Sunday, July 27, 2008

Aaron Burr & the Future of the VP

I really should have started this blog on July 11, it was the 204th anniversary of a seminal moment in the evolution of the Vice Presidency - the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The story is told in many places and there was lots of bad blood between the two men. Burr apparently held Hamilton responsible both for robbing him of the Presidency in the election of 1800 and ruining his chances in the 1804 New York gubernatorial race. It is possible it was all an "honor" thing in which - like most duels of the day - everyone was supposed to fire blindly, miss and make-up.

Things didn't go according to plan. Hamilton had actually been involved in about a dozen duels (10 as principle), but all of which were resolved without any actual shooting. But his son died in a duel. Burr did not stick to the script, he actually shot Hamilton, who died 36 hours later. It is possible that Burr panicked - it is also possible he really hated Hamilton.

At the time dueling was illegal, but tolerated in some places (such as New Jersey, where the duel was fought.)

The unseemly political fight combined with the duel itself destroyed Burr's political career. He was charged with, but never tried for, Hamilton's murder. He finished his term as Vice President, but was later charged with treason for some sort of bizarre plan to start an independent state in the Louisiana territory. Again, he was never tried.

The big question is what this did to the evolution of the office? The first VP, John Adams tried to establish the office - and failed. The Senate didn't like him and Washington gave lip service to giving him a role, but didn't really follow through. The office had no institutional base and was not well-positioned. Did the Burr fiasco condemn the role to second-raters? Under Jefferson and for the two administrations after him, Secretary of State was the figure being groomed for the Presidency - not the VP. Because of its weakness, but legal proximity to the Presidency, the office might have seemed a potential magnet for schemers - thus guaranteeing that nothing would be done to enhance the role.

Or maybe, no one saw any need for a powerful Vice President, when Senators answered their own correspondence, Presidents didn't have bodyguards, and government overall didn't do all that much governing.

SIDENOTE - After the Biblical Aaron (Moses' brother) Aaron Burr was the first famous person I learned about who shared my name. So I always had a soft-spot for him. Maybe I was fated to write about the VP. The Biblical Aaron played second-fiddle in his career too. He however, was known as a peace-maker - Aaron Burr, most assuredly was not.

I was pleased to learn, a bit later on, about Henry Aaron, baseball great and health care policy analyst. Imagining excelling in such two different fields!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Checkout my new blog on the Vice Presidency

So I've started a new blog VeepCritique about the Vice Presidency, with a focus on the VP's role in the national security process.

Current events made now a great time to get it started. My first post examines the challenges facing McCain's VP selection. The best President-VP relationships have been between DC-outsider Presidents and DC-insider VPs. But McCain is a definite insider.

McCain's VP Choice & National Security

In The Wall Street Journal today, Ken Khachigian, a long-time speechwriter and political strategist advises McCain on his VP choice, arguing that the VP makes very little difference in the election so:
Pick someone you know. You have spent 26 years in office. You have traveled with colleagues and political allies. You have spent long hours with them. You have campaigned with them, stayed up late in conversations, shared painful moments, heard their speeches, learned their thought processes, and measured their judgment.

Somewhere in his experience is a person in whom Mr. McCain can place the ultimate trust and confidence. And someone who can deliver on the central demands of the campaign -- use good judgment, deliver a passable speech, survive tough interviews, and stay on message. Of course, he or she must survive the standard vetting benchmarks of tax records, legal nannies and a scandal-free life. After that, it is the knowledge that the certainty of a personal connection will protect the candidate from the mistake of learning something he didn't know when it's too late to make a change.
I couldn’t ask for a better launching pad for this blog on the Vice Presidency.

My interest is where the VP fits into the policy process, and Kachigian’s case for McCain to pick a friend is a very good one from that perspective. Presidents are either experienced Washington figures, or they are not. From Carter on, we have lived in an era of “outsider” Presidents (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43) each of whom made it a point to select an experienced “insider” Vice President. This has coincided with the growth in responsibility and influence of the VP.

