Sunday, February 18, 2007

"Do Our Freedoms Make Us Weak, Or Do Our Freedoms Make Us Strong?"

One of the best comments posted at Glenn Greenwald's site is the following challenge to Bush supporters: "Do our freedoms make us weak, or do our freedoms make us strong?"

It is an excellent challenge to pose to people who forever treat our freedoms as a source of weakness. Obviously, there is only one politically correct answer; our freedoms make us strong. But it is not sufficient to be politically correct; to prevail one must also be factually correct. Supporters of the "unitary executive" have their reasons why our freedoms make us weak:

* The warrant requirement keeps us from wiretapping possible enemies;
* We lose valuable information because we can't torture it out of suspects;
* The press reveals important secrets to our enemies;
* Debate and dissent give our enemies and impression of weakness;
* Laws tie our President's hands and keep him from doing what has to be done.

Such are the arguments for why freedom makes us weak. The best factual argument that freedom makes us strong is to compare us to un-free societies such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or, for that matter, the former Soviet Union. Consider, then, the following ways freedom makes us strong.

Un-free governments have to use much of their armies' strength to curb popular unrest at home. We do not need to use any military force to curb domestic unrest.

Un-free governments often need much of their armies' strength to guard their borders against hostile neighbors. We do not need to use any military force to guard our borders.

Rulers of un-free governments live in fear of military coups or mutinies. They therefore dare not allow the armies that keep them in power to be too well equipped or trained, and they have to choose military officers based on loyalty rather than ability. Our military poses no danger of coup or mutiny, so we can make it as high-quality as possible and promote officers based on ability.

Un-free governments have great numbers of angry and dissafected people who serve as potential recruits for revolutionary movements. We have almost insignicant numbers of would-be revolutionaries. (Keep in mind one reason the 9-11 hijackers went unnoticed was that they were 19 people out of a population of 300,000,000. And not one of them was an American).

In un-free countries, disagreements take place in secret and often lead to political murder. Our disagreements take place openly and lead to nothing worse than lost elections.

As for the complaints of so many Bush supporters:

Un-free governments do so much domestic spying they overload themselves with useless information. Our warrant requirements limit surveillance to real threats.

Un-free governments learn a great deal from torture, much of which is not true. By refraining from torture, we miss a little truth and much falsehood.

Un-free governments, by controlling the media and punishing anyone who deviates from the party line, develop severe reality deficits. Our free press makes it much harder to ignore reality (although George Bush has made heroic attempts).

In un-free countries, open displays of dissent are considered dangerous because they mean the people are losing fear of their government. Among us, open displays of dissent pose no danger because the government does not fear the people.

When un-free societies have rulers unrestrained by law, their rulers invariably abuse their power to their own private advantage instead of the public good. We have abuses of power, too, but they do not go so far.

And finally, un-free societies do not have a good mechanism for getting rid of rulers who bring ruin. We do.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Intelligence Analysis versus Manipulation

So, now theWashington Post has reported that the Pentagon Inspector General found that former Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith's briefing to the White House in 2002 "undercuts the Intelligence Community" and "did draw conclusions that were not fully supported by the available intelligence." This will presumably be the opening salvo in a great investigation and debate as to whether the Administration manipulated intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. To which most reasonable people would say, "Well, duh!" It has long been known that the Vice President's office, distrusting the usual intelligence agencies, set up its Office of Special Plans (OSP) in the Pentagon to sort through raw data to look for any items that would support the case for war. Is this not, by itself, proof that intelligence was manipulated to support the case for war?

According to Bush supporters, it is not. Rather, they say, it was an attempt to correct systematic biases and errors by the intelligence community. Pro-Bush blogger Captain Ed believes that Feith was simply doing what Congress and the 9/11 Commission recommended, expressing dissenting views. "Back then, dissenters got celebrated as visionaries who had the courage to try to wake up the decisionmakers. Now Congress wants to punish someone who essentially did what Congress demanded during those reviews." Feith made similar arguments in an interview with NPR:

The criticism that is being directed now at my former office is because my office was trying to prevent an intelligence failure. We were - we had people in the Pentagon who thought that the CIA's speculative assessments were not of top quality. They were not raising all the questions they should raise and considering all the information they should consider.

