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Spooks Get New Workout Routine…for Their Minds

June 8, 2011

Danger Room, 8 June 2011: The Caveman Ughlympics, the Cat-olympics, the E’lympics — seems like everyone has caught five-ring fever. Even the U.S. intelligence community. To prepare, it’s gotten a new workout routine from a very unlikely source — social science. To bring home the gold in the “Analytical Olympics,” intelligence analysts will have to embark on training regimen unlike any other. All in their head.

The mental workout routine was outlined in a recent report by the National Research Council, which suggests practical ways to apply insights from the behavioral and social sciences to the intelligence community. This isn’t the first time the government has looked to social science for advice – the controversial Human Terrain System project embeds researchers into combat units to improve understanding of local circumstances and cultural traditions. This report is a little different. Instead of sending social scientists overseas, it uses their expertise to consider the “critical problems of individual and group judgment” among analysts at home.

So what exactly are these problems, and how can social science help solve them?

Let’s start with the individual. Every day an analyst has to sort and evaluate a barrage of incoming facts, stats, and figures to come to a coherent understanding of an issue. This involves a lot of thinking and decision-making – which falls squarely into the domain of psychology. The report focuses many of its recommendations on research “regarding how individuals think.” Read more…


The Secret Sharer

May 21, 2011

The New Yorker, 23 May 2011: On June 13th, a fifty-four-year-old former government employee named Thomas Drake is scheduled to appear in a courtroom in Baltimore, where he will face some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen. A former senior executive at the National Security Agency, the government’s electronic-espionage service, he is accused, in essence, of being an enemy of the state. According to a ten-count indictment delivered against him in April, 2010, Drake violated the Espionage Act—the 1917 statute that was used to convict Aldrich Ames, the C.I.A. officer who, in the eighties and nineties, sold U.S. intelligence to the K.G.B., enabling the Kremlin to assassinate informants. In 2007, the indictment says, Drake willfully retained top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect, sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home, for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.” The aim of this scheme, the indictment says, was to leak government secrets to an unnamed newspaper reporter, who is identifiable as Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents. If he is convicted on all counts, he could receive a prison term of thirty-five years.

The government argues that Drake recklessly endangered the lives of American servicemen. “This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”

Top officials at the Justice Department describe such leak prosecutions as almost obligatory. Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General who supervises the department’s criminal division, told me, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.” Read more…

Iran’s Ahmadinejad survives worst storm of his presidency

May 10, 2011

The Christian Science Monitor, 9 May 2011: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has survived one of the most turbulent political storms of his seven-year presidency, a stand-off with Iran’s supreme religious leader that caused some to believe he would be impeached or forced to resign as early as this past weekend.

But Mr. Ahmadinejad arrived in Istanbul today for an international conference as planned, after accusing political enemies of dirty tricks and brushing off his weeks-long defiance of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At issue was a tussle over the key post of the Intelligence minister and the powerful role of Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie.

The feud drew a rare public rebuke of Ahmadinejad from Khamenei, whose unqualified support of the president’s disputed reelection victory in June 2009 – Khamenei called it a “divine assessment” – ensured that Ahmadinejad stayed in the post and set the tone for a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

The political turmoil is likely to extend far beyond the current spat to parliamentary elections next year and the presidential vote slated for 2013.

“Both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have been damaged, because what has become evident [is] that Ahmadinehad was genuinely trying to encroach on the powers of the supreme leader,” says Mehrdad Khonsari, an Iranian analyst and critic of the government who is based in London. “Ahmadinejad couldn’t carry the day and that’s why he backed down.”

“The fate of these two men were bound together in the aftermath of the [2009] elections,” adds Mr. Khonsari. “So the fact that they are feuding is a highly damaging matter … because fighting is seen at the very top of the hierarchy.” Read more…

The End of an Era

May 3, 2011

Jihadica, 2 May 2011: Like most others, I knew this day would come but I still can’t believe it’s here.  And to come at such a momentous time in Middle Eastern history, with the Arab Spring and the end of our combat presence in Iraq.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the stock thinking about the implications of Bin Laden’s demise has given way to careful analysis when finally faced with the fact.  Al-Qaeda will certainly go on and may catch its breath with the likes of Zawahiri and Awlaki, but it is Bin Laden who was the driving force of the organization and much has died with him.  Like al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda Central will continue zombie-like to wreak havoc but it will never be the same.  This truly is the end of an era and more politically savvy Islamists will now take center stage.

There are a legion of big questions about the implications of all of this–for al-Qaeda, the US and its allies, the Middle East, and for the Muslim world.  I took my own stab at answering some at 1:30 this morning after the news broke, which Foreign Policy kindly published with the wonderful title of “William McCants: A Gaping Hole.”

We’re all clumsily feeling our way through this, and here are some of those who have helped me today:

  • Marc Lynch’s Bin Ladin’s Quiet End explained how al-Qaeda made itself irrelevant and the Muslim Brotherhood capitalized
  • Jason Burke’s What Now for al-Qaida ran through some of the implications of UBL’s death for AQ Central
  • Aaron Zelin did yeoman’s work translating the reactions of jihadis online in real time
  • Chris Anzalone put together a valuable collection of jihadi uses of Bin Laden’s visage
  • Clint Watts reminded us of his January poll on the implications of Bin Laden’s death
  • Leah Farrall has some inside-baseball analysis of the transition scenarios for AQ leadership
  • Joshua Foust predicts that the impact on Taliban operations in Afghanistan will be nil
  • Daveed Gartenstein-Ross cautions us that al-Qaeda is still very much alive
  • Andrew Exum reminds us of those who have sacrificed along the away

I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting (tweet them or write), and there are still some I’m waiting to hear from (come on Weisburd and Johnsen).  No doubt the analysis will get more sober as the weeks pass, and I reserve the right to completely change my mind.  It is hard to get things right when there is so little to go on and so much emotion involved.

