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Saturday, July 22, 2006

An Interesting Blogger Firing - The Christine Axsmith Case and the Future of Robust Intelligence Analysis 


I just wrote (twice) about yet another blogger firing, and now here I am again.

By way of a preface, some of you know that this is not the only blog that I manage. I may have also mentioned that one of my blogs will never be seen by most of the people who read the Ontario Empoblog. That is because this particular blog is behind a corporate firewall. On this corporate blog, I do not post my latest musings on Kiira Korpi or the true visible church or whatever; instead, this blog is used for a particular corporate purpose.

Christine Axsmith, an employee at B.A.E. Systems, also maintained a corporate blog. However, she didn't maintain it at B.A.E. Systems, because she was on assignment at another "firm." I won't tell you the name of the firm, but its initials are C.I.A.

Axsmith no longer works at the CIA, and no longer works for BAE:


Christine Axsmith...kept the “Covert Communications” blog on a top-secret computer network used by American intelligence agencies. Ms. Axsmith was fired on Monday after C.I.A. officials objected to a message that criticized the interrogation technique called “waterboarding”....

Ms. Axsmith, a computer security expert with a law degree, posted the message this month, shortly after the Bush administration decided to grant some protections of the Geneva Conventions to suspected terrorists in American custody. She said that her message began, “Waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong.”...

“I wanted an in-house discussion,” Ms. Axsmith said in an interview on Thursday in her home in Washington. “Something where I would be educating people on the background of the Geneva Conventions.”

Instead, Ms. Axsmith was fired by her employer, B.A.E. Systems, which has an information technology contract with the C.I.A.

Ms. Axsmith said C.I.A. officials had confronted her and told her that the agency’s senior leadership was angry about the blog, which was housed on Intelink, the classified server maintained by the American intelligence community to aid communication among its employees....

A spokesman for B.A.E. Systems, Bob Hastings, said privacy issues prohibited him from commenting on Ms. Axsmith’s firing. But Mr. Hastings said that company policy prohibited employees from using computers for non-official purposes.

Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said that the blogs were intended to “encourage collaboration” on business issues but that postings “should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the Web site.”...



Well, shouldn't CIA people be allowed to discuss CIA business? Read on (emphasis mine):


And, she said that she believed that the classified blogs could be a critical tool to allow C.I.A. employees — who are often prohibited from discussing their work even with other agency officials — to vent frustrations....


This, in my view, is a very important point. As I said, I maintain a corporate blog that discusses the industry in which I work. All of the information that is posted in the blog is generally available to everyone, in the form of press releases, articles, and the like. However, in the course of my employment, I come across information that is not generally available; because of the rules by which the blog is set up, this information does not make it into the blog.

On the other hand, Axsmith was not discussing any type of secret information; she was expressing her views on the products offered by another division of the company. I compare it to working for Michael Hanscom's former employer Microsoft; if I worked in the operating systems group, would I be fired for offering internal comments about deficiencies in the Xbox? I think not, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, Axsmith is still blogging, because she didn't confine herself to one blog either:


Though stripped of her security clearance, Ms. Axsmith still maintains her public, unclassified blog: econo-girl.blogspot.com. On that Web site on Friday, there were several messages supporting her, including postings from anonymous intelligence officials who said that they would miss her “Covert Communications” blog.

Ms. Axsmith acknowledges that the posting that got her fired was deliberately provocative, and she said that if she had another chance she might have toned down the language.

“I guess I’m just too much of a big mouth for that organization,” she said.



Now that is true in any organization - cross a particular line, and you're out.

Let's look at Econo-Girl's rationale:


[A] purpose of the blog post was to start a dialog on interogation techniques with the people who are asked to do the interogating. It was to be a public education campaign, of sorts.


And a guard against groupthink. Porter Goss opposes groupthink:


Little was asked or said about intelligence reform at the confirmation hearings. Goss emphasized that we are at war, that our enemies are committed to destroying our way of life, and that we won the cold war through pre-emptive action. He characterized the CIA as not being aggressive enough, and CIA analysis as "groupthink." He disagreed with the idea of separating the analysis and operations functions which currently reside in the CIA...


But what does this mean?


Goss' mission has been twofold: to stop the continuous stream of leaks to the press by disgruntled CIA employees, and to encourage CIA employees to support the President and his policies. According to the press leaks, this has made Porter Goss an extremely unpopular director.


In effect, we're talking about a top-down strategy in which the analysts within the CIA, rather than analyzing the various ramifications of different alternatives for action, are supposed to "analyze" the latest pronouncements from Dubya and act accordingly. So how long will the CIA maintain that their web page Keeping An Open Mind is valuable? Emphasis mine, because I'm emphasizing the whole danged thing:


Major intelligence failures are usually caused by failures of analysis, not failures of collection. Relevant information is discounted, misinterpreted, ignored, rejected, or overlooked because it fails to fit a prevailing mental model or mind-set. The "signals" are lost in the "noise." How can we ensure that analysts remain open to new experience and recognize when long-held views or conventional wisdom need to be revised in response to a changing world?


From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

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