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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.


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