Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 6; How to Use a Skinner Box

In Part 5, Advice For…, we have an abstract argument that operant conditioning could be an effective tool to curb some of the activities of a nation-state. We want the Russians to cease subversion of our political process via social media and fake news.  B.F. Skinner’s numerous publications explain in general terms how this should be done. Now let’s get specific.  A U.S. response, what Skinner calls the reinforcer,  to inhibit the Russian operant,  should:

  • Occur quickly after the operant, preferably overlapping the operant itself.
  • Be  implemented according to Skinner’s research on schedules. This rules out actions that are one-shots, without the possibility of unlimited repetition.

Since we’re dealing with a supra-organism, a nation-state, other requirements can be inferred. Unlike a small furry animal in a box, which knows when it is shocked and when it gets a treat, we must ensure that the Russians are aware of both their operant, and our reinforcer. This is what you did, and this is what we’re doing. It may take the form of a simple note,  a web page, or a PowerPoint presentation. Who do we want to target?

  • If the reinforcer is known only to a small elite group, the effect of the reinforcer can be obviated with spurious explanations.
  • if the reinforcer is widely known to the Russian public, then it risks what Skinner’s warning on page 120 of Beyond Freedom and Dignity, reinforcement of the wrong thing. If viewed as a political threat, it forces the Russian government into a propaganda war. This is counter to the goal.
  • We want the behavior modification of our reinforcer to increase the satisfaction of the Russians as well as ourselves. In other words, we want to them to feel happier if they stop, than if they continue despite the reinforcer.
  • This is best achieved if a high-to-mid level of the Russian bureaucracy is aware of the reinforcer.
  • The process must be fair. It must not be subject to political manipulation that changes how the Skinner Box works.

We want a low key public approach, neither a whisper or a shout, that the Russian propaganda machine would prefer to skip over, rather than amplify.

Our actions are reinforcers that significant Russians, and those who approach significance, care about. What should they be? The Russia sanctions are analogous to the person-to-person behavior of passive aggression. This is the psych term for aggression by one person against another by not acting. In foreign relations, “passive aggression” is the only form of aggression that is rarely interpreted as a casus belli.

Five cabinet-level departments have the potential to implement Skinner’s reinforcers: State, Commerce, Justice,  Treasury, and Homeland Security. The actual ability to do so relies on a framework of administrative law that only partially exists. Changes to administrative law for this purpose may encounter resistance. Bureaucrats may protest a legal intrusion. Entrenched interests may lobby intensively.

But the threat to democracy is as great as Nikki Haley says. So this is what we need to do:

  • For sanctions already in place, administrative law must be developed that permits changing the sanctions with the speed required to implement Skinner’s requirement, that the response overlap the operant. This implies lifting some sanctions, but with the supple threat to reimpose, in days if not hours.
  • Specifications should be developed for new sanctions that, too severe for the long term, could be used in the short term as responses to operants.
  • The large body of administrative law under the purview of State and Homeland Security should be examined for possible use as operant responses.
  • This is our Skinner Box. It has to work smoothly and rapidly. This cannot be accomplished through a normal deliberative process. A central authority, with  technical expertise in operant conditioning, should work the levers and, with the help of the intelligence community, measure the result.  The State Department fits well as the umbrella, provided that political insulation can be provided.
  • After Russia has spent some time in our Skinner Box, they should have a feeling akin to the exhaustion of the impulse of a small furry animal, but in words: “Why are we doing this? We’re getting nothing out of it.” The possibly unattainable perfect result would be if this feeling were accompanied by no other, such as rage, anger, or desire of retribution. We just want them to quit.

So that the Russians understand why a reinforcer is used, we have to give them least a hint of why. There could be a metric, based on the level of social media hacking, volumes of fake news generated, and other forms of subversion, according to a semi-public formula. A simple daily chart, attachable in emails, would explain our dissatisfaction. The only constraint on openness is the need of the intelligence community to “obfuscate” , to partially disguise the data. We can’t allow the Russians to discover in detail how we monitor subversion, or how to game the system.

