Friday, January 12, 2018

The real “Lions led by donkeys”

Historians have long since demolished the myth that the immense casualty rolls on the Western Front were due to the stupidity of the British generals. (cf. World War One: Getting past the myths).

If any organization deserves to be described as “lions led by donkeys” it is the British Special Operations Executive in World War Two. Tasked by Churchill with “setting Europe ablaze” after the British army was thrown off the Continent in 1940, SOE combined awe-inspiring bravery in the front ranks with arrogant blundering on the part of the top leadership.

Sir John Keegan:

SOE was inefficient as an organization, unnecessarily dangerous to work for, ineffective in its pursuit of its aims, and counter-productive in the results achieved.
The SOE networks in France and the Netherlands were penetrated by Nazi counterintelligence. London headquarters ignored every warning and continued to send agents into the waiting arms of the Gestapo.

Keegan argues that SOE was doomed to failure because liberal Britain led by a romantic Churchill could not comprehend the brutal efficiency of the Nazi security regime or the willingness of millions of Europeans to accommodate the occupiers. (Nora Inayat Khan, for instance, was captured because a French woman wanted revenge on a romantic rival.)

Despite the many courageous acts by SOE officers and their French allies, the actual results were at best mixed, perhaps negative. For all the daring acts of sabotage carried out, SOE and the Resistance rarely were more than an inconvenience to the Wehrmacht.

The best evidence for this is the fact that in June 1944 none of the sixty German divisions in France were assigned to internal security/anti-partisan duties. The German and French police forces handled this role and were effective in it.

MI6 -- Britain’s foreign intelligence service was a staunch opponent of SOE. They had good reasons to be. While the sabotage operations had little effect on the Wehrmacht’s effectiveness, they did draw intense police attention. This, in turn, limited the ability of MI6 agents to collect and transmit the intelligence that was needed by Allied armies after D-Day.

SOE leadership did excel in two things.

They were quite adept at public relations. The operations of the once secret organization were quickly immortalized in books and films. When necessary they were prepared to falsify the record in order to create successes where reality provided only failure and disaster. (The head of the French section, Maurice Buckmaster, worked as a PR agent for Ford Motors before and after his stint in Special Operations.)

Second, SOE did a bang up job burying the true history of their wartime activities. Records were destroyed; others were sealed for decades. The official history was careful to omit inconvenient facts. When all else failed, SOE and the political leaders of Britain simply lied and dissembled.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The problem of the press in five tweets

Item one:

A propagandist like Willi Muenzenberg could say exactly the same thing. And that’s a problem.

Item two:
Fire and Fury is a big story, guys, because me and my buddies want it to be a big story!

If the MSM wants to regain some credibility, maybe they should stop relating everything to a kid’s book.

D.C. Treats Midnight Release of Wolff’s Book on Trump Like ‘Harry Potter’ Event
Item three:
The Stephen Miller story is one of the most absurd things I’ve seen in the reporting of this tabloid-gossip-masquerading-as-Very-Important-Journalism.

Stephen Miller is many things; stupid is not one of them. This can be easily verified by checking out the columns he wrote as an undergraduate at Duke defending the lacrosse players during the rape hoax.

As K. C. Johnson noted:

Miller's commentary, along with that of Kristin Butler, has given the Chronicle the best op-ed coverage of all aspects of the case of any newspaper in the country. It is something for which a college newspaper should be extraordinarily proud.
Miller was a frequent warm-up speaker speaker at Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign. And who can forget the epic press conference when he owned CNN’s Jim Acosta and reduced that “reporter” to reading second-rate doggerel off of his smart phone.

Well, apparently, Comcast/NBC’s ace reporter Katy Tur can forget.

As old gloomy Arthur was want to say “Intellect is invisible to the man who has none.”

Remember the old days when the MSM maintained that they were trust-worthy because they had layers of editors and fact-checkers? Now we have establishment reporters endorsing palpably absurd stories from a writer with a checkered history of truthfulness.

What Caused Michael Wolff’s Strange And Provably False Attack On Stephen Miller?

Item four:
Here is our thoroughly modern journalism-- equal parts Truthiness and a fervent “I want to believe”.

This concerns CNN’s resident media critic, Trump scourge, amateur psychologist, and Jon Stewart fan boy.
Stelter’s concern is not that Wolff’s gossipy opus falls short of the journalistic standards Stelter purports to espouse. No, his concern is that the errors of Fire and Fury will undercut the anti-Trump message.

