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.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
An African American grandmother’s conservative critique of her community goes viral, picking up where Bill Cosby left off.
Over the weekend, at least 7 million people watched Peggy Hubbard, a black grandmother, excoriate the Black Lives Matter movement in an emotional video posted to her Facebook page. 71,000 people liked the post. 16,000 people left comments. And discussions like this one on Reddit rippled out across the Internet.
Two breaking news events prompted the U.S. Navy veteran, who grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, to speak out and share her feelings. In the first, two white police officers killed Mansur Ball-Bey, a young black man. Police say that he tried to flee out the back door of the house where they were serving a warrant and that he pointed a stolen gun at them before they shot, a narrative that his family disputes. In the second news story, 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden was killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting as she lay in her mother’s bed. The perpetrator is unknown.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.
Three comics sat around a café table in the chilly atrium of the Minneapolis Convention Center, talking about how to create the cleanest possible set. “Don’t do what’s in your gut,” Zoltan Kaszas said. “Better safe than sorry,” Chinedu Unaka offered. Feraz Ozel mused about the first time he’d ever done stand-up: three minutes on giving his girlfriend herpes and banging his grandma. That was out.
This was not a case of professionals approaching a technical problem as an intellectual exercise. Money was riding on the answer. They had come to Minneapolis in the middle of a brutal winter for the annual convention of the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), to sell themselves and their comedy on the college circuit. Representatives of more than 350 colleges had come as well, to book comics, musicians, sword swallowers, unicyclists, magicians, hypnotists, slam poets, and every kind of boat act, inspirational speaker, and one-trick pony you could imagine for the next academic year.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”