free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ... taking an imposing analytic toolkit out of the box, over the wall and into the street ... with callous disregard for accepted wisdom and standard English

reading tea leaves from original angles, we've led with uncannily prescient takes on the federal surplus, the dotcom crash, the "Energy Crisis", the Afghan campaign, the federal deficit.

More where those came from ... stay tuned.

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All "major" articles of older material have now been imported, some with updates worth perusing. We'll keep it all on the main page for a while, will add a few loose pieces of history, will trim the main page and index the archives for convenience later.


free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ...
... gateway to the next Progressive Era?
Some say it's nothing but a train wreck ... roll in the big cranes, clear the track, see what the crew was smoking. If I thought so, I'd not be writing this ... and if they thought so, they'd not be drumming so hard.

Many thanks to Tony Adragna and Will Vehrs, still shouting 'cross the Potomac at QuasiPundit. Early Camp Enron material can be found in QP's Dispatches department.
Monday, September 09, 2002

--- US Intel Operatives Held, Tortured ---

A Explainer sums up the case for a meeting between Mohamed Atta's Prague and Iraqi intelligence in Prague.
According to Newsweek, when an FBI agent recently told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that the meeting was "unlikely," Wolfowitz grilled him until he agreed it was technically possible.
The "meeting" may have been a case of dual mistaken identity -- Atta looked like a Prague auto dealer who knew an Iraqi national whose name sounded like that of a high-level IIS official. Reconstruction places Atta on US soil before and after the "meeting", with no sign he crossed US or Czech borders in the interim ... and his movements normally left tracks.

Analysis: Absent proof positive of Atta's whereabouts on April 9, the meeting is still "technically possible" ... but it's way beyond the bounds of reasonable suggestive inference. If you were determined to advance the case for Saddam's complicity in 9/11 -- and you had credible supporting information -- you'd bury this item just to avoid looking gulliblestupid.

But if this flimsy thread were all you had, and you still hung your whole case on it ... you'd be a knave, or a crank, or a fool. You'd torture the evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. And it you were also a high-ranking national security official ... you'd torture the faculties of career professionals, trying to get them to cough up some hairball of supportive plausible coincidence.

Sunday's NYT featured a Week in Review special report on intelligence in the age of terrorism. Good as far as it goes [we'll pick up some of those threads in later articles], but important distorting influences go largely unremarked.

In the most pristine environments -- before any hint of coercion -- distortion creeps into analysis of sparse data against sparse background in the presence of random noise, source noise, channel bias, deliberate withholding, obfuscation and misdirection. Everyone is subject to expectation bias, hopes, fears, pet theories, obsessions, the universal human propensity to recognize patterns even in pattern-free data, blind spots, cognitive dissonance, echoes of past triumphs or past failures, force of habit, calibration, extinguishment, boredom, and the ever-present risk of an erroneous major premise.

Every institution has corrupt biases of internal origin. It's always tempting to find the jot of data that could "save" your own earlier discredited finding. Parkinson's Law applies. Some beats are always more status-laden, career-aggrandizing, or simply "juicier" than others. Humans tend to pick sides between competing propositions, and form "cheering sections" for their favorites. Humans develop opinions about policy objectives, and develop opinions as to which findings favor which policies. Missing an obvious finding is a career-limiting move, so intel is biased to discovering the obvious ... whereas information value is maximized by detecting the unexpected. And when intelligence gathering (discovering what is) gets mixed up with covert operations (changing what will be), every form of budget and agenda bias goes into overdrive. [Special concerns here re CIA command of armed drone aircraft.]

Wading into deeper waters, counterfeit intelligence corrupts the democratic political process, just as democratic political pressures corrupt the intelligence process ... and these effects reinforce each other. The War Cabinet's quest for a compelling casus belli raises these concerns in high relief.

For perspective, a stroll though the recent annals of corrupt intelligence ...
As documented extensively in the Pentagon Papers, two decades of intel coercion/corruption dragged US into Vietnam and kept us there. We turned against our (OSS's) man Ho Chi Minh in favor of French rule, then regime-changed emergent left-wing democracy in the former French colony, leaving Vietnam divided. We regime-changed our own hapless puppet into the grave (Diem, 1963). Intelligence kept telling our leaders what they wanted to hear -- that they could steer history by applying minimal force with maximal effect -- and it all kept turning out disastrously wrong. We regime-changed leaders at provincial, tribal and village level. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf "incident" (which in retrospect was either a misreport, a wholesale fabrication, or a routine coastal defense response) provided the rationale -- and the authorizing resolution -- for years of massive escalation. At the end (1975) we abandoned a failing regime in a militarized and destabilized region ... and the chain reaction hasn't settled out yet.

In 1983, "Operation Urgent Fury" regime-changed the tiny island of Grenada. A key pretext was the intelligence report that Cuban forces were improving the island's main airfield ... a development President Reagan insisted could only be intended as a Soviet airbase. We closed our eyes to Grenada's previous bid for US sponsorship of the same project, or the 1980 World Bank report recommending the same improvements as a boon to tourism, or a similar British recommendations dating back to 1954, or the project's hands-on management by Plessey (UK) with Cuban, Canadian, US and other subcontractors. After regime change, with minimal fanfare, we helped Grenada complete the commercial runway extension per original design.

