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Why Intel Goes Bad: We Want Dem Dead Terrrorists

(As a former intelligence officer, Michael C is trying to explain his larger theory on intelligence, a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)

On Monday, I described the pressures constantly pushing prosecutors to the edge of constitutionality to get convictions.

The pertinent question remains: if we have travesties in justice in our American legal system, which has numerous procedural hurdles and obstacles designed to prevent prosecutorial misconduct, how does this affect the messy world of terrorism and insurgencies?

Greatly. Since the military doesn’t operate in an adversarial justice system, the amount of mistakes--read innocent people killed--are orders of magnitude greater than our justice system.

This makes sense; the U.S. Army and Marine Corps weren’t designed to fight counter-insurgencies. The system is set up for top-down, action-oriented leadership. When prosecuting insurgents, the onus is on quantity, not accuracy. The more “actioned targets” the better. If they turn out to have been wrong, or ineffective, nothing much will result, especially since most commanders only deploy for a year.

I can’t stress this enough: our ground forces were designed to fight World War II, a mechanized, maneuver war with front lines, rear echelons, and face-to-face combat, not to combat insurgents. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, upon invading Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, have adapted to irregular war, adjusting their systems to resemble those of security forces. As a result, the incentives to minimize collateral damage or accuracy is less than the incentives to follow the boss’s orders.

When it comes to terrorism, the same rules apply. The CIA makes decisions to launch drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia without consulting a robust adversarial system. The incentive structure is skewed too. Failing to stop a terrorist has huge political ramifications; killing civilians in another country does not.

The CIA has plenty of questions to answer. What safeguards do they have? What system do they use? When were they designed to fight wars? And should they? (The Economist argues they shouldn’t, so does Dennis Blair. I agree.) (Second parenthetical: the CIA really isn’t very good at this. Half of the weapons they sent into Somalia have ended up in Al Shabab’s hands. Doh!)

The worlds of intelligence and evidence have so many similarities, it stuns me more people don’t compare them. One of the biggest similarities is that when intelligence or evidence goes bad, they go horrible. Unfortunately, our intelligence system is designed to make these very mistakes. The main reason Senator Mitch McConnell gets so upset at President Obama trying terrorists in criminal courts is because it is harder, and having a Devil’s Advocate or an adversarial system of justice does make things harder.

(I hate addressing a problem and not providing a solution. I promise I will get to my half-baked solutions...next month--I assume our readers can only want so much detailed discussion on intelligence matters.)

two comments

I mean , this whole post is part of a larger problem: the fear of terrorism has distorted the American perspective. From insane inelligence spending to a skewed FP, we’ve taken America down the wrong road. Instead fo learning the proper lessons (America needs to shrink its global military foot print; become energy independent) America did all the wrong things.


I was talking via email with someone about this problem, and the problem with intelligence is it doesn’t lend itself to academic oversight. With everything super classified, we have to trust that the government is doing as well as we claim it is doing. Is it? I don’t know.

As Heinlein wrote in Stranger in a Strange Land, secrecy breeds tyranny.