Finally, my hats off to the journalistic community. I don’t know how you put together such cogent, well-sourced pieces in such a short period of time.

Stay tuned tomorrow.  We’ll be posting a very insightful piece by Joas Wagemakers on the dilemmas faced by the jihadis in Syria, whose revolution is only briefly eclipsed.

Pakistan, US and Osama bin Laden

May 3, 2011

KGS Nightwatch, 2 May 2011: Bin Laden and a son are dead, killed in a firefight by US Navy SEALS carried in two helicopters to Abbottabad, Pakistan, just 35 miles north of Islamabad. The US commandos took custody of his body to prove he is dead and got away safely.

News services quoted unidentified US officials that the body was prepared for burial according to the Muslim ritual. Readers might wonder who gave such an order and why.

The Abbottabad location is important for two reasons. Bin Laden could not have lived in a compound in Abbottabad without official Pakistani government sustenance. Abbottabad is an upscale area and a garrison town, but not so large as to be impersonal. Bin Laden was living in protected luxury. Many people had to know that and probably will come forward in a little time.

On 7 December 2001, Bin Laden escaped from the tunnels in Tora Bora, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, with the help of a local warlord named Hazrat Ali, who betrayed US forces who had hired him to help capture bin Laden and is now a member of the Afghan Parliament for Nangarhar. Bin Laden and his gang crossed the Tora Bora mountains to Parachinar, Pakistan, where a Pakistan Army brigade was deployed to ensure his capture if he crossed the border. They failed, of course. He headed east to Kohat, another Army garrison town and disappeared.

The distance from Kohat to Abbottabad is several hundred kilometers by road, but the two towns are part of the Pakistan Army network of garrison towns in the northwest. Bin laden reportedly moved around in the northwest,  but one inference is that bin Laden has been in the safe keeping of the Pakistan Army for a decade. The news reports suggest the compound was specially built for him and his enterprise, which had to have been subsidized by Pakistan and, through Pakistan, by US aid to Pakistan.  Read more…

Bin Laden’s killing: intriguing questions, few answers

May 3, 2011

Homeland Security Newswire, 2 May 2011: The brilliant operation conducted by the U.S. Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden should be celebrated, but the information provided so far by the administration leaves many questions unanswered. Here are a few of them:

1. Pakistan

A. Advise and consent

In his speech last night, the president thanked Pakistan for its help in the operation, and gave the impression that the Pakistanis gave permission for the operation. Other administration officials, in background conversations, said no other country was involved, or informed about, the operation.

The truth is probably something like this:

There is little doubt that there was no consultation or sharing of information at the professional level. It is highly unlikely that the CIA and the U.S. military advised their Pakistani counterparts of the information that reached the United States last August about bin Laden’s location, and about the plans being drawn up to kill him. The Pakistani military and intelligence service (ISI) are so penetrated by Islamists sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda, that sharing information with these organizations means that the information will find its way to the terrorists sooner rather than later.

Some parts of ISI support the Taliban and several Pakistani Islamist organizations with weapons, training, and intelligence, and use them as foot soldiers in Pakistan’s campaign to gain control of the disputed territory of Kashmir and, more generally, as a weapon against India and pro-Indian actors in the region.

Not sharing information at the professional level before or during the operation does not mean that President Obama did not call President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan while the helicopters were on their way to bin Laden’s compound – or, more likely, after the operation was concluded but before the Navy Seal team left Pakistani soil – to advise the Pakistani president of the operation.

This way, the United States could “share” information with the Pakistani leadership, in the process giving the impression of consultation and information sharing – that the United States was seeking Pakistan’s advice and consent — but without jeopardizing the operation. Obama could thus thank Zardari for Pakistani cooperation – an assertion which can be seen as technically and linguistically correct – and thus maintain the appearance that the United States did not violate Pakistani sovereignty and that the Pakistani leadership was on board. Read more…

The New Yorker writers on Osama bin Laden

May 3, 2011

The New Yorker, 2 May 2011: Osama bin Laden was shot in the head by U.S. forces in Pakistan, and his body has been buried at sea. President Obama announced in a televised speech late Sunday night that “justice has been done.” (Watch the speech.) Check back here for our continuing analysis of what the Al Qaeda leader’s death means for America, the President, and the world.


Jon Lee Andersonbin Laden and his followers.

Steve Coll: the specifics of the killing.

Amy Davidsonreading to bin Laden’ corpse.

Blake Eskinchanges since 9/11.

Dexter Filkinswhat Pakistan knew.

Hendrik Hertzbergabout Abbottabad, and Iran 1980.

Jane Mayerbin Laden dead, torture debate lives on.

Susan Orleanwatching with the world, via Twitter.

Evan OsnosChina’s chilly reaction.

George Packerbetter late than never.

David RemnickObama’s history with Osama bin Laden.

Wendell Steavenson: the reaction in Cairo.

Jeffrey ToobinDid bin Laden deserve a trial?

Lawrence WrightAl Qaeda after bin Laden.


Cartoon Desk: Robert Mankoff on bin Laden cartoons through the years.

Slide showNew Yorker covers of bin Laden and 9/11.

Back Issuesbin Laden and Al Qaeda in the archives, 2000-2010.

Book Bench: “SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper.”

Slide showGround Zero during the 9/11 attacksduring Sunday’s celebrations, and at the corner of Church and WINsey; Ground Zero revellers on what to do with bin Laden’s body.

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