THE BLOG
04/21/2014 12:00 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

The Adventure of the Missing Algorithm

We warmed ourselves before the fire late of an April evening in this the chilliest spring Georgetown had known since Coolidge's day. My companion lay sprawled in the wicker chair puffing on his favorite Calabash pipe. The distinctive aroma of organic, shade grown Sobranie wafted through the salon. I knew from long acquaintance, though, that his mind was fixed on solving one of those intricate puzzles that so amused him. I guessed that it was the latest twist in the tortuous saga of the government's electronic spy network which had kept all of the capital atingle for weeks. I was startled then when suddenly he queried: "So what is it now about Afghanistan? I surmise that from the way your shoulder is twitching where you received the Jazeel bullet outside of Jalalabad."

I had in fact been reading the latest Huffington Post entries which did include Afghanistan as one among several troubling foreign matters. "I am inclined to think...," I began before being cut off with uncharacteristic curtness: "by all means do, that would be a welcome novelty in Washington. So many good brains so under employed."

"It is the vexed question they pose about the unharmonious sounds issuing from senior foreign policy-makers on the outlook in Kabul", I resumed. "The President has pledged that he shall leave by the end of the year; yet, he is moving heaven and earth to get Karzai or his successor to sign a SOFA that will keep several thousand of armed forces there indefinitely. They now are placing all their hopes on Abdullah Abdullah -- a man held in such high esteem that they stutter when pronouncing his name."

"You -- and your editors -- have overlooked a few items" -- revealing that he already was apprised of the matter. 'Let us not overlook the CIA's invoking of the danger presented by the remnants of al-Qaeda, now made more fearsome by their surrogates' advances in Syria and Iraq. That is a tale of grand strategy gone awry that they evidently believe the world is not yet ready for. Then there is the affair of the Turkish false flag operation that led to the chemical weapons scare. No less perplexing is the House of Saud's bout of nerves. These are deep waters indeed."

"But truly," I protested, "couldn't we explain it all simply as the trials and tribulations of novices in so far over their heads that the bubbles don't reach the surface?"

"I fear the evidence does not support such innocent theories. I should not sleep soundly if it were my nephew sitting exposed in the Oval Office."

"That situation may shortly change if I read the signs correctly" Holmes added enigmatically. The glint in his eye prompted me to press him: "Holmes - is it really possible that the White House is seeking your assistance? What an extraordinary event that we be!" I waxed enthusiastically at the prospect.

"My dear Watson, you are demonstrating singular perspicacity today. Indeed, for the past week I have been receiving a series of briefings from the highest levels of the official intelligence community at the express wish of Mr. Obama. Please accept my apologies for not confiding in you sooner. I had no choice since I was sworn to secrecy until a few small administrative details have been arranged."

"Surely those incidentals could be easily resolved," I interjected. "Your renown, and the very fact that the stakes are immeasurable, should together clear the path."

'I'm afraid that nothing in this town is that straightforward. One must remember that the government of the Suffering Servant is not at all fashioned in the likeness of Queen Victoria's realm. Moreover, we are dealing with matters of the utmost sensitivity. For my assistance has been solicited to investigate the performance of the country's sixteen intelligence agencies whose workings defy any logic known to mortal men. They expend the fortunes of Croesus year after year. They have refined the most exquisite technology. They employ thousands of brilliant computer scientists and mathematicians (one out of ten newly minted PhDs). Still, they fail routinely to foresee consequential developments that could imperil the safety and well-being of the Republic."

I knew to what he was referring. 'You mean the Egyptian military coup, Putin's moves in Ukraine, the Karzai veto, the al-Maliki rebuff, the Mali betrayal, the Rouhani initiative, Erdogan's double-dealing on Syria, ......."

"Enough Watson! The full recitation will weary your readers who are already overdosed with anti-depressants. Now if only they will remove the restraints that keep me idle here at 220A Beecher Street. I wish nothing more than to deploy my full powers in what promises to be the crowning achievement of my career. Were I to succeed against all odds, I would be content with the modest reward of official recognition of my status in this country and the granting of a Green Card. You are well aware of the acute discomfort I have endured as the holder of nothing more secure than a tourist visa. Under the Napolitano cleansing, it was demanded of me that I appear quarterly before the Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities to document that I in fact have been conducting myself as a tourist. What a degrading spectacle - exposing my duly dated snapshots of the Eternal Flame to Ronald Reagan at the A.E.I. and the new visitors lounge at the Cosmos Club. Valgame Dios!"

'It is intolerable that you should be placed in this unseemly position. Exactly what are the restraints that are binding you?"

"Your sympathy, Watson, is a token of your loyalty. But unavailing as were my recent appearances on The View and Between The Ferns. Yes, I had been led to believe that those were the only two shows that the President views with regularity. So I thought that I might thereby evoke the human compassion for which he is admired - the sad fate of his favorite aunt notwithstanding. As to practical impediments, there is first the issue of a security clearance. We must bear in mind my past associations with a remarkable number of notorious persons and shady denizens of the London underworld who figured in the many cases you have chronicled. That lout, the now deposed King of Bohemia - for one. The ruthless blackmailer Charles Augustus MiIverton of Hampstead - for another; not to speak of Black Peter."

