Feb 11

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

Of all the Snowden leaks, few will have as much impact on our intelligence community (IC) as the release of the secret intelligence budget. With this budget, the American people--and tragically, their elected representatives--have better insight into the intelligence community than ever before. The release of the budget, like most of the leaks coming from Edward Snowden, shows that the unelected leaders of the intelligence community have consistently exaggerated, misled, and deceived Americans about both the threats facing our country and their actions to counter those threats. 

In this case, how they spend money.

So consider this a "Think Again: The Intelligence Community". It will tackle three different types of myth, including myths the release from last summer overturns, myths the intelligence community continues to peddle to lawmakers and the American public, and the myths the intelligence community uses to attack Edward Snowden and the journalists releasing classified information. 

Myth 1: There is nothing new here. In future posts, we plan to hold some NSA defenders’ feet to the fire when it comes to this claim. Supporters of the NSA manage to argue two contradictory statements about nearly every Snowden leak: 1. “Oh, everyone already knew that” and 2. “This devastates our national security.”

How can something everyone knows devastate our national security if everyone already knew it? 

And with the budget release, this line of attack is especially disingenuous. The biggest update is that, far and away, most national security observers had been drastically underestimating the size of particular agencies. For instance, most analysts believed the CIA was still operating under budget constraints, when they had the single largest growth in funding since 9/11. In this case, the intelligence agencies didn’t lie per se, but chose to pretend that they were cash-strapped agencies.

Speaking of underfunding...

Myth 2: The intelligence community is underfunded. This is frankly an incredibly shocking statement...and it comes from the Director of National Intelligence, General James Clapper. In his words:

Never before has the IC been called upon to master such complexity and so many issues in such a resource-constrained environment...

Apparently General Clapper never learned to never say, “Never say never.” As the Washington Post describes later describes:

Spending in the most recent cycle surpassed that amount based on the $52.6 billion detailed in documents obtained by The Post, plus a separate $23 billion devoted to intelligence programs that more directly support the U.S. military.

That’s $75 billion on intelligence, by my calculations. To be clear, the U.S. spends more on intelligence than every other country in the world--besides China and Russia--spend on all their military spending. The United Kingdom has the third largest military spending in the world, and it only spends $60 billion per year on its whole military.

Worse, in historical terms, the amount spent on intelligence rivals any time during the Cold War. In other words, far from being “resource-constrained”, the intelligence community has never had as much money on hand as it does now.

Frankly, General Clapper can only get away with calling the budgeting environment "resource constrained" because a majority of our representatives don't have the ability (or the time) to read the secret IC budget . He can only get away with it because academics can't chart the budget historically, or in detail. He can only get away with it because think tanks and lobbyists funded by defense and intelligence contractors spread this myth through reputable journalists.

Myth 3: The U.S. only spends 1% of its GDP on intelligence. Again from General Clapper: "Even with stepped up spending on the IC over the past decade, the United States currently spends less than one percent of GDP on the Intelligence Community.”

Actually, I cannot debunk this fact. General Clapper is correct that we spend less than 1% of GDP on intelligence. The myth is that the U.S. should even think about pegging its intelligence spending to GDP. It is simply stunning that General Clapper could use this argument.

Maybe the definition of a security state is one which spends one percent or more of GDP on intelligence. So yes, we aren't there yet, but we're on our way...and should be, according to intelligence officials.

Feb 05

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

As you may have noticed if you’ve been reading the blog the last couple of weeks, we’ve switched topics. We’re putting Lone Survivor on hold for right now--frankly, we’re tired of writing about just that subject; you’re probably tired of reading about it--and switched to the Edward Snowden NSA leaks. This is a topic we feel very, very passionate about, especially since Michael C worked as an intelligence analyst.

It’s not because we don’t have more things to say about Lone Survivor. We do. (We have like six other posts, including Eric C’s take on the film’s inaccuracies and why they matter, diving into the issue of who wrote the book, and so on.) When the DVD comes out, or during Oscar week, we’ll hit some of those topics again, to finish the subject. (Also, writing about Lone Survivor, we’ve had at least two or three other tips come our way for things to investigate, so we want to dedicate our time to some of those.)

