Of gunsmiths and strategic analysis.

Yesterday, I drove to the development corridor along I-95 south of Springfield, Virgninia.  I was in search of the "Northern Virginia Gun Works."  My replica WW2 M-1 carbine has been in need of some TLC for a while and that little workshop is owned by one of America's greatest gunsmiths.  He and his son run this place all by themselves and are thought to do some of the the best work in the country, all by themselves.  It is "bench work," much like the work that dominated human experience before the industrial revolution.

The little street where they are located is surrounded by various parts of Fort Belvoir.  This army post extends from the Potomac River just south of Mount Vernon to the west beyond I-95 through what was until recently forest unused by humanity since the army seized the land during World War One.   In the 1980s, great buildings began to arise in the forest, buildings largely without windows, surrounded by electrified fences, huge dish antennae and many uniformed civilian guards.

Not having been in the area for a while, I became lost and wandered about Fort Belvoir on the few public roads that are still available running through the federal property.  It soon became evident that this has become a techno-spook city.  Geospatial intelligence is there.  The National Reconnaisance Office is there.  NSA is there. Army Intelligence and Security Command is there.  Other "units" are there.  Some cannot be named.  These giant featureless buildings house much of  the immense apparatus of the intelligence community.  The sums that must have been spent on that were certainly immense.

And yet, US Intelligence has frequently been wrong about the major intelligence issues of our time.  The technical collection capability is impressive; SIGINT, IMINT, MASINT.  UAV reconnaissance, etc.  The information flows like a river and such rigorous tasks as; targeting, data base construction, real time newsroom type daily briefings, these things are well done and yet often they are completely counter-productive.  In fact the labor of this elephant of a bureacracy often produces conclusions that have little relationship to reality.  Think of the failure to forecast the fall of the Soviet Union.  Think of Iraq.  In that case, the IC and the government not only misidentified Saddam's government as the villains of 9/11, but then, to compound the error could not grasp the simple fact that if you destroyed their government and occupied their country the Iraqis were going to fight you, and fight you hard.  Think of Afghanistan.  Yes, just think of it.  We still do not understand that wretched place.  Today on Fareed Zaakariyah's "newsie" he suggested that the reason Karzai is being such a hard case with the US is that he wants some chance of personal survival in Afghanistan after the US leaves.  His predecessor in post Soviet Afghanistan was shot, hanged, castrated and hung up in a public place in Kabul.  At last!  At last! A breath of reason appears.

The answer in my opinion to the question as to why the US IC frquently fails on important questions lies in the very gigantism and bureaucratic politics of the constellation of organizations called the Intelligence Community.

In the present process, conclusions reached by line analysts, often people of great knowledge and skill, are diluted, massaged and picked over by six, seven, eight, or more levels of supervisory committees of managers.  Sadly  the higher the level at which the analysis is tortured, the more the torture is influenced by a relentless drive toward group think, toward consensus within an agency or, indeed, within the community and finally by a fervent desire on the part of the bosses to have the analysis agree with the hopes of the government.

Is it really a surprise that the product is so frequently just crap?

As for me, when I want someone to do a trigger job, barrel bedding, checkering or some such thing on one of my treasured firearms, I want to have someone do the work who does not give a damn about what other people think of his methods, but who feels he can take pride in what he does. pl  

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30 Responses to Of gunsmiths and strategic analysis.

  1. Nightsticker says:

    Colonel Lang,
    Imagine if, for the past decade, instead of turning
    to the USIC, the POTUS had simply logged in to SST
    for policy guidance and predictions about the future.
    The Republic would be happier, more prosperous,and
    better organized. All this for a few pennies instead
    of hundreds of billions and not a drop of blood, well,
    very little, and not ours.
    USMC 1965-1972
    FBI 1972-1996

  2. Charles I says:

    Let us be grateful at least that such people can still be found, at least in some pursuits. Where I live its old guys still at canoes, boats and furniture in their gramp’s original shop.
    My father was in the lumber business back when lumber was still lumber, used to make furniture and fine cabinetry as a hobby for decades. I have never seen, let alone matched the joinery and finishing he mastered. It was like one second of one degree of perfection away from 3d printing, that one degree of course the charm, beauty and mastery of material no printer affords. All by hand and eye.
    “Hold this THERE and DONT MOVE!” I can see it, smell the shop now.

