Mar 24

A few weeks back, I wrote that the NSA defends itself by using a version of English only spoken within the intelligence community. (See this Slate piece for how “surveillance”, “collect” and “no” mean different things in the intelligence world than in the rest of America.)

Yet that Slate article missed a few good examples of how the NSA abuses the English language. The last time I “Got Orwellian”, I wrote about President Obama’s liberal use of the phrase “ordinary Americans” to defend the NSA. Today, I want to tackle another another word that has bugged me: “legal”,  in that the NSA’s programs were “legal.” (For the most common uses, see General Keith Alexander’s repeated defense of NSA programs as “legal” here, here, here and here.)

Were those programs “legal”? Imagine this hypothetical. Facing budget shortfalls, Congress passes a new law to save on military spending. Instead of forcing troops to pay for their own houses, Congress requires any citizens living near military bases to house and quarter troops. President Obama, in an act of bi-partisanship, signs this law. He then orders the military to execute the law, and they start planning. Eventually, troops start living with civilians in their homes.

To be perfectly clear, the Pentagon legally acted on President Obama’s order, as in the Pentagon obeyed/followed laws passed by Congress.

As any one who has read the Constitution can attest--and so many politicians claim they love the Constitution that they now read the Constitution on the House floor (leaving out, of course, that whole 3/5ths thing)--quartering troops is clearly unconstitutional. I deliberately chose the oft forgotten 3rd Amendment, which prohibits quartering troops, because no one worries about having to house soldiers, nor could anyone really call that constitutional. Unlike other amendments, pundits and politicians don’t argue over the 3rd.

This thought exercise illustrates perfectly a clear gap between legal actions and legal yet unconstitutional laws. Supporters of the NSA completely miss this distinction.

Critics of the NSA aren’t simply claiming that the NSA is acting illegally (though there is plenty of evidence that the NSA exceeded its legal authority in any reasonable interpretation of the Patriot Act). Critics argue the NSA is acting unconstitutionally. In this interpretation, it doesn’t matter that Congress passed a law and the President is enforcing it; the law doesn’t pass Constitutional muster in the first place. American history is filled with laws that were deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

Unfortunately for the American people, we can only challenge unconstitutional laws in court. Doubly unfortunately, the Intelligence Community does most of its dirty, unconstitutional work in secret. Congress passed the Patriot Act publicly, with a few classified sections, which the NSA interprets in secret, gets approval from the FISA court in secret, and then executes in secret. The entire snooping apparatus was erected...in secret.

Only after the Snowden disclosures did critics have the standing and the ability to challenge the constitutionality of these programs.

Take a key piece of the Patriot Act, national security letters. These letters--unconstitutionally--made it illegal to tell anyone an intelligence agency had contacted you to execute a search warrant. They also prevented recipients from challenging them in court. The intelligence agencies approached companies like Google, Yahoo, Verizon and others (including civilians) with these letters, and threatened criminal prosecution if they told anyone they had started spying on Americans.

Without a whistleblower like Edward Snowden, and hopefully others in the future, we never would have found out about this program. Not because the law isn’t legal--though many doubt the NSA’s interpretations will stand in court--but because the laws are unconstitutional in the first place.

Feb 19
(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=775#sthash.qYBD8JIS.dpuf
o read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014", please click here.) - See more at: http://www.onviolence.com/?e=775#sthash.qYBD8JIS.dpuf

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

Congress recently passed a new budget about the same time that President Obama laid out his plan for reforming the intelligence community. Unfortunately, as others have written, they missed a huge opportunity to declassify the “black budget”, the part of our annual spending which goes to intelligence, opening up the dark intelligence world to the bright, cleansing sunlight of transparency. Like most people in the intelligence game, they continued to pretend that Edward Snowden didn’t leak that same black budget six months earlier.

Alas.

Today we continue debunking the myths about intelligence related to Edward Snowden’s leaks. (Find the previous post here.)

Myth 4: We need that funding because the world is more dangerous than it has ever been. Again, in James Clapper's words:

“Today’s world is as fluid and unstable as it has been in the past half century...”

General Clapper again relies on an emotionally-compelling reason for increased spending. He doesn't provide facts, data or evidence--the logically/rationally compelling reasons--to increase intelligence spending. As we’ve covered before the world is, if anything, safer and more stable than at any time in history. Not even in proportional terms, but in real world terms; less people die each year from armed conflict, including terrorism, than at any time in history. This is due to rising global incomes, the spread of international institutions and the general decline of violence in the modern and contemporary periods.

Yet General Clapper said the opposite.

Further--and we need to write about this more--no rational foreign policy or national security expert could reasonably claim the Cold War was less dangerous or unstable than today. If anything, the Cold War motivated both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to oust unfriendly dictators, which is why the rate of civil wars (and terrorism) skyrocketed.

Myth 5: This spending keeps you safe. I could provide an explanation of logical fallacies, but I think I’d rather have Lisa and Homer Simpson demonstrate for me. After a bear sighting in Springfield, Homer says:

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.

Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.

Homer: Thank you, dear.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn’t work.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?

[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

[Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

It would be funny, if the intelligence world didn’t snooker the the Washington Post with the same logic:

The United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence during that period, an outlay that U.S. officials say has succeeded in its main objective: preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack in the United States.

Of course, officials can say that; they just can't prove it. Over ten years, what amount of spending would have allowed a terror attack? $100 billion? $200 billion? Clearly, if we had spent a trillion dollars, that would have prevented another catastrophic attack as well, but since a terrorist attack didn’t happen, we didn’t need to spend an extra $500 billion.

We’ll have more in future posts, but in the mean time, I have a rock that prevents terrorism. Anyone want to buy it?

Myth 6: Terrorism is our gravest threat. No, that's still nuclear weapons possessed by states. Terrorism is more likely, but less serious. The Washington Post, again quoting from the document, wrote, “In words, deeds and dollars, intelligence agencies remain fixed on terrorism as the gravest threat to national security." Though intelligence officials believe that terrorism is the gravest threat, that doesn’t make it so. This myth shows how the intelligence community--even in secret--can’t accurately identify threats to the country.

Myth 7: The CIA is understaffed/underfunded. For this, we go to past On V contributor Matt Bradley via email:

I thought this was the case. Yet, the CIA's budget has exploded, and as the article rightly points out, it now is a paramilitary force.

Myth 8: Technology will save us. The Washington Post again:

The documents make clear that U.S. spy agencies’ long-standing reliance on technology remains intact. If anything, their dependence on high-tech surveillance systems to fill gaps in human intelligence has intensified.”

I've said before that President Bush's biggest missed opportunity was the chance to really improve language training across America to help with human intelligence. He also could have allowed more immigration to provide a pool of foreign experts. He did neither, and the intelligence community never really strengthened their human intelligence collection capabilities.

Why not? Economics. Intelligence-contracting companies make more money off of fancy tech than training people to learn Arabic. Yet somehow the Post and government officials think this reliance on technology could be a good thing. Think tanks funded by defense contractors want Americans to think this too. Americans--led by their imagination of innovation in Silicon Valley--are also prone to buying this. As the IC"s own report cards show, human intelligence gaps can't be filled through tech, no matter how hard we try.

Feb 18

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

One of the most disappointing parts of the NSA disclosures was the repeated twisting of language by NSA officials to obfuscate what they were doing. Of course, all public relations people play this game. When it comes to possible constitutional violations, possible criminal conduct, insane amounts of secrecy and national security, though, that’s a game I don’t want government officials playing; we have to hold NSA and administration officials to a higher standard.

Today, I want to “get Orwellian” on the worst defense made by President Obama of the NSA, and it centers around a single word, “ordinary”.

Repeatedly uttered in his most recent speech on national security--in some variation of “ordinary” and Americans/people/citizens--President Obama tried to reassure the public that we’re not after you; we’re after terrorists. By our count, in his most recent speech on NSA reforms, he uttered it seven times:

“...U.S. intelligence agencies were anchored in a system of checks and balances, with oversight from elected leaders and protections for ordinary citizens.”

“...the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.”

“In sum, the program does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans.”

“But our efforts will only be effective if ordinary citizens in other countries have confidence that the United States respects their privacy too.”

‘To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary folks.”

‘The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security...”

“Our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does.”

Interestingly, President Obama never defines what an “extraordinary American” is. Presumably, based on the speech’s repeated reference to terrorists and stopping terrorism, terrorists aren’t “ordinary Americans”. So we have a clear dichotomy: “ordinary Americans” and “terrorists”. Unfortunately, the world isn’t so simple and the phrase “ordinary Americans” presents as many problems as it solves.

For instance, while the NSA may not investigate “ordinary Americans”, the FBI certainly does. Numerous accounts have shown that the FBI spends a disproportionate amount of its time trying to infiltrate mosques. In many cases, these same FBI agents encourage ordinary Muslim Americans to commit terrorism, many of whom showed no interest in extremism before the FBI took an interest in them. (Listen to this episode of This American Life, for an extreme example.) Of course, in their NSA meta-data searches, many ordinary Muslim American phone numbers likely show up, simply because the NSA, like any intelligence agency, spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on Islamic terrorism.

And while I don’t want to suggest that politics might use racially coded language for political purposes--for instance “welfare queen”--I could make the argument that “ordinary Americans” means, you know, the non-Muslim Americans. (The NYPD Intelligence Unit spent most of its time mapping and infiltrating Muslim communities. Do they count as “ordinary Americans”?)

A final point that I will hammer home in the next “Getting Orwellian” post: for a Constitutional scholar, President Obama must know better. Under the Constitution, every American is an ordinary American, until proven otherwise in a court of law. Everyone receives the full-protection of the law, no matter what the government accuses them of doing. This includes a right to privacy and protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

When we start to pick and choose who gets Constitutional protection, well, we are probably on the wrong track.

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.)