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Intel Gone Bad: Terrorism

(On Violence is devoting the month of May--and most of June--to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

As I was writing one of the first “Intelligence is Evidence” posts--”The Five Page Death Warrant”-- I quoted a Newsweek article called, “Inside the Killing Machine”. As I describe what happens when intelligence goes bad, I think two paragraphs from that article prove my point:

“As administration critics have pointed out, government officials have to go through a more extensive process in order to obtain permission to wiretap someone in this country than to make someone the target of a lethal operation overseas.

“And for all the bureaucratic review, it’s not always precise in the real world. In December people took to the streets of Islamabad to protest the strikes and to show support for a Waziristan resident, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a strike in 2009 and has filed a lawsuit against the U.S., charging a CIA official for their deaths.”

When it comes to terrorism, the one percent doctrine governs all (and this includes the post-Cheney era of the war on “terror”). The line above about wiretaps shows the yawning chasm between reasonable doubt--that we use to execute criminals--and one percent suspicion--that we use to launch drone strikes.

Lethal operations against terrorists bear this out. On one hand, the U.S. military took out the leader of Al Qaeda. On the other, of the over 600 people released from Guantanamo, only 25% have gone back to fighting as terrorists. While some might have turned away from the terrorist life style, according to The New York Times and The Guardian, the more reasonable explanation is that they were never terrorists to begin with.

This 60 Minutes piece dives into the story of one of those detainees. U.S. intelligence agents suspected Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish descent, of a connection to terrorism. As Scott Pelley put it, though, the American intelligence system requires no “evidence” to continue to hold suspects. In this case, as in others, intelligence never matches the quality of evidence. As a result, Murat Kurnaz spent five years behind bars without being charged with a crime. This is the finest example of the one percent doctrine: better be wrong than sorry.

With this post, it is probably time to move past the topic of intelligence...for a few weeks. Then, as I always try to do, I will provide my solutions for how we can keep America safer, wrongfully detain fewer people, and use intelligence/evidence better.

six comments

I would argue that the 25—even if they were innocent ahead of time—would go to war with that country.

One of the ironies of the last decade is that we supported regimes pacifying dissenters if they were labeled “terrorists” or “al Qaeda.” Now, with the Arab Spring, we’re supporting the same dissenters.

@ Mike F – Or the ultimate irony of, What would have happened to Iraq during the Arab spring?

@ Michael C – Now that this series is over, I just thought I’d add in and say that “war is war“iors could gat that analogies only work if you compare something (“intelligence”) to something different (“evidence”). Just though of that.


While the uprisings were inevitable and probably just beginning (desire for freedom, democracy, etc), don’t discount the idea that the regime change in Iraq sped up the process.

With that said, I’m no fan of our exploits in either Iraq or A’stan, but removing Saddam did allow the people to realize that no dictator/strongman was invincible/untouchable.

I’m all for the removal of totalitarian dictators. But if that’s the reason for an invasion or military action, it needs to be stated. I think Eric C gets frustrated with people stating that Iraq was about freeing oppressed people when the justification at the time was WMDs.

Who give right to removal totalitarian dictators?
Great example is in Libya, this people become the richest in his history, and now somebody wants take down the Kaddafi