  3. John Gavin says:

    Dishonesty has become part of the military culture in the US. Telling (or reporting) the truth is non-career enhancing. Much preferred is to tell higher what they want to hear. I have watched my career go from promising to dead end due to my unwillingness to toe the party line in Afghanistan, and my insistence on reporting the truth. It’s taken 22 years, but I now realize there is no place left for me in the IC.

  4. PL! Just too many people doing the people’s business!

  5. Turcopolier says:

    Too many people, too much size and too much money in the hands of the merely ambitious. pl

  6. bth says:

    A well read person using the internet to research a wide range of current international news seems better able to make assessments than the intelligence community if for no other reason than institutional bias is avoided or at least canceled out.

  7. The Twisted Genius says:

    Nice to know there’s a good gunsmith in the area. As the son of a tool and die maker, I appreciate the work of a craftsman. I have some old beauties that may need attention some day, including a Luger made in 1916 with all matched parts captured by one of SWMBO’s relatives in France in 1917. My M-1 carbine is a 1944 model purchased by my father in law through the CMP in the 60s. I love the thing. He’s in a nursing home and the carbine is mine.
    As for the IC, there are damned few craftsmen left. The vast intelligence enterprise (yes, that’s what it’s actually called now) is infested with charlatans and grifters who don’t give a tinker’s damn about the craft or producing a quality product. I’m glad I’m out of it and doubly glad I don’t have to drive in that area anymore.

  8. CK says:

    The local technical high school closed its machine shop last year. Sold off the almost all the lathes, milling machines, surface grinders and other useful large tools.
    Reason? They could not meet the state minimum requirements for enrolled students to continue the class.
    The night school for machine shop sold out every semester, but old male white farts are not the desired classroom.
    The shop had a Monarch that by its serial number was made in 1946, served for decades on a Vulcan class repair ship, before being purchased by the school. True story, I worked on that lathe for several semesters of evening school, it had NO digital crap, no TLC but I could stand a nickel on edge on the ways and it would not move with the machine running. I have no answer just observations.

  9. Farmer Don says:

    IF, “I want to have someone do the work who does not give a damn about what other people think of his methods, but who feels he can take pride in what he does. pl “.
    Then this person is for you:
    To me at least, this fellow seems to be the real deal. This Video was widely shown on German TV.
    Best Regards

  10. turcopolier says:

    So far as I know Snowden was never anything more than a glorified clerk. I can sympathize with Snowden in his act of revelation concerning domestic surveillance but his exposure of foreign SIGINT is deeply injurious to my country and yours. pl

  11. Anon1 says:

    As a long time analyst who finally gave it up to preserve my sanity, your analysis of the situation is spot on. The sausage making process the IC uses to produce finished intelligence products completely dilutes the message the customer needs to hear. Instead it’s analysis by committee, and usually unduly influenced by senior corporate types at the top.
    Regarding Karzai, I’ve always thought what happened to Najubullah as Karzai’s worst nightmare. Why can’t the IC and our policymakers understand that?

  12. harry says:

    Your question implies that the leadership wanted the true answer to the right question. I see plenty of evidence that they wanted the convenient answer to the wrong question.
    The only way the Republic could have been happier in the period was by electing different leaders or disciplining the leaders you elected with greater vigour. The suppine “democracy” got exactly what it deserved.

  13. turcopolier says:

    My post states without equivocation that the national political leadership wants answers from the IC that support what they have already decided to do and that the leadership of the IC general bludgeon the analysts in order to comply. When that does not happen it is a miracle. pl

  14. ISL says:

    Dear Colonel,
    IMO experience, the disease you refer is an institutional disease of government (and probably any large, hierarchical, organization). At some point, the energy to do ones job correctly as opposed to expediently and burnout arises.
    Clearly there are approaches to counter this natural tendency, but of course, such requires an advocate at the top, while the top tends typically to prefer expediency. To me it is unclear why swapping the top administrators with political appointees is a good way to run a country.

