Politics, tech, and sausage-making: big data, big mistakes, and General indiscretion

Politics, tech, and sausage-making: big data, big mistakes, and General indiscretion

Summary: Obama wins, Romney loses, big data wins, Petraeus loses, pundits win, Republicans lose, Nazis are only tangentially mentioned, the FBI beheads the CIA, and all sausage is good sausage. You can't make this stuff up.


It never fails, here on ZDNet Government. I'll write an article about government or politics, and someone will pop up and complain that we're covering government on a technology blog. Happily, someone else will point out that this is ZDNet Government, where civics discussions meet technology and everything is fair game.

It also never fails that as the comment streams grow longer, someone will mention Nazis, but a detailed discussion of Godwin's Law will have to wait for another blog post.

Over the past seven days, we've had at least three big stories -- major stories -- where technology meets politics:

  • President Obama wins re-election with the help of a big data operation
  • Governor Romney loses his White House bid partly due to a failing data management operation
  • CIA Director David Petraeus is betrayed by his own email messages

Each of these, alone, makes for an enormous story. In fact, every one of these has had a wave of coverage across blogs and mainstream news outlets. What makes them fascinating is that they're not the usual technology policy topics we cover (like cybersecurity legislation). Instead, this is where technology is used in the sausage-making of politics, where the data meets the road.

Narwhal and Dreamcatcher

Michael Scherer of TIME Magazine has an extensive exploration of the Obama data mining operation, with projects named Narwhal and Dreamcatcher, among others. We knew, back in 2008, that the Obama campaign had given unusually high priority to the capture and analysis of prospective voters. Email addresses and other personal information were actively gathered at various rallies, and some rallies were held more for the purpose of data acquisition than donations -- a first in politics.

The Romney campaign, really, really expected to win. But millions of unexpected voters showed up and voted.

But it's the 2012 operation that's fascinating. If you paid even a short visit to the Republican side of the blogosphere this last week, you'd see a feeding frenzy of blame. Key to this is the simple fact that the Romney campaign, really, really expected to win. But, out of the blue (pun!), millions of unexpected voters showed up and voted.

These voters were "got out" in large part by the big data organizational machine of the Obama campaign. It's likely that some of the swing states Obama handily won would have been lost without a data-optimized get-out-the-vote operation.

Aside: I really want to know the technologies used by the Obama campaign. If any of you out there know, or can put me in touch with the IT guys inside the campaign, please contact me.

Beached ORCA

While we're on the topic of funny code names, nothing deserves more attention than ORCA, the Romney data management project named after the large marine mammal.

ORCA was a neat idea, sort of. The plan was to deploy thousands of smartphone-toting volunteers into swing states, who would monitor voting patterns in real-time. They would report this information into some sort of Orca-central Romnulan Batcave, where the data would be crunched dynamically.

As a result of all these incoming streams of data, get-out-the-vote volunteers would be dispatched like schools of salmon. The GOTV workers would be sent to precincts where more votes were needed to push swing states over the edge into red territory, thereby scoring the state for Mr. Romney.

As my CNET colleague Dan Farber so eloquently put it, it got harpooned, instead. Orca beached. It flopped. It died in the sun. It failed oh-so-bad.

Not only did it completely misrepresent the voter turnout, misleading campaign leaders, it crashed and glitched and couldn't handle the load. As we all now know, Mr. Romney did not win the election, and part of the blame can be assigned to his failed GOTV operation.

One of the more interesting facts about ORCA's namesake, the Orcinus orca, is that remains of other killer whales have have been found inside the stomachs of killer whales found dead on the beach.

Sadly (but to the great amusement of those of us in need of daily editorial material), the GOP, now pretty much dead on the beach, is eating itself from the inside out. Look, this isn't a partisan thing. If the Dems did this to themselves, I would be equally amused.

And, speaking of digital self-destruction, please let me introduce you to America's most famous four-star general, David Petraeus, Ph.D.