Before we go, though, we have some updates to our posts on Lone Survivor. Mainly, we’ve updated the posts “The Worst Media Coverage of Lone Survivor (film and memoir) and “A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality”.

We’ve added the following sections to each post:

Media coverage:

NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday

PBS’ Charlie Rose

Star-Telegram’s “The Big Mac Blog”

Mistakes and differences:

Ahmad Shah’s Missing Earlobes

Who Stumbled Upon Luttrell?

Did the SEALs Have Rope?

What Type of Sidearm did the SEALs Use? And Why Was it Changed?

A final thought. You might be wondering, why didn’t you add Fox News to the media post? They did like six or seven segments on Lone Survivor the week after the film came out, blasting the film's critics.

First off, they weren’t talking about us. Their main targets were the LA Weekly, Salon and Atlantic Monthly i.e. “liberal bloggers” who questioned the film’s patriotism or called it “propaganda”. They never contacted us or mentioned the blog. Or the very popular article (at least more popular than the Slate or Atlantic Monthly blog posts) we wrote for Slate. Nor did Fox News mention any other veteran writers who questioned the film’s facts. If you read the post from two weeks ago, you know at least three other veterans wrote about the inaccuracies in Lone Survivor. It was easier for them to go after “liberals” who questioned the film’s patriotism than veterans questioning the film’s facts.

We’ve really enjoyed the positive feedback on our efforts to correct the record about Operation Red Wings. Continue to spread the word to friends, families (and journalists if you know any).

Feb 03

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.)

One of the more remarkable facts, I think, of the whole Snowden affair is how long it took for these disclosures to get leaked. Well before the Snowden leaks, Senators speaking on the record and some NSA officials speaking well off the record, said some variation of the line, “Americans would be shocked by how much the NSA snoops on them.”

Sure enough, when the Snowden leaks came out, a majority of Americans were shocked by an intelligence leak.  

So if we can take the large--but not universal--shock of most Americans as evidence they felt the NSA overstepped its authority (and its leaders probably lied to Congress about their spying), why did it take so damn long to come out? Most bad deeds get leaked eventually. But why did it take over 11 years? Why did only one person decide to leak all these documents? Well, the answer is simple:

Economics.

To show this, I need a thought experiment. To start, assume that every employee at the NSA is motivated by one of two things: self-interest and altruism. For self-interest, I mean everything which causes Americans to go to work: pay, keeping their job, providing for their family, advancing up the career chart, and gaining responsibility/power/respect. (This could be called the "classical" economics framework.) For altruism, I mean all those pesky things which might cause someone to forego personal gain: belief in the greater good, religious beliefs, ethics, morality, emotions and patriotism. (This could be called the hard part of economics--the things which screw up economist's traditional models. For more on a related topic, click here.)

In real life, the employees of the NSA are motivated by mixtures of both self-interest and altruism. But which predominates? Supporters of the government--like now-On V-punching-bag David Brooks (whose writing we still absolutely love)--insist that the vast majority of government employees are "good people" who "try to do the right thing". Unfortunately, my thought experiment shows that self-interest usually trumps altruism. 

In the first ideal version of the NSA, every employee is only motivated by altruism. How would this NSA look? Well, its officials would never lie to the American public. There wouldn't be a need for whistleblowers, because superiors would respect subordinates who went to the Inspector General to report abuse. And if, for whatever reason, wrong deeds still needed exposure, NSA employees would go to Congress or the press on a regular basis. But employees wouldn't care about advancement, only helping the NSA protect America. Employees would speak their minds because they care about the greater good.

What's the alternate? In a perfectly self-interested NSA, it would operate much differently. Since most promotions are controlled by superiors, employees would think first and foremost about upsetting these power brokers. They probably dress up their motivations in altruistic terms--"loyalty", "team player"--but they don't ever make their bosses look bad. Thus, when they come across wrongdoing, they don't do anything. At best, self-interested employees tell themselves that, "When I am in charge, I'll fix all the problems."

And leaks? Virtually non-existent from the lower levels. Would-be whistleblowers know that the surest way to end a career is to expose wrongdoing via leaking classified information. Though leaks occur all the time, they only come from senior officials to make the intelligence community look good. A leak from a subordinate which makes the whole intelligence community look bad will ruin a career absolutely.

