6 January 2010

(door creaks open,
a flashlight comes on, searching around for a light switch,
the lights come on, revealing a dusty, cobwebby room
the flashlight-bearer blows dust off the desk,
sweeps a few cobwebs down
sits down after taking a swipe at the dusty chair…)

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here.  What has my ire up today is Profiling.

I’ve been thinking a lot about profiling lately, given the insane statements coming from the fear-mongering right.  The Christmas UndieBomber has inspired a lovely range of bigoted, wide-sweeping statements, including the idea that all young middle-Eastern looking men be automatically held suspect for possible terrorism.  It’s not the first time this kind of broad-scale, anti-Muslim bs has been spewed, just the latest.  Just as offensive as always.  Just as disconnected with reality.

Then comes the argument:  but we have do some sort of profiling.  We’re supposed to be looking for possible attackers, folks who want to do real harm to innocent bystanders and our national security.  We have to have a system which helps us narrow down who to investigate.

Of course.  But I think it has to be done in the style of Miss Marple.

Perhaps you’ve met her.  She populates Agatha Christie’s mysteries, a few films, and a few knock-offs, like Angela Lansbury’s in Murder She Wrote (an amalgam of Miss Marple and another character).  She’s a sharp one, Miss Marple is, an elderly spinster with a discerning mind, as any one who’s met her can attest.

If you haven’t met her, know this:  Miss Marple practices a highly-tuned art of Profiling.  She does it well, and of course, this being fiction, she always figures it out.  If Miss Marple was real, she would almost always figure it out.  She’s a sharp cookie.

She thinks to herself, now what is it with Mr. Merryweather that reminds me of that little vicar back in St. Mary Mead, and eventually pieces the truth together by thinking about behavior.  Because, as she tends to remind us, certain types people tend to have the same behaviors as other certain types of people, and we can learn from analysis what they will tend to do.

Miss Marple isn’t particular disturbed when the comparison is between Lady Whittington-on-Bayberry and the bitter old housekeeper Miss Marple knew 30 years previous.  Class or background, for example, is no obstacle in her profiling:  it’s all about knowing how people will tend to behave.

I imagine something a bit like that, only a hundred-fold more complex, must be what drives successful international intelligence.  Miss Marple tracks a fortunately limited number of details, to contemplate and file away for future reference.  National intelligence, here and in other countries, must track millions, and between computer and human intelligence, somehow are supposed to catch as many details as possible.  It’s an impossible task to get to perfection, but hopefully we get as close as humanly possible.

But what is true is that, as cracks in the system reveal themselves, we try to learn, like Miss Marple has all of her literary life, from what we’ve seen before.  We fine-tune.

And this is why the wide-sweeping “all 18 to 24 year old males of from this place, this region, this nationality, this race will be scrutinized” is completely ridiculous.  It’s too broad a scope.  It ignores other possibilities falling outside the scope.  It intentionally puts the forest before the trees.  It ignores the absolute fact that as we create better intelligence, and base better defense on that intelligence, those trying to chip holes in our national security will also adapt.  The trick is correctly determining which ways the are adapting.  And that means seeing the trees, regardless of how overwhelming the forest is.

That would be where the Miss-Marple-like attention to meaningful detail comes in.  I’m not saying we should swap all the analysts at the CIA et al for little old sharp-minded English spinsters.  It’s an amusing vision, I admit, but what I mean is this:  I think it likely that where intelligence operations are successful, they have the same discerning methodical attention to detail, to what matters, to what it suggests — knowing where to look, then letting what is in front of you guide you.  And where it is not successful, I suspect it is because too broad a sweep is undertaken, overworked by sheer numbers and often looking the wrong direction when an attack occurs.

We want effective intelligence, not a waste of time and money.  We want that discerning Miss-Marpleish mind picking at things and getting it right.  I suspect we actually have that in our intelligence operations – the public sees the faults where they crop up, but honestly, it must be a rather small number of fails in the overall picture.  We don’t really have access to the overall picture.  I’m not even sure I want it.  I want people who are good at this sort of thing looking at the big picture by piecing together the details of which it is made.

My hope is that, as with this latest incident of the UndieBomber, systems get looked at, get improved, obstacles are taken out of the system, and we get it more-right the next time.  We’ll never be 100%, but we always want to drive it as high as we can.  Let Discerning Minds loose on the situation!  And for some reason, as messed up as the world around me is, I have some trust that under Obama and his staff, it might actually happen.  They have something of the Miss Marple attitude in their look at things. Details matter to them. 

I know.  Miss Marple.  Come on, for goodness sake, isn’t tying Miss Marple and good national intelligence together a bit of a stretch?  Oh, probably, in some ways.  But I admit, I think there must something similar ticking, somewhere in good intelligence.  Intelligence.  The name alone should tell us what the focus needs to be.