The David Petraeus mess

This one is just weird. Petraeus, until earlier this week, was the director of the CIA, a position held three decades earlier by "Poppy" Bush, who eventually became the 41st President of the United States. Petraeus, who came to fame as leader of the Afghanistan war, was widely considered a possible 2016 presidential candidate.

The Petraeus mess was the result of a relatively low-level FBI investigation into email harassment.

Now, however, Petraus joins a select club -- claiming members like Gary Hart and Jon Edwards -- of people with presidential aspirations whose careers were completely undone by the inability to, well, keep it in their pants. 

As CBS News reports, the Petraeus mess came to a (ahem!) head as a result of a relatively low-level FBI investigation into email harassment.

Petraeus resigned as CIA director three days after the election. Read into that anything you'd like. Everyone else is.

Apparently, one Paula Broadwell had sent harassing emails to a Tampa-based military fundraiser, Jill Kelley, about her long-time friend-level relationship with General Petraeus. When the FBI examined the emails, they discovered emails between Broadwell and Petraeus, indicated he'd been in an illicit affair with Ms. Broadwell.

The damning evidence was hidden in the General's Gmail account.

As you might imagine, the national security implications of a U.S. CIA director (and possible future presidential candidate) hiding an affair from his family and the nation were of deep concern. It's not that he couldn't control his little general, it's that this is the stuff that fuels blackmail opportunities -- and you just don't want CIA directors on the easy hook for blackmail.

Of course, without email, the former four-star general might not have ever been caught. Oh, you say you want to know about Mrs. Broadwell, the general's inamorata? It turns out that Paula Broadwell is the author of a biography of General Petraeus. The name of the book? All In.

Seriously. You can't make this stuff up.


Topics: Big Data, Google, Government, Government US, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • After all this fancy computer stuff...

    the most telling big data point that everyone missed was that in many important contests, more people voted than were registered, by a large margin.
    Tony Burzio
    • you can't just make stuff up...

      or relay the ravings of the lunatic fringe without interposing your brain to assess credibility. Can you please post something from a credible source (ie, board of elections tallies of registered voters and votes cast by precinct) that substantiates your claim?
    • Proof?

      Can you point to a link or reliable source to substantiate what you're saying?
  • the devilcrats stole this election

    by fraud and by lieing the American people using the lame-stream media!
    Now, the same depraved devilcrats are sending sluts to compromise honorable American heroes that defended us against the muslim plague.
    The Linux Geek
    • It is obvious that ....

      the psychedelic drugs you are on are still working splendidly. If nothing else, your posts are entertaining in a strange kind of way.
      • You Didn't Know?

        You didn't know the Muslims sent in under-cover agent Broadwell to seduce and blackmail Petraeus? :)
    • Srsly?

      I'm guessing you're being sarcastic here.
    • off your meds?

      Linux geek - I usually appreciate your comments, I'd like to see Windows desktop OSes replaced by Linux variants, but I think you've gone rather far off the deep end here. Apparently a majority of Americans didn't perceive the Dems to be lying, or not lying as much as the Republicans. Sluts to compromise honorable American heroes? Any man that takes up with a woman who is not his wife can hardly be described as honorable. Muslim plague, seriously? Since when are linux folks racists? Perhaps you should stick to things on which you're well informed and leave the interpretation of the news of the day to others, you're clearly not qualified.
      • Single Party system!!

        Bought the auto unions (bailout), bought the woman voters (birth control, federally funded abortions and other HHS mandates via Obamacare) , bought the immigrant voters (no respect for the borders or proper media coverage for "Fast and Furious" gun supply coverup), counted votes by a George Soros owned company in Spain (wondered why the American people footed Michelle's trips to Spain?) and established a possible fraud ridden early vote system to all Americans which understandably existed for the offshore military vote, and so many others than just deceased pro-democrat ballots. I'm sure the liberal media have hidden many more!!
        • Reality check

          Republicans still control the House. If Obama was elected by fraud, then why didn't the fraudsters at least arrange for him to have working majorities in both houses of Congress?
          John L. Ries
          • Read again

            "possible fraud" Please understand even if Romney had won I never endorsed all the scenarios given to allow multiple or fraudulent voting. Early or extended voting days should only be allowed to American citizens overseas. As far as majorities established in all 3 branches it would make the voting system seem less credible to the Republicans (more allegations of fraud) and since when did Obama need all 3 branches anyway? He has established far too many laws via executive order while congress was in recess.
  • Timing is Everything

    Patreaus to testify next week, taken down this week, private scandal leaked, TOTAL COINCIDENCE!