What Feith and his defenders are ignoring is that he is not being criticized for presenting dissenting viewpoints, but for how he reached his conclusions. Feith and his colleagues were not just raising shaking up the intelligence community with new and unorthodox ideas, they abandoning sound methods of intelligence analysis and instead cherry picking material to support his own preconceived notions. Feith's defenders might reply that his critics are defining "sound analysis" to mean reaching conclusions they like and "cherry picking" to mean reaching conclusions they do not like. But there are objective standards of what does and does not constitute sound analysis.

There is a reason intelligence agencies filter raw data before passing it on to policy makers. The material they gather, along with valuable information, includes an abundance of unreliable witness accounts, gossip, hearsay, fourth-hand rumors, lies, enemy disinformation, and a few outright forgeries. One of the jobs of intelligence analysts is to determine what is genuine. Even genuine material is not all equally valuable. Like a good journalist or historian, a good analyst should beware of single sources, should give due weight to conflicting evidence, and should search for overall trends and patterns rather than rare anomalies. Trees can be important, but don't overlook the forest! Of course, unlike a journalist or historian, an intelligence analyst is looking for threats that can get us killed, it does seem a reasonable rule that the more alarming a report, the more investigation it merits and the higher the more disproof should be required before it can be dismissed. But that is not the same as automatically believing every alarming rumor.

Granted, all this is easier said than done. Analysts can be fooled into believing inaccurate information or dismissing genuine material as false. They can dismiss findings as anomalies only to find later that they are important, or they can miss the forest for the trees. There is plenty of room for even professionals to disagree on what constitutes good analysis. But there are some things any amateur should be able to recognize as bad analysis. Examples would include: Relying on documents widely believed to be forgeries and contradicted by investigation on the ground. Overriding the judgment of nuclear scientists that aluminum tubes going to Iraq were not suitable for enriching uranium. Believing accounts of mobile bioweapons labs from a single source, widely viewed as a fabricator. Ignoring the professional judgment of the Air Force that Iraqi unmanned drones were unsuited for delivering chemical or biological weapons. Underlying all these individual errors was a basis error in approach. Instead of examining the evidence to see what conclusions it would support, Feith and the OSP began with a conclusion and then looked for supporting evidence, regardless of source, that would support it.

Significantly, Feith and his defenders do not focus on on the OSP's search for any and all evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The well-publicized cases of bad data they accepted, and the lack of physical evidence of such an arsenal are too embarrassing. Instead, they discuss the OSP's attempts to prove links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, a claim much more difficult to disprove. In the murky world of international intelligence and terrorism, everyone has contacts with everyone else. Indeed, some conspiracy theorists have even found evidence (of dubious quality) of contacts between Bin Laden and the US. Searching through the murk for evidence of contacts between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda, Feith found evidence that the two organizations had some contacts during the 1990's, put out feelers toward each other, and considered a collaberation. But there was nothing concrete to indicate that Saddam supplied al-Qaeda with money, weapon, training, havens or other meaningful assistance. Feith's defender's argue that the OSP was simply trying to overcome CIA preconceptions that groups as ideologically opposed as Islamicists and Baathist would not cooperate, But, in fact, the CIA appears to have based its estimate, not just on this assumption, but on a high-level "source" that assured them there was no collaberative relationship. Furthermore, despite claims that CIA had a bias against believing in such a relationship, Paul Pillar, the former CIA senior analyst for the Middle East points out that too exhaustive study of such links can create a bias in the opposite direction:

On any given subject, the intelligence community faces what is in effect a field of rocks, and it lacks the resources to turn over every one to see what threats to national security may lurk underneath. In an unpoliticized environment, intelligence officers decide which rocks to turn over based on past patterns and their own judgments. But when policymakers repeatedly urge the intelligence community to turn over only certain rocks, the process becomes biased. The community responds by concentrating its resources on those rocks, eventually producing a body of reporting and analysis that, thanks to quantity and emphasis, leaves the impression that what lies under those same rocks is a bigger part of the problem than it really is.
Granted, intelligence officers' judgments can be faulty, and following past pattern creates a bias in favor of looking at past threats that may miss a new one. But Pillar is, again, pointing out the dangers of beginning with a conclusion and working back to find evidence for it.