The era prior to Carter was dominated by “insider” presidents and powerless Vice Presidents (think Johnson, Humphrey, and Agnew.) Reportedly, JFK wanted LBJ in the loop – but his staff didn’t care for Johnson. This illustrated a principle described by Paul Light in his Vice Presidential Power:
…the tendency of insider Presidents to discount vice-presidential advice. Neither President viewed his Vice-President as a source of information or expertise. Nor did the presidential staffs seem particularly interested in the Vice-President’s participation. Since insider Presidents generally bring insider staffs, goal compatibility with the Vice-President is frequently low.
This maxim applied to the most recent insider Presidency – Bush 41. Although he met frequently with Quayle, it isn’t apparent that Bush 41 (as experienced a DC insider as they come) leaned on him for counsel. Additionally, according to an article by Paul Kengor in Wreath Layer or Policy Player? The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy Bush’s staff – particularly Jim Baker – didn’t care much for Quayle or want to see him take an active role.

In contrast, the effective Vice Presidents have allies on the President’s staff. Mondale was close to the Deputy National Security Advisor David Aaron. Under Reagan, Bush 41 ally Jim Baker was the White House Chief of Staff.

McCain is a definite insider, with an insider staff. So if he picks some governor (Pawlenty, Romney etc.) they won’t have much of a personal relationship and the staff will freeze them out. If it is an individual with whom McCain has a well-established and strong relationship – someone McCain would be inclined to consult under any circumstances – then it will be harder to freeze them out.

Importance of being inside the Loop

Who cares?

When FDR died and Harry Truman took office, Truman was unaware of the Manhattan Project (constructing the world’s first atomic bomb) or the status of negotiations with Stalin over the shape of post-war Europe. He was not in the loop.

Eight of the forty-three presidents have left office suddenly (seven deaths and one resignation) and there have been a number of close calls. The possibility that this will occur again – and possible in the midst of a crisis – is real. An uninformed Vice President who was not “in the loop” could make a bad situation worse.

Fairly or unfairly, the “emergency transition” issue seems particularly important for the 72-year-old Senator McCain. An outsider VP will remain an outsider in a McCain administration, and if the worst should happen, he would probably not get the useful national security experience he would need to be effective.

So, from a national security process perspective, the United States would be well served if McCain selected a close friend and ally.

DEA as Counter-Terror Agency

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has, quietly, become a very effective counter-terror agency. The arrest of international arms dealers Victor Bout and Monzar al-Kasser (in operations worthy of movie scripts) were only one example. The agency had at least a peripheral role in the Betancourt rescue – a DEA operation inserted bugged satellite phones into the FARC, a crucial tactic that has made a tremendous contribution to the FARC’s overall breakdown. In general the agency seems to have adapted well overall to the counter-terror mission, among other things doing a competent job at building up its analytical capabilities.

Last Friday, the DEA’s chief of operations Michael Braun gave a presentation at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (hosted by co-CT Blogger and Washington Institute Fellow Michael Jacobson) that provided important insight into the DEA’s adaptation to the counter-terror mission.

Organizational Analysis

While many pundits give lip-service to “changing organizational culture” it is an issue that is generally not given its due. Policy and political issues are "sexier." But organizational issues are in fact central to any complex problem of governance. In their classic Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow argue that one conceptual model useful for understanding government behavior is:
…less as deliberate choices and more as outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behavior…. To perform complex tasks, the behavior of large numbers of individuals must be coordinated. Coordination requires standard operating procedures: rules according to which things are done….

