Commentary Magazine


Posts For: March 6, 2008

Oh My . . .

If Hillary Clinton showed this in every state from here on out rather than her own ads, I bet she’d do at least as well as she did in Ohio. If that Obama ad doesn’t drive hardworking, normal Americans (for whom a presidential campaign is not a cult of personality) into her arms, then nothing will.

If Hillary Clinton showed this in every state from here on out rather than her own ads, I bet she’d do at least as well as she did in Ohio. If that Obama ad doesn’t drive hardworking, normal Americans (for whom a presidential campaign is not a cult of personality) into her arms, then nothing will.

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Eric Alterman, Hack

I suppose that one of the benefits of having an easily-misspelled last name is that it provides an opportunity to see which of my detractors have actually read my work, and which are so lazy that they simply parrot the lines of other hacks.

Here is Eric Alterman in the latest issue of The Nation, on the Samantha Power controversy:

These attacks, as blogger Matthew Yglesias notes, have largely amounted to the following: “First Obama was an anti-Semite because Zbigniew Brzezinski is an anti-Semite. Then Obama was an anti-Semite because Robert Malley is an anti-Semite. And now according to [Commentary's Noah] Pollack it’s Samantha Power who’s tainted by Jew-hatred.”

Throughout the rest of the piece he commits the same mistake, which leads me to wonder: Has Alterman read a single word I’ve written? I suspect not. Do the editors of The Nation fact-check their articles? Same answer.

One might be able to take these accusations seriously if the people advancing them fulfilled basic journalistic requirements, such as spelling a person’s name correctly. And so I offer the same challenge to Alterman that I did to the fabulist originators of the Pollack-says-Power-is-a-Jew-hater myth: Quote me.

I suppose that one of the benefits of having an easily-misspelled last name is that it provides an opportunity to see which of my detractors have actually read my work, and which are so lazy that they simply parrot the lines of other hacks.

Here is Eric Alterman in the latest issue of The Nation, on the Samantha Power controversy:

These attacks, as blogger Matthew Yglesias notes, have largely amounted to the following: “First Obama was an anti-Semite because Zbigniew Brzezinski is an anti-Semite. Then Obama was an anti-Semite because Robert Malley is an anti-Semite. And now according to [Commentary's Noah] Pollack it’s Samantha Power who’s tainted by Jew-hatred.”

Throughout the rest of the piece he commits the same mistake, which leads me to wonder: Has Alterman read a single word I’ve written? I suspect not. Do the editors of The Nation fact-check their articles? Same answer.

One might be able to take these accusations seriously if the people advancing them fulfilled basic journalistic requirements, such as spelling a person’s name correctly. And so I offer the same challenge to Alterman that I did to the fabulist originators of the Pollack-says-Power-is-a-Jew-hater myth: Quote me.

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What About Field and Stream?

Making the cover of Rolling Stone is probably not what Barack Obama needs right now. He’s got the media, college student, and urban elite votes pretty much locked up. His problem? He’s losing lunchbucket Democrats to Hillary Clinton.

Clinton should run a Ronald Reagan campaign against Obama–attack the media (who wrote her off and don’t care about Middle America unless there is a primary there), play up her patriotic sentiments (she apparently was the only Democrat who thought the bombing of a military recruitment office in Times Square was worthy of an immediate statement), and become “the working stiff’s candidate.” In fact, if she was a little quicker on her feet, she could poke fun at Michelle Obama’s strange claim that she and her husband struggled to pay off student loans (they had a combined income in the comfy six figures at the time). There’s no New York or California left on the primary calendar. But there are still Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and maybe even Michigan. And in those states the Safeway Democrats, as David Brooks has described them, vastly outnumber the Whole Foods Democrats.

Making the cover of Rolling Stone is probably not what Barack Obama needs right now. He’s got the media, college student, and urban elite votes pretty much locked up. His problem? He’s losing lunchbucket Democrats to Hillary Clinton.

Clinton should run a Ronald Reagan campaign against Obama–attack the media (who wrote her off and don’t care about Middle America unless there is a primary there), play up her patriotic sentiments (she apparently was the only Democrat who thought the bombing of a military recruitment office in Times Square was worthy of an immediate statement), and become “the working stiff’s candidate.” In fact, if she was a little quicker on her feet, she could poke fun at Michelle Obama’s strange claim that she and her husband struggled to pay off student loans (they had a combined income in the comfy six figures at the time). There’s no New York or California left on the primary calendar. But there are still Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and maybe even Michigan. And in those states the Safeway Democrats, as David Brooks has described them, vastly outnumber the Whole Foods Democrats.

