Thursday, September 7

Golden Oldie: "There was just so much money to be made"

Pundita is on vacation until September 16. The following essay was originally published in February 2005.

I don't know the total attendance figure for the three day National Intelligence Conference & Exposition but I'd guess it was under 1,000. So even if each attendee and speaker represented, say, 10,000 others working in an area of defense, policing, and private security, and excluding the number of active duty military in democratic nations, they could be characterized as the few who protect the many.

I hasten to add that attendees included a small but vocal minority whose only connection to the defense/security fields was that of Concerned Citizen. Pundita was a proud member of that group and relieved to discover it was represented at the conference. The second day of a conference always finds the ice broken. People you see on the first day remember you the next; conversations strike up, and by the last day Pundita was waving at people who were perfect strangers two days before.

Lunchtime on the second and third days found Pundita chattering like a magpie with people who had shyly avoided conversation with strangers on the first day. By the third day there were no more strangers. The gravity of the conference had sunk in. The theme of this year's Intelcon is "Widening the intelligence domain to include the public" but it could have been subtitled, "The dark side of consumerism in the globalized trade era."

Boomers will recall a fashionable saying during the activist 60s: The enemy is ourselves. Pundita had cause to recall the saying many times during the conference. Somewhere out there was Them during the decade running up to 9/11: the vote-chasing politicians who traded their country's security concerns in exchange for high poll numbers, the appointed officials who for partisan reasons suppressed vitally important issues relating to national defense, the businesspeople who pandered to tyrants in exchange for a piece of 'emerging markets,' the industrial spies and lobbyists who sold to the highest bidder. And of course there was what we call The Enemy: the one who prepared to make war on us.

Yet behind it all stood -- us, and our demands for faster and cheaper, and our refusal to care or even ask about the real human cost of all that efficiency and cost savings.

And so as Russians watched their children shot in the back while fleeing a schoolhouse in Beslan, they couldn't allow themselves to think too hard on the end of the road for a defense industry that sells to despotic regimes which support terrorist armies.

And so as Spaniards retched at the sight of mangled human body parts strewn around a train station in Madrid, they couldn't allow themselves to ponder overmuch the penalty for refusing to look closely at an immigrant community that functioned as Spain's servant class.

And so as civilian volunteers searched the dust of the World Trade Center for traces of the dead, they couldn't allow themselves to think too hard on the real price for cheap Arab oil.

"There was just so much money to be made," explained one of Pundita's lunch companions on the second day of the conference.

He was speaking of the Bubble Years. His firm, as with all other computer firms caught up in the bubble, knew their products had 'back doors' a mile wide that could be exploited by hackers working for industrial spies, unfriendly governments and terrorists. But velocity, not security, was king. The customer demanded products that were easy to use, priced cheap and above all delivered fast. Those who gave the customers what they wanted quickly raised up trade empires; those who didn't went under.

Have things changed all that much since 9/11? Well, that was partly what Intelcon was about: to discuss where we were on 9/11 with regard to intelligence gathering/security issues, how far we have come, and the ground still to be covered.

The people who came from the four quarters to attend the conference represented a vast improvement in priority-setting. Pundita spied a name tag belonging to a worker for the recreational parks services in a western city--a city that wouldn't likely be near the top of the terrorist hit list. So the voters in that city are awake, and demanding that more tax dollars and attention be given security concerns. The lunch companion that Pundita mentioned--after 9/11 his company snapped out of the dream, and they had the money to restructure their products and priorities around security issues.

The other side of the story was neatly summarized by one speaker, who said that for many companies "risk assessment" still equates to hiring MBAs instead of intelligence analysts. And by a Concerned Citizen, who described herself as a Liberal Democrat who refused to watch Fox cable, but who demanded to be kept better informed about the war on terror.

She was hooted down by Fox TV loyalists but Pundita took pity on her stated predicament. After the seminar we told her about the John Batchelor program, which looks at the war from the viewpoint of US national security rather than Democrat and Republican party lines. She replied that she would explore the option but added that her real concern was President Bush's lousy handling of the war on terror.

What would she have Bush do? Bomb nations when they threaten to put up trade barriers because of US demands for better security measures at airports and containerized shipping ports? Cut off diplomatic relations with London, Berlin and Paris because they insist that appeasement works? Ship US congressionals to Gitmo when they put pork barrel demands of constituents ahead of vital national and regional security interests?

And just where does the buck stop for all that? If you're a citizen of a democratic nation, go look in the mirror for the answer.

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