Tag Archives: Joshua Pollack

Week in Public Organizations, 10Aug2009


Nuclear deterrence, scoring the game, postal culture, this isn’t Spinal Tap, and a different kind of recruitment.  These were some of the organizationally interesting stories last week:

Pollack rethinks deterrence theory
Baseball and the balanced scorecard
USPS faces huge challenges–again.
Toyota recovers from a rock-n-roll hangover
US Army targets leaders in recruitment push

Pollack rethinks deterrence theory

PublicOrgTheory favorite Joshua Pollack gets it right on nuclear deterrence, the financial crisis, and, inadvertently, organizational diagnosis:

What the idea of efficient markets has to do with the non-use of nuclear weapons is actually pretty straightforward, since deterrence is traditionally modeled on bargaining and risk-taking. And indeed, back in 1974, Alexander George and Richard Smoke detected a similar problem in deterrence theory. The theory, they warned, was primarily “abstract-deductive” in origin, based upon ideas about what states ought to do rather than evidence about what states actually have done.

Organizational diagnosis is likely to be most comprehensive when it draws on theories that are both normative-predictive and historical-explanatory.  In practice, it’s usually one or the other–if that–with many practical interventions carried out in ignorance of which type of theory is informing the practice.

In theory, history ought to provide some insight about both patterns and variance.  In practice, we often treat organizations as fungible.  That’s a mistake we too often make, and according to Pollack, we are in good company.

Scenarios for increased DPRK surveillance

I can’t decide whether there are indicators in this of Joshua Pollack’s “option C”:

Ever since North Korea conducted its second nuclear test and fired off volleys of missiles and red-hot rhetoric, there has been some degree of hyperventilation in international media coverage of the latest crisis in Northeast Asia. One example are reports that the United States and South Korea put their troops on high-alert after what appeared to be Pyongyang’s renunciation of the 1953 truce accord.

But former senior U.S. intelligence officer John McCreary, who produces NightWatch, a sterling daily analysis of international events that he compiles from open sources, notes that there are “two systems of graduated alerts” for U.S. and South Korean forces. One is for combat readiness – or Def Con – and the other is for intelligence collection, or Watch Con. And, he explains, it’s U.S. and South Korean intelligence collection assets that have been placed on higher alert, not their combat forces.

In his latest NightWatch, McCreary points out that the South Korean Defense Ministry announced on Thursday the implementation of “Watch Con II” and that “surveillance over the North will be stepped up, with more aircraft and personnel mobilized.”

“Watch Con II is the condition in which intelligence collection assets are surged,” McCreary writes. “In addition, the analytical corps devoted to an intelligence problem is supposed to be surged and operating 24×7. More sensors are devoted to a problem and more people stand watch.”

The ideal might very well have been to move to Watch Con II in the days leading up to the test, a condition that would indicate that the IC knew what the DPRK was planning–and that the administration concurred.  That said, while there is evidence that the IC were on top of this one, there is not much to indicate either way whether the administration accepted their assessments and acted–or chose not to act–based on the information provided.  An incomplete list of scenarios:

  1. The administration knew what was coming and allowed it to happen.  The global community being surprised builds up the urgency of the threat.
  2. The administration knew what was coming and quietly took steps to manage the fallout (not a pun).  Global community is surprised and the administration can retroactively claim prudence and mitigation.
  3. The administration didn’t act on the products of the IC but delegated some authority to the IC and the military as a “just in case” measure.  Fairly implausible, but possibly desirable.
  4. The administration didn’t act on the products of the IC and were surprised.  This would be the “oh shit” scenario.

#2 would be consistent with the strategy and discipline of the administration, but #4 would be most consistent with human nature.

What does “intel failure” actually mean?

North Korea’s nuclear test about a week ago and its handful of missile tests in the days since have provoked a lot of discussion about what the DPRK’s intentions might be.  An underlying question raised by the apparent surprise around the world is:  was this an intelligence failure?

Joshua Pollack doesn’t think so, at least not in terms of the intelligence services neglecting to collect and analyze the right information:

There is an option C) as well: the intel collectors saw all the signs, but the higher-ups failed to draw the proper conclusions.

There was a scattering of leaks in the days ahead of the test, possibly from South Korean intelligence. And afterward, we learned that the IC was watching the preparations intently:

The official said that U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the test facility had witnessed significant activity in the days before the explosion. The United States had positioned an array of high-tech equipment to monitor the test, including Pentagon aircraft equipped to collect atmospheric samples of any nuclear plume.

Pollack’s observation raises the question of what intel failure actually means.  While it’s usually intended to mean a failure to collect or properly analyze diplomatically and militarily sensitive information, that definition neglects the role of intel’s ultimate customers. The point of intel is to enable decisions; intel without a decision is as pointless as decisions without intel.  To understand success or failure in intel, we must expand the scope beyond producers to consumers.

Information and analysis provided by the IC to its customers enters a decision-making process fraught with competing agendas and priorities.  Pollack’s Option C raises the possibility–and we’ll likely never know for sure–that the administration muffed the decision.  If true, one consequence could have been a failure to act early to build global support for opposition to the tests; fortuntately, that support appears to have emerged.  Assuming the IC were on top of events in North Korea, one might assume that the administration executed a very savvy campaign or got very lucky.

Regardless of whether balls were dropped in the lead-up to March 25, there is an opportunity here to understand how decisions were or were not made, and to make them differently next time.  Alas, there is also opportunity for the more powerful decision-makers to shift blame to the IC when convenient, and it has been very convenient in the past.