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Don’t forget the information operation

Often times analysts (myself included) like to think that our products should speak for themselves but that can be very, very dangerous.

What is frequently overlooked is the fact that sometimes consumers (particularly secondary customers or -gasp- the general public) need context in which to understand the product. Ideally, that context will be included in the product itself but sometimes you need some more.

Case in point (courtesy of Phronesisaical) is Daryl Johnson. This poor guy was the author of:

…the April 7, 2009 report, “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The report, which was intended for law enforcement only, was quickly leaked and caused a firestorm among some on the political right who accused DHS of painting all kinds of conservatives as potential Timothy McVeighs.

Things didn’t go particularly well after that.

When the right-wing report was leaked and people politicized it, my management got scared and thought DHS would be scaled back. It created an environment where my analysts and I couldn’t get our work done. DHS stopped all of our work and instituted restrictive policies. Eventually, they ended up gutting my unit. All of this happened within six to nine months after the furor over the report. Analysts then began leaving DHS. One analyst went to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], another to the FBI, a third went to the U.S. Marshals, and so on. There is just one person there today who is still a “domestic terrorism” analyst.Since our report was leaked, DHS has not released a single report of its own on this topic. Not anything dealing with non-Islamic domestic extremism—whether it’s anti-abortion extremists, white supremacists, “sovereign citizens,” eco-terrorists, the whole gamut.

Even though that report was not intended to be publicly released we should expect such products to make their way (intentionally or not) to make their way to the public domain. Even if not explicitly, an analyst should hope that their product will influence thinking and policy and so their judgements and analysis will work their way into the public psyche.

So, it’s interesting that so little effort is made in terms of information operations. Apart from the odd press release is anyone thinking about presenting information (to policy makers or the general public) to provide context and understanding to complex issues? If not, should we be surprised when others, with they own agendas, exploit this weakness and fill the deafening silence with their own narrative?

While it may not be in trendy, this problem was recognized in Iraq and Afghanistan and became one of the central tenants of COIN theory. From General Petraus’s tactical guidance:

Beat the insurgents and malign actors to the headlines. Preempt rumors. Get accurate information to the chain of command, to Afghan leaders, to the people, and to the press as soon as possible. Integrity is critical to this fight. Avoid spinning, and don’t try to “dress up” an ugly situation. Acknowledge setbacks and failures, including civilian casualties, and then state how we’ll respond and what we’ve learned.

Yet, in our work we frequently fail to consider information operations as part of what we do. Allow me to suggest that we should consider doing the following:

  • assume most non-classified information will be released to the public at some point. Deal with it.
  • if such information is at odds with public perception or reflect new thinking for which the public has no opinion, craft an information campaign to explain key point and ideas
  • take full advantage of the wide range of information outlets – go beyond press releases.
  • engage the consumers of information (press, policy makers, public) more frequently and provide them with more information
  • evaluate current classification/declassification rules (for information under the ‘for official use only’ or ‘law enforcement sensitive’ banners) with a philosophy that less restriction is better
  • develop comprehensive information campaigns for complex issues and developments.

This really should fall within the realm of the dissemination part of the intelligence cycle which means we need to consider it more broadly than just who’s going to hold my document in their hands and read it. We need to think about how to prepare users (primary, secondary and tertiary – intended and unintended) to put specific information in context and (perhaps even more importantly) how to deny the opportunity to those who would intentionally distort the message of the product. That may be through a robust limitations or methodology component and/or a strong information campaign.

In any case, ignoring the problem isn’t going to help it…


Garbage In Garbage Out

I wasn’t able to follow the news of the Norway attacks too closely this past weekend but I was able to listen to enough of the Big Three 24 hour news channels (MSNBC, Fox and CNN) to reaffirm my assessment that they just plain suck.  The combination of superficial reporting, lack of context and a reliance on wholly unqualified ‘experts’ (What’s next, Snooki’s thoughts on right-wing extremism in Scandinavia?) really make these outlets more than ’empty calories’ in getting news.  They suck your time and attention away from getting valuable information.

In fact, if I were king of all the operation/intelligence centers my first edict would be to ban the Big Three from the realm.  I know a lot of agencies think that having those programs on all their shiny flat screen TVs (Thanks for the grant money, DHS!) gives the impression that Very Important Stuff is going on and creates the illusion of hustle and bustle but c’mon.  It’s time to move on.

So, what should we replace the waterskiing squirrels, heated debates over whether Obama not wearing a tie indicates his desire to destroy Western Civilization, and flame wars between talking heads?

Well, al Jazeera continues to do some good work.  On Saturday they put together a decent half hour show about the rise of right wing terrorism in Europe.  I was particularly impressed by the fact that they got Tore Bjorgo on the show.  Tore, if you’re not familiar with him, does a lot of work on extremism, gang membership, and terrorism and you really should check out his stuff.  While he focuses on activity in Scandinavia, his findings have been invaluable to when when I used to look at the phenomenon of street gang recruitment.

That’s right…no political hacks spending all their time talking about how the attacks would impact the next congressional elections…No celebrities providing their recent holiday pictures to Holland (‘Norway…Holland…Same thing Larry.’)  Just an attempt to provide a greater context to the event.  Shocking.

I got an idea for another alternative at a recent stay in Washington D.C.  While I was leaving the lobby of my hotel I saw this:

What a better alternative to providing casual viewers than what most intelligence centers have now.  Typically, most centers have TVs on with the volume off.  I suppose the purpose is the hope that someone will occasionally look at the screen and if they see smoke billowing out of a building and bloody body parts they might turn up the volume or someone might get a phone call or email saying ‘Quick!  Turn on the TV!’

Neither is particularly efficient, effective or pro-active.

You’d certainly need to do some tweaking to make this appropriate for an intelligence center but I think they’d be pretty small overall.  Obviously, a combination of local and international information.  Perhaps a scrolling twitter feed of relevant analysts/commentators/news organizations.

Since we’ve already paid for all these flat screens (Thanks taxpayers!) we might as well use them.  And really, do we need all the intelligence centers focused on momentous events like this?