Saturday, December 08, 2007

Torture as Policy

What the Tapes Would have Shown - Matt Yglesias

I think what a lot of people misunderstand about intelligence gathering is that a lot of the process is winnowing out the signal from the noise. Millions of phone call, emails, letters and other forms of communication occur every day, not to mention the constantly increasing usage of satellite and UAV surveillance, and nearly all of it is noise. Out of six billion people on the planet our intelligence services are looking for maybe a few thousand who themselves are looking for ways to stay covert. So the majority of intelligence gathering requires analysis that give policy makers and operational leaders an idea of what is really going on. If you want to know what the real situation is like in a particular part of the world you need ears in the right places. And then you need people back in the States who can put this all together into a coherent picture.
See, that's the bigger misunderstanding, facts alone do not speak for themselves. The fact that A happens holds no meaning until it is interpreted. If A were to mean "You had a cup of coffee this morning" then it would mean nothing to someone looking for information of the possibility of a terrorist plot. But if A meant "Osama Bin Laden had a cup of coffee this morning" then that's of critical importance because you can start asking questions like "where did this coffee-drinking take place and with whom and what was said, from where did Osama arrive and where did he go afterwards" and on and on. But again, six billion people, millions who have coffee in the morning and we expect our intelligence services to find one person from all of that. Even if all the facts our intelligence services received were verifiable that still would not help construct a coherent picture of what various terrorist organizations were doing. This shit is hard and adding misleading or false information into the mix only makes the jobs of our intelligence analysts more difficult. Hence the logical argument against torture as a policy since verifying that information is far more difficult than the information received from a reliable source. It's all a matter of what is the most efficient and effective way to get the information needed to the right people at the right time. And most importantly, to allow our operatives to analyze that information without worrying whether or not it's even remotely true. That's why torture is a bad policy for information gathering.

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