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March 05, 2005

Adventures in Astroturfing: Anonymice

Found this while perusing the morning's email. It seems the anonymous author of the unsolicited Air Marshal emails objects to my characterization of those letters as "Spam," among other things.


I read today with dismay, your blog describing some of my e-mails as "astroturfing", and that we are some part of a politically-themed SPAM network.

I assure you that you couldn't be farther from the truth.

The Air Marshal ALERT e-mail list goes out to media outlets, pilots, crews, a few blogs such as yours (24 to be exact), 911 organizations and family members. My list is non-political.

I really don't understand your statement that my e-mail address is faked, it is not.

The only way for a specific blogger's page to get onto my e-mail list is when I have noticed the blog mention matters relating to Air Marshals. That was the case for your blog.

95% of my e-mails are articles from newspapers regarding Air Marshal matters, and I usually give the links to the original articles.

Occasionally, I will send out an e-mail when an air marshal writes a particularly insightful post, such as two I recently sent out from an anonymous air marshal.

This is my personal e-mail address, and I really don't understand all this conspiracy theory and listing my e-mail header information on your Blog as if I was some criminal SPAMMER.

Its very simple actually, if you do not like receiving my e-mails, did you ever think of just hitting the reply button and typing in REMOVE?

You have been so concerned with political conspiracy theories, that you never allowed yourself to actually digest the e-mails I sent detailing what REALLY matters --- the lives of airline passengers and keeping this country safe from another 9/11.

I have removed you from my e-mail list.

First, some definitions;

Spam - Unsolicited e-mail, often of a commercial nature, sent indiscriminately to multiple mailing lists, individuals, or newsgroups; junk e-mail.

I suppose one could argue that the emails I and others have been getting aren't "indiscriminate" in that the correspondent chose us based upon some predetermined conditions, but how is that different from the spammer's "targeted audience?" It really doesn't matter if the ultimate origin of the emails is an individual or group. The fact remains we did not ask to be on such a list, and the reaction of the Air Marshall emailer to my characterizations--"You should unsubscribe"-- is exactly what spammers the world over say when they encounter such an accusation.

Spam is not defined by content, but rather by delivery method. Whatever the merits of Air Marshal emails, how their author chooses to send that content is what defines them as Spam.

Astroturf, Astroturfing - Creating the impression of public support for an organisation by paying people to act as if they're members of the public supporting the organisation. When really, the whole thing is staged.

This can often take the form of writing in support of the organisation to newspapers, posting on message boards in response to organisation criticism, and writing to Attorneys in support of the organisation.

For online posts, creating these false public identities can be as easy as signing up for a free email account and creating a fake name... [ emphasis mine]

Astroturf has its origin in public relations. The point of a such a campaign is to "Put your words in someone else's mouth... There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are. Any institution with a vested commercial interest in the outcome of an issue has a natural credibility barrier to overcome with the public, and often with the media."

It's one thing to do as the anonymous Diplomad did; create one's own blog and post there. You can even email other bloggers in the hopes of attracting eyeballs for those posts. It's quite another thing entirely to email some pre-prepared list of bloggers and others in the hopes that your words will be reprinted in multiple places.

Given the missives in question, the simple fact is that, when it comes to newsworthiness, the method chosen for delivery of the Air Marshal emails is as germane to the issue as their content is. Given the transparent nature of blogs, it would have been remiss of me to have not mentioned it. Note that I never disagreed with the content of the emails. I noted the fact that they were Spam and published the content as it was sent to me.

Were I the author of the emails, I would have considered this a success, as a number of people agreed with him, and to date it does not appear as if the emails have appeared anywhere else on the web. Given that, removing my email in a fit of pique would seem like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.

Update: Maybe it's about keeping the nation's air travelers safe, and maybe it's not. A Friend of Hraka who works in D.C. as a government watchdog says that the interesting thing about the Air Marshal unrest stories is that FAMs is experiencing growing pains. That group--along with the rest of the DHS--is facing a minor union problem, which may be what is at the root of the campaign against FAMS Administrator Quinn.

