A vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

I don’t think this Atlantic piece on “porch pirates” in San Francisco is meant as an ad for Ring video doorbells (and Nest cams, too), but it achieves that goal nonetheless:

It was only about nine months later, in May 2017, when one of Fairley’s neighbors plastered photos of her, “Wanted”-style, on Nextdoor, that Fairley realized things were about to get worse. Nextdoor is an online ticker tape of homeowner and tenant concerns, and the grievances can be particularly telling in a city of Dickensian extremes like San Francisco, whose influx of tech wealth is pitting suburban expectations against urban realities. The city’s property-crime rate is among the highest in the United States. Nextdoor posts about dogs slurping from a public drinking fountain and Whole Foods overcharging again (“Be on guard”) show up alongside reports of smash-and-grab car break-ins, slashed tires, and an entire crime subgenre of “porch pirates,” the Artful Dodgers of the Amazon age.

Fairley and her neighbor do not agree — will likely never agree — on what happened in the minutes prior to the photos of Fairley going up on Nextdoor. Fairley has sworn that the boxes she picked up were from down the street, where they had been laid out for the taking, and that her 6-year-old daughter was helping to haul them to their home in the public housing down the block.

Julie Margett, a nurse who lives on the street, in a purple cottage with a rainbow gay-pride flag and a black lives matter sign in the window, said she was leaving her garage and spotted Fairley coming down her neighbor’s stairs carrying boxes with various addresses on them. Surmising that they were stolen, she asked Fairley warily, in her British accent, “What are you doing?”

Fairley called her a racist (in fact, she still does) and told her she was in the middle of moving. “That was what was so disarming about her,” Margett told me. “Before you know it, she’s torn you to shreds and she’s off down the block.” Margett snapped photos of the mother-daughter haul act — in one, the young girl sticks her tongue out at the camera — and, after calling the police, uploaded them into a Nextdoor post: “Package thieves.”

So, Fairley told me two years later, sitting in an orange sweatsuit in a county-jail interview room, that was the real acceleration of the epic feud of Fairley v. Neighbors of Potrero Hill, a vortex of smart-cam clips, Nextdoor rants, and cellphone surveillance that would tug at the complexities of race and class relations in a liberal, gentrifying city. The clash would also expose a fraught debate about who is responsible, and who is to blame, for the city’s increasingly unlivable conditions. As Fairley says, “It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Parts of potrero hill feel like the sort of charmed place where Amazon deliveries could sit undisturbed on your stoop. The hill’s western ridge, overlooking the city, is filled with cozy bungalows and Victorian houses that once were affordable for San Francisco’s working and artistic classes but have appreciated during the tech rush; now most of them sell for well over $1 million. The public hospital where Fairley was born is now named after Mark Zuckerberg.

Meanwhile, the hill’s eastern and southern flanks are still lined with decrepit 1940s-era bunkers of public housing between patches of scruffy grass and concrete patios. The unhoused have set up camp around the neighborhood too, the city’s homeless population having spiked 30 percent in the past two years. This sometimes has led to hostile and politically divisive clashes, like when a luxury auction house at the foot of Potrero turned its sprinklers on the tents clustered outdoors in 2016. (The auction house claimed that the sprinklers were meant to clean the building and sidewalks, and were “not intended to disrespect the homeless.”)

Arrows explode on impact

Saturday, November 2nd, 2019

A team of experts tests arrows versus armour and finds that a breastplate does the job it was designed to do — well enough to produce spectacular results:

Whimpering and crying and screaming all the way

Sunday, October 27th, 2019

Trump’s description of the operation to capture or kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very, very Trump:

He died after running into a dead end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way. The compound had been cleared by this time with people either surrendering or being shot and killed. Eleven young children were moved out of the house and are uninjured. The only ones remaining were Baghdadi in the tunnel and he had dragged three of his young children with him. They were led to certain death. He reached the end of the tunnel as our dogs chased him down. He ignited his vest, killing himself and the three children. His body was mutilated by the blast.

Find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

In 2015, two years after graduating from university, :

In one session, we asked the women to make an A3 map of their lives from torn-up magazines. The collage would show a road that meandered from their past experiences to future goals. Almost every road began with bottles of vodka, syringes and shadowy characters, and almost every one ended with symmetrical houses and white wedding dresses and Laura Ashley sofas. I had spiked the magazine pile with my partner’s railway-modelling magazines and glossy Sunday supplements in the hope of inspiring something different — a new job, an interesting hobby, some travel, perhaps? — but to little avail.

