Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just Say No to the National Intelligence Academy

Hugh Hewitt has suggested that the United States Government establish a ‘National Intelligence Academy’. I do not doubt that the idea will have a number of supporters, including some in Congress, because at first glance it seems to make sense. Unfortunately, I strongly doubt the practical efficacy of such an institution, for reasons I shall submit here.

Let’s start with why we have Intelligence services in the first place. The United States government admits to fifteen official agencies and offices whose primary role is Intelligence; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which used to be the overseer of Intelligence for the President of the United States (that role has been assumed by the office of National Director of Intelligence (NDI); the National Security Agency (NSA), who handle electronic intercepts and codes; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which handles satellite imagery for the most part; the National Geo-Spatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles high-altitude activity and analysis; the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR); Intelligence organizations controlled by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have been around for more than a century, and even the Coast Guard has an Intelligence arm. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has a Counter-Intelligence unit, as do the Departments of Energy and the Treasury. And finally, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has an Intelligence office.

But we’re just warming up, because there are some other agencies and offices which do not officially exist, but are quite real, for all of that. For example, remember the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) from the 1980s, which existence was denied by the government, then admitted but later retracted as a mistake, then officially was said to have been shut down? There is also the Diplomatic Security Group (DSG), the State Department commando force which was – supposedly – absorbed into the INR, although a bunch of the DSG’s best simply vanished from sight; and Delta Force of course, which is alleged to have its own Intelligence resources, having a strong distrust of any Intel weenies who have been in contact with Congress. Or what about the National Infrastructure Defense Office set up during the Clinton years to guard against things like Cyberwarfare? Come to that, ever wonder what old ex-spooks do in their ‘golden years’? Spooks are not like most veterans, because while their bodies age, in many cases their minds remain very sharp and they know things, valuable things, which their nation may call upon at need.

What I am saying with all that, is that it’s a tall order to imagine creating a single place to teach men and women what they need to become effective Intelligence agents. For a long time, we had to send people behind the Iron Curtain, so whites who could pass as Slavic folks were in high demand. Nowadays, we need folks who can pass as militant Muslims, not only by race and language, but who know the ins and outs of the “Death to America” crowd. And it’s pretty obvious that we need a cadre of Asians, able to blend in at Pyongyang, or at Beijing, or in Manila. And by the way, if you think the agent who fits in Com-China can also be equally accepted in NorKorea, you need some remedial World Culture, buddy. We also need experts in South American culture and practices, and just because we always seem to get into wars there, we can’t forget about Europe. So, right from the get-go, our campus is going to need six departments just to handle continental distribution. From there, we need to figure out what sort of Intelligence work our agent will handle. In the bad old days it was all about the military plans, baby, specifically weapons and intentions. Not so simple, now. There are still tactical and strategic weapons to chase, as well as operational and contingency plans, but just as vital now are financial strategies and political operations; for some reason, people don’t realize that our enemies would – very much – like to influence the outcome of our elections, and indeed have been working hard to that end. Ahhh, ahh, ahhh Hsu!! Sorry about that, darn allergies, where was I? Oh yes, categories of Intelligence operations. The reason we have so many different Intelligence agencies, after all, is because there are so many areas where we need diligence and attention. We have to watch skies and e-mails, we have to consider money and material and weapons and speeches, we have to track cultural and political and religious climate changes, and we have to do it all in a way that keeps us from being set up for a sucker punch. It is all but impossible for one school to do all it is needed, and that does not consider the fact that as the world changes, our Intelligence agencies need to keep up with technology and capabilities.

And then there is that little matter of Congress. A National Intelligence Academy would have to be set up and have funds allocated for it by Congress. Anybody want to guess how long it would take for the NIA to become a political football, subject to the Macchiavellian maneuvers of the personalities in vogue at a given moment? Or how long the headmaster at that academy would enjoy anything like autonomy, with a sub-committee holding the final vote on funds each year? It’s hard enough as it is for Intelligence professionals to make the hard call without playing up to a political patron, and that’s with the budgets for each agency set up on a much more pragmatic approach. I mean really, in the end a National Intelligence Academy would be little more than a marketing tool for whichever party controls the Hill, because with Congress voting into existence, there is no chance they would ever hand over control to the President, the Military, or the people who actually know what to do to train agents.