The Russians have expressed continuing interest in cooperation in the fight against terror. Russia’s long southern border should make this their most important foreign policy concern. The Ukraine, Assad’s genocide, and uncertainty about Russia’s actual goals in the region are strong deterrents to cooperation. Perhaps things will change, creating new possibilities for engagement with Russia.

Ironically, the more engagement with the Russians, the greater the possibilities to deter their noxious habits of political subversion. The Russians have their own technology of subversion and social control, developed  in the Soviet Union, and to the pinnacle  in East Germany as Zersetzung. An effective Western counter strategy must also leverage technology, of which operant conditioning is one example.

Next: Ethics, theirs, and ours.










Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 5; Nikki Haley, Russia

The central premise of what follows is that a sovereign state like Russia, or any other state, composed millions of people and myriad competing interests can, for the purpose of behavior modification, be treated like a small furry animal. This was broached in U.S. Expels More Russian Diplomats; try Rat Psychology Instead.

Russian readers may prefer a big furry bear. But a small furry animal allows us to apply the methods of B.F. Skinner, who set out his philosophy in one of the great humanist reads without an index of the 20th century, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. The strongest argument in favor comes from  turning Skinner on himself. Skinner  believed behavior is deterministic, that we are all biologic robots, that  free will is an illusion; that all behavior comes from the effect of environment on the organism.

Skinner (page 200, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) writes,

What is being abolished is the autonomous man–the inner man, the homunuculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity.

But since modern physics has severely dented the mechanistic universe, Skinner is wrong. Since readers are mainly interested in foreign policy, I won’t delve deeper. Beyond Freedom and Dignity is contemptuous of the mind that free will implies.  But his  learning method, operant conditioning, is widely used today in the design of educational tools and methods. If he was on the wrong side of the free will argument,  it doesn’t matter — the method works.

This suggests we don’t have to be too particular about what’s inside the head. It could be a brain, a robot, a crazy person, or a body politic. The only specification is that it exhibit behavior that is initially spontaneous, called the “operant”, which is to be reinforced or inhibited by training. In our case,  subversion via social media is to be inhibited.

To Skinner, as far as training goes, the basic method, operant conditioning, is the same if the subject is a small furry animal, a gold fish, or a human. From human, it’s a short hop to consider a nation-state as a kind of supra-organism. The concept was demonstrated several hundred million years ago by eusocial insects, such as ants and termites. Humans are eusocial.

If you take your time with Beyond Freedom of Dignity, the philosophic prose can be decoded into common sense insights. Page 120, second paragraph tells us how to housebreak a pet.  Negative reinforcement should immediately follow wetting of the carpet. It should be immediate, or it may condition something not intended. Quoting,

Behavior cannot really be affected by anything which follows it, but if a “consequence” is immediate, it may overlap the behavior.

Operant conditioning can also be used with music lessons, learning foreign languages, or improving the behavior of children. Skinner promoted it as a humane alternative to traditional punishment, such as corporal. Traditional punishment requires a competent intellect to associate the occasional severe punishment with the behavior to be discouraged. But nation states do not possess competent moral intellects. Operant conditioning can  be used with autistic children to reduce self-harming behaviors. It can even be used with robots! So why not Russia?

Skinner supplied schedules of reinforcement, detailed recipes for the intervals at which reinforcement should be applied. With negative reinforcement, it saves the subject from the discomfort of negative reinforcement in excess of need. With positive reinforcement, schedules save dog treats.

How do the Russia sanctions fit into the above? The sanctions are analogous  to what Skinner would call a punishment of an individual in a moral or religious paradigm. They appeal to us as an extension to the tradition of Western moral education of the individual, to which Skinner compared operant conditioning as the superior and more effective choice. But the recent sanctions cannot be made part of an operant conditioning approach.  And history provides no instances of nations that have received moral educations via punishments administered from abroad.

Next: the mechanisms for operant conditioning of Russia, or any other sovereign state.




Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 4; Nikki Haley, Russia

Politico: Nikki Haley on Russia meddling: Election interference is ‘warfare’ Quoting,

“I will tell you that when a country can come interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare. It really is, because you’re making sure that the democracy shifts from what the people want to giving out that misinformation,” Haley said Thursday at a forum hosted in New York by the George W. Bush institute. ”And we didn’t just see it here. You can look at France and you can look at other countries. They are doing this everywhere. This is their new weapon of choice. And we have to make sure we get in front of it.”

In part, Haley was responding to (ABC) Vladimir Putin’s statement at a Sochi conference,

“An unprecedented anti-Russian campaign has been unleashed in the United States,” Putin said. “After losing the election to Trump, they have put all the blame on Russia and engaged in a frenzied anti-Russian hysteria.”

Haley may be right, maybe it is warfare, but the word may carry us in the direction of ineffectual response. The (BBC) Russia sanctions passed on August 2 are close to the most severe yet reasonable response, yet the Russians are still running their troll farms. In Advice for a New Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Part 1, I wrote about  mechanisms. But the New Subversion is in a new class, requiring new mechanisms. It’s really more like pest control, or training someone out of a bad habit. Subversion is a highly intellectual activity. A habit is mindless. What is the connection between the two?

It has to do with the characteristics of organizations. Vladimir Putin has been variously cast as the ultimate arbiter of a society, or as the ultimate mastermind of Russia. It is obviously a mix. Quoting  James Clapper from  (WP) Full transcript: Sally Yates and James Clapper testify on Russian election interference,

“The Intelligence Community Assessment concluded first that President Putin directed and influenced campaign to erode the faith and confidence of the American people in our presidential election process.”

So Putin was the mastermind of this. But Putin is also the head of a huge organization. Once an organization gets a ball rolling, it keeps rolling from sheer inertia. Russian subversion is a huge, industrial scale activity. Even  Putin has limited personal capital. When he initiates  an activity that is successful, his personal capital increases. If he shuts it down, his personal capital takes a big hit.

Even if the election hacks, and possibly most of the New Subversion, are Putin’s brainchild, these activities are now the shared meme of a vast organization. In crafting our response, it is a mistake to think we are now dealing with an individual. We need to influence an enterprise, something more like a huge corporation. Organizations have activities that become policies, engaged in without continuous, thoughtful evaluation. This is mindless, just like a habit.

So we need to create a continuing situation that will eventually cause a broad swath of Russians within their government to ask themselves, “Why are we doing this? It’s not paying off.”

This calls for linkage, plus some new tools. There will be nothing secret about it. Vladimir Putin, read along with us 🙂

To be continued shortly.






Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 3

Part 1 of Advice for a New Secretary of State is about the kind of job-skill knowledge that can be found in books, and the kind that cannot. Students of military tactics study the tactics of famous and successful generals, but nobody can lay a finger on exactly why Alexander Suvorov may have been the best general of all time. He never lost a battle, but why?

The reasons include leadership,  expertise that cannot be bottled, and  luck. Of the many generals throughout the ages,  luck shone on a few. Those who had luck preferred it. Lefty Gomez said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Part of it is the situation, finding a space to work in. Since World War II, the space in which the Secretary of State operates has been constrained by other power centers that want to work in the same space.

In Advice for a New Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Part 2, the suggestion is offered that Russian subversion could be handled as a foreign policy issue by the mechanism of linkage. This is so novel, you might ask, why can’t it be handled by statute and by law enforcement?

There were two Red Scares. The official “run times” were 1917 to 1920 for the first, and 1947-1957, with considerable overhang, for the second. Each scare was characterized by an actual threat. In each case, the response had elements of fakery. The Palmer Raids of 1920 were justified by the display of bombs that were just balls of iron. The second Scare featured McCarthyism,  precisely a modern form of witch-hunt, ruining the lives of complete innocents, as well as those whose socialist beliefs did not approach the definition of sedition.