The important point to keep in mind about Feith and his defenders is that they are not conceding that the OSP was wrong, about Saddam's ties to Al-Qaeda or even (potentially) about WMD. In fact, they believe they have an ace up their sleeve proving the OSP was right, the Iraqi Freedom Documents. These documents are a collection of some 48,000 boxes of documents captured in Iraq. Although the CIA and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) found nothing in these documents to change their viewpoints, at the insistence of Congressman Pete Hoekstra, they were made public, and numerous Bush supporters are pouring over them, looking for evidence to support the OSP's judgment. They do, indeed, appear to have found at least one significant document from 1995 about contacts between Saddam's government and Bin Laden, and others that are suggestive.

Nothing in these archives, however, has changed the minds of intelligence professionals. They are subject to the same caveats as any other intelligence source -- they contain an abundance of contradictory information, anomalies, unreliable sources, fourth-hand rumors and the like. Historian Fritz Umbach, examining the documents, found that they contained some 40 files relating to jihadists, but having nothing to do with Iraq. (He speculates that either Iraqi intelligence departments downloaded them from jihadi websites, or U.S. forces could have "captured" them by downloading them from locations inside Iraq). And administration supporters are showing every inclination to duplicate the errors of Douglas Feith and the OSP on a larger scale -- starting with a conclusion and cherry picking any evidence that will support it.

The OSP and its defenders today are operating under a series of assumptions. They assume that any amateur can analyze raw data as well as a professional, that intelligence professionals who disagree with them are inherently biased, and that their own views are not biased. Above all, they fail to understand what is wrong with beginning with a conclusion and working backward to support it. Indeed, convinced from the start that their conclusion is right, they presuppose that the facts must support it and that anyone who disagrees can only be speaking from bias and preconception. This is what critics call faith-based (or even Feith-based) intelligence.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

This is the Man Mallard Fillmore Wants for President

Why, oh why, oh why should I care if the comic strip Mallard Fillmore is urging Walter Williams to run for President? If author Bruce Tinsley wants indulge in foolish fantasies, who does he hurt? The proper answers are, "no reason" and "nobody." However, after being bombarded with this nonsense for two weeks, it becomes annoying, so I will go ahead and venture a response.

Tinsley, presumably alarmed at Barack Obama's promising showing as a Democratic candidate for President, feels the need to propose a black Repubican candidate to show he is not racist. This is, after all, a sign of progress. There was a time when the usual response to a black candidate was to make veiled racists attacks ("too radical," "soft on crime.") Now, instead, Republicans feel the need to counter a black candidate by running one of their own to show they are not racist. But haven't we been through this already during Obama's Senate election, when the Republicans ran a black candidate, Alan Keyes, against him, just to prove they were not racist. Only one problem; Keyes was a right-wing lunatic who ran around alienating everyone and lost by a landslide. Democrats did not choose Obama to prove they were not racist; they chose him because he was the best candidate. If Republicans had stood by their opposition to affirmative action and chosen the best candidate regardless of race, their chances of winning would have been better.

So who is Walter Williams? Walter E. Williams is a libertarian economist who chairs the economics department at George Mason University. He shares the usual government bad/private sector good view of libertarians. He even roots for the Confederacy during the Civil War, dismissing slavery as a minor matter compared to states rights. Tinsley is subtly implying that anyone who opposes Walter Williams for President must be racist. Nonsense! As a libertarian economist, Williams holds numerous extreme views that would make him unelectable regardless of his race. By rooting for the Confederacy (thus ignoring slavery as a pervasive system of government-subsidized coercion), he proves himself no true libertarian, but a neo-Confederate psuedo-libertarian. And, as a black neo-Confederate, Williams is a race traitor. Doubtless Tinsley, Williams and others like them would respond by callling me a patronizing white liberal who dares dictate what African Americans should think. Sorry, but I regard any black person who roots for the Confederacy as a race traitor. If that makes me a patronizing white liberal, so be it.