At any given time, a government consists of existing organizations, each with a fixed set of standard operating procedures and programs. The behavior of these organizations-and relevant to an issue in any particular instance is, therefore, determined primarily by routines established prior to that instance….
Chief Braun’s presentation hit many of these points. First, in the decades prior to 9/11 the DEA had gained extensive experience targeting complex, adaptive international organizations that were skilled in using technology and had extensive resources (i.e. drug cartels and – what Braun describes as the wave of the future – terrorist/drug cartel hybrids such as the FARC.) The DEA turned some of its weaknesses - its relatively small size and low profile and the limitations of being a law enforcement agency – into strengths. Because it was small and low-profile it could practice patience in its investigations and develop appropriate (and creative) techniques. The DEA didn’t have the budget to develop or access to the top intelligence systems (satellites etc.) and it learned that HUMINT (infiltration) was the best way to get into the drug cartels. Here, counter-intuitively, the DEA’s status as a law enforcement agency served it well. Informants (usually lower-level criminals who were given a choice between being charged or turning informant) were carefully vetted, because the DEA agents knew that the informant would eventually have to testify in a U.S. court.

Because of the international scope of drug trafficking, the DEA has the largest international law enforcement presence of any U.S. agency (87 foreign offices in 63 countries) and these offices are staffed by agents who are operationally active with their international partners. (Braun stated that there was one office where the DEA was not operationally active, but wouldn’t say which – I am guessing Venezuela.)

Braun explained the international world of illicit activity, which relies heavily on ungoverned spaces, where both organized crime and terrorists can flourish. Here the DEA had to adapt. All illicit activity is united by money. Previously agents followed the drug trail – Braun urged them to follow the money trail instead because it allowed them to peer into multiple sectors of illicit activity.

While the issues surrounding organizational adaptation were interesting, Braun had many other points to make. He discussed how the FARC is the case study for the evolution and (hopefully) dissolution of a hybrid terrorist-criminal organization that can be adapted to the Taliban. He mentioned the Madrid bombing as an example of low level drug dealing supporting terrorism, and the DEA’s efforts to take on this new threat.

Normative Issues

When asked about legalization, Braun explained that this will lead to massive levels of addiction. After the Civil War opiates and cocaine were legal and about 1/200 Americans was an addict. But, like pretty much everyone who has looked at the issue, Braun stated that more treatment for drug users would be helpful.

Braun certainly did not say this, but there are reasons to be skeptical of whether law enforcement response to drug trafficking is effective at reducing the drug supply. But it is, in some regards, a moot argument. First, because drug cartels have a deleterious effect on lawful government and therefore are a serious problem in their own right and secondly, as a moral issue, because people engaged in illegal activity should be punished.

DEA as Diplomatic Back-Channel

Finally, Braun was asked about collaboration between the DEA and the Iranian counter-narcotics organizations. Iran shares a border with Afghanistan and has a growing epidemic of drug use. Because of the ongoing dispute between the U.S. and Iran direct cooperation is impossible, but Braun noted that they have third party interlocutors that can relay valuable information. This raises an interesting possibility of the DEA serving as an alternate channel to regimes with which the U.S. has estranged relations.

There is some talk in Washington of engaging Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez by trying to restore DEA operations there. Back in 2005 Chavez revoked diplomatic immunity for DEA agents in Venezuela (he accused them of spying, plus the U.S. had revoked the visas of Venezuelan officials in DC.) This effectively shut down the agency’s operations. Since then Venezuela has become a leading conduit for drugs to Europe. Chavez is beginning to take pressure from the Europeans about this and – on occasion – turned drug dealers over to other countries. Reinstating the DEA could be useful to everyone and create a pragmatic alternate channel to Caracas.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Super-Hero Realism: Proposal for a Hancock Sequel

I saw the summer blockbuster Hancock recently. The core premise was interesting - a superhero who is also an incredibly unpleasant person. I won't give anything away, but overall it was fun.

What struck me is that super-heroes congregate in places like LA and New York - but these are perhaps not the places that need their services the most. A neat realistic superhero movie might send our hero to Darfur or some other long-suffering locale. It would not necessarily have a happy ending. The janjaweed wouldn't last long against a superhero (or a Western military), but many of the underlying problems would remain. The superhero could perhaps engineer a canal to improve the economic situation. But soon would become mired in an incredibly complex situation with endless insoluble problems. Imagine a super-hero forced to fly back and forth to ferry food for example or get spare parts for machines that break down.

