Now, be thankful I work for a company that embodies the value of a spirit of generosity, because when I read that, I wasn't thinking very generous things. In fact, it is precisely the mission of the NCTC to connect dots. Right? I mean, who DIDN'T know that? Really? Who didn't know that?
Let's assume, for the moment, that the law does not give the director of NCTC, Michael Leiter, the "primary responsibility within the United States Government for conducting net assessments of terrorist threats," which it does.
The NCTC was set up precisely to solve the dot-connecting problem that the 9/11 Commission identified. The intelligence committee knows this. Congress knows this. The American public knows this. And the NCTC ... well, the NCTC is parsing language.
An intelligence official said that the 14 missed clues could easily be read as the 14 chances the intelligence community had to connect the dots and prevent the bombing attempt -- and failed. Fourteen chances!
It is infuriating to hear such a thing. It seems so obvious to those outside the circle that practicing responsibility and accountability would go along way toward solving the communications issues that prevent a piece of data from getting from point A to point C, which might be the terrorist watch list. There will always be human judgments intervening, and the SSCI report points out how plenty were well-intentioned but ultimately mistaken.
But what the report really revealed, without making the conclusion explicit, is that every entity in the IC seemed to be going out of its way to avoid responsibility for making the call. For picking up the phone, stepping on someone's toes, and saying, "You know what ... something doesn't feel right about this guy." For sending e-mail after e-mail to people in other agencies urging them to check and recheck databases. For making TACTICAL decisions about immediate intelligence priorities.
(Within the past few months, DNI Dennis Blair has set up an analytical cell within the NCTC to evaluate tactical intelligence. Finally!)
The lack of a sense of urgency -- or what John Brennan, the president's chief counter-terrorism adviser calls "pulse" -- is astonishing and disheartening.
Not long ago, I asked a senior intelligence official to estimate the number of separate databases regularly used by entities that conduct counterterrorism missions. He thought for a moment, and said, "About 50." Do these databases talk to one another? Most of them don't. They don't interface. They don't update in real time. Many of them are sealed off from most analysts because of security classifications and turf wars. Yes, there are meetings and task forces designed to facilitate "interoperability."
But to those of us watching someone nearly bring down a plane, no one takes responsibility for making sure, even at the risk to his or her own career, that the damn bits in one server talk to the damn bits in another. Michael Leiter himself is well regarded by the intelligence community. He is trying. But the SSCI report finds explicitly that the NCTC "Failed to Fulfill Its Mission."
That is a damning indictment of a lot of people. It's an indictment of the entire structure of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NCTC. It's an indictment of the CIA, which apparently still refuses to share key counterterrorism information with the NCTC. It's an indictment of Congress, which has never properly empowered the Director of National Intelligence. It's an indictment of Barack Obama's national security staff, which did not appreciate the magnitude of the problem until this incident. It's an indictment of a culture that still exists among the senior executives at many agencies. These seniors are intelligence professionals, so they are able to mouth phrases like "need to share" and "work together" but when they get back to their desks, they're back into their silos.
It should worry Congress and those concerned about intelligence that the IC culture is broken.
The SSCI gave its report to the White House and the intelligence agencies two months ago, and an official told me last night that the the IC had made progress implementing many of its regulations. The new budget contains more authority for the DNI to make technical decisions more quickly, which should help with the database issues. A DNI official said that Blair "accepted" blame and is making necessary changes.
The report doesn't provide too much detail on intelligence collection, which is par for the course. That stuff is sensitive. But reading through the lines, it appears as if the SSCI wanted to send another message about overreyling on electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) ... and not so much on finding, verifying, vetting and running down nuggets of information from human sources. Human sources are very sensitive and it is very hard to share information from them without disclosing their identities. And many younger IC analysts are trained to read through data, rather than to evaluate HUMINT, much less evaluate it in the context of everything else.
A few days after the Christmas Day incident, President Obama brought his intelligence cabinet together in the Situation Room and said, "I could fire each and every one of you." He did not do that. Instead he said that he would assess each agency's performance over the next several months. Everyone, essentially, was put on notice. Obama's reluctance to fire someone, particularly his director of national intelligence, grated on some in Congress, but they understood the difficulty: firing Adm. Blair would be a gesture, would make a dedicated patriot a scapegoat, and would compound the problem, not help solve it.
No one in government wants to be the DNI because everyone believes that it lacks one of the two fundamental ingredients for power in D.C.: access. But the DNI has plenty of access; it's an open debate about his authority over budgets and programs. Some Blair agonists believe that he hasn't used the power he has and has focused on the wrong priorities. Instead of fighting with the CIA over covert ops, he should have fought with the CIOs of the community over information sharing. Instead of expanding the DNI's 4,000-person staff, he should have pared it down to its essentials, reducing the number of decision makers and streamlining the analytic process. Blair's staff would disagree; they say that budget authority is but one ingredient. The other is the full backing of the president. And there is a perception in Blair's inner circle that the White House hasn't always been there for Denny Blair.
When the National Security Agency began its "Stellar Wind" domestic eavesdropping programs, perhaps the most tragic legacy of that decision was the shame that many analysts at NSA felt upon the program's disclosure. These analysts had spent their entire lives working off the assumption that the NSA does not spy on Americans. That spying on Americans is wrong. When the NSA began to spy on Americans, however carefully they did it, it would not be irresponsible to say that a large number of the people who do their jobs at NSA very well began to question whether their job was worth doing. This is not to say that the policymakers who felt compelled to create the program were wrong. It is to say simply that policies have endogenous consequences as well.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
President-elect Donald Trump has committed a sharp breach of protocol—one that underscores just how weird some important protocols are.