The unions are restless about the new personnel regulations, and have at least one suit underway, and others threatened (if not already filed). Remember how the Democrats complained about the Republican's campaign in 2002, over the union bending (if not busting) portions of the Homeland Security Act? There was substance to that fight, it wasn't mere partisanship. Since the Act demanded civil service accountability, DHS wrote new human resources regulations, along the lines of what is being piloted at DOD.

The recently released regulations should be fully implemented within a couple
years. They provide that:

- you can get fired if you screw up (hard to do in the old civil service) or
under perform (impossible in the old civil service);

- pay will be linked to job performance;

- semi-annual counseling will be augmented with more frequent (weekly, daily,
hourly if necessary) performance coaching and mentoring.

DHS's numerous unions are upset about the new regs because their workplace role is greatly diminished. While rules varied from union to union, general government/union rules applied. A worker could have union representation on every rank&file / management interaction. Anything could be grieved, and most government managers feel like they can't get rid of dead wood, they are procedurally hamstrung by the unions. A lot of times, job performance standards were written into the collective bargaining agreements, and anything outside the scope of the job didn't have to be done - again in line with federal government norms, and entirely unacceptable if you think about the types of emergencies DHS will have to respond to, where any innovative kind of attack will be something that was not imagined previously, and thus "outside of my job description."

Here's news of the suit filed by the unions, which will apparently be consolidated into a single complaint:

And here's AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney's argument about the regulation:

While pay banding, pay for performance, and performance coaching are private sector best practices, and have been piloted at DOD, the DHS rollout is the first time it has been attempted at a large agency. Moreover, as Sweeney correctly states, it may well revolutionize the civil service and the rules will be imposed on other agencies by the OPM, Office of Personnel Management.

The union's efforts to fight civil service reform would inspire an ironic laugh, if DHS didn't already have well known growing pains, and if all civil servants performed well. In my experience, it is a mixed bag, with most CS's doing good work, a lot doing great work, but way too many bad apples who can screw up your day if you are in a negotiation, trying to make a filing, or just trying to find information.

FAMS is known to have growing pains. They basically doubled in size, from a number of Air Marshals that they wouldn't release to the public, to a number twice that big. That article basically gives away the number, BTW... As Malkin has reported, the post-9/11 growth of FAMS was so fast, that a number of Air Marshals initially deployed had to be retrained due to tactical errors in their entry training doctrine. (Dot coms sometimes get too big, too fast, too; it's the nature of human enterprise, to grow and grow askew, I think).

There are probably some cultural frictions as well - double the size of your office overnight, and see how well it works for you. The guy whose essay saved New York - James Q. Wilson - wrote a book on organizational culture called "Bureaucracy." He took a look at organizations like Panzer divisions, high schools, and the Social Security Administration, and talked about how you develop and preserve agency culture. One problem he identifies is rapid growth. Growth often wipes out a good agency culture, breaks its positive habits, and overwhelms its positive direction and momentum with a bunch of disorderly people, or a bunch of folks who wreck the culture and discipline of the organization.

Thus, while Administrator Quinn seems to be acting like a real hardass toward his Air Marshals, given the recent staffing up, I might turn into a hardass too. A lot of things he is doing seem senseless until you think of FAMS as a law enforcement agency, and then haircuts, suits, and an insistence on travel under true name seem more like things you would do to keep a law enforcement agency under good discipline, until the rapidly growing organization has built up a culture of personnel and leaders who can self-manage. When I was a young guy, I worked in plainclothes law enforcement work and actually achieved a supervisory rank at a young age. I always figured it was better to start a young man or woman out in well-groomed hair and a uniform - you can always let them grow their hair and wear jeans and apply relaxed hours and no formal procedures, but it's almost impossible to get people to self discipline, if they aren't first in the habit of external discipline. If you think about the Astroturf and complaining as a sign of indiscipline, then Quinn's disciplinarian side seems more reasonable than at first blush.