By the way, where do you suppose they’d build the thing? The East Coast already has West Point, Annapolis, and the Coast Guard Academy and the Air Force Academy is in Colorado. Since the logical place to train agents in secret operations and handling classified information would be a remote and well-guarded place, we can expect such an academy would most likely be built in California or somewhere on the West Coast, instead. With the present Blue majority and spineless character of the Right in Congress just now, that goes almost without saying. And with the high-profile image the place has, how long do you figure before someone sues the Academy for discrimination? After all, Sandy Berger will eventually be allowed to apply for a security clearance again, so who’s to say that someone can’t be a secret agent, even if they hate the United States?

As bad as things are now in trying to recruit, train, and equip agents and Intelligence operations, the only sure results from a National Intelligence Academy, is that it would make things worse for National Security, that it would be expensive and wasteful, and that it would be spun like a top on an almost daily basis.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Customer Disservice

An article in BusinessWeek this week discusses what people do in response to poor Customer Service. It moved me to consider a recent experience I had in that venue, and to remark on a truly inspired approach to the problem.

My daughter Jagan is beginning Ballet lessons, and of course for that she needed a certain leotard outfit, black with a ruffled skirt. Turns out it is pretty hard to find stores which carry that kind of thing, or at least the ones who advertise it. I finally learned that Target carries such leotards, and so last week I took Jagan over to Target to get the leotard and some tights, and to search for ballet slippers. I went to the Target store at 10801 Westheimer. I was fascinated by what I found.

The store was clean and well-stocked, to its credit. However, the signs were not clear and it was difficult to figure out where leotards could be found. I looked for a store employee to help me, but I them realized that all of the employees were either working at the registers, or else were sitting behind the Returns/Special Order counter. I noticed a sign pointing to a red phone, advising customers to call if they needed help, so I picked up the phone, and after a couple seconds it began to ring.

After eight rings, the phone was answered by a woman with a sullen voice, who told me leotards would be in “Girls”. I looked over and saw that the store was 45% “Women”, and 45% “Girls” in sections, so I asked her to be more specific, and she just sighed in exasperation at having to actually provide information to a customer, and said “just look for the sign”. I asked her what sign, and she said “Dance”, and when I asked where that section was, I was treated to another long sigh, then a silence, then she finally grumbled that it was in the back of the store, against the wall. Then she hung up before I could ask or say anything else.

Well, it turns out the ‘Dance’ section was in the front and middle of the store. But at least we finally found the tights and the leotards. I found one which looked like it would fit Jagan, so I told her to try it on in a dressing room and see how it fit. That was when we discovered, after some searching, that Target has done away with dressing rooms. Completely.

As part of her company’s ongoing training and motivation process, my wife had to read the book “Raving Fans” by Sheldon Bowles and Ken Blanchard. One part of that book addressed the insult to honest customers by the policy limiting them to three items in a dressing room. The insult was that the majority of honest people were being told they could not be trusted more than the small minority of dishonest people. Well, Target took care of that problem by just denying anyone the use of a dressing room at all. And that was when the light came on for me.

Most companies try to serve their customers. Some of them excel at it, and stand as models for the rest to imitate. Most try to be responsive and considerate of their customers, but fail to some degree and show obvious limits to how far they can go. But Target takes a fresh, if hostile, approach – they simply do as they please and if the customer doesn’t like it, nuts to them. No dressing rooms, no floor help, no trained and courteous operator on the help phone to assist with questions or concerns. No, they just put out the product and it’s take it or leave it. Fascinating, in its own way. I noticed that the commercials for Target are the same way. They show models who ignore everyone and everything but themselves; none of the commercials ever shows a customer at all, much less pretend to help them. Near as I can tell, Target does not like customers, and wants to do without them as much as possible.

So we went to check-out, and just to test a theory in my head, I asked the cashier who her manager was. She answered that she did not know where the shift manager was just then. I explained that no, I did not want to see a manager right now, I wanted to know who was the store manager. She did not know. So, I had her ask the cashier at the next register, who also did not know. And the game began. After four people were asked, they got together in a huddle, looked up something in a book, and came back with a name – a Mister “Canada”. Yeah, like the country. Well, Mister Canada, I once ran a business with 60 employees, and everyone in the place knew my name and would give to the customer who wanted to know. I have to admit though, that not knowing who is running the store is truly consistent with the performance of the staff and your customer-resistant policies, so kudos for that, I guess. I can’t imagine why a store would want to drive away customers and lower service even more than we see now, but you do seem to have it down to a science. And in deference to your preference, I will be happy to give Target a miss and take my business to those stores which make some effort to serve the customer. Well, I will be going to Target one more time – that leotard did not fit, so I will be returning it. Turns out that dressing room would have been useful. And no, I will not be buying the same leotard in another size – your store does not have the size I need, and in any case I don’t think that I want to give my money to a store which hates its own customers.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Two Packs of Yammering Canardists, Heavy on the Ego