Gee, I wonder why?

CNN’s War On Trump Is Going Swimmingly
A long time ago I asked this question:

Is Brian Stelter clever and dishonest or is he stupid and completely lacking in self-awareness?
Turns out he’s just a grubby little careerist doing his best to please boss man Jeff Zucker.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Why the Pearl Harbor attack succeeded

Good discussion on the unavoidable conceptual limitations of intelligence analysis that made surprise highly likely on 7 December 1941.

Pearl Harbor's Overlooked Answer

Accurately assessing a potential enemy threat hinges on one’s appreciation of the enemy’s capabilities. If you don’t know what your adversary can do, it is nearly impossible to predict likely operational targets or ways to forestall attacks. In the case of the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. Navy had no real inkling of Japanese carrier warfare capabilities and therefore could not accurately assess likely operational targets. Not only that, but Japan’s carrier force—known as Kido Butai —was evolving so quickly on the eve of the Pacific war that almost no naval intelligence organ would have been able to track, internalize, and gauge those capabilities. An all-encompassing answer to the reasons for Japan’s surprise is elusive. But examining the extraordinarily rapid development of Japan’s carrier force in late 1941 reveals a stark picture of the U.S. Navy’s odds of being able to understand the type of foe it was going up against.

The most important facet of the Japanese attack—the thing that made it so stunning—was the sheer number of aircraft involved. The Japanese did not just assault Pearl Harbor; they simultaneously hit every major airfield across the breadth of Oahu—Ewa Mooring Mast Field, Naval Air Station Pearl Harbor, Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Wheeler Field, Hickam Field, and others—to remove American airpower as a threat to Kido Butai ’s carriers. Simultaneously hitting so many targets required massive numbers of planes—183 and 171 in the two attack waves. That was unprecedented.

In fact, Kido Butai was a truly revolutionary weapon system for its time because it embodied the conceptual leap from single-carrier to coordinated multicarrier operations. Kido Butai ’s ascendancy would last only about six months before it was permanently mauled at the Battle of Midway, but during that time there was nothing else like it. The U.S. Navy would not acquire a similar sophistication until roughly late 1943—more than two years later
As Hayek said: "Without a theory, the facts are silent." And the US Navy did not have the theory that could have lead analysts to "connect the dots" in such away as to predict a carrier strike on Pearl Harbor.

The author covers this ground here is a pretty good lecture for those youngins' who prefer to take three times as long to learn half as much.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Intense media scrutiny is reserved for Enemies of the Party

Hollywood royalty giggle at child rape. And the press does not care.

Enemies get deep dives and heavy-duty investigative reporting.

But only enemies.

A naif might expect that this story from 2013 would get a re-visit in the post-Weinstein era.

Sacred Scroll: Transcript of the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Chat Where They Hashed out Raiders of the Lost Ark

George Lucas: I was thinking that this old guy could have been the mentor. He could have known this little girl when she was just a kid. Had an affair with her when she was eleven.
Lawrence Kasdan: And he was forty-two.
George Lucas: He hasn’t seen her in twelve years. Now she’s twenty-two. It’s a real strange relationship.
Steven Spielberg: She had better be older than twenty-two.
George Lucas: He’s thirty-five, and he knew her ten years ago when he was twenty-five and she was only twelve. It would be amusing to make her slightly young at the time.
Steven Spielberg: And promiscuous. She came onto him.
George Lucas: Fifteen is right on the edge. I know it’s an outrageous idea, but it is interesting. Once she’s sixteen or seventeen it’s not interesting anymore.
To George Lucas, the origins of the Indiana Jones-Marion relationship is not "interesting anymore" if she was sixteen.

And note, Spielberg was ready with the excuse of child predators every where: "she wanted it."

Sure it's an old story, but the internet is forever and everywhere. It's not as if reporters would have to trek to some remote archive to read the transcript.

And it is "newsy" given the flood of revelations out of Hollywood. Plus there's a new Star Wars movie out and Spielberg has a new movie in the theaters.