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Jerusalem Terror

Glued to the TV set trying to make some sense of the terror attack in Yeshiva Merkaz Harav. According to police, it was a single attacker who unloaded hundreds of bullets in a ten-minute rampage through the biggest yeshiva high school in Jerusalem. Seven people dead, perhaps a dozen injured, some seriously. Because the attacker was moving around, people thought there were several terrorists. Paramedics treated the wounded while shooting continued. It only ended when an army officer, who lives next door to the school, heard the shooting, went in with his own gun, and took the guy out.

The police say they know the identity of the killer, but it is too early to tell what organization, if any, is behind the attack–or what may come of this tomorrow.

Glued to the TV set trying to make some sense of the terror attack in Yeshiva Merkaz Harav. According to police, it was a single attacker who unloaded hundreds of bullets in a ten-minute rampage through the biggest yeshiva high school in Jerusalem. Seven people dead, perhaps a dozen injured, some seriously. Because the attacker was moving around, people thought there were several terrorists. Paramedics treated the wounded while shooting continued. It only ended when an army officer, who lives next door to the school, heard the shooting, went in with his own gun, and took the guy out.

The police say they know the identity of the killer, but it is too early to tell what organization, if any, is behind the attack–or what may come of this tomorrow.

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Today’s Yeshiva Massacre in Jerusalem

In case you hadn’t heard, there has just been a terror attack in Jerusalem: a gunman infiltrated a yeshiva and opened fire on a crowd of teenagers in the dining hall:

Witnesses said that only one terrorist had entered the building and that he managed to fire 500-600 bullets over the course of 10 minutes before he was killed.

It is unclear at the moment which of the myriad Palestinian terror groups perpetrated the attack, but Hamas thought it would be a good idea to get its two cents into the news coverage post-haste:

“We bless the (Jerusalem) operation. It will not be the last,” Hamas said in a statement.

It is safe to say in this regard that many Gazans share Hamas’ sense of good fortune:

Gaza’s streets filled with joyous crowds of thousands on Thursday evening following the terror attack at a Jerusalem rabbinical seminary in which eight people were killed. In mosques in Gaza City and northern Gaza, many residents went to perform the prayers of thanksgiving. Armed men fired in the air in celebration and others passed out sweets to passersby.

Note that this is the terror group, implacably devoted to bloodshed and murder, that a number of American foreign policy elites have been lecturing the Bush administration and the Olmert government to “diplomatically engage.”

And now we have Mahmoud Abbas making his Arafat-esque perfunctory denunciation:

“President Mahmoud Abbas condemns the attack in Jerusalem that claimed the lives of many Israelis and he reiterated his condemnation of all attacks that target civilians, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis,” said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.

Abbas is a man in the habit of condemning specific acts of terrorism, but honoring and celebrating terrorism and terrorists generally–especially in Arabic. When George Habash died — the founder of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and an unapologetic celebrator of savagery against Jews — Abbas ordered the PA’s flags to half-mast for three days. Abbas’s state-run television station shows maps of “Palestine” with Israel eradicated, and he refers in speeches intended for domestic consumption to the glories of martyrdom. Abu Mazen has a long way to go before rivaling his predecessor in this kind of doublespeak, but he is certainly headed in the right direction.

In case you hadn’t heard, there has just been a terror attack in Jerusalem: a gunman infiltrated a yeshiva and opened fire on a crowd of teenagers in the dining hall:

Witnesses said that only one terrorist had entered the building and that he managed to fire 500-600 bullets over the course of 10 minutes before he was killed.

It is unclear at the moment which of the myriad Palestinian terror groups perpetrated the attack, but Hamas thought it would be a good idea to get its two cents into the news coverage post-haste:

“We bless the (Jerusalem) operation. It will not be the last,” Hamas said in a statement.

It is safe to say in this regard that many Gazans share Hamas’ sense of good fortune:

Gaza’s streets filled with joyous crowds of thousands on Thursday evening following the terror attack at a Jerusalem rabbinical seminary in which eight people were killed. In mosques in Gaza City and northern Gaza, many residents went to perform the prayers of thanksgiving. Armed men fired in the air in celebration and others passed out sweets to passersby.

Note that this is the terror group, implacably devoted to bloodshed and murder, that a number of American foreign policy elites have been lecturing the Bush administration and the Olmert government to “diplomatically engage.”

And now we have Mahmoud Abbas making his Arafat-esque perfunctory denunciation:

“President Mahmoud Abbas condemns the attack in Jerusalem that claimed the lives of many Israelis and he reiterated his condemnation of all attacks that target civilians, whether they are Palestinians or Israelis,” said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.

