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Three Takeaways from Two Tragedies

(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

My dad used to tell me that a mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. In this sense, the tragedies of justice that are the Norfolk Four or the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham will only become more tragic if we don’t learn from them.

Three key mistakes were made by the detectives and prosecutors in both cases. And this all applies to the intelligence/national security arenas, as you’ll see.

1. Human intelligence doesn’t work if it is coerced. Confessions can be forced, with or without torture. Bribes can lead to bad leads (think jail house informants). Unfortunately, downrange, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on both interrogations (which lead to bad confessions) and bribes of informants (which leads to bad tips).

2. The defense was weak. Some of the saddest interviews in both “Death by Fire” and “The Confessions” are when the defense attorneys have to defend themselves. In both stories, the attorneys didn’t believe their clients were actually innocent. In the U.S. military, and at places like the CIA, none of the analysts believe any of their targets are innocent. Just imagine the mistakes that will occur.

3. The prosecutors were over-zealous. On one hand, I don’t blame Army commanders or counter-terrorist professionals for their drive to succeed. I do blame them, though, for valuing quantity over quality. When prosecutors--whether of insurgents, criminals or terrorists--value quantity over quality, like in our two cases this week, mistakes are made. In the case of the Norfolk Four, up to eight different people were charged with a crime only a single person committed. A quality arrest--one person-was trumped by quantity-eight.

And if any of my readers are saying, “Your examples didn’t really show our military or intelligence agencies acting overzealous.” Well, you are right. Next week I’ll tackle those cases.

One comment

And I would mention the self-confirmation bias—people believe what they want to believe.