The point would not be to advocate for an issue, but to demonstrate the complexity of most problems and what taking them on will truly entail. (Sort of the lessons we are learning in Iraq...)

If any producers are interested - call my people...

I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Force vs. FARC: Israel's Contribution

On being rescued, Ingrid Betancourt stated: "This is a miracle, a miracle. We have an amazing military. I think only the Israelis can possibly pull off something like this."

Her comment set off immediate speculation that there had been an Israeli hand in the dramatic operation. It is high praise for Israeli special forces that so many would readily assume that an effective commando operation was their handiwork. From a practical standpoint, the Israeli contribution to Betancourt’s rescue was modest (dwarfed by the U.S. contribution). But Israel’s philosophical contribution was enormous.

Technical Support

Yossi Melman of Haaretz (a leading Israeli daily) reported:
The Israeli activity, involving dozens of Israeli security experts, was coordinated by Global CST, owned by former General Staff operations chief, Brigadier General (res.) Israel Ziv, and Brigadier (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser…..

"It's a Colombian Entebbe operation," Ziv said Thursday when he returned from Bogota. "Both regarding its national and international importance. Betancourt has become a symbol of the struggle against international terror. This is an amazing operation that wouldn't shame any army or special forces anywhere in the world."

Asked about the Israeli involvement in it Ziv said there is "no need to exaggerate."

"We don't want to take credit for something we didn't do," a company source said. "We helped them prepare themselves to fight terror. We helped them to plan operations and strategies and develop intelligence sources. That's quite a bit, but shouldn't be taken too far."
Another article discussing the Israeli role (and this less flattering cases of ex-IDF personnel training Colombia's vicious paramilitaries) is here.

The American contribution, reported in The Washington Post was far more extensive involving a 100 person team of analysts and operatives. The operation received vetting from the Secretary of State and the Vice President. Overall Colombian capabilities benefited from a decade of extensive U.S. aid. Beyond helping to build a professional military, the U.S. contributed with its unparalleled electronic intelligence capabilities.

Israeli Counter-Terror: Setting the Stage

The real Israeli contribution occurred nearly forty years ago, with the dawn of modern international terrorism. On July 23, 1968 an El Al plane was hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and forced to land in Algeria. The Israelis had no response and after three weeks were forced to hand over a dozen Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the passengers and crew. It was the first and last successful hijacking of an Israeli airliner.

For a time the terrorists had the initiative, carrying out a wave of bombings and hijackings around the world. It seemed unstoppable. Then, as now, there were voices calling for negotiations, capitulation, and “addressing the root causes.”

But the Israelis developed counter-measures and responses. Secure check-in and armed sky marshals drawn from elite army units were only a few of the procedures the Israelis adopted. At the same time, Israel developed responses, training commando teams for hostage rescue operations. Entebbe is, deservedly the most famous, but not the only example. Other countries followed suit, in 1977 German commandos carried out a daring rescue of a hijacked Luthansa jet in Mogadishu. Like the Israelis, the Germans had been caught flat-footed in a previous terror attack – this time with the world watching at the 1972 Olympics. Perhaps the most significant of these rescues was in 1994 when French commandos stormed a hijacked Air France plane in Marseilles. The Algerian terrorists were believed to be planning to fly the plane into the Eiffel Tower.

Effective responses to terrorism are not limited to airborne terror. Capable strategy and tactics can marginalize terrorists and insurgents. Israel has brought Palestinian suicide attacks down from a weekly event at the height of the al-Aqsa Intifada to a few times a year.

That force can be useful against terrorists does not mean brute force is the right path. Almost every country that encounters terrorists and guerillas has turned to harsh brute force crackdowns. In and of themselves, these crackdowns are not always effective over the long term and often bring human rights violations in their wake. But creative thinking, rigorous intelligence gathering, analysis, and planning, and quality training can defeat terrorism.