In 1989, we regime-changed Panama, ostensibly to extradite General Manuel Noriega. Noriega was a former CIA asset, gone off the reservation. In the run-up to invasion ("Operation Just Cause", a.k.a. "Panama 5" ... after four failed coups) we declared Noriega an agent of Colombia's Medallin Cartel. We declared him an agent of Cuba. We declared him a weapons trafficker. We declared him a psychopath. [Tipped off by an intoxicated ex-girlfriend of someone in the know, I followed the defamation campaign with amused interest. It all played out as plotted, beginning with atmospheric language popping up in commercial wire-service reports. Noriega the strong leader had been replaced overnight by Noriega the brutal thug.] A significant fraction of 1% of Panama's adult male population died in the course of the "arrest", and we barely eked out a conviction when the drug case got to court.

In 1990, a US-led coalition relieved Kuwait from Iraqi-sponsored regime change. Iraqi tanks were real, but politically pivotal reports of Kuwaiti babies tossed out of incubators were not.
... Congress and the American public were swayed by the tearful testimony of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only as Nayirah. ... Later, it was learned that Nayirah ... had no connection to the Kuwait hospital. She had been coached ... by [PR firm] Hill and Knowlton ... which had a contract worth more than $10 million with the Kuwaitis ...
CSM covers this and other Gulf War crockery, including our detection of Saddam's troops massing on the Saudi border. On further review of satellite imagery, it seems this "massing" was invented out of whole cloth. In other words, Kuwait conned US into their game, and US conned Saudi Arabia ... and sympathetic Arab states ... and oil-dependent Europeans ... into our game.
In the presence of political agendas, intelligence data will be tortured to fit the case, and the intelligence apparatus will be tortured to produce the "right" answers. This can become a vicious circle (as in Vietnam), trapping our leaders in a dark of their own making, and creating new pressures and pretexts for conveniently fanciful findings.

Ramping up for Plan Iraq, the bullshit generators will be working overtime. Our bullshit detectors should be tuned accordingly. In another forum a couple weeks ago, I suggested we look for a fresh Tonkin Gulf pretext ... and suggested last week that we'll suddenly discover new and urgent threats behind Saddam's kimono. And so it is.
Saddam (just as he was ten years ago) is shopping for aluminum centrifuge tubes. [Actually very good news, if true ... it means he's years away from homegrown nukes, and his outsource attempts haven't panned out. OTOH, it could be a head-fake.]

Saddam has a fleet of CBW drone aircraft.

Saddam met face-to-face with Mohamed Atta. [At least Defense Policy Board chief Richard Perle is quoted to that effect in foreign media. Most likely: this is a secondhand misrendition-in-translation. Next-most-likely: Perle is out of his gourd. Third-most-likely: somebody is pulling Perle's leg. Least likely: this really happened, and Perle knows it, and spilled it.]

In general media "chatter", unrelated atmospheric fear-bombs are popping up like turtles on fenceposts. Some of it is 9/11 anniversary stuff, but we are being conditioned.

GWB says IAEA said Saddam was six months away from nuke-you-lore capability in 1998. [IAEA says it ain't so, and NBC says the White House says "What happened was, we formed our own conclusions".]

US/British air-to-ground tempo is increasing in the Gulf no-fly zones. [Could be several reasons for that.]

Saddam's supposed former mistress pops up on ABC with bizarre Saddam-as-Hitler testimony. [Atrios casts some long shadows of doubt over this production.]

This just in -- we're going to Condition Orange! [Orange is not my color ... but it may be warranted.]
How is it we have just enough intel to confirm Saddam's imminent threats, and enough to forecast the course of history post-Saddam ... but not enough intel to neutralize these threats more artfully? Sure, it's technically possible. Is it likely?

Bush43's "Kitchen Cabinet" (Perle, Safire, Woolsey, et al) promises the people of Iraq are waiting for liberation. We put Saddam on the run, they'll rise up, Declare Independence, convene a Continental Congreff, and get right to work on a Conftitution. Sounds good, but this rests on exactly the same intelligence assessment of internal dissent that led Bush43 to break off contact with Saddam's defeated forces. Back then, we were confident Saddam would be overthrown in short order. Now, we're confident nation-building will be a piece of cake.

Same data, same interpretation ... only back then the conclusion read "Don't go to Baghdad", and now it says "Go to Baghdad". DON'T KILL MOOSE AND SQUIRREL KILL MOOSE AND SQUIRREL. When the same evidence supports diametrically opposite action plans, watch out!

Now every fiber in the intelligence web is straining to produce the smoking gun, under threat of being trapped in a windowless room with Paul Wolfowitz. [As I check the background of casus belli nominees, the particulars of People v. Saddam get thinner and more contrived. Even the old reliable "Saddam gassed his own people" is questionable. More later.]

[This just in -- Tuesday's WaPo reports "the Bush administration has for now dropped what had been one of the central arguments ... Iraq's links to al Qaeda ... CIA has yet to find convincing evidence despite having combed its files and redoubled its efforts ...". The administration isn't giving up the search for this Holy Grail, just beating a tactical retreat.]

The scariest of the kitchen cabinet may be Woolsey. I see him on the tube, firm in his conclusions and the evidence be damned ... shrugging off all red flags, seizing on the most far-fetched rumors, inflating them to Godzilla proportions, and riding them around in circles, hanging on for dear life. Complain all you want about Chomsky, but Woolsey is out there in crackpot territory ... and this guy was our Director of Central Intelligence! Scary. Very scary.

But it's a scary world ... and we're not the half of it.