  15. turcopolier says:

    That is true but unimportant. I am not concerned with similar “disease” in other fields. It maters not very much if the Department of Agriculture or the Bureau of Indian Affairs are stultified messes. It matters a great deal if the IC consistently produces bogus opinions and information. Your comment implies that it was ever thus. It was not. pl

  16. oofda says:

    I believe you are right. I recall that when he was VP, Gore wrote “BS”on reports that he didn’t like and said that he didn’t want to see any more such reporting.
    The neocons like Wolfowitz and Feith were of the same ilk- intel that was contra to what that wanted was ignored.

  17. Fred says:

    I am glad that I chose not to pursue going with the ‘company’ after college. It is bad enough in the corporate world where incompetent middle managers excel at CYA and little else.

  18. shepherd says:

    Ironically, Obama is an enthusiastic user of data and objective analysis–when it comes to winning elections.

  19. John Gavin says:

    Hamid Karzai and his friends and family (AKA Karzai, Inc, the largest narco cartel in world history) have no worry whatsoever of ending up like Najibullah. They have stolen billions of dollars from the international community, and have bought up huge amounts of choice real estate in the UAE, Western Europe, and the US. Karzai and his friends will be the first rats of the ship once their is no more money to steal.

  20. turcopolier says:

    John Gavin
    Not the point. The question is whether he will be nimble enough to escape the country when the time comes or if the new government would succeed in having him extradited from the UAE or wherever. The charge would be “crimes against the Afghan people.” pl

  21. John Gavin says:

    Point taken. Karzai does, however, have enough money to rent anyone’s allegiance long enough to avoid extradition for quite some time. There is also the question of whether the government that succeeds his will have standing to request extradition.
    I would place money on Karzai’s handpicked successor winning any election that may or may not happen this year, and Karzai’s presidency would enter Putin-like hibernation for a spell.

  22. turcopolier says:

    John Gavin
    I lived and worked in Dubai. The Amir is scared silly of Islamists and with good reason. IMO the issue of “standing” for extradition would not be decisive. This would be a political decision in an Islamic context. pl

  23. John says:

    Verdad! [En Español]
    Too often we rely on the “throw-more-money-at-it,” along with the “give-us-something-we-want,” Intel.
    As my late economics professor often quoted a notably wise but mostly obscure soul, “Bureaucracy tends to propagate itself.” But for not much good, obviously.

  24. ALL: Any suspicion Snowden under a control by foreign power?
    Since Snowden apparently used some kind of readily available web crawler any evidence the IC now protected from other Snowdens?

  25. Alba Etie says:

    We must also remember that “Prime Minister” Cheney often would visit the CIA to make sure that the groundwork for the Iraq misadventure was well laid .
    The good news is that We the People may have been inoculated against anymore misbegotten military adventures from the misspent death & destruction in Iraq.

  26. Fred says:

    “…any evidence the IC now protected from other Snow”dens?
    There are plenty of smart tech savy 20 somethings who ‘know better’ and/or have an axe to grind. It is the selection, security clearance process and then the actual supervision of such men and women that prevents these people from being hired, or retained. The IC professionals here could enlighten us on that process. But I would say no the IC is not ‘protected’ from other Snowdens, especially as ‘protection’ is an ongoing process not a one time event.

  27. Tyler says:

    A somewhat relevant article on how ignoring intelligence the boss doesn’t like is infused into every layer of our government it seems:

  28. Fred says:

    ” how ignoring intelligence the boss doesn’t like is infused into every layer …”
    You can substitute company for government as this is true in the civilian world too.

  29. Charles says:

    I am not optimistic. The information infrastructure of the DoD to include the IC relies on imported technology. We face the same problem with weapon system acquisitions where 80% of the functionality of modern platforms is instantiated in software residing on imported chips. The following article is long but sheds some light on the scope of the problem. A nation state adversary that manufactures programmable chips does not even need a Snowden. They just sell us the backdoors.
    Kind regards,

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