Social network analysis exposes Panty Bomber’s habits

This post describes the methodology used to map Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s online communications:

Given our specific interest in the online behavior of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, we were most interested in analyzing the direct and indirect communication network associated with the handle “Farouk1986” (aka Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab).  Therefore, it was necessary to filter the broader universe of communication on to the relevant subset.

A portion of this information is contained in publically available NEFA dataset.  While useful, we determined that this dataset alone did not include the information necessary for us to construct the Farouk1986 secondary/indirect communications network. In order to obtain a better understanding of this communication network, we retrieved every “topic” in which Farouk1986 participated at least once.  Each “topic” is comprised of one or more “posts” from one or more users.  Each “post” may be in response to another user’s “post.”  The NEFA data contains only posts made by Farouk1986 – our data contains the entire context within which his posts existed.

The table of the ten most frequent participants in his network is interesting; I suspect I would be soiling myself if my handle were “Crystal Eyes” or “property_of_allah”.


Terror plot a “cascade of failures”

Washington Capitol, DC

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A New York Times editorial today reviews what happened in the terror incident two weeks ago on Northwest Airlines Flight 253:

The report implicitly acknowledges all of this, saying that the system failed “to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government” about both the Al Qaeda group and Mr. Abdulmutallab. It also makes clear that this was not a single failure by one agency but was a cascade of failures across agencies and departments and the bureaucracies that are supposed to coordinate them.

It says that once the government learned of a possible plot in Yemen, the intelligence community failed to devote more analytic resources, and it failed to put one agency or official in charge. John Brennan, the senior official responsible for figuring out what went wrong, said on Thursday that only after the failed plot did the intelligence community recognize that the group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, actually posed a direct threat to the United States. [emphasis added]

This is a fairly straightforward explanation of the problem.  The problem is not individual, but rather systemic.  There are never enough analytic resources to adequately process the overwhelming volume of data collected by the IC, but that is not the primary problem.  The overarching challenge to the IC is that authority, budget, and power are spread across its agencies with no clear leadership or accountability.  Every 8-year-old kid knows what happens when one kid is in charge of building the treehouse and another kid has all the lumber and nails.  If there is to be reform–and it has yet to happen in the past eight years–consolidating budget and accountability is the most powerful lever.

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NCTC likely focus of terror report

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It appears the forthcoming terror report will implicate the young National Counterterrorism Center:

Without naming the agency, he put the National Counterterrorism Center, the new entity formed after 9/11 to do precisely this function, squarely in his crosshairs.

Until the report (to be released today) has been fully dissected and cross-examined, it is impossible to say whether President Obama is pointing his finger at the right culprit. Of all the parts of the complex system and of all of the post-9/11 reforms, I would have considered the NCTC to be one of the better functioning.

I wouldn’t, but Dr. Feaver (great name) will likely know more than I on the matter.  The reasons I wouldn’t expect it to be one of the better functioning organizations in the IC are

  1. The organization is new, and was created in a relative panic;
  2. Its function is merely coordination–admittedly a tough job–without authority; and
  3. The turf-protectiveness of the IC almost guarantees that the NCTC’s analysis would be incomplete.

I harbor a great deal of respect for the many talented individuals who labor within dysfunctional, unnecessarily competitive intel organizations.  Intel reform has clearly not worked–in fact, there really hasn’t been reform.  Adding layers of bureaucracy, especially without real power, is not reform at all.  Pointing fingers and sacking people is often the politically astute path, but it almost guarantees that we’ll have this discussion again.

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Best sentence on intel in 8 years

Perspicacity points to Doyle McManus:

“By shining light on organizational dysfunction that’s hard to dramatize, the attempted bombing has highlighted a problem that desperately needs to be solved.”


New round of intel reform posturing begins

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Just a quick break from vacation to observe the friction between the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of Central Intelligence:

The White House this month issued a classified order to resolve mounting frictions between the nation’s intelligence director and the CIA over issues including how the agency conducts covert operations, U.S. officials said.

The intervention reflects simmering tension between the two most powerful players in the U.S. intelligence community: Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.

The memo maintains the CIA’s status as the nation’s lead spy service on covert missions, rejecting an attempt by Blair to assert more control. But the document also includes language detailing the agency’s obligation to work closely with Blair on sensitive operations.

The White House memo, signed by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, was an attempt to settle a collection of disputes that have plagued the relationship between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director for years.

