Of Terror and Tax Reform: Network Science in Action

The attacks on September 11, 2001 marked the arrival of violent jihad as a truly global threat. With that arrival came a new challenge for the defense community: how do you stop an enemy that is not a nation, an army, or even an individual actor, but is instead a network—a group of loosely-connected individuals working semi-autonomously for a shared purpose?

In their urgency to prevent another 9/11, defense professionals called upon network science, a field heretofore relegated to academia, which uses mathematical models to study complex networks.

To illustrate network science at work, imagine you are a CIA agent monitoring two suspected terrorists. You could opt to immediately eliminate the suspects; however, for all you know they could be mere foot-soldiers, unimportant to the functioning of the overall network. Instead, you elect to wait and study their communication, financial, and travel patterns. You search for a connection they have in common, called a “node.” If the two suspects—unrelated in most every way—both receive a weekly phone call from the same man, then you may have identified a third suspect. By repeating this process again and again, you can begin to map the whole network.

This is when network science really flexes its muscle. You, armed with a network map and knowledge of network theory, identify the “central nodes,” meaning the suspects with the strongest and most numerous “links” within the network. These figures would be represented at the center of your network map. They are the most valuable targets, as they are likely to be in leadership positions, or at the very least, to be thoroughfares of communication. Eliminating these targets would have the same strategic benefit as bombing a bridge or airport in a conventional war.

This is the mindset that Luke Hartig, Executive Director of National Journal’s Network Science Initiative (NSI), brings to government advocacy. Luke formerly served as Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council (NSC), where he advised White House leadership on counterrorism policy. For NSI, Luke approaches Washington D.C. the way he once approached terror cells (minus the drone strikes). He and his team analyze the connections between government insiders and identify pathways to access for his clients.

It is often said that the nation’s capital runs on connections. Luke and his team have taken that adage and manifested it physically, creating network maps for their clients. To illustrate the power of NSI, Luke spoke at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Global Supply Chain Summit about the connections that shaped tax reform within the Trump administration (see an abbreviated version of his presentation below). Luke elucidates the networks of Jared Kushner, Steven Mnuchin, and Gary Cohn, and though some information is outdated, the video still demonstrates the power of NSI. For more on  network science, watch Luke’s full presentation or view an NSI case study.