But I have one other reason for believing that Williams is (1) no true libertarian, (2) nuts, and (3) no one I would want near the Presidency. Courtesy of Glenn Greenwald, consider this recent column by Walter Williams:

Does the United States have the power to eliminate terrorists and the states that support them? In terms of capacity, as opposed to will, the answer is a clear yes.

Think about it. Currently, the U.S. has an arsenal of 18 Ohio class submarines. Just one submarine is loaded with 24 Trident nuclear missiles. Each Trident missile has eight nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. That means the U.S. alone has the capacity to wipe out Iran, Syria or any other state that supports terrorist groups or engages in terrorism -- without risking the life of a single soldier.

Terrorist supporters know we have this capacity, but because of worldwide public opinion, which often appears to be on their side, coupled with our weak will, we'll never use it. Today's Americans are vastly different from those of my generation who fought the life-and-death struggle of World War II. Any attempt to annihilate our Middle East enemies would create all sorts of handwringing about the innocent lives lost, so-called collateral damage.

Such an argument would have fallen on deaf ears during World War II when we firebombed cities in Germany and Japan. The loss of lives through saturation bombing far exceeded those lost through the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

. . . . .

Our adversaries in the Middle East have advantages that the axis powers didn't have -- the Western press and public opinion. We've seen widespread condemnation of alleged atrocities and prisoner mistreatment by the U.S., but how much media condemnation have you seen of beheadings and other gross atrocities by Islamists?

. . . . .

I'm not suggesting that we rush to use our nuclear capacity to crush states that support terrorism. I'm sure there are other less drastic military options. What I am suggesting is that I know of no instances where appeasement, such as the current Western modus operandi, has borne fruit.

This is the man Tinsley wants for President!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Again on Humanitarian Intervention

In a previous post, I discussed what could be learned about humanitarian intervention from three such interventions not involving the United States. This post will discuss the International Crisis Group's guidelines for humanitarian intervention and see how well they apply in these three cases.

The International Crisis Group proposes five guidelines to determine whether humanitarian intervention is justified:

1) Just Cause: Is there serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings, or imminently likely to occur [such as mass killing or ethnic cleansing, but not "mere" oppression on a lesser scale]?

(2) Right Intention: is the primary purpose of the proposed military action to halt or avert human suffering, whatever other motives may be in play?

(3) Last Resort: has every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis been explored, with reasonable grounds for believing lesser measures will not succeed? [There may not be time to actually try non-military options, but there must be reasonable grounds to believe such measures would fail].

(4) Proportional Means: is the scale, duration and intensity of the planned military action the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective?

(5)Reasonable Prospects: is there a reasonable chance of the military action being successful in meeting the threat in question, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction?

How well do the three non-US interventions meet these guidelines:


1. Was there "serious and irreparable harm" occuring on such a scale as to justify military intervention? Yes, there was a savage war with one to three million people killed and 12 million driven from their homes.

2. Was India's primary motive humanitarian? No, India's primary motive was to be freed of the burden of 12 million Bengali refugees fleeing the war.

3. Could non-military options be ruled out? A difficulty question, since the Pakistanis were fighting what amounted to a foreign war and had to be supplied by air. Could India have halted the war by stopping air traffic? Most likely such an action would have led to war anyhow.

4. Did India use the minimum necessary force? Yes. The Indian Army attacked with overwhelming force, which was necessary to defeat the Pakistanis quickly. They withdrew within a few months.

5. Was there a reasonable prospect of success? The intervention succeeded in ending a terrible war, so the answer must be yes.


1. Was there "serious and irreparable harm" occuring on such a scale as to justify military intervention? Yes, relative to population the Khmer Rouge was one of the bloodiest regimes ever.