[...]

“It will be finding ‘the one’ that will get me out of my mess,” she said. “He will look after me and keep people away who come round trying to sell me gear [heroin] again.”

Cathy’s was an oft-told story. She had been prevented from seeing her children by social services because she couldn’t stop seeing an abusive partner. He kept coming round and, against her best judgment, she opened the door.

What I wanted to say was that she didn’t need a man to straighten her life out for her, that she had “everything she needed inside of her” (life advice that works best when Instagrammed over a picture of a thin white girl walking into a sunset).

In time I came to realise that she was probably right. Ambition and independence are a good deal further up the hierarchy of need than security. It’s pretty realistic to assume that the quickest way to ward off a coercive and abusive man is to find another man who is kinder and stronger to stand in the way.

It would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

In Only the Dead: The Persistence of War in the Modern Age Ohio State University professor of political science Bear Braumoeller argues that war is not declining:

Braumoeller used the Correlates of War data set, which scholars from around the world study to measure uses of force up to and including war.

What he found with the statistical analyses was that any decline in the deadliness of war that we think we see in the data is within the normal range of variation — in other words, our period of relative peace right now could easily be occurring simply by chance.

[...]

Once an armed conflict has had more than 1,000 battle deaths (the criteria for being included in the Correlates of War database), there’s about a 50 percent chance it will be as devastating to combatants as the 1990 Iraq War, which killed 20,000 to 35,000 fighters.

There’s a 2 percent chance — about the probability of drawing three of a kind in a five-card poker game — that such a war could end up being as devastating to combatants as World War I. And there’s about a 1 percent chance that its intensity would surpass that of any international war fought in the last two centuries.

“This is pretty bleak. Not only has war not disappeared, but it would be frighteningly easy to have much larger wars than any we have ever seen in history,” Braumoeller said.

Who’s paying attention to the prey?

Friday, October 18th, 2019

In The Crime Fighter, Jack Maple, one time New York City Transit Police officer and later Deputy Commissioner of NYPD, describes how he would spot criminals:

He would simply look for “prey”, and then look for who was paying attention to the “prey”. In short, he had to think like a criminal.

10 major areas that modern military forces choose to ignore

Thursday, October 17th, 2019

Carlton W. Meyer lists 10 major areas that modern military forces choose to ignore:

1. The lethality of of precision guided munitions to easily destroy ultra-expensive ships, tanks, and aircraft has been dismissed.

2. The use of small lasers to blind combatants. The US Marine Corps recently added expensive “dazzlers” to its machine guns that will prove more effective than the gun itself.

3. The inability to replace munitions stocks in a timely manner. Most nations have limited stockpiles and the complexity of some make rapid production impossible. If the USA becomes involved in a major war that lasts longer than a month, it will have to pause for several months until new munitions are produced and delivered.

4. The humanitarian disaster that would result by disrupting the fragile economy of megacities. This occurred during World War II, but today’s big cities are ten times larger! Armies may face hoards of millions of starving people begging for help.

5. The millions of civilian vehicles on the world’s roads. It is impossible to tell if they are friend or foe unless inspected up close. Soldiers can use this to their advantage, which makes urban operations very dangerous for both civilians and soldiers.

6. The problem of thousands of commercial aircraft roaming the globe. Agents aboard can collect intelligence and these present long-range targeting problems for precision guided munitions that may kill hundreds of innocents.

7. Adding warheads to inexpensive, commercial, hobbyist UAVs create deadly “suicide micro-drones.”

8. Modern anti-tank weapons are equally effective anti-aircraft weapons against slower targets like low flying helicopters and aircraft transports. A helicopter assault or airborne drop near a modern army will be disastrous as anti-tank missiles shoot upwards and knock down aircraft.

9. Modern body armor has made 5.56mm and even 7.62mm bullets less lethal.

10. Fleets of surface ships cannot hide for long in big oceans.

(Hat tip to commenter Sam J.)