In the self-interested NSA, anyone who leaks goes to prison to send a message for future leakers. (If you still want to leak, you would have to flee to the most ironic country possible, Russia.) In its darkest iteration, the self-interested NSA even bribes congressmen with donations to ensure future funding. In an even darker version, the NSA could blackmail elected leaders to insure they continue funding its operations.

So, let me ask, which version of the NSA seems more realistic? Which one do we seem closer to?

Considering the vast lack of unauthorized leaks, I would say the latter. No NSA employee chose to speak out that the NSA had twisted sections of the Patriot Act to expand domestic surveillance. Until Edward Snowden, not a single employee who heard General Clapper lie to Congress went public. Skeptics of the NSA, like myself, would argue that the incentive structure inside the NSA so vastly outweighs the altruistic motivations that only the exceptionally rare individual would blow the whistle on wrongdoing.  My thought experiment from above shows this.

While most American intelligence officials and employees are indeed good people, they're still self-interested. As Manager-Tools frequently points out, the employees at the NSA are all addicted to food, clothing and shelter. Unless Congress passes strong legislation which protects whistleblowers, and maybe even encourages it, we can expect waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, corruption and other ills of government.

Edward Snowden is a very rare individual for doing what he did almost solely based on altruism. We should understand that, and instead of condemning him, we need to find ways to get more Edward Snowdens to do what he did...legally. We need to shift the incentive structure so that the natural altruism of NSA employees isn’t bowled over by the need to continue paying for food and shelter. In other words, Edward Snowden and the vast lack of leaks show the incredible need to change the incentive structure inside the intelligence community.

There is, as Eric C pointed out reading this post, another darker explanation. Many if not most of the workers--and especially the leaders--could be altruistically motivated. However, the values they adore aren’t values like civil liberties and respect for the Constitution. If their fundamental value is security, they could act in much the same way. In this scenario, the altruism of the NSA means it does whatever it takes to keep Americans safe despite the harms to freedom. In short, security trumps liberty.

Now that is a scary thought.

Jan 28

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", 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..."

Old Economist Joke

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.

Jan 27

To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", read the articles below: 

- Assumptions in a Haystack: Milton Friedman, J.M. Berger and the NSA

- Why They Leak (Or Better, Why They Don't)

- Think Again Pt. 1: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget) Part 1

- We're All Ordinary Americans: Getting Orwellian on the NSA

- Think Again Pt. 2: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget)

- Think Again: The Intelligence Community (After Reading Their Budget) Part 3

Eric C asked me after the initial batch of Edward Snowden NSA disclosures if we had just found our “Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013”. (Check out our past "On V's Most Thought Provoking Events", click here for 2009, click here for 2010, click here for 2011, and click here for 2012.)

I said, “No, why would we have?”

Then the leaks kept coming. And coming. And coming. Then it turned out that James Clapper was lying. Then a super-majority in Congress came out to support...the NSA. Then President Obama claimed that he had planned to restart this debate, allegedly without Snowden’s disclosures.

Then I read--with great interest--the pro-NSA crowd defend the NSA on cable news, in blogs and on Twitter. I also noted heaps and gobs of misinformation, mostly from NSA defenders.

After following the story for a few weeks, I went on a plane trip to visit some friends. I pulled out my iPad, attached a keyboard and planned to capture some of my thoughts. 5,000 words later, my flight landed and I called Eric C.

“Yeah, the NSA disclosures are the On V Most Thought Provoking Event of 2013.”

What do we hope to provide with yet more articles on a topic that has already generated millions of printed words? As always, unique takes you (hopefully) won’t read elsewhere. For instance:

- A post trying to find the last time an intelligence or security agency willfully disclosed bad information about itself.

- A post describing why so few leaks happen, using my business school knowledge of economics and organizational behavior.

- A post debunking the idea that China and Russia haven’t already infiltrated our intelligence agencies, a la Snowden.

Yeah, unique takes. (We’ll also have a post on the most unique takes on the Ed Snowden NSA disclosures as well.) The sad fact is most of the millions of articles on the NSA simply reported the most recent disclosures and took the same quotes from the same officials on background. Even the analysis tended to repeat the same political talking points.

