Friday, January 29, 2016

Things are not what they seem

Despite the advent of the internet and smart devices, we are still as enamored as ever with titles.  Compound this deference to assumed legitimacy and expertise with a decided lack of willingness to do even the most basic fact-checking (despite living in the "information age") and we get the following;

Exhibit A:  Vice Admiral Ted "Twig" Branch has been barred from reading, seeing or hearing classified information since November 2013!  As bad as that sounds, it is actually a lot worse since Vice Adm. Branch happens to be the US Navy's intelligence chief!  The admiral is the focus of a Dept of Justice investigation which was supposed to be quickly over.  The US Navy thought it prudent to suspend the admiral's access to classified information pending the outcome of the investigation.  However, no charges have been brought but neither has Vice Adm. Branch been cleared.  Rather than go through the appointment process to find a new chief of intelligence, the US Navy has left Vice Adm. in place.

You would think the chief of intelligence for any organization would have access to any and all of the information collected and analyzed by his staff but you would be wrong.  I cannot imagine how one is supposed to be the "spymaster" over some 55,000 Navy personnel (including the US Navy cybersecurity) yet is not allowed to see, hear or read any classified information.

Who is directing their efforts?  How are the efforts of the US Navy intelligence to be coordinated with the other service intelligence efforts if their chief can't even sit in the same meetings?  What in the value of any intelligence assessments now from the US Navy when they leave a flag officer in place who is utterly powerless to do his basic task of oversight?

Exhibit B:  Fox News has been making headlines more for its feud between Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump than about its actually news department.  But what really should be catching more attention is the matter concerning one Wayne Simmons.  Mr. Simmons was up until last March a Fox News "expert" on intelligence and foreign affairs.  HIs background was both impressive and mysterious, he was often simply referred to as a "former CIA operative".  He was supposed to have been a deep-cover operative, recruited by the CIA while still working for the US Navy.  Mr. Simmons had become a member of a panel of military experts for Fox that regularly commented on world events.  Turns out Mr. Simmons was a fraud.  He never was a "CIA operative", in fact he never worked for the CIA at all.  Now Mr. Simmons is facing federal charges and if convicted will spend some time in prison.

How did a news organization such as Fox fail to do some simple fact-checking?  With all of those reporters they didn't have anyone who could make a phone call to the CIA just to see if the guy was legit?  So what the hell else hasn't Fox and the other news networks failed to fact-check?

Exhibits A and B should cause us to be ever-vigilant whenever we hear things like "credible sources are reporting a threat" or "experts warn of the dangers of".  Who exactly are these sources and experts? In the case of Simmons, he was taught as an expert yet even a simple check by the human resources department should have sent up a red flag.  Vice Adm. Branch is an expert and holds the position yet an investigation has removed his access to the very information has is supposed to be in charge of.  These are not isolated cases, just ones that have made the headlines in the last  few days.

It is important to keep these stories in mind whenever we hear about "credible threats" or "imminent attack".  We have no idea who is making these calls nor what information they used to draw this conclusion.  I've written before about the dependency of intelligence agencies of today to rely extensively on information collected by sensors and algorithms. Analysts then are making assessments and conclusions based on the assumption that the data they are using is correct.  The end-user (inlacing the general public) assumes that those analysts are all Jack Ryan, when in fact they may be more Stan Smith.

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