05/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saddam's Social Network Not So Foreign

In the period after Baghdad's fall, the U.S. military commanders overseeing Saddam's hometown of Tikrit realized that Saddam was most likely hiding in the area-and that he and an inner circle of bodyguards and others were directing the increasingly effective insurgency. A small group of farsighted military leaders realized that constructing Tikrit's social network back from the front-line insurgents would eventually lead them to Saddam.

Last week, Slate ran an excellent five-part series on how the capture unfolded. Armed with Saddam's family photo album, the 1st Brigade Combat Team began piecing together who was who--not in the formal hierarchy of Saddam's government, which no longer existed, but among the families that had been interlocked with Saddam's for generations and which now provided him with support. The twists and turns of the network fuel the story of that drama. A key break, for example, comes when a raid captures a lowly fisherman of no obvious interest, but who turns out to be a cousin of the fishing buddy of Saddam's top bodyguard.

At the story's conclusion, author Chris Wilson notes that network theory, despite its clear role in capturing Saddam, remains on the periphery of military intelligence. But if social network analysis is so powerful, why isn't it used more often--in intelligence and elsewhere?

The answer has several components. Some are technical in nature, ranging from the limits of the models used to gather and analyze social network data, to how that data is visualized. Those problems require technical solutions, which, one hopes, will be forthcoming from the crop of people currently working on these issues.

A much broader problem comes from the fact that while everyone talks about social network analysis, few people know what it actually is. Both of these developments can be blamed on Facebook. Facebook allows people to construct social networks and thus has greatly raised awareness of anything to do with them. Social network analysis, on the other hand, is an academic field that combines parts of mathematics and sociology to produce tools that allow us to read networks the way geographers read maps, to see the hills and valleys where power and information aggregates and disperses. Facebook is to social network analysis what Anna Karenina (or perhaps better, Bright Lights, Big City) is to literary criticism; not the analysis but an object to be analyzed. Wilson himself conflates the two at one point, talking of the American soldiers who "used the same theories that underpin Facebook to hunt down Saddam Hussein." At a panel discussion on the series sponsored by Slate and the New American Foundation, the first questioner from the audience said that given how the panel was billed- its subtitle was "What Social Networks Mean for Modern Warfare"--he expected a discussion of how terrorists are using Facebook and other forms of online social media. That the questioner was from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory--a Department of Energy facility charged with developing advanced analytical approaches for combating terrorism--shows how deep the misunderstanding about social network analysis runs.

This point isn't academic kvetching; it's not surprising that we aren't fully exploiting a tool that we don't understand but think we do. Worse, however, are the misconceptions about the role that networks play in society. As good as Wilson's article is, for example, it carries more than a whiff of exoticism. He describes how the famous deck of cards, drawn up by the Defense Intelligence Agency and carrying portraits of wanted Iraqis, turned out to be of limited use because it focused on the wrong people--people who held formal positions in the pre-invasion government, rather than the old family friends to whom Saddam now turned:

So, why weren't Saddam's post-war cronies in the deck of cards? The war's architects had failed to account for the fact that Iraqi society functions completely differently than our own. Saddam's regime had been built on top of the country's ancient tribal traditions--a heritage that he either suppressed or tried to co-opt, depending on how much he needed the backing of the sheikhs at the moment.

But how "completely different" are we are from "tribal" Iraq when it comes to the role of personal connections in the halls of power? The same day that Slate concluded its series, David Paterson ended his ill-fated campaign for governor. In the run-up to that campaign, The New York Times published a much-anticipated portrait of the governor that painted a picture of a leader in retreat, shutting himself off from his own hierarchy to rely upon a sketchy inner circle:

Those interviewed describe the governor as remote from the most seasoned people around him, and increasingly reliant on people whom he feels comfortable with but who lack deep experience in government, including his former driver, David W. Johnson, and his former Albany roommate, Clemmie J. Harris Jr., who retired from the State Police on disability a decade ago and has been appointed special adviser to the governor...."As [Paterson] became more embattled, his circle became tighter and tighter," one former commissioner said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the governor. "His brain trust was shrinking."

David Johnson, of course, went on to precipitate his boss's fall through a chain of events set off by his alleged assault on his partner. And it is interesting to note that like Johnson, Bernard Kerik, the now-disgraced former New York Police Commissioner, saw his career accelerate after serving as the driver for a powerful patron--Rudy Giuliani.

The current issue of The New Yorker has a profile of Richard Daley, the younger half of the father-son dynasty that has ruled Chicago for most of the last half-century: "The Mayor is intensely wary of outsiders, and has a small circle of confidants: his brothers--Bill, John, and Michael--and a few buddies from the old days." When, under their father's reign, Richard and Michael were appointed by local judges to handle lucrative cases, the elder Daley responded to criticism by saying, "Kiss my ass. If a man can't put his arms around his sons, then what kind of world are we living in?"

Higher up the political food chain, Barack Obama is currently under fire for relying too heavily on the Emanuel-Jarrett-Axelrod-Gibbs cluster (which, of course, overlaps with Daley: Axelrod was Daley's long-time political consultant, Jarrett was a senior official his administration and Emanuel handled fundraising for Daley's first successful mayoral race.). "It is a very tight inner circle and that has its advantages. But I would like to see the president make more use of other people in his administration, particularly his cabinet," said John Podesta in a recent Financial Times article that tallied mounting frustration over how the president has underutilized the team of experts he took pains to assemble. When the person who headed your transition team now suggests that you make more use of your cabinet, it's a sign that the concrete around the bunker has gotten pretty thick.

Obama, of course, is hardly unique among presidents in relying on a homegrown inner circle; indeed, balancing the comfort of that circle with the need for broader advice and expertise is a well-worn presidential rite of passage. And that's the point: political leaders of all stripes--Democratic, Republican or Baathist--rely upon a private, "tribal" network, particularly in difficult times. Understanding that network, along with the more formal and public hierarchical structure, is essential to understanding any large organization. Wilson suggests as much in his conclusion, when he envisions a social network of a presidential administration. (Having tried to construct one, I can confirm Wilson's assertion that it's not a simple task.)

As social networks have suddenly become a high-profile topic, it's not surprising that we treat them like a shiny new toy. But they are not new--only our understanding of them is. Nor are they a toy. They are more like a force of nature--gravity, say, or climate--that knows no boundaries. Recognizing this is the first step to harnessing their power.

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