So expect nearly a dozen posts (if not more) and hopefully some guest posts in other media. Overall, what is the theme you can expect? Well, the first theme is bi-partisanship. Our posts take a viewpoint both civil libertarians and left-wing radicals can respect: the government has immense power and we shouldn’t automatically trust it. Trust but verify, if you will. We also feel that this is the constitutional position. Any scholar of the revolutionary period knows that most of the founders (except for Alexander Hamilton) deeply mistrusted concentrated power. Since both political parties have deep ties to the intelligence-security-military establishment now-a-days, this is a unique viewpoint you don’t often hear.

You can also expect plenty of calls for more government transparency, less classification in general, and more incentives to support whistleblowers. You’ll also find heaping doses of skepticism about the intelligence community’s effectiveness. This comes from personal experience.

And that last point is probably the viewpoint you will hear more than any other. If you want to know what inspires us in this event, re-watch 60 Minutes’ NSA hagiography. It treated the analysts as superheroes, terrorism as an omnipresent threat, and the NSA as veritable truth teller.

We don’t agree with any of those positions, and we hope to provide that unique context to these unprecedented disclosures. (Only a short six months after everyone else started.)

Jan 21

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

Since we put up a post two week ago called, “The Worst Media Coverage of Lone Survivor”, it probably makes sense that we would offer up a corrective. Today we present the best articles we’ve read about Lone Survivor (film). In other words, the takes that break out of the typical reporting.

Or re-reporting, which is what most reporters did. The vast majority of reporters wrote mostly uncritical takes on Lone Survivor, simply repeating how realistic the film was, emphasizing SEALs were on set, mentioning the heroism of everyone involved, and ignoring any possible errors.

A few journalists and writers have analyzed Lone Survivor from a more skeptical lens. We want to celebrate those takes today.

1. “‘Lone Survivor’ film review by an Afghan combat vet who fought Ahmad Shah.” by Mark Perna, Don’t Ever Call Me a Hero. Obviously, we can’t stand the criticism that “if you haven’t been, there you can’t say anything” because we feel that the duty of citizens is to analyze and question their government and military. But no internet troll could accuse Mark Perna of “not having served” since Perna deployed as a marine to Kunar province at the time of Operation Red Wings, later conducting missions to drive Ahmad Shah out of the region. While praising the film, Perna does make one point super clear (that we have said for a long time): “This film is fiction” and he lists some of those fictions based on his personal experience. Take that to heart and read the review.

(Perna had previously taken issue with the line from the trailer where “Shah killed 20 marines the week before” that we called out as well.)

2. Jake Tapper on The Lead. Here is what we respect most about Jake Tapper: among the dozens (and possibly hundreds) of reporters who interviewed Marcus Luttrell in the run-up to Lone Survivor, Tapper was the only one who asked a unique question. This, more than anything, is what threw off Luttrell. Tapper’s question wasn’t out of bounds; he merely gave his honest emotional take--that it feels so hopeless, and senseless--that men died that day.

But Tapper didn’t stop there. Though he is a huge supporter of the military, he also questions the orders of commanders. He pointed out a fact that was almost completely ignored in the run-up to Lone Survivor’s release: why hasn’t a single officer been held accountable for the mistakes made before, during and after Operation Red Wings? In short, after reading Ed Darack’s article in the Marine Corps Gazette, Tapper knows that there is more to the Operation Red Wings story than Lone Survivor let on. It was refreshing journalism.

3. “Jake Tapper is Getting Attacked For Saying What Many are Thinking about Afghanistan by Paul Szoldra, Business Insider. Of course, right wing outfits and some conservative Twitterzens immediately took to denouncing Jake Tapper as un-American and un-patriotic. Szoldra provides his well-reasoned opinion--as always--writing that attacking Tapper for asking reasonable questions isn’t insulting the troops. As he writes, ‘It's time we have an adult non-screaming-at-each-other conversation about what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan, as well as an objective assessment of whether we are succeeding.”

He also quotes Andrew Exum from Twitter, “"No matter where you come down on the war in Afghanistan, if you've never questioned whether it's worth it, you're not thinking critically." We agree.

