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BlueWolf's Howl

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June 19, 2002

Information Management

What do you do when you have so many little pieces that mean nothing by themselves? How do you piece together thousands of insignificant snippets of conversation to produce a crystal ball?

NSA Intercepted Warnings on Eve of Attacks
[The Arabic language messages said, "The match is about to begin," and "Tomorrow is zero hour."]

We look at these messages now and it’s so obvious. On Sep 10th, it wasn’t so obvious. We all understand that. But – imagine in a “Quantum Leap” sort of way that you could be standing in a room of “important people” on the 10th with this knowledge. I’m not talking about Monday morning quarterbacking or placing blame. I’m hoping to visualize some sort of scenario in which we could have put the pieces together in the way we now know they fit. Sure, it’s too late to do anything about an event that has already happened. But, if it were possible to build the puzzle (with the expert help of hindsight), then we could understand the elements that would be necessary to fit the pieces together to build that crystal ball.

If it were a jigsaw puzzle, I would find all the edges first. Then I would put the edges together until I got the frame. Then I would link similar pieces together and fit them inside the frame. Now take ten puzzles. Mix the pieces together and try it again.

So how do you find the edges? What are the edges? The edges are the reports. The outline of this attack is rimmed with FBI agent reports. I like the proposals to increase the size of the FBI. I also applaud the efforts to update the technology at their disposal. But increasing the number of agents alone is not the simple answer it appears to be. It does not solve the problem. It adds more information to the matrix. It does not piece the edges together. Analysts do that. And it takes cooperation.

Cooperation is a vital component. The inter-agency competition has to stop. We have to demand it and we have to reward the behavior we need to accomplish the job. We have to stop being a borderline society. I’m told that borderlines are known for their “staff splitting.” This is where they pit one staff member against the other – “Oh, you’re the good nurse. I can’t stand that other nurse. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” And we do this to the agencies. We pit one against the other for our attention, praise, and tax dollars. We have to stop doing this.

But that will only (at best) give us the edges. We have to complete the translations. The messages have to be translated fast enough to allow real-time processing. And that takes human power. Yes, rough translations can be made with computers. But it takes a human to understand the nuances of language. It especially requires a human to detect phrases out of context. Most people in groups talking about something they’re trying to hide talk in “code.” It’s not hard to detect – even if you don’t understand what they’re talking about. Just look at the messages above as an illustration.

Another thing we need are analysts to put the puzzle together. We need sharp minds. We have them in this country. We need to let people think. And we need to listen to the boy pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. The days are gone where age, rank or power equals a correct idea. Correct ideas can come from anywhere. Just because the suggestion comes from a junior member does not mean it should be ignored. That kind of offhandedness handicaps our abilities. I’m sure if an FBI manager or some General made the same connection between flight schools and the Middle East, it probably would have been investigated.

Now, I know we can’t chase unicorns down every blind alley. But we need to open our minds and change the way we think. We have to go from a competitive society to a cooperative society. I see the new paradigm on the horizon. We started off as an agricultural society. Then there was the Industrial Revolution, which turned us into a manufacturing society. When we wore that to the ground, we migrated to a service-based society. Before the attacks, our pockets were lined by providing services. It was never so apparent as when people stopped traveling and cancelled their vacation plans. There was a gaping hole and the economy plummeted.

We all know this. But do we all see the door in front of us? We’re just in transition. And it’s not an easy one. I believe (hope) that we will eventually figure out how to put puzzles like this together. And then we’ll get good at it. We have no choice but to become an Information and Security society. Necessity is giving birth again.

Posted by BlueWolf on June 19, 2002 10:23 PM