Counterterrorism Challenges – Pondering Seemingly Unsolvable Problems with Phillip Smyth | Episode 11

The first Covert Contact interview features University of Maryland Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics researcher Phillip Smyth.

Phillip specializes in Shia militias, and we touch on that topic, but most of the interview is spent looking at the big challenges we face in countering terrorism and its sponsors. It’s an interesting conversation that illustrates the dynamic and difficult problems that we continue to face in places like Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain.

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The Senate Torture Report | Episode 10

It is always disheartening when America does not live up to the standards many of us expect and in the adoption and execution of enhanced interrogation we have failed to do that on many levels.

The primary failure is that our elected officials and the people who serve them strayed into territory where most of us instinctively know America does not belong. The failures continued though – there were failures in implementation, failures in oversight, and failures even today as our political class is failing to find a collaborative resolution to this problem that does not further harm American interests. But America, unlike some countries, is dynamic and very much a work in progress. When we stumble, and we do, it is important that we acknowledge our mistakes, make improvements, and continue moving forward.

Hot Wars are ugly terrible things. Cold wars are too. It is only the scale of the ugliness which changes. America has never been able to find morally comfortable ground in the most violent parts of either despite, at times, excelling at both. Perhaps it says something about our struggle to attain the ideal even while the forces that rage against us fully embrace the darkest parts of humanity. That is the most optimistic take on it all but it is also the one I believe. At our best, American’s have a brighter vision of the world than most others, and while we are far from perfect, we do continue to make progress. Hold that up to the world envisioned by our many of our enemies and the contrast is striking. I want it to stay that way.

That is one reason it is important to confront and rethink the practices we put in place after 9/11. Perhaps some of it can be rationalized. Much of it likely not. But either way the systematic abuse of people, even terrible people, is not a machine that we, as a nation, should put into motion. As a realist I can conjure up scenarios where almost anything is justified but I expect those cases to be the exception. When there is a bureaucracy, workforce, documentation, legal findings, and a language to support that abuse the exceptional threatens to become routine.

Some would say that water-boarding, humiliation, threats, sleep deprivation and other enhanced interrogation tactics fall far short of the brutality exhibited by our enemies. That’s true but it does not make widespread adoption of those tactics acceptable. I trust that America is in no rush to match the inhumanity of it’s enemies. Barbarism is growing and if we chose to we could match and exceed the inhumanity of our enemies with the press of a button. But we don’t do that. We take the hard way. We try to avoid unnecessary suffering even at the cost of the lives and limbs of our own. We are different. We are not them. And we should strive to remain that way even if it is the most difficult road to travel.

The release of this report, and the reaction that has followed, is intensely political and partisan. Rather than scramble to score points for their party all Americans should be looking at this and asking if it fits the their vision for their country and if it will help us tackle the growing threat of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Are we doing what is right and are we being effective? If not, we will eventually suffer collectively.

America is a nation that should advance the most optimistic vision for humanity. It should have a firm sense of itself and what is right. No enemy should ever be able to use fear to drive us one inch closer to systematically adopting the extremes that they embrace. We face enemies with no limits, no constraints on the terrible things they can do to advance their cause, but we can beat them without becoming them. In fact, that is the only way that we will win.

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Art in Afghanistan: Francesca Recchia Updates from Kabul | Episode 9

Episode nine focuses on the unusual work of Francesca Recchia. Francesca is an independent researcher and writer who has worked in many challenging places including Iraq, Pakistan, and Palestine. She is currently in Kabul and this episode features several daily updates that I asked her to record shortly after I started this project. Francesca’s work is the kind of activity that so often gets overlooked in the process of rebuilding a nation that has experienced significant conflict but cultural and intellectual pursuits are a direct reflection on the society in which they take place and, in the best of times, have enough influence to transform their environment. In creating a space where art and ideas can be pursued we are giving the best parts of humanity a foothold.

You can read some of Francesca’s work at Muftah.org , follow her on Twitter @kiccovich, read her blog, or support her work by buying her books – The Little Book of Kabul, Picnic in a Minefield, and Devices for Political Action: The Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan

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The Navy SEAL Who Killed Osama bin Laden and the Heroes You’ll Never Know | Episode 8

In episode eight I look at the case of Navy SEAL Rob O’Neill and the culture that lures men and women like him out of the shadows and into a world of fame, ego gratification, and financial reward. I examine the role that military leadership and our culture at large plays in chipping away at the notion of quiet professionalism and share some thoughts about how we can change course. There is also a call from Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics. Phillip shares some thoughts on social media and its impact on national security, politics, and the collection of intelligence.

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Why Daesh’s Social Media Campaign is a Massive Failure | Episode 7

In episode 7 I’m pushing back at the notion that Daesh’s social media visibility equals success. The group might have mastered trolling and they can shoot and edit passable HD video but are these activities going to help them achieve their goals or are they, in fact, undermining themselves with every tweet and every recorded act of brutality? You’ve read the title so I think you know where I’m going with this.

This episode ends with a message from Ambassador Lukman Faily. Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States is an engaging presence on Twitter and I’ve interviewed him twice for Blogs of War. The Ambassador argues that Daesh is a global problem, not just an Iraqi one, and comments on the changes his government is making to address critical internal political and social issues.