2. Was Vietnam's primary motive humanitarian? No, Vietnam was responding to senseless border attacks by the Khmer Rouge.

3. Could non-military options be ruled out? It seems unlikely the Khmer Rouge would have responded to anything short of war.

4. Did Vietnam use the minimum necessary force? The initial scale of intervention was appropriate. The duration was clearly excessive, and Vietnam's quasi-colonial behavior probably prolonged the conflict.

5. Was there a reasonable prospect of success? The intervention ended the ghastly slaughter, even if a lower-level conflict continued, so the answer must be yes.


1. Was there "serious and irreparable harm" occuring on such a scale as to justify military intervention? A close call. Idi Amin was a bloodthirsty tyrant, and by some accounts as many as one Ugandan in 40 was killed during his reign. But there was not so grave a crisis as in the other cases.

2. Was Tanzania's primary motive humanitarian? More so than in the other cases, but the primary motive was retaliation for a Ugandan invasion of Tanzania.

3. Could non-military options be ruled out? Idi Amin could have been assasinated, but the harm he did Uganda would have remained.

4. Did Tanzania use the minimum necessary force? The initial scale of intervention was, if anything, inadequate to secure the country. But Tanzania's continued meddling and attempts to dominate may have contributed to the later breakdown in order.

5. Was there a reasonable prospect of success? This intervention must be accounted a failure, since it led to a civil war every bit as bloody as Amin's rule.


Considering, then, how the International Crisis Group's guidelines have applied to real world humanitarian interventions, are they sound rules?

1. "Serious and irreparable harm." This guideline is the most important. Humanitarian intervention is justified only under the threat of "serious and irreparable harm."

2. Right intentions. This one is more problematic. Self interest will always be the main reason nations go to war. In all three cases, the intervening country was acting primarily out of self-interest. Indeed, one can argue that intervenors whose interests are at stake are more likely to take their responsibilities seriously than ones acting out of purely humanitarian motives. It certainly is true that a false humanitarian concern should not be a mere excuse for a power grab. A better formulation would be that legitimate self-interest may be the primary motive, so long as humanitarian concerns are secondary and imperialist motives are absent.

3. Last resort. Certainly if non-military options will stop the killing, they are preferable. But usually the time to use them was well before the killing starts.

4. Minimum force. Humanitarian intervention is a labor-intensive business that involves securing the whole country and protecting the whole population. The problem is usually not excessive force, but insufficient resources to do the job (as in Uganda). However, this guideline is sound if it means that the intervenor should stick to human protection and not branch out into imperialism (as did Vietnam in Cambodia). A better guideline here would be that that the intervenor must be willing both to commit sufficient resources to offer adequate protection, and to limit their use to human protection.

5. Reasonable prospects. This guideline is the second most important after "serious and irreparable harm." Indeed, one could argue it is even more important. If a humanitarian intervention is unlikely to succeed, it is best not attempted. The question, of course, is how to know its prospects.


Things Anyone Should Do as a White House Reporter

This is a quick and unoriginal post, but too good to pass up. Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post has come out with a list of suggestions for reporters to ask government officials next time they want to start a war (as in now). Among the better ones:

* Just because they say it, doesn’t mean it should be make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion -- or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion -- may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.

* Don’t assume that these officials, with their access to secret intelligence, know more than you do.

* Alternately, assume that they do indeed know more than you do – and are trying to keep intelligence that would undermine their arguments secret.

* Watch out for false denials. In the case of Iran, when administration officials say “nobody is talking about invading Iran,” point out that the much more likely scenario is bombing Iran, and that their answer is therefore a dodge.

* Demand to know why the administration won’t open a dialogue with the enemy. Refusing to talk to someone you are threatening to attack should be considered inherently suspect behavior.

And many more good ones.

Later commentators made suggestions including:

For the last four years, I have been completely stunned by the fact that no one in the administration has ever stated the objectives of this war in clear terms (and no one in the media has asked for them).

And, ever, maddeningly important:

Emphasize the policy, not the politics. Journalists are obsessed with politicians and political machinations, rather than the policies that are at issue. They have it exactly backwards.