The first Scare did not even deter the growth of communist sympathy in the 20’s and 30’s.  The second Scare was followed by intolerance in America for communism, but this was mostly due to the actual threat posed by the Soviet Union, not the burning of witches. The second Scare  damaged civil rights in America for a long time, lingering into the 70’s.

In The Anatomy of Revolution, Crane R. Brinton likened a revolution to the fever of illness. It’s time for another analogy. The second Scare provoked a prolonged autoimmune response;  the body-politic attacked its’ own tissues, weakening and damaging them. Like an autoimmune disease, there was no way to turn it off. Only the turn of generations, the passing of the electorate, could do that.

If the American public were smarter, could they have detected the fraud that was Joseph McCarthy? In Part 2, I offered:

Homework:  Google Of Moles and Molehunters: A Review of Counterintelligence Literature, 1977-92, by Cleveland Cram. download the pdf, and read. (I can’t provide a functional direct link.)

The answer is No! The literature of counterintelligence is both captivating and sad. The  fears and fakes in the microcosm of the intelligence agencies mirror the larger world.  James Jesus Angleton corresponds strongly to Joseph McCarthy. True, Angleton’s character was mysterious while McCarthy’s was malevolent, but both destroyed  innocents in rough proportion to the sizes of their communities. The brilliant analytic minds of the intelligence communities were just as vulnerable to fits and fears of traitors as the larger world. Smarts didn’t save them.

Angleton’s success in finding moles in the C.I.A. was zero. The few  possible moles that actually existed outlived him. McCarthy’s record  is slightly better; nine possible moles. But in the process of discovery, he strafed the crowd.

But this  old problem of rooting out “commies”  was much easier than the modern equivalent. Excepting a few very professional spies, the bearer had a set of characteristics, an ideological point of view,  social contacts, sometimes even a party card, that could be assembled, though frequently in error, to a conclusion. This was the basis of McCarthy’s extortionate demand to “name names”, to betray your friends. Associations are still important with security clearance. You are known by the friends you keep.

The old threat came from individuals who knowingly worked for Russia as moles inside the U.S. government.  The threat persists. Without ideology, motivated by pecuniary gain, frequently fronted by legitimate business, it has enough novelty to be part of the new subversion. It’s not part of this discussion.

What does the above have to do with today, with attacks through social media, using unwitting agents who repeat and amplify? The common element is that defense from within damages our society. Social media is pervasive, so statutory attempts to stop the flow of fake news would amount to the end of freedom of speech. Voluntary work by social media hosts and users is the most that can be done within our society.

The more of it that can be carried out by means  external to our society, avoiding the autoimmune response,  the better.  Let’s concentrate on mass media and social media, because it is particularly amenable to a foreign policy response.

To be continued in a bit.


Where are you? World Map of Readers

(Click to Enlarge)

Today’s readers came from 20 countries. You are a sophisticated bunch. The prize for the most internationally aware nation  goes to the U.K. Per capital, UK readership is about 10X the next ranked country. In absolute terms, UK readership leads the world on many days. The U.S. lags, mired in self-preoccupation.

There are occasional outliers. The other day, someone from Mauritius showed up. Since detailed statistics might affect the privacy of some readers, they are not provided.

Thank you. I wish there were more of you 🙂

Trump Decertifies Iran Nuclear Deal

Reuters: President Trump to decertify Iran nuclear deal in major shift in U.S. policy, with additional cooks stirring the broth: U.S. lawmakers set plan to fix ‘flaws’ in Iran nuclear deal

I discussed outright withdrawal in  Withdrawal from Iran Nuclear; Mattis Plan; More Aggressive U.S. Strategy.

Compared to the withdrawal, this is more nuanced approach, with at least the possibility of better outcomes. What should a reader with an inclination towards open source intelligence look for?

Iran is a society split down the middle. Ultimate power resides with a clergy in partnership with a military-industrial complex, of which the prominent part is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRG). Though infused with religion, some respects of the IRG resemble China’s old Red Army, which formerly encompassed a  miscellany of state enterprises. The secular government of Iran, with some of the trappings of a democracy, is actually a consensus building framework, a kind of reactive ball of clay in the hands of the theocracy.