Abbas is a man in the habit of condemning specific acts of terrorism, but honoring and celebrating terrorism and terrorists generally–especially in Arabic. When George Habash died — the founder of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and an unapologetic celebrator of savagery against Jews — Abbas ordered the PA’s flags to half-mast for three days. Abbas’s state-run television station shows maps of “Palestine” with Israel eradicated, and he refers in speeches intended for domestic consumption to the glories of martyrdom. Abu Mazen has a long way to go before rivaling his predecessor in this kind of doublespeak, but he is certainly headed in the right direction.

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Walzer Calls for Blackwater

Chalk up another recruit for the idea of using mercenaries to stop the killing in Darfur: the liberal political philosopher Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars.

In an essay in The New Republic, he notes that “neither the United Nations nor NATO has any intention of deploying a military force that would actually be capable of stopping the Darfur genocide.” So what’s the alternative? “Some of us might prefer something like the International Brigade that fought in Spain over a force of Blackwater mercenaries,” he writes, but failing another International Brigade, he endorses hiring firms like Blackwater (notwithstanding his aversion to security contractors in general).

This is a cause I’ve been pushing for a while (Walzer describes me in the article as “the leading neoconservative writer on military affairs”–I’m not sure whether that’s intended to be a compliment), and I’m happy to see Walzer lend his support. But the real challenge will be to get policymakers, whether at the UN or in the U.S., to go along, and so far there’s no sign of that. So the killing goes on.

Chalk up another recruit for the idea of using mercenaries to stop the killing in Darfur: the liberal political philosopher Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars.

In an essay in The New Republic, he notes that “neither the United Nations nor NATO has any intention of deploying a military force that would actually be capable of stopping the Darfur genocide.” So what’s the alternative? “Some of us might prefer something like the International Brigade that fought in Spain over a force of Blackwater mercenaries,” he writes, but failing another International Brigade, he endorses hiring firms like Blackwater (notwithstanding his aversion to security contractors in general).

This is a cause I’ve been pushing for a while (Walzer describes me in the article as “the leading neoconservative writer on military affairs”–I’m not sure whether that’s intended to be a compliment), and I’m happy to see Walzer lend his support. But the real challenge will be to get policymakers, whether at the UN or in the U.S., to go along, and so far there’s no sign of that. So the killing goes on.

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The (Terror-)Friendly Skies

In his book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward describes former CIA Director George Tenet’s initial reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 thusly:

“This has bin Laden all over it,” Tenet told Boren. “I’ve got to go.” He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

Six months after the “guy’s” acquired skills enabled him and eighteen accomplices to kill some 3000 Americans, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) contacted their flight school to say that the late terrorists had been approved for Visas. At PJM, Annie Jacobson has an unsettling assessment of the developments in U.S. flight school security since 9/11:

The INS unit was disbanded and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took its place in regard to monitoring foreign nationals for flight school eligibility. In September 2004 the Alien Flight Student Program went into effect, with TSA in charge.

Last week, in one of the most damaging reports on the TSA to date, ABC News revealed that in the program’s first year under TSA control, there were “some 8,000 foreign students in the FAA database who got their pilot licenses without ever being approved by the TSA.”

Citing official documents, Ms. Jacobson details the mixture of indecision and interdepartmental red tape that’s kept American skies open to the same American-trained terror that brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon over six years ago:

“[Acting General Manager for General Aviation Robert] Rottman made the TSA’s do-nothing policy painfully clear:

Currently DOS and ICE appear to have conflicting views on the appropriateness of B visas for flight training. Department of State, which has the responsibility for development of visa policy, contends that a B visa is appropriate for flight training. However, ICE, which enforces visa requirements, has asserted that B visas are not appropriate for flight training.”

Rottman’s conclusion: “Based on the forgoing, TSA representatives having security inspection responsibility and oversight authority . . . will abstain from making visa appropriate or validity determinations until further notice, as appropriate.”

Is it too great a breach of cordiality to halt all U.S. flight lessons for all visa holders? At least until coming up with a decisive long-term policy? I was just told of a coast-to-coast commercial flight on which all passengers were deprived of peanuts because one passenger was allergic. You’d think the threat of a 9/11 repeat demands as thorough and decisive an approach as the one enabling the safe distribution of in-flight snacks.

In his book, Bush at War, Bob Woodward describes former CIA Director George Tenet’s initial reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001 thusly:

“This has bin Laden all over it,” Tenet told Boren. “I’ve got to go.” He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”

Six months after the “guy’s” acquired skills enabled him and eighteen accomplices to kill some 3000 Americans, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) contacted their flight school to say that the late terrorists had been approved for Visas. At PJM, Annie Jacobson has an unsettling assessment of the developments in U.S. flight school security since 9/11:

The INS unit was disbanded and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took its place in regard to monitoring foreign nationals for flight school eligibility. In September 2004 the Alien Flight Student Program went into effect, with TSA in charge.