"But surely, Holmes, the FBI and CIA have the resources to ascertain the singular services you rendered the Crown on each of those occasions. In addition, I have the impression that Lestrade is ready to vouch for you - on the assumption, of course, that he hasn't been tossed from his assisted living home by David Cameron's henchmen on the grounds that he is fit enough to cadge shillings on the pavement outside the Westminster Bridge tube station."

"That is clear thinking, my friend. However, its method is retro -- as they say here. Today, the investigation of individual cases by legwork and record searching is considered inefficient and wasteful. My trinity of tutors -- Alexander, Brennan and Clapper -- explained to me at length that the cutting edge work is done with algorithms. The ABCs of it, anyway"

"Algorithms!- what are they?"

"Bear with me, Watson. I have learned to use the word in a sentence; however, a crisp definition remains elusive. It is a mathematic formula of great complexity, and great power, that allows one to sift vast amounts of data. In the past, the accumulation of raw data was followed by its laborious sorting and categorization. That was judged the critical step toward mining the data in order to identify the persons and events whose elucidation was the object of the exercise. Then a few brilliant minds came to the realization that sorting was wasteful and unnecessary. Mass data acquisition achieved through comprehensive electronic surveillance was susceptible to assessment by the application of those algorithms whose existence was unknown to you until this very moment."

I was immensely impressed. 'Holmes, you seem to have mastered this recondite subject with remarkable facility."

"You are too kind. I have had the benefit of personal instruction from the Harvard professor whose formidable and fecund brain has produced twelve books on the subject. The world awaits eagerly the thirteenth which promises to explain what he wrote in the original dozen. Be so good as to keep your eye peeled for it on Amazon."

"An algorithm worth its equations is constructed around a complex of possible correlations and associations. That endows the algorithm search with the capacity to process the complete volume of data to ascertain what persons, located where, are worthy of attention. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, persons so identified are targeted for action that will "neutralize" them - "neutralize" being one of Mr. Brennan's favorite terms."

But can they be confident that the identification and assessment is correct?" I wondered.

"Of course not. The way the intelligence people see the situation is that if you're right most of the time, the program is valid and viable - on the ground and politically. They do admit that on rare occasions persons who may be only somewhat of a latent threat are killed - and on even rarer occasions an innocent suffers the same unfortunate fate."

"Do you mean Holmes that were we conversing in a compound in one of those benighted countries, and were we identified through the power of an algorithm as likely miscreants, we ran the risk of being blown to smithereens - along with Mrs. Hudson?"

"Indeed, Watson. Poor Mrs. Hudson would be collateral damage. She would be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for her adopted land."

"Pray understand that accurate identification and targeting is not the reason why these esteemed gentlemen have decided to call upon my services. It is that litany of intelligence failures you enunciated that is the concern of the White House. The failure rate has crossed a threshold of unacceptability - the bar is now set so low that, as my friend Motherwell at the Micronesia Bureau told me, they are holding limbo competitions at lunch hour in the courtyard of the State Department. The Suffering Servant has determined that the flaw is in his intelligence agencies - and he wants it fixed."

"Yes, Watson, I can sense your as yet unspoken reservations. It is true, of course, that serious intelligence failure most often is failure of intelligence. This is especially so when matters of political complexity and personal judgment are at play. Regrettably, I am powerless to pursue that line of reform. My mandate is to refine the algorithms so that they have the potential to incorporate those political and personal variables. You might say that I am what they call a SPE - or Special Purpose Entity."

I was stunned. My friend's great powers of observation and logical induction are unmatched. How would it be possible, though, for even Holmes to merge the qualitative with the quantitative?; the individual datum with the syncretic whole? At the very least, he required the services of a mathematical mind as supreme in its attributes as his own analytical mind."

As if reading my thoughts, Holmes followed with a revelation that left me breathless. "There is one person who has the mental capacity that is necessary. Professor Moriarty."

"My deepest apologies. John. Forgive me for the distress my precipitous announcement has caused you. Here - take some brandy!"

"By the greatest of coincidences, I recently was apprised of the most outre news about my old nemesis. For several years he lived under a pseudonym in Zurich, where he became the theoretical genius behind Collateralized Debt Obligations. Only his devotion to secrecy prevents his name from being attached to the clique option or the strangle combination. Now, though, he is transmogrified. Moriarty has been transformed into a person of the most passionate Faith. To make a lengthy story brief, he found Jesus. My sources, men of unimpeachable character and integrity, inform me that the blessed event occurred when, on a clandestine visit to London, he viewed Tony Blair's London Eye. In a moment of epiphany he envisioned himself on Judgment Day trying to fit himself through that eye of a needle. There can be no more auspicious circumstance for a religious conversion."

"Moriarty has devoted himself to a life of good works in the hope of repentance for the myriad Sins that he has on his conscience. It is only natural that he should find in America the environment most conducive to Sinners earnestly seeking to win the embrace of the Lord. The prolific community of those similarly engaged is a never ending source of comfort and inspiration."

"I shall say no more. But I do ask, my good fellow, whether you would provide me with your steadfast company tonight on a venture whereby I hope to begin to reset the intelligence services of this great country on a sound footing."

I gave my consent without hesitation. "Then," he said with a thin smile, "let us leave immediately to catch the 9:40 to Bethesda before the Metro breaks down for the night."

With compliments to Arthur Conan Doyle.