Washington Desk February 2002

Councils of War

Military spinoffs have transformed civilian life. The momentum right now may be running in the other direction

There is no mistaking the excitement in Washington when world news originates here. Through the second Clinton Administration it was easy to think that a drive down Highway 101 in the San Francisco Bay area brought one closer to the real centers of power— Oracle, Intel, Cisco—than a drive along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol. In Silicon Valley and Seattle the technology industry's leaders talked about the "withering away of the state," and in Washington the arrival of technology-driven prosperity was the central fact of political life.

However distant that seems now, the corrective reaction is, perhaps inevitably, going too far. I may be biased from having spent several years in Seattle and San Francisco before returning last summer to Washington. But now that the state is back, I am struck by the assumption here that if there is truly significant technology at the moment, it is the kind the military has used in Afghanistan. During the weeks when Taliban forces were collapsing, I did see three applications of technology with important economic, political, and even terrorism-related implications. Each was plain old civilian technology.

In one case the technology is e-mail, which has made possible the "open-source intelligence" movement. For decades diplomats and soldiers have bitterly joked that most important international secrets are likely to show up in the newspaper before they make their way through classified channels. Obviously, governments can still keep secrets. An illustration: three months after the terrorist attacks the Federal Aviation Administration was still enforcing strict "no-fly zones"—ones forbidden to private noncommercial aircraft—over three cities. Two were the terrorists' targets: Washington, the political capital, and New York, the financial capital. The third was ... Boston. Not San Francisco, capital of the technology industry; not Los Angeles, capital of America's image-making industry; not Chicago, capital of exposed skyscrapers. I asked Steven Brown, the FAA official in charge of airspace, why Boston? Because the planes that hit New York took off there? He said, essentially, If you knew what we know, you'd understand. What he actually said was "The vulnerabilities in Boston, those known to the public and others, are unique." Until we do know what he knows, there's no choice but to take it on faith. Maybe this is where Dick Cheney has been.

But the strictures secrecy requires can make it hard for armies or security units to get full, timely information in emergencies. One solution is to circulate non-secret information. In the mid-1980s the retired Air Force colonel John Boyd attracted adherents, especially in the Marine Corps, with his view that "fast feedback" loops were the key to military success. That is, the army that could observe and react to its opponents' movements the fastest would be the most likely to prevail. A young Marine captain named G. I. Wilson drew from Boyd's work the idea that the military should look for information as widely as possible. "It takes both unclassified open source resources and classified intelligence to win in today's information age," Wilson wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1995, with Major Frank Bunkers.

In practice "open-source resources" means what the best foreign correspondents and embassy political officers have always tried to keep abreast of, but on a bigger scale: reports in local papers, sudden changes in what's available in stores, snippets from the radio. Over the past decade Wilson and his colleagues have set up several electronic networks. The largest, called Access Intelligence (AI), connects hundreds of people in the defense, intelligence, law-enforcement, commercial, and academic worlds. It works like a normal list server or electronic mailing list: one person posts a message and everyone else receives it as e-mail moments later. The AI network often produces a hundred or more messages a day; recipients quickly scan the titles for subjects they are interested in. Although many AI members have security clearance, the material posted is strictly "open source"—publicly available news reports or personal observations. That way the question of violating security rules won't come up.

AI has proved a valuable supplement to the slower, more controlled channels of official communication—much as cell phones did for many civilians on September 11. For instance, Rick Forno, a computer expert who helps to operate the AI list, was in a building overlooking the Pentagon; he posted real-time reports about areas of damage and unfolding events before some of them appeared on CNN. Wilson, who is now a colonel based at Camp Pendleton, has relayed messages to ships' crews during (pre-Afghanistan) combat operations. "I can tell them what's being reported here, and they compare it to what they are seeing," he told me recently.

Open-source intelligence "frequently appears less valuable than classified information because it does not carry the classification mystique," Wilson wrote in 1995. "Because it appears less valuable, it is shared more freely and used more. The irony is by sharing it more the information's value and usefulness increases." Within the Pentagon, Wilson told me, reports that were posted on AI have been stamped with classified markings and used in briefings. An old trick of John Boyd's, Wilson said, was to get data into circulation by leaving it in "the head."

Still, the AI network doesn't get respect. "It's not popular with the intelligence community, because it doesn't cost anything," Wilson told me. (Forno and Bill Feinbloom, a former Green Beret, run it as volunteers, and it is free to all users.) "But you've got about three hundred people acting as individual sensors, from a whole variety of backgrounds. I may say something that seems commonsensical to a Marine, but someone who's a physicist will come back and say no, it can't have worked that way."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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