At the same time, counter-terror is not only a task for commandos. In Colombia, the regular army played an essential role in setting the stage for the dramatic rescue. First, by re-claiming large parts of Colombian territory, which limited the FARC’s freedom of movement. Then, before the operation itself, the army played a long painstaking cat and mouse game with the FARC unit that held the hostages (getting so close that they actually saw the U.S. hostages) to learn its operations.

Not every terror attack can be prevented, but Israel has stood in the forefront of reminding the world that force – properly and intelligently applied - can be used to neutralize terrorism, thereby setting the stage for last week’s dramatic events in Colombia.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Aaron Mannes on France24 discussing Betancourt Rescue

Gore Vidal once said, "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television."

There are many, many things I would not follow his advice on (and also I am a rapidly aging and happily married man) but I did accept an invitation to appear on France24 to discuss the implications of the dramatic rescue of the FARC hostages - and I had a great time.

It was a discussion format with three other guests, part two of the discussion can be seen here, I'll post part one as soon as the folks at France24 do.

For those less familiar with the mechanics of appearing on TV, the show is taped in Paris and, alas, they did not offer to fly me there for the appearance. Instead I sat in a small room with nothing but a table and a camera, and a TV screen displaying the camera's feed of my giant talking head. I could not see the host and the two Paris-based guests (although they could apparently see me.) The other guest, Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations, was in a similar room next door - and again, we had no contact during the show.

There was also a second and a half delay between Washington and Paris, but the host handled this with aplomb and the discussion was actually very smooth.

The first half of the discussion focused on the future and status of the FARC. The second half discussed the impact of the rescue on Colombian and regional politics. Not to give away too much, but I managed a pair of good (funny) lines towards the end.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Me Discussing FARC on Covert Radio

Covert Radio a terrific podcast series has done a number of interviews with yours truly on FARC and other issues I track.

Here is today's discussion on the FARC hostage rescue. A fun, lively interview.

Here is an interview I did with them a few weeks ago, but it still has some good background on the FARC.

FYI - I appeared today on the France24 show Debate. I'll post the link as soon as it is up.

Questions About the Rescue in Colombia

The dramatic rescue of the FARC hostages raises a host of important questions, here are a few, with short answers following and lengthy answers below:

Was the rescue the cover for an arrangement with the FARC?
Probably not.

What effect will this have on future hostage releases?
It will probably lead to more units dissolving and possibly releasing their hostages.

Colombian security used a ruse claiming to be an NGO, could such ploys undermine the legitimate role of NGOs?
Possibly, it’s complicated.

Staged Rescue

Cesar, the commander of the FARC front holding the hostages put them on a helicopter after receiving an order he believed came from the FARC jefe Alfonso Cano. Consider the implications of this: it would be as if someone tricked a General into believing he had just received an order from the President. Such communications are not handled casually. The fact that Colombian intelligence could deliver this fake message probably indicates a very high-level of human and electronic penetration into the FARC’s communications networks. A few specialists have quietly speculated that this was an inside job – perhaps Cano wanted to arrange this to set the stage for a peaceful surrender. While anything is possible, the correspondence unearthed from Raul Reyes’ laptop – such as the talk of selling uranium – has a certain clueless quality. The blog of the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program cites a FARC assessment of the U.S. elections as another example of strange assertions and gross inaccuracies in the FARC’s perception of the world. Based on the FARC’s seeming poor information about and ability to assess the outside world, it does seem conceivable that the organization has simply become dysfunctional and that its organizational nervous system has in fact been deeply compromised.

The fate of the hundreds of remaining hostages

The FARC holds many more hostages, possibly as many as 700, about 40 of whom are prominent. It is possible that the rescue operation will make it harder to negotiate for the release of the remaining hostages. Without their most valuable chits, the FARC cannot hope to obtain any of the concessions it demands – consequently the remaining hostages may languish. But, as the FARC breaks down, it is more and more likely that fronts will abandon the fight altogether, particularly as they become isolated from the central command (or mistrust its instructions). The rescue was a huge blow and FARC morale will sink even further. Expect the Colombian campaign to encourage FARC members to desert to expand and include incentives to bring in hostages as well.