On the merits of the original claims in the first Malkin column on this, I travel a lot for business, and see a heck of a lot of people on planes with short hair and business suits, which are the two big operational grips of the Air Marshals regarding Quinn's regime.

The marriage of 20 or so smaller agencies within DHS appears to involve money friction as well, just like any marriage. Old funding streams didn't get redirected properly. The DHS components indicate that operations aren't suffering - this would tend to imply that the administrative staff is under funded. Such under funding is probably the source of hurt morale and the cause of a lot of disgruntled ICE employees who blab about it - the Post had a story on this a few weeks ago. And what comes with administrative understaffing? Why, scheduling problems and forced overtime for agents, two more of the FAMS complaints.

Michelle Malkin obviously has at least one source who is a disgruntled agent, who doesn't like Administrator Quinn - probably somebody from the old leadership cadre or upper-mid management that was in place when he arrived, who isn't so prosperous now. There's nothing new about that kind of article - her stuff is just the usual Washington sniping that pissed off civil servants pull on their political managers all the time. Justice and State are famous for it.

The Astroturf campaign is unusual though. I don't have evidence of this, but if I had to guess, I'd say that the union caught on to some stuff a disgruntled FAMS agent told to Malkin, and has started to circulate that via Astroturf, or has even taken a hand in publicizing grievances along those lines to the press. The local shop steward is always the best source for complaints and gossip. It also could be that there is an open revolt in the ranks at FAMS coupled with a fairly sophisticated effort to publicize the mutiny and win support for the mutineers, but federal agents normally aren't like that... Another possibility is that it's a shot across the bow of the other components from the unions, warning them not to mess with the terms & conditions of the workplace, or else there will be repercussions.

DHS appears pretty challenged by money & personnel issues, but they won't do any better in the future if the public debate about their roles, funding and activities is framed by a bunch of people engaged on an anonymous vendetta against the FAMS administrator, motivated by the Administrator's desire that his troops to wear good clothes and get regular haircuts. Public debate does affect what agencies do - the reorganization woes brought on by the shotgun marriage of 20 or so agencies in the Church of DHS will taking years to sort out; and if the Astroturf campaign can get Quinn (a small fish in the DHS senior leadership world) fired or muzzled, it will send a message to the other DHS components to soft-pedal plans to get tough on employee discipline and accountability.

Of course, if FAMS' collective bargaining unit (or one of the other unions within the Department) is a substantial source of this problem, then Michelle Malkin is effectively working for the union. That's possible, I suppose: if the President can act like a Wilsonian and praise Roosevelt II, and the Democrats can tout a Buchananite foreign policy and use a Klan member to call Republicans Nazis, then it must be alright for Michelle Malkin to work for the Wobblies. But it begs the question: since the world has turned upside down in the last couple years, does this mean Eric Muller will simply call out the Pinkertons to respond to Malkin's next book? And will my dog start walking on hind legs wearing a suit and smoking a pipe?

Ok, by my count that's two anonymous sources appearing in the pages of Hraka regarding troubles at the Department of Homeland Security. Who says bloggers can't be like the mainstream media?

Posted by Bigwig at March 5, 2005 01:32 PM | TrackBack
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.

Well Bigwig, even if he addressed you as Silflay, at least he didn't call you Hraka.

Posted by: Blackavar at March 6, 2005 09:20 AM

I tried to track back to your post from my post today on the widespread practice of Astroturfing (thanks for the pointer to urban dictionary). MT blocked me as spam. I am a real blogger, I just happen to read the blog posts into a podcast. Can you remove me from the MT blacklist, mr. Bigwig?

Posted by: Charlie Quidnunc at March 23, 2005 01:21 PM
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