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McCulloh is a professor at West Point who had started teaching a social network analysis course in 2005, the first such course ever offered anywhere, according to the International Network for Social Network Analysis. He had 19 cadets working on social network research projects when he met Carley at an intelligence meeting and subsequently brought some of his work to her attention. They began a collaboration. One of their early network-analysis projects involved open source videos of sniper attack areas. In one kill zone, for example, the analysis detected a blue truck driving through multiple correlated videos, one time with a license plate visible. Identifying that license plate led to the eventual takeout of an insurgent cell. According to McCulloh, when the military in Iraq adopted the video-analysis technique, it resulted in an 80% decline in sniper attacks that year.
McCulloh was so pleased with the results and intrigued with Carley and her work that he applied to Carnegie Mellon to study full-time with her for his doctorate in Computation, Organizations, and Society. After earning his PhD in 2009, he returned to West Point, adding his newfound knowledge to his course curriculum. Evidently, the news spread quickly. He received an email from some prior students, then serving as intelligence officers in Afghanistan. They’d heard there were analytical tools—Carley’s tools—in use at West Point that were better than those actually in use in Afghanistan. Could McCulloh do something?
McCulloh flew over to work with the task force. Running some of their data through ORA, he identified insurgent targets in 15 minutes. These were targets the officers believed would have taken an analyst with decades of experience more than a week to identify. Even more important, ORA’s mathematical analysis resulted in verifiable outcomes. This was in contrast to current methods, which too often were based on hunches and weak connections, leading to improper arrests and botched results.
After finishing his initial analysis, McCulloh stayed in Afghanistan, training the other officers in understanding network analysis and how the underlying ORA system worked. He continued his analytical work while he taught. One day, while performing a key analysis, McCulloh encountered a difficult problem. He couldn’t convert the data files into a usable format for ORA. At wits end, he reluctantly made that phone call to Carley, at home with her family, celebrating Christmas.
McCulloh can’t believe how quickly she drops everything to spring into action, immediately devoting herself and the resources of her lab to the problem. Even though it’s Christmas break, she manages to enlist her fellow CASOS researchers, as well as necessary military personnel. Phone calls fly back and forth from Pennsylvania to Afghanistan for four days. McCulloh barely sleeps. Carley and her group are faced with the challenges of working without personal access to the classified data. Finally, the group develops a technique to translate the data. McCulloh feeds it into ORA and is able to identify a group of insurgents moving from Afghan village to village. They’re training people how to build IEDs, or improvised explosive devices—more commonly known as roadside bombs.
Months later, McCulloh hears that U.S. troops were able to find and neutralize the group. And without the insurgents’ bomb training, he learns, the level of sophistication in IED technology has fallen sharply, meaning fewer soldiers and civilians killed. He’s delighted, but only wishes that Carley and her colleagues could be compensated for their critical efforts. He knows it isn’t the first time or the last that they won’t be recognized. With or without explicit recognition, McCulloh sees the ORA software, and software developed from it, permeate the military and other U.S. agencies as more and more officers are trained and disseminate their knowledge.
Almost a year after McCulloh’s phone call to Carley, he is stationed in Iraq, spending a lonely Thanksgiving holiday. He and a colleague walk into an establishment frequented by U.S. personnel. The two spot a group of CIA analysts and sit down to chat, voices lowered. It’s an interesting conversation, and McCulloh can’t elaborate on it. Months later, he receives a call from a reporter for The Economist. The reporter’s anonymous source claims that Carley’s software may have been involved in finding Bin Laden. Can McCulloh comment? He replies he cannot.
Today, McCulloh is stationed back in the States. He had been training Iraqi intelligence officers to use the ORA software until he was identified by the insurgents and targeted three times for assassination. That’s when the U.S. military spirited him out of Iraq on a flight home. The assassination attempts were a sinister validation of the effectiveness of Carley’s technology. “She is probably doing more for the U.S. military in academic research than anyone else in the country,” says McCulloh.
Melissa Silmore (TPR’85) is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to this magazine.
Social science: Web of War