A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility

Friday, October 11th, 2019

American defense experts who come to the island all agree that the Taiwanese military needs cheap, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems to deter a Chinese invasion force, but that’s not what Taiwanese leaders buy:

On June 6, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced a $2.25 billion arms purchase from the United States. package was broken down into two parts: $250 million for a consignment of Stinger missiles, and $2 billion for 108 main battle tanks. The first part of the package fits well enough within a distributed “anti-access” defense posture. The second purchase does not.

Taiwan is a piebald of jungle-covered mountains, muddy rice paddies, and densely populated urban cores—terrain that frustrates tank maneuver. The most likely use for tanks like these would be in formation near beaches for counter-landing operations, where they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. As Chinese commanders would never land an invasion force unless they first secure air superiority, these tanks will never amount to anything more than 108 very expensive sitting ducks.

The purchase fits a longstanding Taiwanese pattern: prioritizing high-prestige platforms over people. The Ministry of National Defense has cut military pensions and failed to pay volunteer soldiers a competitive wage or provide them with necessary benefits, and it doesn’t have enough bullets on hand for conscripts to practice riflery more than a few times in their entire course of duty.

Yet in addition to buying the tanks, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has promised to find $8 billion—equivalent to 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget—to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets (even though in the event of a conflict with China most of these would be destroyed by PLA missiles while still on their runways). The Taiwanese navy also regularly promotes plans for an indigenously constructed helicopter carrier and Aegis-style destroyer. Billions have been poured into developing indigenous jet engines and fighters. Most disastrous of all, around one-tenth of the defense budget has been earmarked for the development of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. According to the wildly optimistic government projections, the very first of these submarines will be seaworthy in 2025. Only a few more could be built before the decade’s close, at an estimated $1 billion per ship.

Taiwanese leaders’ defense priorities make a perverse sort of sense, T. Greer argues:

Taiwanese leaders have a powerful political incentive to raise Taiwan’s stature on the international stage and publicly resist Chinese attempts to cut it away from its allies. Similarly, they are incentivized to show that under their leadership, the Taiwanese military remains a world-class fighting force. Purchasing fancy military equipment makes little strategic sense, but it accomplishes both of these objectives.

In an anonymous interview, one DPP official told me why he believed the purchase of the tanks was so important: “The purchase is a signal that the DPP can lead on defense. It will give the people more confidence that we are not being outclassed by the Chinese. And most important, that Tsai’s good relationship with the Americans is the reason for that.” A senior official interviewed by a Center for Security Policy Studies research team justified Taiwanese requests for F-35 fighter jets, rather than less expensive drones, with similar logic: “You can’t create a hero pilot of a UAV.” The CSPS team concluded that for most of the Taiwanese officials they interviewed, “buying advanced aircraft from the United States was at least as much about assuring the public as it was about improving war-fighting capability.”

This is especially important given Taiwan’s lack of a formal alliance with the United States. For Taiwanese leaders, weapons sales are one of the few metrics available to judge the U.S. commitment to their cause. Taiwanese leaders can trumpet their purchase of American-made weapons systems as something their party has done to raise Taiwan’s international stature. A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility but its symbolic value.

The CIA paid $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

The director of the CIA’s infamous MK-ULTRA program, Sidney Gottlieb, was the unwitting godfather of the entire LSD counterculture:

In the early 1950s, he arranged for the CIA to pay $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD. He brought this to the United States, and he began spreading it around to hospitals, clinics, prisons and other institutions, asking them, through bogus foundations, to carry out research projects and find out what LSD was, how people reacted to it and how it might be able to be used as a tool for mind control.

Now, the people who volunteered for these experiments and began taking LSD, in many cases, found it very pleasurable. They told their friends about it. Who were those people? Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, got his LSD in an experiment sponsored by the CIA by MK-ULTRA, by Sidney Gottlieb. So did Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, which went on to become a great purveyor of LSD culture. Allen Ginsberg, the poet who preached the value of the great personal adventure of using LSD, got his first LSD from Sidney Gottlieb. Although, of course, he never knew that name.

Nobody needs more than seven rounds for self defense

Friday, September 27th, 2019

The New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 restricted the sale of normal-capacity magazines; it only allowed seven rounds of capacity. Older magazines were “grandfathered” in, but you weren’t supposed to load them with more than seven rounds.

Chris Hernandez noted at the time that nobody needs more than seven rounds for self defense:

After all, when you shoot someone even once, they fly through the air and drop dead, just like in the movies.

