Freedom (?) of Information

June 21, 2018

Last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published an interesting piece on US immigration policy[1]. In it were the details of a dispute between ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a “small research group at Syracuse University”.

That dispute involves ICE records dealing with deportations and detainers. After providing this data to TRAC under the FOIA (US Freedom Of Information Act), ICE stopped last year.

Its reason? The “records TRAC has asked for don’t exist in the form requested and [ICE] says producing responses would require searching its database, a process [ICE] claims amounts to creating new records”. And ICE says that under FOIA, it is not required to create new records. So more data for TRAC.

In response, a  lawyer for TRAC asserts “That just can’t be right, because that’s basically true of all [US] government records right now.” Depending on how the litigation comes out, the FOIA may become increasingly useless to researchers, including those of us in CI.

Maybe this is just one agency out of sync, a one-off situation? No, rather it is just the gradual continuation of a long-term trend that access to government records under Federal and State law is being narrowed for any number of reasons, some good, some not so good. For example, in 2007, Carolyn Vella and I wrote “As the war on terrorism continues, we can expect that access to more and more data currently held by the government will be impacted. Most likely, it will be subject to the typical back and forth of politics.” [2]

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or,”The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing.“

[1] “ICE’s Disappearing Data”, Bloomberg Businessweek, June 18, 2018, pp. 42-44.

[2] “Competitive Intelligence, Corporate Security and the War on Terrorism” – Business Technology Leadership (October 30, 2007).

The 4th of July 2017

This coming July 4th holiday celebrates the independence of the United States of America. My significantly better half, Carolyn Vella, reminded me that this began the process that established some of the critical liberties that enable us to post blogs like this and, yes, to conduct competitive intelligence research. Here are just two of them:

At the Virginia Ratifying Convention, on June 9, 1788, while debating the ratification of the US Constitution, Patrick Henry rose to say

“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them…. [T]o cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business, is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man, and every friend to his country.”

From the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1791, provides, in part that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”

These fundamental rights were later extended to protect US citizens from state governments as well as the federal governments. In 1925, the US Supreme Court stated that

“[W]e may and do assume that freedom of speech and of the press which are protected by the First Amendment from abridgment by Congress are among the fundamental personal rights and ‘liberties’ protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from impairment by the States.” Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

Celebrate the 4th of July’s gifts of liberty.

Guest Blog: Mental Preparation for Interviews

August 31, 2016

In a previous blog, John hit the high points of preparing for elicitation interviews. But what he did not cover, as Carolyn pointed out, was the mental preparation of the interviewer before ever picking up the phone. While that will vary for every CI data collector, there are a couple of proven ways to get your mind in gear for this stressful task. These are not cumulative, but rather more of a menu. What they have in common in finding a way to relax your mind and to center it on the interaction during call, not on anything else:

  • One of Carolyn’s favorite tricks is to work on her persona for the call. She refers to this as developing her Diva. That means getting into the mode of determining what element of your personality you want to project on the call, and then focusing on it well before picking up the phone. Then, once you are on the phone, it is Show Time!
  • For John, the focus is on clearing his mind (no jokes here, please). To remove his attention from whatever else is going on, he sometimes plays a couple of online hands of solitaire or games of Mahjongg. By focusing for two or three minutes on winning these games, he tamps down any other immediate distractions he has.
  • In a book John just reviewed, Ellen Naylor, a mutual friend of ours, has a variety of suggestions, one of the most creative of which is practicing relaxation breathing exercises just before calling.
  • Another tip is to anticipate and shut off all distracting background noise, such as a radio in the office, as well as your smart phone, starting a couple of minutes before the call.
  • Also, consider shutting off the email entirely, temporarily, until you are finished with the call and its transcription.
  • Some people just get up from the desk and walk around, getting a cup of coffee, or a drink of water and then sit down and start right away.
  • If you do not know the person you are calling, before you dial, try to visualize what that person looks like. Then, when he or she answers, quickly try to update that image. That way, you are immediately focused on that person, and not on you.


John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella

Puzzle Me

June 15, 2016

In competitive intelligence, you will often hear our analysis compared to doing a jigsaw puzzle:

“One way to look at intelligence is to visualize a jigsaw puzzle. You start with many individual pieces of data that initially seem to be meaningless and unconnected. When you put them together correctly, however, they produce a picture – valuable intelligence. One key difference between intelligence and a jigsaw puzzle is that, when you deal with intelligence, you may have to remove some of the pieces and not use them”. [1]

More recently, the finance world has focused on what it calls Mosaic theory. That is, wait for it, “a research approach whereby the [financial] analyst arrives at a conclusion by piecing together bits of publicly available information.”[2]

Why the difference? Well, Mosaic theory certainly makes the analysis sound harder than doing a jigsaw puzzle, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we just use that term?