4. “Thoughts on Lone Survivor” by Don Gomez, Carrying the Gun. On V fav Don Gomez makes an amazing comparison between Lone Survivor and John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Each film celebrates special operators above all else, without bothering with the messiness of the why. While that can be a strength, it can also lead to charges of being insanely pro-military. Great take.

5. “Navy Hobnobs With Hollywood But Keeps Journalists In The Dark” by Katie Rucke, The Mint Press News. Rucke repeated a question asked by Martha Raddatz on ABC’s This Week (a question that few other reporters have asked): why did the Pentagon and Navy Special Warfare grant Peter Berg nearly unlimited access, but won’t offer that same access to reporters? The answer isn’t hard to figure out: directors provide better publicity than the media.

Of course that doesn’t make it right.

6. Is Lone Survivor pro-war? Two different articles have asked this question. First, The Atlantic’s Calum Marsh repeated the idea that every war film is a pro-war film. (Which sparked quite a debate online.) Then, Salon wrote about this topic after Lone Survivor’s strong opening weekend, even calling it a propaganda piece.

7. “Real-Life "Lone Survivor" Marcus Luttrell Really Hates the Liberal Media” by Asawin Suebsaeng, Mother Jones. A collection of Marcus Luttrell’s quotes about the liberal media. Mother Jones responded to some of the discussion on the right wing blogosphere by listing many of the moments in Lone Survivor where Marcus Luttrell insulted, defamed or blamed the liberal military for the deaths of his fellow Navy SEALs.

8. “Lone Survivor and Truth” by Leo, Hit the Woodline. Two things about this post. First, it’s another wonderful factual correct-the-record article from someone who dealt with the aftermath of Operation Red Wings. Leo writes about not just the inaccuracies, butwhy they matter in war reporting.   

Second, the comments section is insane.

9. “The Myth of Reality in ‘Lone Survivor” by Benjamin Busch, The Daily Beast. Not only is this a very thorough, well-written, and well-argued review of the film and the facts of Lone Survivor, Busch does something I can’t believe I didn’t do: he quoted Tim O’Brien. From The Things They Carried, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” (I originally wrote about that quote here.) This could be Lone Survivor’s (film) greatest sin.

Well put.

10. The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith. This isn’t a unique take, per se, but getting the chance to see Lone Survivor early gave us the launching pad to write the post listing the differences between the book, the film and reality.

Mainly, though, for a podcast with filmmakers, we felt Jeff Goldsmith did more research and asked harder questions than 99% of the rest of the media. Check it out.

Jan 15

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

If a counter-insurgency lesson happens on a hill-side in Afghanistan, and Americans don’t care, did anyone ever really learn it?

As the most popular memoir and film about Afghanistan, Lone Survivor now has the subtle distinction of being the single most popular piece of media about Afghanistan...period. (To everyone who comments, “Why are you still writing about this?” That’s one reason why.) Since Lone Survivor has lots of subtle (and not-so-subtle) counter-insurgency lessons embedded in the narrative, the book and the movie will have a profound effect on American’s understanding of counter-insurgency warfare.

Most viewers of Lone Survivor won’t realize that sound counter-insurgency practices actually saved Marcus Luttrell’s life on that hillside on that fateful June day. While I don’t fault Peter Berg for trying to tell a tight story centered almost entirely on the battle, this focus skews Americans’ understanding of COIN. Worse, some of Berg’s decisions (like the final battle) will irrevocably mislead Americans on how politics works in Afghanistan.

Here are some counter-insurgency lessons largely missed in the both the Lone Survivor film:

1. The villagers who rescued Luttrell--including Gulab--did so as much for politics as for pashtun-wali.

To be clear, Gulab’s adherence to the Afghanistan cultural behavior commonly called in the West “pashtun-wali” motivated Mohammed Gulab to shelter Marcus Luttrell. However, another key motivating factor was the extremely local politics in the extremely divisive Kunar province.

As Ed Darack describes in Victory Point:

The people of the Shuryek Valley, into which the gulch fed, had traditionally been at odds with villagers of the Korangal Valley, particularly those of Chichal, bumping heads over grazing-land boundaries. And while not overly friendly to American forces, people on the Shuryek side of the Sawtalo Sar hadn’t proved nearly as supportive of anticoalition militia forces as those of the Korangal.” (page 148)

To make a very crude analogy, after getting in a firefight with the Bloods, Luttrell was rescued by the Crips. So yes, Gulab rescued Luttrell because his honor, but it didn’t hurt that Gulab could hurt his political rivals in the process. If Luttrell had fallen down the other side of the mountain, even pashtun-wali wouldn’t have saved his life.