Why transformation efforts fail (redux)

From Bain and Co.:

When the Front Line Should Lead a Major Transformation

A Bain & Company survey of 250 large companies executing transformations found that only 12% actually achieved what they set out to accomplish. Some 38% failed by a wide margin, capturing less than half of the value they initially targeted. And 50% settled for a significant dilution of results. The disturbing implication: Over time, too many organizations unwittingly wind up accepting mediocre performance.
I've blogged about this before:

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable I

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable II

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable III

Waiting for our Clausewitz I

Waiting for our Clausewitz II

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Old spy cases never die

"There's no statute of limitations on counterespionage, none at all."
William Hood, Cry Spy
The British government as released a trove of files that bear on some old spy cases.

The Unbelievable Story of How the CIA Helped Foil a Russian Spy Ring in London
Newly released documents reveal a real-life plot that seems ripped from a Cold War novel.

It’s an interesting story that provides a look inside intelligence operations during the Cold War.

The Portland spy case was another black eye for the British Security services.

Embarrassingly for MI5, the agency discovered that Houghton had previously been on its radar and it had made serious errors about him. In 1956, MI5 had been asked for security concerns about Houghton working at the UDE and was even sent a report from Houghton’s wife warning that he was revealing classified information. At the time, MI5’s vetting section had erroneously concluded, without serious investigation, that Mrs. Houghton was claiming this out of spite because their marriage was breaking up a striking failure for MI5.
In truth, the Soviets displayed something resembling contempt for British counter-intelligence at this time.

After their arrest, the Krogers’ fingerprints were sent to the FBI, who established their real identity as Morris and Lona Cohen, known to be two of the Kremlin’s most important underground assets in the Cold War. The Cohens were American-born KGB illegals in the United States, who had operated with an array of key underground Soviet agents, including the celebrated illegal William Fisher, who lived under an alias, “Rudolf Abel.” They had also acted as KGB couriers, passing top-secret intelligence on U.S. atomic research from agents including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. After the Rosenbergs’ arrest, followed by their trial and execution for espionage in the U.S. in 1952, the KGB spirited the Cohens out of the United States, slipping through the FBI’s hands. Now-available Soviet intelligence material shows the KGB gave them New Zealand passports. In 1954 the Cohens arrived in Britain to begin their new life, and espionage career, as the Krogers.
The KGB obtained the fake passports from Paddy Costelloa New Zealand diplomat who was a graduate of Cambridge University where he ran in the same communist circles as Phlby, Burgess, et. al.

FBI agent Robert Lamphere noted the Zelig-like propinquity of the Cohen/Krogers:

A Philby-network man issued passports for the Cohens, who were involved with Colonel Abel, Gordon Lonsdale, and possibly with the Rosenbergs.
Sending the Cohens to Britain seems highly risky on two counts.

1. They were directly associated with at least three* spy networks known to the US/UK security services: The Cambridge Ring, the Rosenbergs, and Rudolph Abel. If the FBI or MI5 followed the right thread from any of these cases they might track down the Cohens. That in turn, could jeopardized high-value operations currently underway in Britain.

Gordon Lonsdale/Konon Molody was a decidedly high-value asset. According to the Soviet archives, he was the first Soviet “illegal” to operate in Great Britain since the 1930s.

* Lona Cohen worked with a fourth network that stole atomic secrets in New Mexico. However, the FBI did not learn of this network for decades.

2. If captured, the Cohens had many secrets to bargain with should they put self-preservation ahead of ideological loyalty.

Yet the KGB sent them to London to work near the center of a majr, on-going, and prouctive operation. This suggests that the Soviets were confident that MI5 was too inept to be a danger to the Cohens and other traitors ( the polite Narrative) or that the KGB/GRU had sources within MI5 who could protect the spies. (The Chapman Pincher theory).

The Soviets usually took great pains to protect their agents and to ensure operational security. For instance, when Ursula Kuczynski Hamburger Beurton (SONJA) was sent to Moscow for training, she was ordered to leave her son behind. Her superiors feared that the boy would learn Russian words which might someday betray SONIA’s cover story that she was merely a Jewish refugee from Germany.

When Walter Krivitsky defected and was interrogated by MI5, the Soviets ceased all contacted with their Cambridge spies until they were sure that those agents were not compromised by the revelations. The same thing happened when Elizabeth Bentley went to the FBI in 1945.

The Soviet intelligence agencies were usually patient and careful. So it seems significant that they were willing to put the Cohens to work in London so quickly.

And they were not wrong. MI5 did not break the case (despite their subsequent claims to Parliament and the press). The Portland spies were discovered thanks to the defection of a Polish intelligence officer, Michael Goleniewski to CIA.