To be fair, each stresses the power of sound, well-directed analysis applied to the results of diligent and focused data collection. And remember, without those pieces, whether you call them puzzle or mosaic pieces, there is nothing to analyze.

Now, back to the names. Mosaic theory has some association with issues in the criminal law, specifically search and seizure cases and insider trading of securities. If you are really curious, here are a couple of (not very easy, but very good recent) reads[3]. Suffice it to say, let’s stick with the term puzzle, and avoid mosaic. Leave that to financial analysts and archeologists.

[1] In fact, this was already an established analogy when Carolyn Vella and I used it in The Internet Age of Competitive Intelligence, 1999, Quorum Books, p. 104.

[2] (accessed June 14, 2016).

[3] Orin S. Kerr, “The Mosaic Theory of the Fourth Amendment”, 111 Mich. L. Rev. 311 (2012), and Allan Horwich, “The Mosaic Theory of Materiality – Does the Illusion have a future?” 43 Sec. Reg. L.J. 129 (2015)

Tell the Story

April 27, 2016

The other day I received the nicest complement. I asked Carolyn Vella, my partner in all respects, to read a draft of a report we were preparing for a client.

Why Carolyn? Because she is my toughest critic. How tough? Well, when I got a contract for my first book (actually she got it for me), I was thrilled. I sat down and started. Soon I had an introduction and several chapters done – or so I thought.

Carolyn took a look at them to edit them and soon gave them back to me. The introduction was crossed out with the sole marginal note “B*** S***”. I then looked at her edit of chapter 1. She had crossed it out completely with the pithy editorial observation: “More BS”.

I was shocked, but she was right. They were terrible. By the way, I still have the original manuscript. Anyway, as you can see, she is one tough editor/reviewer.

Reviewing this report, she spotted an error on page 9 where I had misspelled an executive’s first name. And that was it. So I asked “Anything else?”

She said “Yes. I enjoyed reading it. It was interesting.” A business report that was enjoyable to read, that was interesting? And you thought that an interesting business report was an oxymoron.

What made it interesting? It looked at a target and told a story, with a consistent “plot line”, without too much jargon (one of the many flaws of that first MS), without many footnotes[1], and with headings that let the readers know what was being discussed. And those headings created a table of contents that let readers go right to a portion that they might need to read, and to skip those they did not need.

Why, other than ego, try to make a report interesting by telling a story? It is very useful because people remember when they read, or hear, something interesting. In my experience, they retain more from those documents or presentations than they do from ones that are critical, or important, or strategic, or vital – or as we silently label them – boring.

Keep that in mind. To get your point across, try, at least a little, to be a story-teller.

[1] Carolyn treats footnotes (and parentheses) as inventions of the Devil. As one trained to write in law school (legal writing is a true oxymoron), I still find it difficult to write without either. Once I did law review article that had over 300 footnotes.

Everybody Needs a Rabbi

July 17, 2014

Today, I was getting ready to do this blog, and my (significantly) better half and partner, Carolyn Vella, suggested this topic. It is inspired by a book I am now reading[1], which I commend to you – and it has nothing to do with competitive intelligence. It is just very interesting.

By “Rabbi”, I mean the slang definition, a personal patron or adviser. Although, to be fair, your own rabbi could certainly be a priest, minister, imam, or even a rabbi.

Don’t I just mean a mentor? No, not really. Mentor has, for better or worse, become (too) closely associated with older, more senior associates in your business (or at least the same industry), who provide counseling to younger workers, with the goal of helping the younger to advance their careers.

No, I mean someone you can talk with, about business, family, anything. But that talk is frank and confidential. And, as noted in numerous examples in Rebbi, it can be about anything. What you want is someone you see as intelligent, grounded and willing to listen, and to teach, or even argue, as needed. Older or younger is irrelevant, and seeking out someone from your own business/industry is probably not even a good idea.

Why? Because you and I are not as smart as we think we are. And as time passes, we all come to recognize the need for someone to touch base with. I do not mean to omit spouses, family, or others in a committed relationship with you. But they are, by definition, in a relationship with you. You are looking for independence as well. And if you can find that, appreciate it.


[1] Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History by Joseph Telushkin, 2014.

July 4

My significantly better half, Carolyn Vella, suggested I write about what July 4 means.

I think that the first thing is that I could not write a blog like this (or like anything) many places in the world without facing preclearance of the contents, or of the very existence of the blog, and/or facing post publication sanctions, both official and “unofficial”, ranging up to death.

Pretty severe, right? Right.

That is one way our First Amendment means so much. It not only permits us to communicate with our government, it allows us free communication with other, without which there can be no education, no free exercise of religion, no intellectual or social advancement of any sort.

So, on July 4, we celebrate the liberties enshrined in the First Amendment and also honor the lives sacrificed to guarantee those liberties.

God Bless America.