May 27, 2005

Further Thoughts on Bolton's Nomination

By Demosophist

Larry Johnson has a new post up that puts a lash or two across the back of John Bolton. The value of Larry's contribution is that he knows some of the principles who Bolton is supposed to have retaliated against for their intelligence assessments. There's no substitute for being close to the action. But there are two things, besides the reasoning of Larry's co-blogger, Andrew Cochran that prevent me from being excessively concerned about the "chilling" of the intelligence community's professional objectivity. Or, to be more precise, I'm probably concerned about a different aspect of the problem. Those things are:

1. Although proximity to the action can increase understanding of the situation, the personal and institutional loyalties involved can also distort perceptions; and

2. Professional and objective or not, the core methodology developed by the Intelligence services during the Cold War simply did not work, and clearly does not work for the present period in history, for a host of reasons.

The first issue is sort of self explanatory. I'm not sure I recall the details of the situation, but my understanding was that any retaliation by Bolton was less about the opinions of the NIO for Latin America than about the fact that the official attempted to circumvent Bolton by presenting his case outside the appropriate chain of command.

Second, there's a great deal of hue and cry about how Feith, Rumsfeld, et al either attempted to "cook the analysis" by stovepiping information and exerting pressure on analysts. I'd be inclined to give this objection more credence if it showed any inkling of comprehension about the paradigm shift that has taken place in the nature of the intelligence task. My understanding is that US Intelligence operates mostly according to an Alpha decision method, essentially analogous to the assumption of innocence. (See Rusty's excellent primer on Type I and Type II Errors or my post on the Alpha and Beta of Threat. Essentially the Alpha or Type I process involves building or accumulating evidence until you achieve a threshold that compels you to reject the "null hypothesis" that no threat exists. What the Bush administration realized in the wake of 9/11 was that we had insufficient intelligence resources to adopt such a method, and rather than revamp all the procedures, they started their own ad hoc analysis groups.

Now, there are lots of problems with doing that, not the least of which is that if you start from an assumption of guilt or threat you need to devote considerable resources toward building evidence that could seriously test that assumption. Stovepiping CIA intelligence that's being acquired for the very different purpose of rejecting an assumption of innocence, or nonthreat, can simply be disastrous. At the very least it leads to some big mistakes. In essence it's appropriate to be concerned that people in some of these ad hoc analysis groups might be rejecting what they don't want to hear, because leaking such evidence to the press can seriously undermine the executive decision-making prerogatives. And to be frank, there is little evidence that these ad hoc groups followed Beta methodology to the letter. The reason they did not, has to do with the political process itself.

The political process too, still looks at things from an Alpha or Type I perspective. Leaking information that, for instance, casts into doubt the conclusion that Iran is close to having a nuclear weapon would probably reassure the domestic and international public long before it crossed a rigorously defined threshold sufficient to formally reject the assumption of threat. In a Beta or Type II atmosphere secrecy about the information acquired is far more critical than in an Alpha or Type I atmosphere. The public can, and ought to be, informed about the process... but they need not and should not know about the information being accumulated in an effort to reject the assumption of threat. As the Ellsberg "Pentagon Papers" incident revealed, the public would almost certainly misinterpret and misunderstand it. Alpha methodology comes naturally to us because we prefer to assume innocence and we don't like being threatened. But this "natural" proclivity is completely inappropriate in some situations. If you're skirting the edge of a cliff it's not appropriate to try out your latest tumbling techniques. And yes, we are skirting the edge of a cliff.

John Bolton is the type of personality who acts as though the threat is real, and he needs to be reassured "ten ways from Sunday" that his assumption is incorrect. That's not a problem, in my book. In fact, it's right on target.

By Demosophist at 03:28 PM | Comments |