29th August 2012: FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Longlist

The longlist for the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year is out. I’ve eyed off Steve Coll’s Private Empire for several months as the exemplar investigative reportage that I like (see this 2008 conference paper which mentions Coll’s previous work). I’m about halfway through Guy Lawson’s Octopus book on the Bayou hedge fund scam and things are starting to get surreal. I bought John Coates’ The Hour Between Dog and Wolf  to understand trading psychology. I saw Charles Duhigg’s SXSW presentation on The Power of Habit but he will still be known for a now-infamous New York Times article on high-frequency trading. I’m hoping Coll will win with Coates and Lawson as ‘dark horse’ bets.

31st July 2012: Jonah Lehrer’s Resignation

Imagine author Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker  over fabricated Bob Dylan quotes:

 

The discovery of the fabricated quotes came only weeks after Lehrer apologized last month for recycling some of his previous work—sometimes nearly verbatim—in his other work, including articles and blog posts.

 

Lehrer’s publisher has already pulled Imagine‘s print edition from Amazon.com.

 

This is a problem of writing Malcolm Gladwell-style populist books: the ‘rush to publish’ and to get on the consulting and seminar circuit can derail research and fact-checking processes (and, despite positive reviews). This is one reason why I prefer authors like Steve Coll and William D. Cohan who each have a strong research process. A recent example is David Crist’s book The Twilight War on the United States-Iran relationship: Crist did over 300 interviews for the book. Interestingly, Lehrer originally wanted to become a scientist.

Panetta’s CIA Director Nomination

The debate about the Obama administration’s nomination of Leon Panetta as the Central Intelligence Agency‘s next director highlights the greater visibility of the United States intelligence community.

Media pundits diverge in their opinions about Panetta’s suitability for the role.  In doing so, they reveal how each makes assumptions about the CIA’s institutional function, the CIA’s relationship to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the budget process, and the experience of political outsiders in assessing the quality of analytical product.

In the sample I looked at The Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss reflects the consensus view that Panetta is a “doomed” appointee as a political outsider.  Dreyfuss makes four key arguments:

(1) Dreyfuss is a political appointee to a non-political organisation.

(2) As a “consumer of intelligence” Panetta is passive and unable to spearhead the operational transformation that the CIA needs.

(3) Panetta opposed the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques yet a CIA insider would have been a better choice.

(4) As “a relentless centrist and a conciliator” Panetta will be outwitted by the Pentagon, the DNI and private military contractors, even though Dreyfuss opines, “the very office of the DNI is a useless post, and the entire office ought to be abolished by Obama on day one. Who needs it?”

Dreyfuss writes great, sarcastic op-ed commentary but the limitations of his arguments becomes clear when you compare his analysis with two columnists who actually know about the intelligence bureaucracy and its function: Slate‘s Fred Kaplan and The New Yorker‘s Steve Coll.  Each show for different reasons why Dreyfuss’s arguments are interwoven.

Political appointees to the CIA have a poor track record, Kaplan and Coll agree.  Coll finds Panetta’s nomination “unconvincing”.  Kaplan suggests that Obama’s priority was to distance his incoming administration from Bush’s perceived politicisation, and in the absence of other candidates, Panetta was the best choice.

This priority also discounts Dreyfuss’s third argument on why a CIA insider would be inappropriate.  “He seems to have been selected as a kind of political auditor and consensus builder,” Coll suggests, in agreement with one premise of Dreyfuss’s fourth argument.  Coll however does not write-off DNI and suggests Panetta’s limitations: his lack of foreign policy experience, and his lack of direct experience in managing the CIA’s operations and relationships “with other spy chiefs, friendly and unfriendly.”

Dreyfuss believes that Panetta would therefore be under the control of Admiral Dennis Blair, who is Obama’s DNI appointee, and thus undermine the CIA’s civilian status.  Kaplan has a more nuanced view of the DNI-CIA relationship and Panetta’s leadership style.  He suggests Panetta could retain the CIA’s deputy director Steven Kappes, a move that would please insiders and consolidate his position.

Kaplan also reveals that Panchetta knew more about the CIA’s intelligence programs than Dreyfuss’s write-off suggests.  As the Clinton administration’s Office of Budget and Management “director and White House chief of staff, he was not just passively exposed to intelligence issue,” Kaplan counters.  He then quotes an email from former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke which reveals that Panchetta “knew about all of the covert and special-access programs.”  This experience gives Panchetta the budget skills, special knowledge, and high-level overview of CIA activities that few insiders would have, and that is a close fit with operational transformation methodologies.

If Panchetta’s nomination doesn’t work out I have a Team B that could probably do the job of cleaning up the CIA’s black budget programs, or at least make an Open Source Intelligence attempt.  It would include award-winning journalist James Bamford whose book The Puzzle Palace (1982) features revelations about the National Security Agency; anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom whose book Shadows of War (2005) revealed the new contours of global conflicts; and Economic Gangsters (2008) authors Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, who use publicly available information such as diplomats’ parking tickets to uncover potential corruption.  Add Kaplan, Coll and their New Yorker colleague Lawrence Wright, and that’s a pretty substantial investigative team with foreign policy and intelligence community experience.

Mumbai Siege: The Hunt for the Perpetrators

Counterterrorism analysts search for answers as the official death toll from Mumbai’s siege rises to 183 people.  We now enter Susan Moeller‘s second stage of post-terrorist attacks: the hunt for the perpetrators and seeking justice.  See my October 2001 analysis here on the September 11 aftermath and Henry Rollins’ reaction in New York City.

Slate‘s Anne Applebaum observes that we don’t yet know much about the group that carried out the attacks.  Applebaum’s analysis echoes Walter Laqueur‘s ‘new terrorism’ thesis in the mid-to-late 1990s: attempts at mass casualty attacks, tactics from the guerrilla and insurgency playbook, an ideological mix, and groups that either do not claim credit or who are not on the radar of counterterrorism analysts.  Applebaum captures Gregory Treverton‘s distinction between solvable ‘puzzles’ and potentially unsolvable ‘mysteries’ in intelligence analysis.

“The particulars of the attacking group are unknown; the
political-military equation from which the group has almost certainly
arisen is not,” notes The New Yorker‘s Steve Coll.  The most plausible hypotheses for Coll and other counterterrorism experts are: (1) Pakistan’s intelligence services may have funded the group in a clandestine/proxy war with India; or (2) the group emerged as an autonomous cell that was ideologically motivated by the clandestine/proxy war.  Coll explains why at this early stage the Mumbai siege is closer to Treverton’s ‘mysteries’:

If past investigations into such groups prove to be any guide, it may
be difficult to find clear-cut evidence of direct involvement by
Pakistani intelligence or army personnel. This is because Pakistan,
knowing the stakes of getting caught red-handed, has increasingly
pursued its clandestine proxy war against India in Kashmir and on the
Indian mainland through layers and layers of self-managing and
non-state groups. The Pakistani government and its domestic Islamist
proxies, including nominally peaceful charities based in Pakistan but
with operations in Kashmir, almost certainly pass through money and
weapons on a large scale. They do so, however, in such a way that is
very difficult to trace these supplies back to the government.

Applebaum highlights the epistemological challenges that counterterrorism analysts face; Coll offers some guidance on how to conduct an investigation on the basis of ‘contingent’ beliefs and alternative hypotheses.

Pakistan’s government denies any role
in the Mumbai attacks.  Perhaps forensic analysis of crime scene
evidence will provide answers and shift the current speculation from
Treverton’s ‘mystery’ to ‘puzzle’.  Or maybe not.

The next day Coll analyses India’s claim that the group Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the Mumbai attack.