Last week, in one of the most damaging reports on the TSA to date, ABC News revealed that in the program’s first year under TSA control, there were “some 8,000 foreign students in the FAA database who got their pilot licenses without ever being approved by the TSA.”

Citing official documents, Ms. Jacobson details the mixture of indecision and interdepartmental red tape that’s kept American skies open to the same American-trained terror that brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon over six years ago:

“[Acting General Manager for General Aviation Robert] Rottman made the TSA’s do-nothing policy painfully clear:

Currently DOS and ICE appear to have conflicting views on the appropriateness of B visas for flight training. Department of State, which has the responsibility for development of visa policy, contends that a B visa is appropriate for flight training. However, ICE, which enforces visa requirements, has asserted that B visas are not appropriate for flight training.”

Rottman’s conclusion: “Based on the forgoing, TSA representatives having security inspection responsibility and oversight authority . . . will abstain from making visa appropriate or validity determinations until further notice, as appropriate.”

Is it too great a breach of cordiality to halt all U.S. flight lessons for all visa holders? At least until coming up with a decisive long-term policy? I was just told of a coast-to-coast commercial flight on which all passengers were deprived of peanuts because one passenger was allergic. You’d think the threat of a 9/11 repeat demands as thorough and decisive an approach as the one enabling the safe distribution of in-flight snacks.

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“They’re Both Not Ready to Have That 3 A.M. Phone Call”

Did John McCain say that? Nope. Susan Rice, a top Barack Obama advisor, said it–about Clinton and her own advisee. That, fundamentally, is the problem with the Clinton attack and Obama’s counterattack. (“I know she talks about visiting 80 countries. It’s not clear, ya know, was she negotiating treaties or agreements or was she handling crises during this period of time? My sense is the answer is no.”)

Now, she may argue, and I think she is slowly getting around to this, that she is just tougher and more savvy about the world than Obama. The problem there (at least in a primary) is that, as a Clinton advisor let on, “Military stuff just doesn’t make it with Democratic voters.” Nevertheless, Clinton does not need to become Bush-lite to convince Democratic primary voters that there is something flimsy and unrealistic about Obama’s approach. (Is Obama still going to have tea with Hugo Chavez or would he ask that Chavez stop supporting FARC and undermining his Columbian Colombian neighbors first?) This ultimately makes him vulnerable to a McCain attack in the general election. In this regard, McCain’s capture of the nomination provides Clinton with a talking point about who is best able to go toe-to-toe with him. As the national security issue transforms into an electability issue, it becomes more potent for voters, and more importantly, for those superdelegates who will ultimately put one of the candidates over the 2025 delegate total.

Did John McCain say that? Nope. Susan Rice, a top Barack Obama advisor, said it–about Clinton and her own advisee. That, fundamentally, is the problem with the Clinton attack and Obama’s counterattack. (“I know she talks about visiting 80 countries. It’s not clear, ya know, was she negotiating treaties or agreements or was she handling crises during this period of time? My sense is the answer is no.”)

Now, she may argue, and I think she is slowly getting around to this, that she is just tougher and more savvy about the world than Obama. The problem there (at least in a primary) is that, as a Clinton advisor let on, “Military stuff just doesn’t make it with Democratic voters.” Nevertheless, Clinton does not need to become Bush-lite to convince Democratic primary voters that there is something flimsy and unrealistic about Obama’s approach. (Is Obama still going to have tea with Hugo Chavez or would he ask that Chavez stop supporting FARC and undermining his Columbian Colombian neighbors first?) This ultimately makes him vulnerable to a McCain attack in the general election. In this regard, McCain’s capture of the nomination provides Clinton with a talking point about who is best able to go toe-to-toe with him. As the national security issue transforms into an electability issue, it becomes more potent for voters, and more importantly, for those superdelegates who will ultimately put one of the candidates over the 2025 delegate total.

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The Smugness Problem

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times entertainment section ran an interesting bit of election analysis from Mary McNamara. Considering the pop songs and television ratings generated by these campaigns, it would seem wisdom from observers such as Ms. McNamara is becoming increasingly vital. The election is, after all, a hit show. Ms. McNamara’s take reveals the strengths and the limitations of doing a purely Hollywood-type analysis of American politics: She hits the nail on the head in asserting that smugness has been the Democrats’ downfall, but she gets things woefully wrong in assuming Republican folksiness to be a sham.

