Belmont Club

No Such Agency, No Such Enemy

Nearly 9 years ago, when Belmont was still hosted at Blogspot, I wrote a post titled Dark Networks. “Vladis Krebs has a case study page examining how mapping social networks and understanding their properties can be used to take down of terrorist networks. Network analysis was used to take down Saddam Hussein. The Washington Post has some of the details.”

John Robb took at look at the September 11 network and analyzed its characteristics. The Mohammed Atta network had evolved under Darwinian pressure until it reached the form best suited for its purpose: to conduct strategic attacks against the United States of America. Robb concludes that a cell of 70 persons will answer to the purpose, yet be sparse enough to allow its members to remain in relative isolation. For example, no one member of Atta’s cell knew more than five others. Moreover, the average distance between any two members was more than four persons. Crucially, but not surprisingly, this disconnected network of plotters maintained coherence by relying on a support infrastructure — probably communications posts, safe houses, couriers — to keep themselves from unraveling. Because security comes at a price in performance and flexibility, Robb arrives at an astounding conjecture: you can have small, operationally secure terrorist groups, but you can’t have large, operationally secure cells without a state sponsor. …

Without the infrastrastructure of a state sponsor, terrorism is limited to cells of about 100 members in size in order to maintain security. In the context of the current campaign in Iraq, the strategic importance of places like Falluja or “holy places” is that their enclave nature allows terrorists to grow out their networks to a larger and more potent size. Without those sanctuaries, they would be small, clandestine hunted bands. The argument that dismantling terrorist enclaves makes “America less safe than it should be in a dangerous world” inverts the logic. It is allowing the growth of terrorist enclaves that puts everyone at risk in an otherwise safe world.

Sean Everton at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California has just finished writing a book titled Disrupting Dark Networks which describes how social network analysis (looking at the traffic pattern of communication among persons) was used to dismantle the Noordin Toop network. Understanding the concept of Dark Networks is vital to understanding the debate over the uses — and abuses — of the NSA data surveillance system. Professor Everton describes the key and unstated dilemma on his website. “Dark networks… are [any] covert and illegal networks (Raab and Milward 2003), that is, groups that seek to conceal themselves and their activities from authorities. Although the term is typically reserved for groups such as terrorists, gangs, drug cartels, and so on, it can refer to benign groups as well, such as the various resistance groups that sought to undermine the Nazis during WWII.”

Al Qaeda is a Dark Network, but so too were the patriots who organized the war of independence. To some extent groups ostensibly protected by privacy laws are also “dark” in that they are supposed to be concealed from authorities or opaque to them under legal guarantee. And therefore the very same tools which have proved so effective in stopping terrorism are also capable of stopping dissent if improperly used.

Table of Contents of Professor Everton’s book.

Software Update
Preface and Acknowledgements
Chapter 1: Social Network Analysis: An Introduction
Chapter 2: Strategic Options for Disrupting Dark Networks
Chapter 3: Getting Started with UCINET, NetDraw, Pajek, and ORA
Chapter 4: Gathering, Recording, and Manipulating Social Networks
Chapter 5: Network Topography
Chapter 6: Cohesion and Clustering
Chapter 7: Centrality, Power, and Prestige
Chapter 8: Brokers, Bridges, and Structural Holes
Chapter 9: Positions, Roles, and Blockmodels
Chapter 10: Dynamic Analyses of Dark Networks
Chapter 11: Statistical Models for Dark Networks
Chapter 12: The Promise and Limits of Social Network Analysis
Appendix 1: The Noordin Top Terrorist Network
Appendix 2: Glossary of Terms
Appendix 3: Multidimensional Scaling with UCINET
Appendix 4: The Just War Tradition

Perhaps the most vital issue in examining the use of information weapons like social network analysis is legitimacy. This issue appears to be touched on by Professor Everton in his Appendix 4, “The Just War Tradition” and is the key element in the current NSA controversy. That the NSA ought to have the ability to penetrate and decrypt networks is part of its job, just as it is part of the Air Force or Navy’s job to be able to incinerate any given part of the planet with a nuclear weapon. But just because the USAF can bomb Chicago doesn’t mean it ought to be allowed to.

The legitimacy aspect of dismantling Dark Networks is so important that cannot be overlooked as a mere detail any more than the old SIOP (the nuclear targeting plan) belonged in a mere appendix. The SIOP, which listed all the targets the military would in fact target, was the heart and soul of nuclear weapons employment, it was the cornerstone of its legitimacy since it encapsulated all the reasons for which the plan was prepared.

But the Cold War was different from the War on Terror in that there was no doubt who the “enemy” was. The Enemy was the Soviet Union. That stands in stark contrast to the present conflict, which the administration declines to even characterize its activities as war, preferring to treat it as mere crime. There is no “enemy”. There is only workplace violence or the activity of “lone wolves”. There are no state sponsors, no large scale conspiracies, no enemy infrastructure that these information weapons are directed against. There are only misguided individuals.

This new characterization is supposed to provide the public with reassurance. But it’s  immediate consequence is opacity. Since there is no defined enemy the foe can be anyone. All warheads are labeled “to whom it may concern”. And while the public is assured that the blanks in the target forms are filled in by sober and sagacious Judges at a FISA court, how can such judges authorize what amount of operations of war against an enemy. That was a process that was supposed to have been under the control of the voter.

With no enemy in sight, the political processes which regulate warfare are bypassed. Congress never has to go on record to stay who is being fought. Consequently the voters are never directly consulted. The entire process of information warfare itself becomes a dark network, “covert” groups that seek to conceal themselves from the political process because it is too dangerous for the public to know what they are up to.

But this is in many ways akin to arguing that the public had no right to know who was targeted by the SIOP.  While it is true that the public had no right to know the individual target details contained in it,  they had an unambiguous right to know in general terms whose country was going to be hit in the event hostilities commenced. They had a right to know, at any rate, that one of the targets was not Chicago, or Wakima.

Legitimacy is so much a part of the process of dismantling dark networks that it really can’t be employed without addressing the issue. Legitimacy is part of the operational process. It cannot be dissociated from the use of the information weapon itself. Who you point a gun at is the most important part of firing it. Fortunately for America the Presidents of the Cold War period understood the need for legitimacy and used it not only to hold together the domestic political consensus but overseas allies as well. But recently the Presidents have failed to carry this task forward. They’ve assured us there is no enemy and the last wars are behind us. They’ve acted as if they don’t need legitimacy to wage this information conflict. All they need apparently, is secrecy.

This is a big mistake. “Trust me” doesn’t work in a context where the political leadership has shown a propensity to lie at the drop of a hat.  Without legitimacy there will be a crisis, as there is a crisis now.

“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And like that, poof. He’s gone.” And the role of political leadership at all events, is not to give the devil a helping hand.

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