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Robots and the Future of Warfare: The Advantage Might Not Lie with the Inventors | Episode 6

In episode 6 I am looking at the evolution of unmanned platforms and speculate about the impact that they could have on warfare. The technology is evolving faster than our appreciation for the complications it will bring so while there will be countless positive benefits there will also unquestionably be a dark side to it all. Smarter systems are better, and spare innocent lives, but does that mean that less ethical actors could exploit less capable platforms to kill indiscriminately? Does that give them an advantage?

Blogs of War contributor William Tucker also called in to the Covert Contact voicemail line and shared some thoughts on how the U.S. intelligence community should be allocating its resources. I close out the episode with a special drone edition of Five to Follow.

The Week’s Five to Follow

@GregoryMcNeal – Professor working in law & public policy and a Forbes magazine contributor. His blog can be found at http://www.forbes.com/sites/gregorymcneal/.

@DIYDrones – The worlds largest RPAS community with over 50,000 members.

@chr1sa – Ex-Wired Editor in Chief, 3D Robotics CEO, DIY Drone founder.

@dronelaws – Brendan M. Schulman is a lawyer who specializes in commercial drone law.

@drunkenpredator – Knowledgeable commentary on drones cloaked in humor.

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Lone Wolf Terrorism and the Importance of Perspective | Episode 5

In episode 5 I take a look at the real impact of lone wolf terror attacks, why ISIS seems to have been more successful than al-Qaeda at motivating these individual actors, and how the average citizen can put these acts of violence in proper perspective. I also briefly touch on the unfortunate role that the media plays in ratcheting up our anxiety. This episode features input from former CIA counterterrorism analyst Aki Peritz, terrorism expert Dr. Max Abrahms (a professor of public policy at Northeastern University), and one other contributor who I know well but who also must remain anonymous.

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What the Attack in Ottawa Teaches Us About Terrorists – And Ourselves | Episode 4

As promised earlier today I recorded brief thoughts about today’s attack. I had originally intended this to be a discussion about a particular type of attack and terrorist strategy but much is still unknown in this case. I decided to save those thoughts for another day. Instead, I look at the contrasts between those who seek to destroy and those who serve. I look at how Canadians responded to this tragedy and why that is important.  The episode closes with a tribute.

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Crypto Wars: Winners, Losers, and the Case for Compromise | Episode 3

This week I’m focusing on a single critical topic – the struggle between privacy advocates and governments over cryptography. This is a sensitive topic and there are a lot of extreme positions on the matter. I attempt to take a balanced look at both sides of the issue, offer my thoughts about who might win the war, and I explore what the eventual outcome might mean for intelligence professionals. However, I also argue that if either side “wins” the war without understanding and accommodating the positions of the other, we all stand to lose.

This is a slightly shorter and more focused episode but I’m exploring this format with the intention of releasing more than one episode per week. Please let me know what you think about the format change. You can do that on the Covert Contact Facebook Page or by connecting with me on Twitter @CovertContact.

This Week’s Five to Follow

@PwnAllTheThings – Security Researcher and Crypto-Wizard with all the secure golden keys.

@kyrah – A hacker and security researcher before she became a diplomat. She always has smart things to say about security and is a breath of fresh air on the topic of cyberwar.

@matthew_d_green – Assistant Research Professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute. He blogs at http://blog.cryptographyengineering.com/

@briankrebs – Journalist, formerly of the Washington Post, turned security expert. He blogs at http://krebsonsecurity.com.

@stilgherrian – A prolific Australian freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster whose work can be found on ZDNet Australia, Crikey, ABC, Sydney Morning herald and his blog at http://stilgherrian.com/

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The State of Twitter, the Struggle to Understand, and The Perils of Technology for Terrorists | Episode 2

This week, I’m offering my take on the notion than Twitter is broken. David Auerbach did a fine job of arguing just that in Slate recently, and I agree with much of what he wrote, but my conclusion might surprise you. I’m also offering some thoughts on our struggle to deeply understand terrorism and the people who engage in it. I’ll share some of my concerns about our progress in this area and recommend that you read an excellent piece by Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue, an Australian Army Information Operations specialist, Fighting the Narrative: Understand to Effectively Engage in the War of Ideas. And then I’ll share some thoughts about terrorism and technology. ISIS stormed through Twitter just a few weeks ago and now many of them are paying the ultimate price for their trolling. I’ll explain why terrorism, social media, and apps aren’t the potent mix that many people fear they are and tell you who really stands to gain from these tools. A very thoughtful question from a listener follows and, as usual, I close with another roundup of recommended Twitter accounts.

This Week’s Five to Follow

@tuckerwj  – William Tucker is a frequent Blogs of War contributor with smart takes on counterintelligence.

@TheStudyofWar - A think tank focused on military analysis & education. A source of frequent, high quality, updates on Syria and Iraq.

@JasFourTwo  – Lieutenant Colonel Jason Logue is an Australian Army Information Operations specialist.

@TyrellMayfield  – Lieutenant Colonel Tyrell Mayfield, is a U.S. Air Force Political Affairs Strategist.

@AllThingsHLS - David Gomez is a retired FBI agent with extensive experience in, as his Twitter handle suggests, all things homeland security.

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