NGO Quandaries

Finally, in my previous post I noted that there may be a cost in using ruses involving NGOs. Several people with a lot of background on the issue told me that many Colombian NGOs are effectively FARC fronts. The mere fact that the hostages’ guards fell for a ruse that an NGO was aiding in a FARC operation lends some credence to this argument. It is not an unfamiliar phenomenon, the Israelis complain deeply (and with much justice) about NGOs acting as fronts and agents for terrorist groups as well.

However, NGOs in principle are expressions of the fundamental right of association aka civil society – a right and value that is essential for the liberal democratic polity. That some become fronts for loathsome causes is not new, Stalin too had his useful idiots and front groups. One of the great challenges of asymmetric warfare (whether it is terrorism, counter-insurgency or something else) is distinguishing between groups exercising this right – even if their views are controversial – and groups that are fronts for organizations undermining legitimate authority.

This is a tricky problem, one faced here in the United States as well, as our law enforcement agencies attempt to determine if Islamic charities and other organizations are operating legitimately or are linked to Hamas, al-Qaeda or Hezbollah.

That being said, I am not questioning the Colombian use of the NGO ruse in this case – the benefits outweighed the cost. But, similar operations, if done too often could undermine the rightful place of legitimate NGOs. This could have pragmatic consequences such as hurting the ability of NGOs to deliver aid, to broader philosophical consequences of undermining freedom of association.

There is a parallel with the Colombian strike that killed Raul Reyes in Ecuador. As a matter of principle, military attacks that cross national borders are not a good idea. But, there are times and places where such strikes necessary. However, when done too often violating the national sovereignty of other states will exact a cost in legitimacy.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Article on LCCD (my day job): Computer Science & Counter-Terror

Security Management, a security industry trade magazine ran a piece in its June issue about the work I do with Professor V.S. Subrahmanian at the University of Maryland's Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics.

The short explanation is that the computer geniuses I work with developed something called SOMA that, given data on a group's past behavior, can develop rules for probable future behavior given different conditions. There are many potential applications. An immediate one was for me (as the resident terrorism specialist) to examine the rules and see if they taught me anything I didn't already know about a group. The findings about Hezbollah discussed below are based on a case study we did on that group which I presented at the First Annual Workshop on Social Computing, Behavioral Modeling, and Prediction in April. At the link above you can find my presentation slides and the slides of other presenters. The conference is a window into how computer science is bringing new tools to social science, some of which have useful applications to counter-terror, counter-insurgency, and development. Just as the Cold War spawned new technologies that had profound impact on day to day life (like the Internet), so to will the present conflict.

I'm presenting a similar analysis of Hamas at an upcoming conference at the University of Maryland, the Second International Conference on Computational Cultural Dynamics.

Since the paper was published, we've tweaked our analysis and tools - but the key findings have stayed consistent.
Calculating the Margin of Terror
By Joseph Straw

How likely is it that Hezbollah in Lebanon would launch suicide attacks or engage in kidnappings during an election year? Professor V.S. Subrahmanian, head of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), says that the right data combined with the right software can answer that question.

Subrahmanian has taken a decade’s worth of open-source data on political and terrorist activity in the Middle East and plugged it into his own behavioral modeling software program—which he calls a stochastic opponent modeling agents (SOMA) framework—to create the SOMA Terror Organization Portal (STOP).

The program, funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), is currently in use by four defense agencies. Via a simple, Web-based portal, users select a country, a terror group, and an environmental variable (usually political), and receive a percentage probability for activity during a given period. For some groups and countries, users can select a specific activity and motivation, such as kidnapping for ransom versus kidnapping for political demands.

Subrahmanian cautions, however, that the program’s data inputs and the Boolean logic behind the modeling are extremely coarse. Consequently, the program’s predictions carry a statistical margin of error far beyond that of a typical public opinion poll. Thus, STOP does not offer hard statistical predictions, but ranges, for example, a 68-87 percent chance of activity in a given period.