I still remember my first elected office. I was out sick from Junior High, and when I returned to school the next day I discovered that I had been elected to Student Council, without my knowledge and against my will. In those days and at Lake Highlands Junior High, Student Council meant having to come early to school and do extra work for no visible benefit or reward. Consequently, Council members were usually elected against their will. It had, if nothing else, a certain honesty to it – none of the members really wanted to be there, and so elections were pretty straightforward affairs. Not so the White House, a difficult and draining post for anyone who wins the office, and yet there is no shortage of incompetents who believe they are a perfect fit for the job. Worse, there are many people running in any given year, whose performance would be damaging to the country and so they should be quickly dissuaded from chasing the nomination. The primaries, ideally, should be a place to separate the wheat from the chaff, but recent history suggests we should not count on that happening within the machines of the Demopublican nomenklatura, whose habit of sniffing at the common people with disdain has been all too evident of late. Both parties have their share of dishonest contenders, and those whose ideals are clearly at odds with the party as a whole. It does not serve the nation well, to dilute the quality of the primaries with such malingerers and malcontents.

Let’s start with an easy pack of targets, the Democrats. Really now, among the eight contenders, is there even one you’d trust as President? Joe Biden, Bill “LA Raza” Richardson, and Chris Dodd, who think the terrorists are the good guys and the Marines are the bad guys, and who prefer the advice of Al Qaeda to the advice of General David Petraeus?

Hillary, whose criminal contacts look like John Gotti’s rolodex, and whose plan for “fixing” healthcare reminds so many of a new edition of Orwell’s ‘1984’?

John “Pony” Edwards, who thinks $400 of campaign money for a haircut is reasonable and by the way considers himself qualified to handle the U.S. economy?

Mike Gravel, who is so much an unknown that his own site lacks any specific policies or positions?

Dennis “Spaceman” Kucinich, whose views are so far from reality that even Kos has been known to back slowly away from him?

Or Barack “Bambi” Obama, whose foreign policy wisdom includes spilling our strategic secrets to our enemies, promising in public we would not use strategic weapons “under any circumstances”, while at the same time publicly threatening to invade allies?

Is there even one in that bunch you could trust in facing down Ahmadinejad? Is there even one you would feel comfortable teaching your kids? Is there even one in that group you think would be good for the economy?

The problem is, the GOP pack has its own stinkers.

John McCain is an undisputed hero from the Vietnam War, and a strong voice of reason and courage regarding the Middle East. But McCain has a track record of intolerance for free speech, especially where campaigning is concerned. He’s about as open as a brick wall where negotiating is concerned, even with his own party. And he’s a real Senator, having often put his friendship with people like John Kerry ahead of the nation’s needs.

Fred Thompson talks the talk, but only in video clips. He has yet to show he is ready for serious debates and extended analysis of his political positions. He also voted to acquit Bill Clinton at the Impeachment trial when he was a Senator for Tennessee, and has said that he was not sure Clinton actually lied under oath, even though Bubba himself admitted that fact. That’s a big mark against Fred.

Mitt Romney ran on the image of the cleanest of the candidates, but one of his close supporters and campaign supporters was Larry Craig. If Larry was as bad as the media plays it, why was Romney cool with having him as a close supporter? Was Romney someone who didn’t check out his team? And if Craig was not guilty, as he claims, what does it say about Romney that he threw Craig overboard so quickly? Either way, it does not speak well of Romney’s integrity. Not at all.

There's Rudy Giuliani, whose candor about his positions is very refreshing, but whose refusal to consider the opinions of the majority of Republicans smells decidedly rank.

Sam Brownback is a back-stabbing Senator who betrayed President Bush and the GOP on many critical votes over the past two years, and so is not worth spit in my opinion.

Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter are vulgar narcissists whose idea of team play is getting what they want and claiming all the credit no matter who does the real work, or destroying their own party from within in their spite. They are vicious little caricatures of leaders, in the same way that Chihuahuas imagine they are the equals of working dogs.

Ron Paul is a psychotic communist amusing himself by running as a Republican.

Mike Huckabee is an intelligent and well-spoken candidate, But he also strongly embraces the Fair Tax, which may be a good solution for replacing the IRS, except that politically it is nearly impossible to get voters to support it, and so he has tied a millstone around his neck.

And that’s your field, folks. Anyone excited yet?