I’ve been interested in this for a long time (dates of the links are August 2004, June 2009, December 2008, and April 2009).  Here’s what I wrote this time last year about the conflict:

Why “putative”?  The DNI was created in much the same way as the Director of Central Intelligence was originally intended; that is, to be the point of the intel spear.  “16 other intelligence agencies”, most of them within the Department of Defense, indicates how diffuse the community has become.  Budget authority for most of the intel community lies outside of the DNI’s scope, resulting in a role that is heavy on its need for influence, short on control, and highly susceptible to the caprices of a complex political environment.  Creating new organizational entities to compensate for dysfunction among other organizational entities often brings unintended consequences.  A “joined-up” intel community continues to be no more than a diluted aspiration hovering over a cluster of moribund silos.

The DNI is a position created without the benefit of systemic analysis and diagnosis of the problems it was designed to create.  It is political organizational hackery at its worst.  This is what happens when you move the boxes on the org chart around without understanding what they mean.  This is what happens when you do not strive for a view of organizational and trans-organizational interdependencies.  This is what happens when you fail to acknowledge that budget represents strategy more than does title.  This is what happens when you replace an opportunity for inquiry with an abundance of certainty.

I don’t intend to continue banging the “I told you so” drum on this.  There’s almost six years of analysis on intel reform in the archives of this blog, which in turn build upon a century each of organizational scholarship and solid reporting on the origins and evolution of the intel community.  There are a handful of articles in the last month alone that describe the turf wars between DNI and CIA in Washington and abroad, as well as a pile of archives stretching back to the summer of 2004.  For those who remain unconvinced about the hot mess the new arrangement has created, there’s little more I can offer.

Intelligence reform was taken up in the early part of this benighted decade to address a failure to connect dots and staggering deficiencies in coordination and cooperation, the two fundamental concerns of organization theory.  The urgency of a nation newly returned to war combined with the momentum of aligned political will should have brought forth an intel community with (internally) clear accountability, budget authority, processes, lines of authority, resource availability, methods of cooperation, etc.  The fact that we read about this in major newspapers indicates that that has not happened, and is almost certainly not in the process of happening.

We are at the inception of a fresh new round of political posturing about “connecting dots” and “chatter in the system”.  Another young punk with some shadowy connections tried to bring down a plane, much like the hapless Richard Reid a handful of years before him.  Absent a total ban on luggage of any sort and duct-taping passengers naked to their chairs, this will almost certainly happen again.  This would be a good opportunity to put the nature and extent of the threat in context, perhaps moving from the blunt-force approach of war to the precision approaches of solid international law enforcement.  Alas, the conversation will almost certainly be driven by loud voices spending yet another fortune on yet another doomed run at intel reform–we love our sound and fury, but we seem unable to remember what they signify.

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Walt Disney’s org chart

Submitted without comment:

5 reasons the “Taliban holiday” meme is false

This is a bit beyond the bailiwick of this blog, but a particular point of the Af-Pak strategy needs to be addressed, and I do address strategy:

The general agreement among Afghans is that Barack Obama’s highly anticipated speech had his trademark message of hope. But unfortunately this message of hope was directed at the Taliban and not the people of Afghanistan. In the words of a friend and fellow Afghan, Obama basically told the Taliban to go home and rest for 18 months and then return to a no-man’s land up for grabs.

Some variation of this has been printed in just about every news article and opposition piece since that speech.  It’s rubbish.  Here’s why:

  1. Whether there is an announced timetable or not, the Taliban are going to, you know, sort of notice when the US troops leave.  It doesn’t matter when that is unless one subscribes to war without end, for which the American people have neither patience nor resources.
  2. A strategy without benchmarks and timelines is not a strategy.  Full stop.  Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of heat when he suggested metrics for the war in Iraq, but I think he was getting closer than anyone (including Obama) has in defining success.  Without these, the US will not know when or if it has won.
  3. Speaking of war without end, the enemy in this war has neither the will nor the ability to surrender, which is usually how inter-nation wars end.  Not the will because they view this as a holy cause to be rewarded in the afterlife, and not the ability because there is no one who speaks for or controls the whole.  A lack of formal organization limits actions born of coherence.
  4. To the argument that the Taliban will take an 18 month vacation, I feel it more than obvious to point out that they aren’t taking that vacation in St. Croix.  Whether they fight or not, they’re going to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  A force of over 100,000 troops with a timeline and benchmarks is going to be hard at work.  As Ronald Reagan noted in another conflict, they can run but they cannot hide.
  5. Undefined wars are demoralizing to the troops and the public. If you like winning, say when and how you’re going to win.  Then do it.  The real dithering is to under-fund, under-resource, and under-specify the war.  After eight years of vague and irresponsible attention to Af-Pak, it’s time to win and go home.

The “Taliban on vacation” trope is pure political posturing, not the sort of cohesive support 100,000 people in harm’s way deserve.