When will Democrats learn that smug just doesn’t work for them? You would think after watching Al Gore go down in eye-rolling flames as George W. Bush’s carefully orchestrated folksiness trumped vice presidential experience, Hillary Rodham Clinton would have known better.

That Bush is at once learning-disabled and in possession of a dastardly brilliance has been a longtime talking point problem for the Left. Whether or not you like him, it’s plain as day that Bush’s easygoing manner is etched into his DNA. And the fact that Al Gore himself has gone on from his presidential defeat to try to remake the state of the very heavens suggests that no lesson in humility has registered. However, Ms. McNamara makes some useful points. Hillary at first ran on a sense of entitlement. As it became more clear that she planned to coast on overconfidence the media and the public grew nauseated. During this time, Obamamania ballooned. However, by the time everyone had left Hillary for dead, the balloon was now on display atop Obama’s shoulders. His overconfidence has become in itself an unprecedented phenomenon. “And what happened?” writes Ms. McNamara. “What has been happening in this race since Iowa. Democratic voters ditched smug for earnest and, whoops, there went Rhode Island, Texas, and Ohio right over to Clinton.”

Ms. McNamara recommends the candidates observe make-believe presidents on “The West Wing” and “Commander in Chief” for lessons in tempering their egos:

See the steely-eyed focus tempered with a sense of humor, the insanely quick grasp of the facts softened by the recognition that most everyone is flawed in some way? This is what you should be shooting for. Self-deprecating confidence. A little arrogance is OK because people with self-esteem issues don’t usually run for president, but there is no sense of personal entitlement, no smugness.

Hillary does seem in some genuine sense taken down a few pegs. “Humanizing” is what the press used to say she needed. The thing is—it can’t be faked, especially in someone as sincerity-challenged as her. If Hillary Clinton appears to have been humanized it’s because she went to the brink of political extinction and back again. So far, there’s no evidence that Obama is acknowledging the possibility of following her lead.

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times entertainment section ran an interesting bit of election analysis from Mary McNamara. Considering the pop songs and television ratings generated by these campaigns, it would seem wisdom from observers such as Ms. McNamara is becoming increasingly vital. The election is, after all, a hit show. Ms. McNamara’s take reveals the strengths and the limitations of doing a purely Hollywood-type analysis of American politics: She hits the nail on the head in asserting that smugness has been the Democrats’ downfall, but she gets things woefully wrong in assuming Republican folksiness to be a sham.

When will Democrats learn that smug just doesn’t work for them? You would think after watching Al Gore go down in eye-rolling flames as George W. Bush’s carefully orchestrated folksiness trumped vice presidential experience, Hillary Rodham Clinton would have known better.

That Bush is at once learning-disabled and in possession of a dastardly brilliance has been a longtime talking point problem for the Left. Whether or not you like him, it’s plain as day that Bush’s easygoing manner is etched into his DNA. And the fact that Al Gore himself has gone on from his presidential defeat to try to remake the state of the very heavens suggests that no lesson in humility has registered. However, Ms. McNamara makes some useful points. Hillary at first ran on a sense of entitlement. As it became more clear that she planned to coast on overconfidence the media and the public grew nauseated. During this time, Obamamania ballooned. However, by the time everyone had left Hillary for dead, the balloon was now on display atop Obama’s shoulders. His overconfidence has become in itself an unprecedented phenomenon. “And what happened?” writes Ms. McNamara. “What has been happening in this race since Iowa. Democratic voters ditched smug for earnest and, whoops, there went Rhode Island, Texas, and Ohio right over to Clinton.”

Ms. McNamara recommends the candidates observe make-believe presidents on “The West Wing” and “Commander in Chief” for lessons in tempering their egos:

See the steely-eyed focus tempered with a sense of humor, the insanely quick grasp of the facts softened by the recognition that most everyone is flawed in some way? This is what you should be shooting for. Self-deprecating confidence. A little arrogance is OK because people with self-esteem issues don’t usually run for president, but there is no sense of personal entitlement, no smugness.

Hillary does seem in some genuine sense taken down a few pegs. “Humanizing” is what the press used to say she needed. The thing is—it can’t be faked, especially in someone as sincerity-challenged as her. If Hillary Clinton appears to have been humanized it’s because she went to the brink of political extinction and back again. So far, there’s no evidence that Obama is acknowledging the possibility of following her lead.

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Spelling and “Analytic Tradecraft”

The CIA and U.S. intelligence have gotten a lot of things wrong in recent years, at great cost to our national well-being. A significant part of the problem lies in “analysis,” where data is supposed to be interpreted but is all too often misinterpreted.

