Thursday, February 02, 2006

Faulty Intelligence?

I am so sick and tired of hearing the phrase ‘faulty intelligence’ in relation to the Iraq War. Its getting to the point that the next time I hear it in person, my Rant Regulator ™ will almost certainly fail and I will spend 10 minutes explaining in a “declamatory voice” the errors the speaker has made.

Back in the day, I was an intelligence specialist in the Army. I was in for 8 years, mostly at Ft. Bragg, and was a linguist and analyst. My only permanent assignment was to a tactical unit (meaning I actually went into combat zones and had a rifle and stuff, unlike strategic intelligence goons) and I spent almost 8 months in the Gulf as part of Desert Shield/Storm. I also did a temporary assignment to the National Security Agency, where I got to be a strategic goon for a while, too. I liked intelligence work, I worked hard, and (as a natural consequence) I was a good at it.

Let me be very clear: as a combat veteran, I support the troops. Heck, several friends of mine still are troops and are serving with distinction right now. Since we started a war and have overthrown the former government, we are morally obligated to stick around until the country is stable. I also think that things in Iraq are going much better than the MSM is showing, and the people I know there are very upbeat and positive about how they are helping.

But in the run up to the Iraq War, I was very negative. I do not think the U.S. should ever fight a pre-emptive war (Afghanistan qualified for my support, since they aided and harbored organized groups attacking America) and Iraq was demonstrably unwilling to do more than snarl at us. I was against the invasion of Iraq and said so. But I never, ever doubted that Saddam Hussein had WMDs. And I was in the august company of many other people.

So why was everyone from Bill Clinton to Carl Rove certain Saddam Hussein had WMDs? Simple; he had made them before, used them before, and Saddam claimed to have them. He was shown to be very good at misleading the U.N. Weapons Inspections teams. As for the various ‘debunked’ items; Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa; al-Qaeda members did meet with Iraqi officials and there is strong evidence al Qaeda received some aid or training from Iraq (although not a lot); chemical weapons have been found in Iraq since the invasion, although in small numbers. Although the MSM treats these items as refuted, they are not.

The main reason I get frustrated, however, is over something that is at once more basic and more complex than if Saddam had mustard gas in missiles the day before the attack. That is the fact that “intelligence” is not either fact or knowledge. “Intelligence” is the attempt to answer questions or obtain forewarnings based upon the analysis of information, often secret. Another similar definition can be found here. In short, ‘intelligence’ means ‘your best guess about something you don’t know based on the things you do know’. Or, as one of my fellow intel geeks used to say, “if we already knew, it would be called a fact”. The assumption that intelligence is always correct is the assumption that intelligence agencies have crystal balls and ESP. Intelligence analysts take the information that they have (favoring that which can be confirmed) and try to extrapolate what they don’t know. In critical areas you have teams of analysts working together to get a broader perspective; this also means that they disagree. The natural result of some unconfirmed data and natural disagreement is why high-level intelligence reports are filled with caveats; the analysts are doing their best, but they don’t usually know. Thus, complaining that caveats indicate shoddy or poor intelligence is laughable. And concluding that intelligence was ‘flawed’ or ‘faulty’ because it wasn’t 100% accurate is like blaming a statistician for outliers. Sometimes, despite everyones best efforts, intelligence is wrong. This leads analysts to err on the side of caution.

Let’s use an analogy here to demonstrate what I mean. Walk with me for a minute. Let’s imagine that apple pies are illegal (throw me a bone here, people). Now, a guy in your neighborhood named Bob has been caught making apple pies before. He threw an apple pie at his next door neighbor a few times, even fed one to one of his own kids. The cops raided his house once and found all sorts of pie-making materials. Since then he has been fined for his proclivity for pie, but he remains defiant. Police inspectors have been by his house, but he refuses to let them see his basement or his second pantry. After a bit of this, the local detective tells a judge that he thinks it likely that Bob is making pies again, or at least still has a pie or two from before, and wants to search the place. The judge grants a warrant and in goes the SWAT team.

Bob and his family fight back a bit, but are subdued. The police search the house as best they can and find a counter covered in flour, bits of crust here and there, and empty pie tins all over. The cinnamon and sugar containers are empty, but his receipts show he bought a pound of each not too long ago. The guests at Bob’s house include an apple expert and a pastry chef, both of whom Bob was paying. Last of all, the air smells of baking apples. But the police, who stood outside with bullhorns for 3 hours before raiding, can’t find pie.

As a result, the press accuses the detective of making up the evidence, demand an investigation of the informants that talked to the detective, are very upset at the judge that issued the warrant, and hope all the SWAT team members get killed by Bob’s pastry chef. As time goes on they demand that the detective and judge be fired and impeached, respectively, and that the police force be disbanded. At the same time, they worry about poor Bob, who is now on trial for his former pie throwing.

Kinda' ludicrous, isn’t it? Yet, that is about the depth of the entire “Bush lied, people died” chanting that is going on out there. Yet it led to years of justification by the administration and, eventually, to Bush apologizing.

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