Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Opening the windows

An idea I mentioned in my disaster book, and one that I usually include in lectures when talking about learning from close calls, is the "bust.” That's the name code breakers used in World War I when the Germans goofed up in the process of switching from one monthly cipher book to a new one. Sometimes an operator on the German front would realize he'd just sent a message in the old code (one the British had cracked after a couple of weeks of work). Occasionally he'd make the grievous mistake of resending the message in the new code (one that the British hadn't cracked yet). The bust was a Rosetta stone for British and American code breakers. It saved them hundreds of hours of work that otherwise would be required at each replacement of a code book.

So in general, think of a bust as a unique, unexpected event that opens a view into a secretive world that could be a money laundering network, Enron traders, Wall Street derivatives, a Ponzi scheme, or an arcane industry that had virtually no outside scrutiny beforehand, like deepwater drilling.

Disclosed emails are the most reliable source of busts these days (eg, the "Enron email corpus," still studied by academics), but busts also come in the form of a briefcase of files found in a plane crash, the testimony of Alexander Butterfield during the Watergate hearings that revealed Nixon's secret taping system, a tractor that fell into a smuggling tunnel in California, and many more. I've collected accounts of hundreds of busts over the last five years.

A recent example of the bust is the discovery of two interrogation videotapes under a desk, made in 2002 at a CIA-financed prison in Morocco. Until this disclosure, the official story was that no videos survived from the rendition days.

There are more busts to come as hundreds of thousands of pages of documents from the Deepwater Horizon blowout reach daylight. Already the emails and letters and meeting memos tell us about previous close calls, neglected maintenance, and internal debates.

And there are many more leads out there, waiting for some kind of breakthrough. One of the strangest was a string of fires at an Iron Mountain records storage facility in New Jersey, in 1997, never solved, that strongly indicated some group was extremely serious about destroying some company's files. So serious about it, that there were three fires in ten days ...

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