I arrived on a robbery call one night. A robber had shot a man through the sternum with a 9mm hollow point. He looked dead. I got on the radio and notified dispatch that we had a murder. Thirty seconds later, the victim started moaning and squirming. Less than a minute later he was fully conscious and complained, “This is the fifth time I’ve been shot.”

But nobody needs more than seven rounds. One round is usually fatal. And nobody could possibly still be a threat after being shot more than once.

The same robbers shot another victim that night. One round in the ankle, one in the face and one in the forehead. 9mm hollow points. This victim turned and ran about 500 yards through an apartment complex, pounded on a door to beg for help, and passed out. Last I heard, years after the shooting, he’s still alive.

But nobody needs more than seven rounds. When you shoot someone, they fall to their knees, pledge their soul to Jesus, gasp dramatically and die.

I answered a disturbance call one night. A teenage girl calmly told me that she had gotten into a fight with her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. Several minutes into the story she informed me she had been shot through the thigh. I looked down and saw a bullet wound through her leg. She was completely unconcerned about it.

I responded to a burglary in progress. A teenager on PCP picked a random house and started kicking the sun room door in. The homeowner stood by the door with his 9mm pistol, called 911 and warned the teenager he was armed. The teenager kicked the door in. The homeowner shot him in the leg, then retreated into the house. The teenager forced his way into the kitchen. The homeowner shot him in the stomach. When we arrived, we had to wrestle the teenager into handcuffs. Had the teenager been armed, he still could have fired a weapon.

But nobody needs more than seven rounds. Seven rounds are more than enough to stop any criminal threatening you. When a criminal gets shot, their body’s entire blood supply sprays onto all the walls and they die within milliseconds.

I answered a call about a man with a gun. When I knocked on an apartment door, a drunk inside pointed a gun at me through a window. I jumped out of the way, drew my weapon and screamed at the drunk to drop the gun. He kept moving the gun, trying to get me in his sights. Another officer in a different spot shot him.

When we got inside the apartment, we found the suspect wide awake, flailing around on the floor. Fortunately a family member had disarmed him. He could still have shot us. The officer had hit him under the left arm. The round went all the way through his upper body and stopped just under the skin below his right arm. Last I heard, years after the shooting, the drunk was still alive.

But nobody needs more than seven rounds. When someone is trying to kill you, all you have to do is fire slowly and carefully to make sure you don’t run out. You can even count your rounds as you shoot. It’s easy.

When investigators asked the officer who saved my life how many rounds he fired, he said, “Two or three, I think.” But when they counted rounds in his magazine, it turned out he had fired eight. He had been a cop for over twenty years, and was a survivor of several shootings. Under stress, he lost count of his rounds. Because that’s what happens when you’re shooting to save your life, or to save someone else’s life.

But nobody needs more than seven rounds. You can just shoot the bad guy in the head. It’s easy to make a head shot under stress, right? And they’re immediately fatal.

I answered a stabbing call at a nightclub. When I arrived I found two women standing at the open door of a truck, telling the driver, “You’ll be okay.” When I shined my flashlight on the driver, I was stunned; he hadn’t been stabbed, he had been shot in the head with a .38 from close range. About a third of his skull was blown away. And he wasn’t just alive, he was awake. He nodded to the women, wiped his face, did his best to stay calm. When paramedics arrived, the man got out of the truck with minimal assistance. He died hours later.

I arrived on a shooting/riot outside a club. One man was dead in the street, another had been taken to the hospital by private car. As we tried to control the crowd, a severely beaten young man walked up to me and slurred, “Hey man, we need an ambulance.” I answered, “Yeah, we have one on the way.” As I spoke, I noticed a bloody dent on the side of the young man’s head. I thought, Is that a bullet hole? The man collapsed at my feet. A 9mm Black Talon hollow point had bounced off his skull. The wound didn’t put the man down until several minutes after he was shot. He survived.

I assisted on a rollover accident. The driver was an older woman who lost control of her truck. At the emergency room, a CAT scan revealed a bullet in her head. The woman died. Her husband was unconscious. Days later, when the husband awakened, investigators asked who shot his wife. The man answered, “Oh yeah, that. She told me she got shot in the head about ten years ago, before we got married. She never went to the doctor or nothing, though.” An autopsy showed it was an old wound. This woman got shot in the head, and never even bothered to get medical attention.