Even that depiction, though, is too simplistic. Afghan politics, riven for years by civil war, are incredibly complicated. One paragraph won’t do it justice.

Neither will a two hour film. Most media portrayals boil the politics of Afghanistan down to Taliban/evil versus America/good. Most people in Afghanistan don’t fall neatly into one side or the other. Instead, almost every villager I met with also met with insurgents. A simple “good versus evil” story fails to capture this nuance.

2. Salar Ban had an excellent relationship with coalition forces in the region due to a sound counter-insurgency strategy executed by the marines in Kunar.

The marines stationed in Kunar--specifically Camp Blessing--went above and beyond to develop positive relationships with locals. (I don’t have time in this post to tell the entire story, so read Victory Point pages 148-154 for the details). They expanded the “soft” side of military operations, including Medical Civil Action Patrols. While the Korengalis weren’t receptive to this outreach (as they have been historically hostile to outsiders), villagers in the Shuryak valley were. One of these villagers was Mohammad Gulab, who eventually rescued Luttrell. As Victory Point describes it, by using positive outreach relationships took a “quantum leap forward”.

This explains why he was out in the hillsides following the attack in Operation Red Wings. He was looking for Luttrell to help out the Americans. As Gulab himself told it on the Today Show:

Gulab said he had been trying to warn Luttrell.

“I was trying to tell him I wasn't Taliban. I know that many enemy was looking for him in the mountains," he said through a translator. "And I was trying to warn him that you must be careful."

Frankly, the gains the marines made were incredible, and laid the groundwork so that, when Gulab saw a bleeding and dying Luttrell, he would remember the goodwill Americans in the region had extended him. Any scenes involving marines working in day-to-day counter-insurgency obviously didn’t make it into the film.

3. Ahmad Shah deeply understood local politics and understood counter-insurgency theory.

The film makes Shah out to be a one-note, blood-thirsty tyrant. Lone Survivor (film) introduces Shah to viewers by having him march into Gulab’s village and chop someone’s head off. (Screenplay page 3a-5) The screenplay even describes him as a villain from the Wild West. No, literally,“This Shah and crew feels like an old school western bad guy moving through a cow town.”

Now, compare that description to Marcus Luttrell’s memoir:

The Taliban moves around these mountains only by the unspoken approval tacit permissions of the Pashtuns, who grant them food and shelter.” (pg. 284)

The jihadists seem to have a some kind of hammerlock on tribal loyalties, using a whole spectrum of Mafia-style tactics, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with money, sometimes with promising protections, sometimes without outright threats. The truth is, however, neither al Qaeda or the Taliban could function without the cooperation of the Pashtun villages.” (pg. 311)

This armed gang of tribesman, who were hell-bent on driving out the Americans and the government, could not function up here in these protective mountains entirely alone. Without local support their primitive supply line would perish. Armies need food, cover and cooperation, and the Taliban could only engage in so much bullying before these powerful village leaders decided they preferred the company of the Americans.” (pg. 341)

In reality, Shah was more politician than gangster. As the above quotes show, he had to work with and court the support of the locals in the valley.

Unlike the decision to leave out the marines, which I understand from a plot standpoint, this decision was made to paint a simpler, and less realistic, story. Just imagine another, more realistic scene. A Taliban shura. Gulab is there as are dozens of village elders, drinking tea. Shah makes his case that he could keep out the Americans and hunt any who come to the Sawtalo Sar. This scene would capture the “essential experience” or the “truth” of Operation Red Wings better than the scene in the film. Yet, Peter Berg chose a deliberately provocative and relatively rare phenomenon over a mild-mannered and realistic shura scene.

Worse, the true life events would have worked fine in this film. Imagine...

- a scene where Gulab explains to Luttrell why Ahmad Shah couldn’t enter the village.

- a scene where Gulab discusses why Shah needs local support.