Gregory F. Treverton and C. Bryan Gabbard have written a new study of “analytic tradecraft,” published by RAND, that takes up the nature of the problem and looks at some of the solutions being put in place.

Some of the approaches to improving analysis they point to are technological. For example, there is a program called GENOA -II, designed to help intelligence analysts work better in groups. Among other things, it attempts to “automate team processes,” develop “cognitive aids that allow humans and machines to ‘think together’ in real-time about complicated problems,” and find ways to “overcome the biases and limitations of the human cognitive system.”

This sounds great. But count me deeply skeptical. Here’s why.

No technological solution can be better than the people running it. Consider a very simple “cognitive aid” like a computer spell-check program. These things have been around for a long time and everyone uses them. Treverton and Gabbard are smart men, who have every interest in producing a highly professional study. Treverton has handled all of Europe for the National Security Council and served as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, overseeing the writing of America’s National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). Gabbard is also an accomplished person, with a wealth of experience under his belt. But even so, and even with RAND editors poring over their study before it was released, the spell-check program was not fail-safe.

The Treverton-Gabbard study has:

“intellience” and “intellence” instead of intelligence;

“builiding” instead of building;

“proceess” instead of process;

“solftware” instead of software;

“uniue” instead of unique;

“syehtsis” instead of synthesis;

“coopertive” instead of cooperative;

“poential” instead of potential.

Why should there be nine such mistakes when the technology is in place to produce, almost effortlessly, a zero-error rate? The United States is not going fall victim to a surprise attack because of some typos in a RAND study. But we will fall victim to another surprise attack if don’t focus on the fact that the problem facing our intelligence community is not technology but severe shortcomings in the selection of analysts themselves.

See the case of Michael Scheuer, the kooky head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden desk in the 1990′s, for one set of illustrations. See the case of Richard Immerman, the radical professor now in charge of analytic “integrity and standards” for the Intelligence Community, for another set of illustrations.

How many more illustrations do we need?

The CIA and U.S. intelligence have gotten a lot of things wrong in recent years, at great cost to our national well-being. A significant part of the problem lies in “analysis,” where data is supposed to be interpreted but is all too often misinterpreted.

Gregory F. Treverton and C. Bryan Gabbard have written a new study of “analytic tradecraft,” published by RAND, that takes up the nature of the problem and looks at some of the solutions being put in place.

Some of the approaches to improving analysis they point to are technological. For example, there is a program called GENOA -II, designed to help intelligence analysts work better in groups. Among other things, it attempts to “automate team processes,” develop “cognitive aids that allow humans and machines to ‘think together’ in real-time about complicated problems,” and find ways to “overcome the biases and limitations of the human cognitive system.”

This sounds great. But count me deeply skeptical. Here’s why.

No technological solution can be better than the people running it. Consider a very simple “cognitive aid” like a computer spell-check program. These things have been around for a long time and everyone uses them. Treverton and Gabbard are smart men, who have every interest in producing a highly professional study. Treverton has handled all of Europe for the National Security Council and served as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, overseeing the writing of America’s National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). Gabbard is also an accomplished person, with a wealth of experience under his belt. But even so, and even with RAND editors poring over their study before it was released, the spell-check program was not fail-safe.

The Treverton-Gabbard study has:

“intellience” and “intellence” instead of intelligence;

“builiding” instead of building;

“proceess” instead of process;

“solftware” instead of software;

“uniue” instead of unique;

“syehtsis” instead of synthesis;

“coopertive” instead of cooperative;

“poential” instead of potential.

Why should there be nine such mistakes when the technology is in place to produce, almost effortlessly, a zero-error rate? The United States is not going fall victim to a surprise attack because of some typos in a RAND study. But we will fall victim to another surprise attack if don’t focus on the fact that the problem facing our intelligence community is not technology but severe shortcomings in the selection of analysts themselves.

See the case of Michael Scheuer, the kooky head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden desk in the 1990′s, for one set of illustrations. See the case of Richard Immerman, the radical professor now in charge of analytic “integrity and standards” for the Intelligence Community, for another set of illustrations.

How many more illustrations do we need?

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A Little Worried?

Barack Obama added this to his otherwise rather standard election night speech on Tuesday:

I owe what I am to this country I love, and I will never forget it. Where else could a young man who grew up herding goats in Kenya get the chance to fulfill his dream of a college education? Where else could he marry a white girl from Kansas whose parents survived war and depression to find opportunity out west? Where else could they have a child who would one day have the chance to run for the highest office in the greatest nation the world has ever known? Where else, but in the United States of America?