But nobody needs more than seven rounds. If little bullets don’t work, get a pistol that fires bigger bullets. Nobody could still be a threat after being hit by a big round.

In one of our firefights in Afghanistan, three French Marines were hit by gunfire. One died from a head wound. The other two were hit in the upper body and badly wounded. Those two Marines got back to their feet, kept their weapons ready and made it to safety with help. And they were hit by either 7.62×39 AK-47 rounds or 7.62x54R PKM machine gun rounds. Those are far more powerful than what any typical pistol fires.

These stories are all from my personal experience. Secondhand, I know of a man who was shot in the forehead, sneezed and blew the round out his nose. I know of a gang member who had half his head blown off by an AK round, then told the first responding officer, “They shot me, dog.” I know of a robber who ran into a restaurant with an Uzi and was immediately shot twice by an off-duty officer, then ran to a payphone and called 911 to report he had been shot.

Historically speaking, I know of the suspect in the Miami FBI shootout who sustained a non-survivable wound in the first few seconds of the fight, but still managed to kill two FBI agents and wound several others. I know of a drunk suspect who shot an Arkansas deputy twice, then took seventeen 9mm rounds in the torso without effect before the deputy finally shot him twice in the face. I know of the young Georgia mother who shot a burglar five times in the head and neck. He asked her to stop shooting, cried, and drove away. I know of many Soldiers and Marines who sustained horrible wounds and stayed in the fight.

Superior recon trumps hypersonic missiles

Saturday, September 21st, 2019

If U.S. and Chinese aircraft carriers were to clash, the U.S. Navy would win — according to a Russian expert:

Konstantin Sivkov, a member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences, argues that superior U.S. reconnaissance capabilities would trump China’s advantages in hypersonic missiles.

Sivkov lays out a sort of wargame for an America vs. China carrier clash that seems based on the World War II carrier battles between America and Japan, particularly the Battle of Midway. Those battles tended to be nail-biting, knife-edge affairs where victory or defeat rested on which side first spotted the other side’s carriers, and then dispatched an airstrike against the vulnerable flattops.

“The key role that determines the course and outcome of hostilities at sea in modern conditions is played not so much by the power and quantity of strike weapons, but by the capabilities of the reconnaissance system on an ocean theater of operations,” Sivkov writes in the Russian defense publication Military-Industrial Courier. “Surpassing the enemy in this respect, the U.S. Navy is able to significantly level the superiority of the Chinese in hypersonic anti-ship missiles.”

[...]

The smaller Chinese carriers, about half the size of their U.S. counterparts and carrying about half the aircraft, would depend on submarines, land-based H-6K patrol aircraft and satellite surveillance to locate the American carrier force. In contrast, the U.S. carriers would have their own onboard E-2 Hawkeye airborne radar aircraft and EA-18 electronic warfare planes, as well as AWACS land-based radar aircraft. Sivkov believes that U.S. carrier group defenses would neutralize Chinese submarines and patrol planes, keeping them from fixing the task force’s location, while Chinese satellites would pass overhead too swiftly to maintain continuous contact. Meanwhile, U.S. aircraft and submarines, would find the Chinese force, while the American subs would attrit the Chinese fleet with anti-ship missiles.

[...]

Now comes the crux of the battle. In this scenario, Sivkov estimates that Chinese carrier could only attack with perhaps a half-dozen aircraft, while the rest are retained for defensive combat air patrol. These strike planes will launch anti-ship missiles that might disable or sink a couple of U.S. destroyers on the carrier group’s outer screen. But the U.S. carrier can muster a strike force of 30-plus aircraft, which will destroy some Chinese escorts. To destroy the Chinese carrier, the American flattop would need to launch as second strike.

Meanwhile, four or five Chinese destroyers will try to advance into missile range of the American task force, with each ship firing 16 YJ-18 missiles each, a 6-plus missile salvo that destroy the U.S. carrier. The U.S. will try to advance the carrier escorts to head this off, and use the carrier’s air wing to try and destroy the Chinese surface ship threat.