To add insult to injury, MI5 even accepted “Gordon Lonsdale” as a true identity until an FBI investigation revealed that the Canadian Gordon Lonsdale was actually the Russian Konon Molody.


First rule of counterintelligence: never say never

Who will watch the Watchers?

Why Comey-Mueller fan-boys are more dangerous than Trump

Debra Saunders:

Bundy Mistrial Highlights Why the Right Distrusts the Feds

As Washington conservatives question whether partisan FBI officials working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller have stacked the deck against President Donald Trump, a criminal case in Las Vegas points to the sort of federal prosecutorial abuses that give the right cause for paranoia.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial in the infamous 2014 Bunkerville standoff case against rancher Cliven Bundy, his sons Ammon and Ryan, and co-defendant Ryan Payne, on the grounds that federal prosecutors improperly withheld evidence.
Here's a video from 2014 so this is not a recent issue:

Book TV

The author's a good follow on Twitter.

The author's book:

Friday, December 29, 2017

The limits of expertise

Great article from Farnam Street":
The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled

Understanding and staying within their circle of competence is even more important for specialists. A specialist who is outside of their circle of competence and doesn’t know it is incredibly dangerous.

Philip Tetlock performed an 18-year study to look at the quality of expert predictions. Could people who are considered specialists in a particular area forecast the future with greater accuracy than a generalist? Tetlock tracked 284 experts from a range of disciplines, recording the outcomes of 28,000 predictions.

The results were stark: predictions coming from generalist thinkers were more accurate. Experts who stuck to their specialized areas and ignored interdisciplinary knowledge faired worse. The specialists tended to be more confident in their erroneous predictions than the generalists. The specialists made definite assertions — which we know from probability theory to be a bad idea. It seems that generalists have an edge when it comes to Bayesian updating, recognizing probability distributions, and long-termism.
As Tetlock’s research shows, for us to understand how the world works, it’s not enough to home in on one tiny area for decades. We need to pull ideas from everywhere, remaining open to having our minds changed, always looking for disconfirming evidence. Joseph Tussman put it this way: “If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”


Half-blind experts and the straw men they create

The Hive mind revisited

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Luke 2:8-14

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Victorians at their best

Mark Pattison's name calls to mind a whole lost world of Victorian learning. Its locale ranged widely in character and location: from the great domed reading rooms of the British Museum, lined with its hundreds of calf-bound books, to James Murray's Scriptorium. lined with its thousands of paper slips bearing quotations. But its inhabitants were more uniform: the bald, bearded, energetic men of letters who founded literary societies, created workingmen's colleges, taught young women to row, edited arcane texts, and wrote essays for the common reader more learned than most of what appears in modern scholarly journals. We still batten upon the rich fruits of their industry: The New English Dictionary, the Dictionary of National Biography, and the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Anthony Grafton, World Made of Words


We’d be better off if we were a little more Victorian

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The state of the war colleges

This episode of midrats looks at the current state of our various war colleges. Well worth a listen.
Episode 411: Making a Better War College 11/19 by Midrats | Military Podcasts:
What is the best way to hone the intellectual edge of the officers who will lead our Navy? How do we gather our best minds and ideas together to best prepare our Navy for the next war? How is our constellation of war colleges structured, how did it get to where it is today, and how do we modernize it to meet todays challenges? We've put together a small panel for today's show to address this and related issues.

Dr. James Holmes makes an interesting point about strategy: "Strategy is about forming good habits." Critically, in this he includes both "habits of mind" AND "habits of action." Clausewitz would probably agree. Business professor Michael Porter might not.

Waiting for our Clausewitz


Educating military leaders

“Wargaming in the Classroom”

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Wrong turn on the way to utopia

An impassioned and astute piece by Nicholas Carr

The world wide cage

Technology promised to set us free. Instead it has trained us to withdraw from the world into distraction and dependency.
I couldn't help but think of G.K. Chesterton when I read this:

What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.
Over a century ago GKC was warning against this temptation in Heretics:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing that is really narrow is the clique....The men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment like that which exists in hell.
[Modern man] says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; he he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. he is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals-- of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself
On a side note, I had not heard of "innocent fraud" before but it is a useful concept.

Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘innocent fraud’. He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. ‘It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,’ Galbraith wrote in 1999. ‘It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.’ The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud.

In some way, the modern MSM, with its obsession with Narratives and hot takes, exists primarily to create and perpetuate innocent frauds.