Could it be that the Obama team is a wee bit concerned that between Michelle’s comments, Barack’s discarding of his flag lapel pin, and all the talk about how positively dreadful things in America are, even Democratic primary voters  might sense he is a bit too disdainful of the country he seeks to lead? (This is to say nothing of general election voters, who will be choosing between him and a war hero whose love for America pours forth with the slightest provocation.)

The comments were no accident, according to this report:

A senior Obama strategist, David Axelrod, acknowledged that he is receiving varied advice from Democrats, including changing Obama’s stump speech to emphasize his American roots and pushing for a second round of changes in the nation’s welfare laws, this time aimed at stray fathers. If Obama finds himself forced to defend his patriotism before a skeptical electorate, he will be in deep trouble, [Iowa Governor Tom] Vilsack warned. But, he added, “what’s the alternative, ignore it? We paid a price in 2004 for thinking the charge wouldn’t stick.” [Alabama Congressman Arthur] Davis said Obama needs to immediately preempt attacks on his patriotism by reprising the theme of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention — that only in the United States of America could the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a woman from a small-town in Kansas aspire to the heights of power. Obama took up that theme last night, but only deep inside his San Antonio address.

The problem, however, is not one easily solved by a throwaway line or two. Obama and his wife have given us every reason to believe that the country is a mess, the average guy gets the shaft, and politicians are corrupt. It’s a fine line to walk between painting a picture of a country in such dire straits that we need Obama and only Obama (or change, or something  different than anything that ever came before him) and saying that, flat out, that you are not proud of your country. I think all of Axeldrod’s advice is right. If there are concerns about Obama’s affection for this country now, just wait until he’s up against a man who considered it an honor to remain in prison for the country he loved.

Barack Obama added this to his otherwise rather standard election night speech on Tuesday:

I owe what I am to this country I love, and I will never forget it. Where else could a young man who grew up herding goats in Kenya get the chance to fulfill his dream of a college education? Where else could he marry a white girl from Kansas whose parents survived war and depression to find opportunity out west? Where else could they have a child who would one day have the chance to run for the highest office in the greatest nation the world has ever known? Where else, but in the United States of America?

Could it be that the Obama team is a wee bit concerned that between Michelle’s comments, Barack’s discarding of his flag lapel pin, and all the talk about how positively dreadful things in America are, even Democratic primary voters  might sense he is a bit too disdainful of the country he seeks to lead? (This is to say nothing of general election voters, who will be choosing between him and a war hero whose love for America pours forth with the slightest provocation.)

The comments were no accident, according to this report:

A senior Obama strategist, David Axelrod, acknowledged that he is receiving varied advice from Democrats, including changing Obama’s stump speech to emphasize his American roots and pushing for a second round of changes in the nation’s welfare laws, this time aimed at stray fathers. If Obama finds himself forced to defend his patriotism before a skeptical electorate, he will be in deep trouble, [Iowa Governor Tom] Vilsack warned. But, he added, “what’s the alternative, ignore it? We paid a price in 2004 for thinking the charge wouldn’t stick.” [Alabama Congressman Arthur] Davis said Obama needs to immediately preempt attacks on his patriotism by reprising the theme of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention — that only in the United States of America could the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a woman from a small-town in Kansas aspire to the heights of power. Obama took up that theme last night, but only deep inside his San Antonio address.

The problem, however, is not one easily solved by a throwaway line or two. Obama and his wife have given us every reason to believe that the country is a mess, the average guy gets the shaft, and politicians are corrupt. It’s a fine line to walk between painting a picture of a country in such dire straits that we need Obama and only Obama (or change, or something  different than anything that ever came before him) and saying that, flat out, that you are not proud of your country. I think all of Axeldrod’s advice is right. If there are concerns about Obama’s affection for this country now, just wait until he’s up against a man who considered it an honor to remain in prison for the country he loved.

Read Less

Hezbollah’s Media Relations

Michael Young has a terrific article in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV here, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.

Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,

Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.

Young is correct. And I’ll add that is there is nothing “special” or difficult about getting a quote from Hezbollah. I’ve done it. All I had to do was call their press office and take a taxi down to their headquarters. Every journalist in Lebanon has the phone number. What’s difficult is preserving access to Hezbollah. Doing so is not necessarily impressive, however. It took me five minutes and a press pass to gain access, but it lasted less than a week. I was threatened for writing this blog post, and I was blacklisted for publishing this article in the LA Weekly.

My experience isn’t unusual.

A journalist friend–whom I’ll keep anonymous because his comment to me was not on the record–was severely upbraided by Hezbollah’s “media relations” liaison for a neutral and entirely innocuous article he wrote for a left-wing American magazine I’m sure you’ve heard of or read. It wasn’t enough for them that his article wasn’t anti-Hezbollah. It also was not pro-Hezbollah. The party line was not toed.

