Tag Archives: North Korea

Week in Public Organizations, 7Jun2009


What a week.  more orgporn, gender and mentorship, playing chess with terrorists, spendthrift car companies, antitrust in high tech, black wires, Scandinavian transparency, Korean intel, tending the automotive garden, debunking Hawthorne, more car stuff, and parsing intel failure.  These were some of the stories that made the cut last week:

Forbes posts corporate orgporn
NBER study links gender gap, mentorship opportunities
Obama strategically undermines Osama
GM sends signals… but perhaps not the right ones
Tech companies under antitrust investigation
Covert agency + construction = secrecy fail
CFP: Finland builds through transparency
Scenarios for increased DPRK surveillance
Safford discusses cars, gardens
Hawthorne debunked?
Are there options for GM beyond cars?
What does “intel failure” actually mean?


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.


Week in Public Organizations, 10Apr2009


Late again, but I needed a few days to grieve and recover.  Wouldn’t you know it–there were a bunch of stories about organizations in public life over the last three days.  I’ll get right to them.

As for last week, Bob Quick resigned as UK counterterrorism chief (third one in a year), New Zealand made statistics accessible to citizens, Iran and North Korea differed in their nuclear approaches (not much of an axis, is it?), groups were shown to be more efficient with new information (duh), Stanley Fish skewered academic criticism, and I got incensed over a milk carton.  These were the posts that hit the radar last week:

Counterterrorism resignation puts stability at risk
NZ energy picture worth… oh, you know…
Forden compares Iran and North Korea missile programs
Study indicts group efficiency
Missing common sense on milk carton
Fish on the menu of academic criticism


Forden compares Iran and North Korea missile programs

Geoffrey Forden has an organizationally insightful post on differences between North Korean and Iranian missile development programs:

What is North Korea’s record of responding to failures? It would have to be considered to respond to failures poorly. On top of a reputation of conducting very few flight tests, they also seem to always start over when they have a failure. (Perhaps they “change” project managers?) The Tae’podong-1, flown in August 1998, apparently failed in its third stage. Instead of correcting that failure and retesting, they built the Tae’podong-2. The Tae’podong-2 failed (probably spectacularly) in 2006 just 40 some seconds after launch. Now, the Unha-2 failed sometime after its second stage ignited. (I consider that a strange place for it to fail. A failure during separation, with all the pieces landing in the same spot as the first stage, would have been more understandable.) Did North Korea start over from scratch with the Unha-2? That’s why I’d like to know what the 2006 Tae’podong-2 looked like. Unfortunately, there is no real information on what it looked like in the public domain.

I imagine the Norks have “changed” project managers again in the last few days.  Forden’s post is an interesting comparison between two stances in product development and project management:  incremental improvement and comprehensive rework.  Each has a place, but the latter as a default stance implies some predictable outcomes.