  • All is not lost?

    Given the records of a number of Republican politicians, Petraeus may STILL have a shot at the GOP nomination next cycle. While Democratic politicians in recent years (except Bill Clinton) have crashed and burned after "personal" scandals like this, Republican politicians seem to be immune, or "confess and repent" and get back on the political horse, if their views are extreme enough. Newt and Herman are doing fine (Newt's second, and third and current, wives were his mistresses while married to his first and second; and his first wife was his teacher with whom he had in improper romance while in her class). And one Republican Congressman who insisted the only exception to an abortion ban should be the life of the woman, not even rape and incest, asked his own mistress to get an abortion, and the conservative news media IGNORED the story. I have not checked to see if he was re-elected, but since he is from Tennessee, he probably was.

    So take heart, General, Democrats would love to run against you in 2016! At least you didn't try to stage a coup like General Scott in "Seven Days in May" ... or did someone in the administration find out about ECOMCON and then use the scandal to get you? Just kidding ... I hope.
  • The Republicans aren't dead...

    ...or anywhere close to it. Romney lost, but got a lot closer than the Lichtman criteria would have suggested (this time, I didn't look at them until after the election, to keep from being swayed). There are any number of prominent Republicans (Conservative or otherwise) that would make credible presidential candidates in 2016 (including Mr. Romney himself) and the Republicans still control the House of Representatives.

    Some things to remember:

    1. In 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern lost by a landslide, but 2 years later elected large numbers of new members of Congress and in 1976, elected Jimmy Carter. Watergate was indeed a factor, but not the only one.

    2. Since 1856, no Democrat has been elected to succeed another as President. The closest any has come was Al Gore and he lost by one vote in the Electoral College (even though he had a narrow popular plurality). Sorry to say, I am very confident that the Democrats will find a way to blow the 2016 election too.

    I've been hearing reports of the impending demise of one or the other of the major parties for the past 40 years. It hasn't happened and I don't think it will in my lifetime.
    John L. Ries
    • Please let me edit my posts

      Of course, it was the Democratic Party that made major gains in Congressional seats in 1974 and raised Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976.
      John L. Ries
  • RAH RAH yea Go Obama.....

    just remember 30 or more states are considering secession under his watch. Good job !!!!
    • 30?

      Please provide a list and maybe some specifics on what sort of consideration you mean (bills introduced in legislatures, or voter initiatives and how many votes they got).
      John L. Ries
      • He can't, but I have a better idea...

        Partman...none of the states you mention are going to secede, just petulance on the part of election losers, but nothing stops you personally seceding. Conservatives of another era (they were genuine conservatives) used to say "America, love it or leave it." Why not try another country, see what you think. We'll let you come back if you can find your way home.
      • Possibility

        I read on an MSN news clip and I did say "considering" and I felt a sense of pain reading it. I understood that Texas had collected 60,000 signatures of a required 25,000 for Whitehouse consideration. as for specifics I only gathered a few states were very serious some were even blue states. What has become of the Republic ? I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
        • "Considering" is a vague term

          People, even politicians, talk all the time, but serious consideration in 30 states? I assure you that if very conservative Utah (where I live) were one of them, I would have heard about it (the Deseret News, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and hardly a Democratic bastion, would surely have reported any serious secession talk).

          I'm guessing that there's some secession talk in Texas and Alaska among Conservative activists, and among native activists in Hawaii, but there will be no bills introduced and no initiatives on the ballot in the forseeable future.
          John L. Ries