Well, since the Occupy Wall Street protests are the flavor of the week, it’s probably about time I get off my Duff and figure out what I have to say about them. I’ve had a huge amount of difficulty in writing about this and have started and discarded draft after draft. This one may be no more coherent than those that were banished to the electronic hell that is the delete button but I suspect I won’t be able to do much better anytime soon.
From an intelligence perspective protests like this are a bit difficult to deal with. People have an inalienable right to assemble and protest…BUT…let’s face it, the ‘haves’ tend not to like it when the ‘have nots’ get uppity. In this regard it fundamentally doesn’t matter if the ‘have nots’ are from the left (Occupy Wall St.) or the right (Tea Party). Both make the powers of the status quo nervous (and perhaps others) and when those people are nervous they tend to call upon the forces security forces to do something.
The question is what should they (and here I’ll refer specifically to intelligence)do? I think the default answer should be a qualified nothing. Studying trends in political rhetoric, activism and protest is important if for no other reason than to be able to identify what’s ‘normal’ and if there are any indicators of such movements veering from ‘acceptable’ activities to violence. That prevents people from freaking out when some knucklehead writes on his facebook page that 20,000 anarchists are going to burn down your city.
I’m reasonably confident you can do that without embracing a police state, needing to focus on individuals or worrying about if person X attends anti-war rallies or person Y is a member of the NRA. In order to make sense of these things, however, you need context. You can only get context by observing and studying something.
However, we live in highly partisan times. Everything is political. So, people (like me) were a bit freaked out in 2009 when protesters were showing up at rallies with a wide array of firearms and talking about ‘watering the tree of liberty with blood’ while participants seemed honestly befuddled that anyone could interpret anything they were doing as threatening. I suspect that for some who have moved beyond disdain for the Occupy movement they’re equally freaked out that the Bastille is about to be stormed and the guillotine sharpened.
This makes understanding context both very necessary AND very difficult. Asking anyone to delliver an assessment on something as complex as a grassroots, multi-cause political movement when the limit of their knowledge about such movements might be what they heard about the Battle for Seattle is going to be fraught with peril.
So, for example, a leftist group recently placed several firebombs near Berlin’s train station. The group apparently objects to Germany’s role in Afghanistan and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning. It’s not hard to imagine someone linking that event with the Occupy movement that’s trying to go international (I’m very confident you can find a ‘free Bradley’ sign down there or an anti-war message) and before you know it you’ll see all sorts of alerts and assessments talking about the ‘potential’ for terrible, terrible things to happen.
Further, these things can fall victim to the echo chamber of the media (both old and new). The more you hear of protests like this, the more significant (and, depending on your point of view, potentially threatening) and immediate they seem. Here’s where the current system of hundreds of agencies charged with doing intelligence in the U.S. breaks down. The intense pressure for every agency to have something to say about these major events (so they can demonstrate to their overlords that they’re ‘all over’ the situation) translates into hundreds of bulletins, alerts, notifications, etc. And, I suspect, even if they ALL say that something along the lines of ‘there’s no information of a credible threat posed by event X’ the simple fact that everyone is generating reports (and flooding inboxes around the nation) seeing this flood of reporting will have an effect (conscious or not) on how recipients view these protests. After all, people don’t get alerts about the local Girl Scout cookie sale at the supermarket. But if you crafted an assessment that said something like:
“While we have no evidence of a threat, the possibility remains that a psychotic Girl Scout might get brainwashed by al-Qaida and inject cookies with weaponized anthrax.”
I’m pretty confident that if you get enough agencies to put their stamp on such things you’d see a pretty dramatic drop in cookie sales (that’s good…more for me!).
That firebreak or reality check should be something analysts are prepared to handle.
On other Occupy news:
Some dude seemed to want to win the Douchy Person of the Year 2011 recently when he (an assistant editor of a conservative rag) decided to run a false flag operation. He joined an anti-war group with the intent of going to a protest and confronting police. One assumes his intent (in addition to winning the DPotY 2011) was to create the impression that these protesters are dangerous, violent and must be crushed.
I suspect someone missed their glory days of frat pranks a bit too much.
In any case, this is relevant here, again, because of the issue of context. While this certainly isn’t a trend (with an n=1) it can be valuable to know that partisans may attempt to infiltrate movements in order to discredit them and (at least in this case) there can be real public safety consequences (the protest ended with police deploying pepper spray).
It is surprising that even though it is 2011, representatives of the status quo still think the best way to deal with these sorts of things is through heavy handed repression. While we no longer unleash dragoons to cut through the unwashed masses the idea that everything will go back to normal if we crack a few heads seems a bit dated and counter-productive.
Nate Silver tries to derive how much attention the protests have gathered throughout their life and
comes to the (not too startling) conclusion that police (perceived) over reactions led to significantly increased media coverage of the event. Now, I suppose if you were a tool of capitalist oppression you could parley increased attention to an information campaign designed to alienate the population from the movement and we’ve certainly seen some examples of that in stories that highlight the drum circles and hippy dippy types. That’s a pretty tough tiger to get by the tail, however, and one wrong move (like pepper spraying a young woman) can cause you to lose control of your message pretty quickly.
Gregory Djerejian has what may be the best post on the subject I’ve seen. Read it now…thank me later.
“I believe some minded to be more wedded to the status quo may be more rattled than they have been to date by the Tea Party (which in its aim to minimize Government’s role has an agenda often convenient to Wall Street’s current mood). This is because they are directing their ire squarely towards the real elites of the country, rather than their paid up for marionettes sitting in Washington.”