(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2013", please click here.)
"A physicist, a chemist and an economist are stranded on an island, with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. The physicist says, "Lets smash the can open with a rock." The chemist says, "Let’s build a fire and heat the can first." The economist says, "Lets assume that we have a can-opener..."
A long time back, on a topic completely unrelated to the NSA scandal, I found this link to a post on the Crooked Timber blog which described, “The Correct Way to Argue with Milton Friedman”.
In short, if you find yourself engaged in an argument with Milton Friedman, or a disciple, you usually find yourself accepting some initial, key assumption. If you accept this assumption, you will find yourself, several logical conclusions later, trapped in a losing position like a player losing a queen in chess. In the Crooked Timber post, they demolish the initial, key assumption that renters and landlords have equal power in a negotiation. On paper, they can both be profit-maximizing individuals. In reality, no one doubts that landlords have much, much more power than renters.
This brings me to a widely-cited and referenced article published in Foreign Policy, called “Evil in a Haystack” by intelligence analyst J.M. Berger (of IntelWire.com), where Berger explains to the layperson how the NSA uses meta-data to stop terrorism.
While I love J.M. Berger’s work on the whole, I couldn’t help but think of the “The Correct Way to Argue with Milton Friedman” post when I read his article.
I’ll concede this: J.M. Berger accurately describes how the NSA goes about using meta-data. But let me make this shocking accusation: His description shows the single key flaw which undermines most intelligence agencies. Mainly, Berger presents an authoritative and unwavering belief in the accuracy of intelligence. Along the way, he presents a case study for “over-confidence bias” in action. And he does this all without ever thinking about the consequences to the people (Americans) who turn up in his searches.
Berger starts by setting the scene:
“We start with a classic scenario. U.S. intelligence officials have captured an al Qaeda operative and obtained the phone number of an al Qaeda fundraiser in Yemen.”
When I read, “We start with a classic scenario...”, I see, “Let’s assume that...”.
Instead of saying, “intelligence officials believe” or, more accurately, “intelligence officials assume”, Berger has set the stage to show the efficacy of meta-data by giving the reader certainty: “We have captured an al Qaeda operative,” not “we have captured someone we believe is an al Qaeda operative.” Berger presents no doubt or hesitancy as to the identity of the suspects.
In real life, determining the facts is incredibly difficult. Even determining an operative’s level of involvement is incredibly difficult. For instance, a CIA source could have fingered the suspect as an operative, but only did so in exchange for cash. Or under threat of blackmail. Or the person is an al Qaeda operative, but incredibly low on the totem pole. (Believe it or not, CIA bribes--er payments for information--usually escalate for information about more valuable people. This could incentivize the people giving the information to lie. I know, a liberal is bringing up incentives based on profit maximization but go with me here.)
You shouldn’t trust any intelligence analyst--or detective or district attorney or federal prosecutor or federal agent or military intelligence officer--who comes to you with absolute certainty. In psychology terms, it’s called the “over-confidence effect”. Studies show that whenever people have a “99% certainty”, they are often very wrong. In some extreme examples, people who rate their confidence as “99%” certain are right only 40% of the time. (Think political or sports forecasters if you want a daily repeating example.)
As a final point, this scenario hardly ever happens. I know Berger calls it a “classic”, but really intelligence analyst hardly ever come across a smoking gun to begin their investigation.
Nevertheless, the analyst proceeds to investigate the phone number, which leads to finding more suspects:
“In our example data, the result is a list of 79 phone numbers that were involved in an incoming or outgoing call with the fundraiser's phone within the last 30 days. The fundraiser is a covert operator and this phone is dedicated to covert activities, so almost anyone who calls the number is a high-value target right out of the gate.”
This is how bad intelligence happens. Berger’s analyst doesn’t just start with absolute certainty, he proceeds down an investigation and triples his assumptions:
1. Assumes the target must be a covert, al Qaeda fundraiser.
2. Assumes anyone who calls phone must also be a high-value target.
If the fictional analyst is correct, then he has indeed identified 79 new targets. If he is wrong, than 79 largely innocent people could now be investigated and added to intelligence databases. For instance, say the blackmailed or bribed “al Qaeda” member from above fingered a perfectly harmless Hawala business-owner. With all these assumptions, when will the intelligence analyst find out his mistake? A Hawala business-owner certainly acts like an al Qaeda financier, but with completely different ends.
Berger then proceeds to show how the analyst keeps plumbing at meta-data including expanding the size of the list of possible contacts, cross-referencing data in other databases, creating new reports on possible contacts, expanding the search to many American phone numbers (even with possible inaccuracies) and even initiating wiretaps on Americans, all without needing anything more than the word of a detainee in some foreign country (who may be under “enhanced interrogation”).
This expansive scope of government powers, based only on hunches and tips, really frightens strong civil liberties proponents like myself. It should frighten small government types as well. To assuage your fears, though, Berger trots out a favorite trope...
For one thing, U.S. policies are still informed by the idea that all terrorist attacks should be interdicted. A frequently expressed corollary to that premise states that, while tradeoffs against civil liberties might be bad in the abstract, those issues are meaningless when faced with a ticking time bomb…
I believe the NSA/intelligence community must have a guidebook which says, “When in doubt, bring up a ticking time bomb”. It also has the corollary, “If anyone questions your funding, bring up 9/11 (with personal example of what you were doing when you watched the planes hit for added emotional pull).” The issues with Berger’s analyst aren’t ticking time bombs, it’s about bad intelligence. And that bad intelligence violates the civil rights and liberties of Americans enshrined in the Constitution.