intelligence analysis.

Column … half left … march!

July 29, 2010

This post has its origins in my recent discussion of the way in which Reuters news agency presented the tangled tale of Shahram Amiri earlier this month.  I like the way that Reuters explicitly distinguished between fact, assertion and speculation in their reporting.   Therefore, I thought I’d try to adopt some of Reuters’ methodology in continuing my half-assed analysis of this case:  for the remainder of this post, I will clearly label the statements below with the appropriate tags in square brackets.  See what you think.

[Assertion:]  When Shahram Amiri resurfaced in July 2010, my initial reaction was to note the  temporal proximity with 2010’s other big espionage story:  the Russian sleeper spy ring roundup and swap.  [Fact:] The FBI had supposedly been investigating this collection of agents (perhaps not really a network if they were unknown to each other) for more than a decade.   The eventual spy swap yielded a mixed quartet of former Russian intelligence officers and a technical specialist.   [Speculation:] Maybe it was an even trade.  Maybe the US came out ahead.   [Assertion:] But it could have occurred at almost any time in the past five years:  why now?  [Speculation:]  Well … perhaps to divert media attention from what was about to hit the news quite soon.  (Construct a parallel timeline and judge for yourself.)   [Fact:] At least that’s the direction I thought this post would go when I began to think about writing it.

[Fact:]  I began following the Shahram Amiri story when Iranian media first publicly complained about his disappearance in October 2009.  At the time, and until quite recently, I believed that that Shahram Amiri’s disappearance [Assertion:] was just another in a series of US intelligence community “extra-legal seizures” of Iranian operatives extending back at least five years or so.

[Assertion:]  Anyone with a solid foundation in intelligence history and a basic –or not so basic– knowledge of US intell sources and methods will by now have reached the conclusion that the 3-letter men agencies are engaged in a protracted campaign to scoop up Hizbollah functionaries and Revolutionary Guard cadres from far-flung corners of the globe.  Usually, the US has worked closely with elements of the local intell services in carrying out these missions.  █████ and ██████ come to mind, among other locales.

[A:]  The goals of this campaign are two-fold:  to disrupt Hizbollah armament acquisition networks, and to collect HumInt about Iran’s putative nuclear weapons research programs.  Both of these goals have much more to do with Israel’s national security than our own, but being seen to guarantee Israel’s security is one way of keeping its status as a US strategic liability within manageable limits.  [F:]  It’s not in US interests to have Netanyahu start a Mideast war primarily to shore up his domestic political position, [A:] (his usual m.o.).

Meanwhile, in Occupied Kurdistan …

[F:]  In August 2009 three American “hikers” were seized by Iranian border guards after they [Unconfirmed:] “inadvertently strayed” into Iran from Iraq.  Let’s not concern ourselves with the issue of whether they were: [U:] innocent hikers, [Speculation:] US intelligence agents, or [S:] somebody else’s expendable false-flag recruits.  [A:]  What matters is that [F:] Iran has repeatedly (but semi-officially) proposed making their release conditional on the release of a dozen or so Iranian citizens (including Amiri) held by the US in “extra-judicial confinement.”   In other words, a swap.

[F:]  Publicly, the US has been having none of it, [A:] undoubtedly on principled grounds of proportionality.  [Bleak humor:] A trade of three stooges for a dozen all-star Revolutionary Guards almost certainly would be voided by the Commissioner’s Office as grossly one-sided and not in the best interest of The Game.  [F:] This stalemate prevailed for the remainder of 2009 and thus far into 2010.

Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location …

[U:]  From summer 2009 through spring 2010, Shahram Amiri was repeatedly debriefed –either willingly or unwillingly– by [S:] CIA personnel [U:] concerning his knowledge of Iranian nuclear research programs.  [F:] An article from the ([U:] left-leaning) InterPress Service news agency asserts Shahram Amiri told CIA that Iran no longer has an active nuclear weapons program, [F:] apparently confirming the intelligence community’s 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which came to the same conclusion three years ago.

No matter how you feel about the ideological orientation of IPS, [A:] you do have to like –or you should– the way that IPS’s Gareth Porter based his reporting on the statements of a named source (retired CIA) willing to go on record, and whose assertions were made based on access to serving CIA officials with knowledge of Shahram Amiri’s debriefing.  [F:] The IPS article goes on to contrast their source’s statements with professions made by WaPo and NYT journalists in various articles published during April and June 2010.  The IPS piece asserts that [A:] WaPo, NYT and ABC News reporting has been promoting a “false narrative” that:

[I]ntelligence briefings for Security Council members had included “information about nuclear weaponization” obtained from Amiri. … [J]ournalists have evidently been guided by personal convictions on the issue that are aligned with certain U.S., European and Israeli officials who have been pressuring the Barack Obama administration to reject the 2007 [NIE] estimate.

In an aside, [F:] Porter notes that former DNI Dennis Blair was quoted in one such WaPo article as saying that a new assessment of Iranian’s nuclear program had been delayed by “information coming in and the pace of developments.”  [A:]  WaPo reporters implied that Shahram Amiri’s information confirmed the presence of an active Iranian nuclear weapons program.

What … and so what?

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve waded through a turgid morass of fact and assertion along a path that seems to have no discernible direction.  All those facts and assertions add up to a whole lot of “what,” but things are quite a bit scanty in the “so what” department.  Why should anyone care?   That’s where the value of explicitly labeled speculation can really make itself felt:  by considering a wide range of hypotheses, the potential significance of the Shahram Amiri saga in the greater scheme of things may gradually emerge.

First, consider the possibility that [Speculation:] the Shahram Amiri affair (in its entirety) is somehow linked to the resignation of DNI Dennis Blair.  Let’s examine how that might be, through a series of alternate hypotheses that have not yet been tested against unavailable evidence.  Remember: these are alternative possibilities that need not all be in the realm of the actual.   Indeed, some of them may be mutually exclusive possibilities.

[S:]  For any of several motives, a faction or factions within the US intelligence community seek to reverse the findings of the 2007 NIE and claim that Iran has an active, clandestine nuclear weapons development program.  Let’s call this IC effort  “Projekt EIN.”

[S:]  In advancing Projekt EIN, this faction(s) used and abused information purportedly from/attributed to Shahram Amiri as “evidence” supporting their thesis.

[S:]  Members or allies of said faction(s) may have been on ODNI staff.

[S:] Dennis Blair himself (pick one … or more):

[S:]  was an active participant in Projekt EIN or actually commissioned it.

[S:]  was aware of Projekt EIN only as a “red team” or “rewind analysis” exercise, but was unaware of/neglected to control deliberate leaks from participants who had their own agendas.

[S:]  was entirely unaware of the existence of Projekt EIN and its “conclusions.”

[S:] was set up by rivals in the IC as the fall guy/patsy to be blamed for attempting a disastrous rerun of the 2002-2003 Iraq WMD intelligence fabrication campaign.

[S:] Regardless of Blair’s level of (non)involvement, he had to go when Team Obama learned of Projekt EIN and its politically catastrophic implications.  Whether Blair was actively involved, only partially aware, or blissfully ignorant, it sure didn’t look as though he was on top of things at ODNI.  That’s enough to make your president lose confidence in you.

[A:]  Of course, all the speculation above is based on the assumption that Team Obama is actually opposed to reversing the 2007 NIE.  That might be the most egregious speculation of all.