Despite the margin of error, the modeling has generated some valuable findings, says terrorism scholar and UMIACS researcher Aaron Mannes. For one, it has shown analysts that when a political group with ties to terror runs candidates in a national election, attacks spike in the period around the election. For that entire year, however, attacks by the group drop.

STOP’s data universe relies on existing research by the university’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management. It considers 31 terror groups operating in countries from Morocco east to Afghanistan, and considers roughly 150 action variables within those countries.

James Jay Carafano, counterterrorism expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., says Subrahmanian’s work is pioneering, although not groundbreaking. Separately, the CIA has modeled international political activity for more than a decade in hopes of predicting instability. The field is still maturing, but research indicates that the technology holds great promise in forecasting group action.

“Technology is increasingly making soft sciences, like anthropology or political science, into hard sciences. People are quantifying a lot of these things, making them interactive, and producing results,” Carafano says.

Subrahmanian explains that while free will makes it impossible to predict individual action, it is possible to look at group dynamics and make predictions with some degree of accuracy.

FARC is FARC'd: Assessing the Hostage Rescue

The first reports about the Colombian military’s rescue of the 15 hostages held by FARC (in Spanish) indicate an impressive intelligence operation. The hostages were held in three separate locations. Colombian intelligence had infiltrated one of the FARC fronts holding the hostages as well as the FARC Secretariat. They told the front commander “Cesar” that the hostages were being transferred on the orders of FARC chief Alfonso Cano. After gathering the hostages in one location the FARC unit was met by a helicopter, ostensibly from an NGO (that doesn’t actually exist). Then the hostages were loaded onto the helicopter and the FARC commander and his deputy were taken captive to be handed over to judicial authorities. The other members of the FARC front were permitted to escape.

The fifteen hostages were rescued without firing a shot. The long nightmare of the hostages and their families is finally over.

There are many implications to this tremendous success. It indicates both the FARC’s rot and impressive Colombian capabilities. That Colombian intelligence could manage this elaborate ruse shows how much information they have gathered about the FARC’s internal workings. The computer files seized, both from Raul Reyes, but also from the computer of FARC leader Ivan Rios – who was killed by his own men, were no doubt invaluable. That FARC would fall for this ruse indicates increasing fragmentation and decay. The loss of several top leaders, and the reported serious illness of FARC’s top military commander Mono Jojoy have all contributed to FARC's weakness.

Communications has long been an Achilles heel for the FARC, which is spread out in Colombia’s vast hinterland. The hostage rescue operation is the most dramatic capitalization of this weakness so far and it will also exacerbate it. FARC leaders will now doubt the origin of their orders – leading to further fragmentation.

It is an impressive operation – imagine if Iraqi forces could carry out operations like this. (Colombia’s security forces have benefited tremendously from U.S. support under Plan Colombia – hopefully some of the lessons learned will be transferable to the global counter-insurgency against radical Islamist terrorists.)

The escape of the rest of the FARC front was probably a wise operational move. Engaging them could have resulted in a firefight in which hostages could have been hurt or killed. The unit will probably dissolve and its members may join the chorus of former FARC members broadcasting calls for active FARC members to turn themselves in. (The program has been successful – over 1000 FARC fighters desert per year according to some reports and has included top commanders.)

One dark spot: the use of the NGO ruse may have consequences – not just in Colombia – but worldwide. Future efforts to negotiate these kinds of releases may be effected – and the FARC is believed to hold an additional 700 hostages. The NGO role of serving as interlocutors between states and terrorist groups – while easy to criticize – is often useful and necessary. Their neutrality in these conflicts worldwide does allow them to deliver humanitarian aid and facilitate communications. If terrorist groups are more hesitant to engage with NGOs because of this incident it may block these useful channels.

However, this kind of ruse may only work with a particularly isolated group. Less fragmented groups, like Hezbollah, would probably restrict their dealings to well-established NGOs - so that the impact may be limited.


The invaluable Bloggings By Boz a leading stop for LatAm news reports the fascinating detail that the Colombian rescuers were wearing Che T-shirts.