“Modeling the situation at this stage shows that the Chinese group has a good chance to reach the line of attack with a loss of up to 40 to 50 percent of its potential,” writes Sivkov. “A missile salvo of 30 to 40 YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, taking into account the possible weakening of the American defenses after the previous hostilities, will put the American aircraft carrier out of action with a probability of 20 to 30 percent. The effectiveness of the second strike by U.S. carrier-based fighter jets (about 24 aircraft) against a Chinese aircraft carrier is estimated at 40 to 50 percent.”

Sivkov assumes that at this stage, the Chinese force will withdraw, while the American force will pursue and try to mount one last air strike. “Bottom line: the Chinese aircraft carrier will be severely damaged and disabled, or even sunk, along with four to five guard ships, one or two submarines and more than half of the carrier-based aircraft,” Sivkov concludes. The U.S. carrier group will lose “two to three warships and 17 to 20 percent of the carrier-based aircraft. The American aircraft carrier will receive relatively little damage or none at all. In other words, the PLAN carrier group will be defeated and lose the ability to continue fighting. The U.S. carrier group will emerge from the collision only slightly weakened.”

The balls sink in and slowly decelerate

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

The Castillo de San Marcos is Florida’s cannonball-eating Spanish fort:

The fort guarded the Spanish empire’s trade routes as well as the surrounding city of St. Augustine, and the English wanted to run this politically and economically important outpost for themselves. Led by Carolina’s governor James Moore, the English boats dropped their anchors and laid siege.

But even after nearly two months of being shelled with cannonballs and gunfire, the fort’s walls wouldn’t give. In fact, they appeared to be “swallowing” the British cannonballs, which then became embedded within the stone. Precisely how the walls did this remained a mystery for the next three centuries.

Cannonball hole and bullet holes in Castillo de San Marcos

Built from coquina — sedimentary rock formed from compressed shells of dead marine organisms — the walls suffered little damage from the British onslaught. As one Englishman described it, the rock “will not splinter but will give way to cannon ball as though you would stick a knife into cheese.”

[...]

Jannotti and the Sanika Subhash bought a few small coquina samples from the gift shop at Castillo de San Marcos, and shot small steel balls at them with speeds of 110 to 160 miles per hour. The idea was to mimic the collision conditions of a cannon firing, albeit in miniature. The researchers also used a high-speed camera that took 200,000 images per second to visualize how the coquina samples reacted to those impacts. They ran similar tests on other materials, namely sandstone and structural foam, in order to compare their properties with those of coquina.

[...]

On the contrary, coquina had a rare ability to absorb mechanical stress, which stemmed from its loosely connected inner structure. Although the little shell pieces that make up coquina are piled and pressed into each other for thousands of years, they aren’t cemented together, so they can shuffle around a bit.

So when a cannonball slammed into the coquina walls of Castillo de San Marcos, it crushed the shells it directly hit, but the surrounding particles simply reshuffled to make space for the ball. “Coquina is very porous and its shells are weakly bonded together,” Jannotti says. “It acts almost as natural foam — the balls sink in, and slowly decelerate.”

It sounded alluring and conspiratorial

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

I haven’t read any of Brad Meltzer‘s thrillers (yet), but he name-dropped the CIA’s Red Cell program in an interview, and I was as intrigued as I was supposed to be:

Around midnight on Sept. 12, 2001, then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet summoned his chief of staff, John Moseman, and the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence, Jami Miscik, to his seventh-floor office in the Original Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia. In the aftermath of the previous day’s unprecedented terrorist attacks, senior White House officials were confident that there were additional plots against the U.S. homeland — and that the CIA needed to better anticipate the range of threats that officials should be prepared for. Tenet decided to form a group of contrarian thinkers to challenge conventional wisdom in the intelligence community and mitigate the threat of additional surprises through “alternative analysis.” On that evening, his instructions were simple: “Tell me things others don’t and make [senior officials] feel uncomfortable.”

The following morning, Miscik and two senior analysts formed the CIA’s Red Cell, which has been a semi-independent unit within the agency ever since. It is devoted to “alternative analysis,” which includes techniques like “what ifs,” Team A/Team B exercises, and premortem analysis, all of which are used to identify holes in a plan, model an adversary to understand their weaknesses, or consider all of the conceivable ways a plan can fail beforehand. The term “Red Cell” was chosen by Tenet personally; he believed it sounded alluring and conspiratorial. Previous comparable units had received limited time and freedom to truly think outside the box. As the recently declassified June 2005 CIA Office of Inspector General’s review of pre-9/11 analysis determined, there was only one example of alternative analysis produced by the Counterterrorism Center’s Assessments and Information Group, and its analysts “recall utilizing no alternative analysis, and ‘did not have the luxury to do so.’”