Updated on December 2 at 7:49 p.m.
It’s hardly remembered now, having been overshadowed a few months later on September 11, but the George W. Bush administration’s first foreign-policy crisis came in the South China Sea. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese jet near Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese jet was killed, and the American plane was forced to land and its crew was held hostage for 11 days, until a diplomatic agreement was worked out. Sino-American relations remained tense for some time.
Unlike Bush, Donald Trump didn’t need to wait to be inaugurated to set off a crisis in the relationship. He managed that on Friday, with a phone call to the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen. It’s a sharp breach with protocol, but it’s also just the sort that underscores how weird and incomprehensible some important protocols are.
A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.
On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.” The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship. Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
How much do you really need to say to put a sentence together?
Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out. It’s easy to think that what one’s native language puts words to, and how, reflects the fundamentals of reality.
But languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do?
The Daily Show host was measured, respectful, and challenging in his 26-minute conversation with TheBlaze pundit Tomi Lahren.
Tomi Lahren, the 24-year-old host of Tomi on the conservative cable network TheBlaze, feels like a pundit created by a computer algorithm, someone who primarily exists to say something provocative enough to jump to the top of a Facebook feed. She’s called the Black Lives Matter movement “the new KKK,” partly blamed the 2015 Chattanooga shootings on President Obama’s “Muslim sensitivity,” and declared Colin Kaepernick a “whiny, indulgent, attention-seeking cry-baby.” At a time when such charged political rhetoric feels increasingly like the norm, Lahren stands at one end of a widening gulf—which made her appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Wednesday night all the more fascinating.
In his first year at The Daily Show, Noah has struggled to distinguish himself in an outrage-driven late-night universe. He has sometimes seemed too flip about the failures of the country’s news media, something his predecessor Jon Stewart made a perennial target. Noah’s 26-minute conversation with Lahren, though, posted in its entirety online, set the kind of tone that Stewart frequently called for throughout his tenure. The segment never turned into a screaming match, but it also avoided platitudes and small-talk. Lahren was unapologetic about her online bombast and leaned into arguments that drew gasps and boos from Noah’s audience, but the host remained steadfastly evenhanded throughout. If Noah was looking for a specific episodethat would help him break out in his crowded field, he may have finally found it.
A single dose of magic mushrooms can make people with severe anxiety and depression better for months, according to a landmark pair of new studies.
The doom hung like an anvil over her head. In 2012, a few years after Carol Vincent was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she was waiting to see whether her cancer would progress enough to require chemotherapy or radiation. The disease had already done a number on her, inflating lymph nodes on her chin, collar bones, and groin. She battled her symptoms while running her own marketing business. To top it all off, she was going through menopause.
“Life is just pointless stress, and then you die,” she thought. “All I’m doing is sitting here waiting for all this shit to happen.”
When one day at an intersection she mulled whether it would be so bad to get hit by a car, she realized her mental health was almost as depleted as her physical state.
How childhood memories shape us, even after we've forgotten them
The slippery baby in the plastic blue tub cringes when her daddy, holding a drippy orange washcloth, leaks a bit of water in her face. He is bathing her for the first time. “Make sure you get the folds in her neck, where milk hides,” I say, video recording the scene on my iPhone. We are new parents delighting in and stumbling through this moment.
The three-year-old girl with pink paint-chipped toenails watches my iPhone video of that day when Daddy bathed her for the first time. She cringes as she sees her smaller self cringe. My daughter requested this clip out of more than 400, all starring her, most of which she has watched before. We are snuggled up on the sofa. Her eyes fixate on the feet of the squirming infant on screen. She knows she was once that newborn. “Babies don’t get nail polish,” she says, looking down to admire her toddler feet. “I’m a big girl now.”
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story presented an economic modeling assumption—the .01 chance of human extinction per year—as a vetted scholarly estimate. Following a correction from the Global Priorities Project, the text below has been updated.
Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. A new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation urges us to take them seriously.
The nonprofit began its annual report on “global catastrophic risk” with a startling provocation: If figures often used to compute human extinction risk are correct, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
A few weeks ago, I was trying to call Cuba. I got an error message—which, okay, international telephone codes are long and my fingers are clumsy—but the phone oddly started dialing again before I could hang up. A voice answered. It had a British accent and it was reading: “...the moon was shining brightly. The Martians had taken away the excavating-machine…”
Apparently, I had somehow called into an audiobook of The War of the Worlds. Suspicious of my clumsy fingers, I double-checked the number. It was correct (weird), but I tried the number again, figuring that at worst, I’d learn what happened after the Martians took away the excavating machine. This time, I got the initial error message and the call disconnected. No Martians.
Multispectral scanning reveals ancient text on the fabled Antikythera Mechanism, and suggests the machine was a mechanical textbook.
It was, as they say, a dark and stormy night. The passengers on the enormous ship probably didn’t realize they were in danger until the moment their vessel slammed into the cliffs of Antikythera, Greece.
As the ship sank and broke apart, its remnants drifted downward to a seismic terrace some 160 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. More than 2,000 years would pass before fishermen collecting sponges, in the year 1900, discovered the wreckage by accident. Divers then spent a year at the site, where they recovered hundreds of works of art, jewels, and life-sized marble and bronze statues. But they also discovered something they couldn’t explain: A bizarre clockwork-like piece of technology, in the form of a disintegrating lump of corroded bronze, unlike anything known in the ancient world. It come to be known as the Antikythera Mechanism, and it remains one of the most intriguing objects in the history of technology.