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Intel Gone Bad: The One Percent Doctrine

(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.)

“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis...It’s about our response.”
                                                    - Former Vice President Dick Cheney

In the American justice system, miscarriages of justice like the two I described last week are outliers. Anomalies. Statistical rarities. Yet, the policy described above--the centerpiece of Ron Suskind’s fascinating book The One Percent Doctrine--pollutes the entire American intelligence apparatus, and it undergirds our next series of articles. Vice President Cheney’s response to 9/11 freed our intelligence system to make as many mistakes as it could in the pursuit of that elusive 1%.

Before 9/11, Americans believed it was better to free 99 guilty men than to imprison one innocent man. When it came to the death penalty, even more so--better for 999 to go free than one man/woman give his life for a crime he/she did not commit. After 9/11, as President Cheney said, suspicion became the new threshold. As one reviewer of The One Percent Doctrine, Michiko Kakutani, put it, “this conviction effectively sidelines the traditional policy making process of analysis and debate, making suspicion, not evidence, the new threshold for action.”

The military and intelligence communities have embraced the one percent doctrine. Behind every accidental killing, war crime or case of mistaken identity lies a belief in this doctrine. Better safe than sorry. Better judged by twelve than carried by six. Better him than me. In war, you make mistakes.

This has real world ramifications Americans can’t ignore. I will present three exhibits to make my case that confusing intelligence for evidence leads to horrendous mistakes: Exhibit Afghanistan, Exhibit Iraq and Exhibit Terrorism. In the three biggest fronts in the now defunct war on terror, tragedies happen/happened when intelligence replaces/replaced evidence.

four comments

Two things: My dad used to always tell me and my brother that the American judicial system is designed to let a guily man go free, than one innocent man go to jail. In today’s culture where people believe that we have a tyrannical federal gov, I don’t think this could be more true.

Second, I think this applies—as all men are created equal, according to the delcaration—to all people.


There has always been the burden of proof with to a person’s guilt. And it has mainly rested on the prosecutor’s and the investigator’s shoulders.

You think now that the burden of proof lies with a person’s innocence?


Matty, that seems very much the case when dealing with anyone suspected of involvement in any terrorism related activity. And if there’s no evidence – create some. See the arrest of the two Iraqi’s in Bowling Green, Ky.


When it comes to terrorism, Matt, yes I believe people are now presumed guilty until otherwise. The threat of another 9/11 was perceived to be so great, that it had to be stopped at all costs.