- a scene where Shah explains to his own men why he doesn’t simply march in and kill everyone in Salar Ban. (Which would also make him three-dimensional and realistic.)

- a scene of Shah evacuating to Pakistan within days after the attack….like he did in real life.

Any of those scenes would have been radical and extraordinary. But keeping Shah as a blood-thirsty tyrant/terrorist fits with American stereotypes much better.

4. Ahmad Shah would never have attacked fellow Afghan villagers.

In the film Lone Survivor, Ahmad Shah attacks the village of Salar Ban in one last attempt to grab Luttrell. In real life, he didn’t.

What matters isn’t that Shah didn’t attack; it’s why he didn’t attack. Ahmad Shah didn’t invade the village of Salar Ban because he knew that he would lose support of the local people and the valley if he hurt the villagers. As Luttrell himself writes:

And then we both heard the opening bursts of gunfire, high up in the village.

“There was a lot of it. Too much. The sheer volume of fire was ridiculous, unless the Taliban were planning to wipe out the entire population of Sabray. And I knew they would not consider that because such a slaughter would surely end all support from these tribal villages up here in the mountain.

“No, they would not do that. They wanted me, but they would never kill another hundred Afghan people...in order to get me…

“These lunatics…[were] firing randomly into the air and aiming at nothing…” (pg. 339)

“...they had not dared to conduct a house-to-house search for fear of further alienating the people and, in particular, the village elder.” (pg. 341)

All armies fight under political constraints. Some have fewer constraints than others, but they all have limits on the violence they can inflict in war. This applies to insurgents in Afghanistan. While Shah certainly would have killed Luttrell had he surrendered or not (a violation of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime), he still prevented his men from attacking other Afghan villagers, because this would have cost him support.

You won’t learn any of these lessons from the film. Lone Survivor (film) ends with a gigantic battle as the Taliban invade Gulab’s village. This doesn’t make sense (nor happened). As Luttrell explains above, such an attack would verge on suicidal for Shah. To get back to the theme of these posts--why accuracy matters in the Lone Survivor film--there isn’t a compelling reason for including the final firefight. It didn’t take place in real life, and it doesn’t somehow capture Marcus Luttrell’s experience any better than not including it.

And it permanently misinforms viewers of the film.

Everyone keeps saying that Americans don’t understand the wars that we’re fighting. That so few people were in the military, and we can’t relate to their stories. But Lone Survivor (film) had more advisors than a medieval prince. Yet none of the SEALs on set pointed out these nuanced counter-insurgency lessons to Peter Berg.

(That, unfortunately, probably has more to do with the state of counter-insurgency theory and its adoption in the special operations world than anything else.)

Jan 13

(Normally, we start the year with our “Most Intriguing Event of the Year”. But since Lone Survivor hit theaters across the country on January 10th, we’re devoting this week to that topic.

To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

To avoid burying the lede, please check our recent article over at Slate on Lone Survivor. If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably read the article it is based on here. Either way, we’re both pretty heavy Slate readers (and we regularly cite Dahlia Lithwick for her excellent legal reporting), so we’re excited to contribute to that great website.

So check it out.

Before we go, though, we want to tell a story which captures how Slate--and specifically staff writer Forrest Wickman--went above and beyond to do the due diligence this story requires.

After we published our magnum opus listing every important difference or mistake in Lone Survivor, we tried to get the word out to the journalists we respect. We sent a lot emails...and received one response.

Then, in the middle of last week, Forrest Wickman of Slate.com’s “Browbeat” blog reached out saying he loved the piece. He even went a step further asking if Slate could repurpose it. We immediately said yes. Based on the behavior of most journalists, we expected it to end there.

Thank God it didn’t. Forrest did what every editor should do: he asked us for our research for any facts that, by this point, we consider common knowledge. He asked us for links or citations. He also double checked our quotes to ensure accuracy. (The whole process took two days.)

In short, Forrest did what we expect editors everywhere--no matter how busy they are--to do: check the facts.

Unfortunately, virtually no major media outlets did this. As we wrote last Friday, Luttrell is on record repeating contradictory information to multiple news outlets...none of those news outlets double-checked what he told them.

So thanks again Slate.com for the opportunity to contribute and for doing due diligence.