Analysts lack this luxury because they are absorbed in conducting “mainline” or authoritative analysis, which is intended to chronicle and interpret reality for policymakers. This includes “setting the scene” of the political dynamics in a foreign country before elections, estimating the likelihood of an event occurring, or warning about longer-term strategic trends. As Robert Gates, former deputy director of central intelligence and then director, proclaimed: “[Authoritative analysis] is the bread and butter of intelligence…. Policymakers value, depend upon, and have grown so accustomed to it that this must always be our focus.” However, Gates continued, policymakers become drawn to speculative and unorthodox views, “because when presented with the ‘school solution,’ they know the world isn’t that simple, and they mistrust people who tell them there’s only one outcome.”

Miscik recalled that the initial goal of the Red Cell was to get fresh sets of eyes to reconsider the range of terror threats: “We wanted creative people who could take the existing reporting and put it back together in different ways.” Or, as Paul Frandano, who co-directed the Red Cell during its first four years, put it more directly, “Tenet charged us to piss off senior analysts. If we weren’t doing that, we weren’t doing our job.” By design, the initial Red Cell did not include any terrorism experts and only had one Middle East specialist. Members were individually selected for their analytical capabilities, creativity, and unique mindsets. They were a mix of junior analysts, one mid-level federal employee, as well as senior CIA analysts, a National Security Agency analyst, and a CIA case officer.

Some senior analysts were, indeed, pissed off that nonexperts were questioning their work, while others later acknowledged they were simply jealous of the freedoms enjoyed by the Red Cell — producing three-page memos bearing titles such as “How Usama Might Try to Sink the US Economy” and “The View from Usama’s Cave,” in which analysts speculated on what might be going through Osama bin Laden’s mind. One senior CIA analyst, Carmen Medina, thought that the Red Cell was “way too masculine and way too white in its early days,” which “means they were certainly missing out on some developing world perspectives.” Meanwhile, others never saw the point. As Philip Mudd, the deputy director for analysis in the Counterterrorist Center at the time, recalled, “I didn’t object to what they wrote, but I would always ask, ‘So what exactly do you want me to do with this?’”

Blue gets its ass handed to it

Friday, September 13th, 2019

“In our games, when we fight Russia and China,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek explains, “blue gets its ass handed to it.”

How could this happen, when we spend over $700 billion a year on everything from thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to supersonic stealth fighters?

[...]

“In every case I know of,” said Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense with decades of wargaming experience, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

Even the hottest jet has to land somewhere. But big airbases on land and big aircraft carriers on the water turn out to be big targets for long-range precision-guided missiles. Once an American monopoly, such smart weapons are now a rapidly growing part of Russian and Chinese arsenals — as are the long-range sensors, communications networks, and command systems required to aim them.

So, as potential adversaries improve their technology, “things that rely on sophisticated base infrastructure like runways and fuel tanks are going to have a hard time,” Ochmanek said. “Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time.”

(That’s why the 2020 budget coming out next week retires the carrier USS Truman decades early and cuts two amphibious landing ships, as we’ve reported. It’s also why the Marine Corps is buying the jump-jet version of the F-35, which can take off and land from tiny, ad hoc airstrips, but how well they can maintain a high-tech aircraft in low-tech surroundings is an open question).

While the Air Force and Navy took most of the flak today at this afternoon’s Center for a New American Security panel on the need for “A New American Way of War.” the Army doesn’t look too great, either. Its huge supply bases go up in smoke as well, Work and Ochmanek said. Its tank brigades get shot up by cruise missiles, drones, and helicopters because the Army largely got rid of its mobile anti-aircraft troops, a shortfall it’s now hastening to correct. And its missile defense units get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming fire.

The video gets going about 13 minutes in.

The supercomputer from WarGames has started reading Jung

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Jesse Walker of Reason has dug up a 1956 episode of the NBC radio series X Minus One, which adapts Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Defenders” — which I’ve covered here before. Here is Walker’s description:

It’s as though the false world in The Matrix is being run by the supercomputer from WarGames, which has started reading Jung and lecturing everyone about shadow projection.