During the July 2006 war in Northern Israel and South Lebanon, Beirut-based Time magazine reporter Chris Allbritton wrote the following on his blog: “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

Reporter Charles Levinson wasn’t particularly impressed with them last August. “My experience with Hezbollah this week has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth,” he wrote on his blog Conflict Blotter. “I had heard this from other journalist friends who have recently returned from Lebanon, but discovered it for myself this week: their interaction with the press borders on fascist.”

You’ll notice that Allbritton and Levinson are speaking both for themselves and other journalists. Hezbollah didn’t single me out. Nor did Hezbollah single out Allbritton and Levinson. Despite their reputation for being media-savvy, the obstruction, harassment, and bullying of journalists is Hezbollah policy. Access is a meager carrot next to all that.

Some of us resist. Many do not. Some, like Chomsky and Finkelstein, don’t even have to. Michael Young is right to draw attention to those with access who will not call Hezbollah liars when they clearly are lying. It doesn’t matter if they do it to get a bite at the carrot or in fear of the stick.

Michael Young has a terrific article in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV here, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.

Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,

Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.

Young is correct. And I’ll add that is there is nothing “special” or difficult about getting a quote from Hezbollah. I’ve done it. All I had to do was call their press office and take a taxi down to their headquarters. Every journalist in Lebanon has the phone number. What’s difficult is preserving access to Hezbollah. Doing so is not necessarily impressive, however. It took me five minutes and a press pass to gain access, but it lasted less than a week. I was threatened for writing this blog post, and I was blacklisted for publishing this article in the LA Weekly.

My experience isn’t unusual.

A journalist friend–whom I’ll keep anonymous because his comment to me was not on the record–was severely upbraided by Hezbollah’s “media relations” liaison for a neutral and entirely innocuous article he wrote for a left-wing American magazine I’m sure you’ve heard of or read. It wasn’t enough for them that his article wasn’t anti-Hezbollah. It also was not pro-Hezbollah. The party line was not toed.

During the July 2006 war in Northern Israel and South Lebanon, Beirut-based Time magazine reporter Chris Allbritton wrote the following on his blog: “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”

Reporter Charles Levinson wasn’t particularly impressed with them last August. “My experience with Hezbollah this week has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth,” he wrote on his blog Conflict Blotter. “I had heard this from other journalist friends who have recently returned from Lebanon, but discovered it for myself this week: their interaction with the press borders on fascist.”

You’ll notice that Allbritton and Levinson are speaking both for themselves and other journalists. Hezbollah didn’t single me out. Nor did Hezbollah single out Allbritton and Levinson. Despite their reputation for being media-savvy, the obstruction, harassment, and bullying of journalists is Hezbollah policy. Access is a meager carrot next to all that.

Some of us resist. Many do not. Some, like Chomsky and Finkelstein, don’t even have to. Michael Young is right to draw attention to those with access who will not call Hezbollah liars when they clearly are lying. It doesn’t matter if they do it to get a bite at the carrot or in fear of the stick.

Read Less

Makes You Miss The Clinton White House

If you thought the Bill Clinton White House was a disorganized, dysfunctional place, it will seem like the model of decorum and efficiency after you read this account of the Hillary Clinton campaign, which is starting to look like a den of thieves. There is a good argument to be made that “experience”–in this case a botched and secretive health care task force and her inability to straighten out her campaign team–should figure greatly in voters’ minds when deciding who will sit in the Oval Office. It is amazing that she has won anything with this gang, and it’s even more remarkable that she has tolerated, ignored, or been blind to the circus surrounding her. Keep this in mind the next time she berates the cronyism and incompetence of the current administration.

Now that reporters (apparently rooting for Clinton to fail so they could get off the campaign trail?) have delivered some powerful evidence, let’s see if the Obama team is nimble enough to make the argument that he’s the competent one.

If you thought the Bill Clinton White House was a disorganized, dysfunctional place, it will seem like the model of decorum and efficiency after you read this account of the Hillary Clinton campaign, which is starting to look like a den of thieves. There is a good argument to be made that “experience”–in this case a botched and secretive health care task force and her inability to straighten out her campaign team–should figure greatly in voters’ minds when deciding who will sit in the Oval Office. It is amazing that she has won anything with this gang, and it’s even more remarkable that she has tolerated, ignored, or been blind to the circus surrounding her. Keep this in mind the next time she berates the cronyism and incompetence of the current administration.

Now that reporters (apparently rooting for Clinton to fail so they could get off the campaign trail?) have delivered some powerful evidence, let’s see if the Obama team is nimble enough to make the argument that he’s the competent one.

Read Less




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