But the mind of the person who is occupied with religious fervor cannot contain the greatest scientific or engineering intellect. So the human resource attachments of the IRG blend gradually into a sophisticated, nearly secular, technology workforce,  dependent on the IRG for contracts analogous to the dependence of Western defense industry on secular politics. Further out in the blend, Iran’s society encompasses a large, completely secular component that completely rejects the thinking we find so odious.

Previous attempts to incentivize moderation in Iran have backfired, because when the religious-military establishment sensed an external threat, it reacted with internal repression. But when Iran’s religious establishment sensed internal threat to stability, it popped the escape valve, letting off some steam with “liberalization.” The quotes emphasize that what is given can be taken away. Liberalization, in the mind of Iran’s theocracy, does not mean ceding of ultimate authority.

The secular democracy is the window into Iran. The theocracy and IRG are opaque to open source. But to mold the consensus ball of clay, the hidden hands have to show at least fingers and knuckles. The open source intelligence enthusiast can watch this interaction.

The intelligence establishment has a hard job in this. In reaction to the decertification, and the sanctions to follow, the various public fronts of Iran will throw off all kinds dire threats of smoke and fire. Which is real? Will Iran be coerced into acting as a responsible state, or will it go totally rogue?

To be a member of the international community, or not to be? That is the question.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

North Korea Articles Index

This is an index to the 28 articles about the North Korea conflict, most-recent first. Coverage began on 2/25/2017, with the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half brother. Predictions are highlighted in red:

Catalan Independence? A Broken Political Hierarchy

Discussion, not prediction.

Spain, or the bag of ethnicities called Spain, is a democracy. Compared to countries run by stagnantly retentive elites, democracies defy analysis. For an excellent example, we need look no further than U.S. elections, to which many pundits apply much intelligence.

The semi-objective factors provide little guidance:

  • Geography. Is Catalonia isolated by geography from the rest of Spain? Not particularly. The Pyrenees protect if from invasion by the French, which is not the issue here.
  • Economics. Is Catalonia markedly subsidizing the rest of Spain? With 13% of the population, it has 16% of the GNP. Compared to the geographic variations in the U.S, this is not a remarkable ratio. In fact, Catalonia owes Spain money from a 2008 bailout.
  • The vote. 92% of a 40% turnout could well be a minority.
  • Organic cultural drive. (Guardian) Colm Tóibín: ‘Catalonia is a region in the process of reimagining itself’.

The last item doesn’t belong in a list of objective factors, but it is the capsule of everything we don’t know about the situation.  Quoting,

Madrid is not itself prepared to make a detailed case against the vote being held, but rather is insisting that it is illegal, as though the law were something that could not be changed.

This is the crux of it.  Since the Enlightenment, and the complete devolution of monarchic prerogative, there has been a gradual shift from the prerogatives of the state towards the rights of the individual, with the prerogatives of the constituent sub-states sandwiched variably in between.

In less-than-democracies, every sub unit of government, down to the individual citizen, is arranged in a rigid hierarchy of subordination. In western democracies,  this is not the case. In the U.S., even as individual rights have continued to evolve, the “rights” of  states have diminished. In western democracies, for the most part, national elections keep the bargain between the individual  regions or states, and the nation. In Spain, this “broken hierarchy” has failed.

If Catalonia secedes, this will be the first time since the American Civil War (colonies don’t count) that a modern western democracy has devolved (Scotland is close.) But until the map of Europe was rewritten in the 19th century game of “balance of power”, Europe was a continent of duchies and city states. In the wake of Napoleon, when arable land was the principle measure of strength, nations sought security in size.

Since the EU and NATO offer, on paper at least, all the benefits of size, the motivational glue of security provided by membership in a larger national organism has diminished. Such security may be more imagined than real. But Spanish politicians have shown no inclination to convince the Catalans that Spain is good for them.

Is it?