Guest Post: Michael Holzman on Writing Intelligence History

In response to my review of his book on the life of Jim Angleton, Michael Holzman has written a thoughtful post on the particular challenges of writing histories of secret intelligence organizations:
Histories of the activities of secret intelligence organizations form a specialized branch of historical research, similar, in many ways, to military and political history, dissimilar in other ways.  They are similar in that the object of study is almost always a governmental institution and like the Army, for example, a secret intelligence organization may produce its own public and private histories and cooperate or not cooperate with outside historians.  They are dissimilar due to the unusual nature of secret intelligence organizations.
The diplomatic historian has at his or her disposal the vast, rich and often astonishingly frank archives of diplomacy, such as the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS).   Needless to say, there is no publication series entitled the Secret Foreign Operations of the United States (or any other country).  What we have instead is something like an archeological site, a site not well-preserved or well-protected, littered with fake artifacts, much missing, much mixed together and all difficult to put in context.
The overwhelming majority of publications about secret intelligence are produced by secret intelligence services as part of their operations, whether purportedly written  by “retired” members of those services, by those “close to” such services, by writers commissioned, directly or through third or fourth parties, by such services.  There are very few independent researchers working in the field.  The most distinguished practitioners, British academics, for example, have dual appointments—university chairs and status as “the historian” of secret intelligence agencies.  There are, of course, muckrakers, some of whom have achieved high status among the cognoscenti, but they are muckrakers nonetheless and as such exhibit the professional deformations of their trade, chiefly, a certain obscurity of sourcing and lack of balance in judgment.
Thus, an academically trained researcher, taking an interest in this field, finds challenges unknown elsewhere.  The archives are non-existent, “weeded,” or faked; the “literature” is tendentious to a degree not found otherwise outside of obscure religious sects; common knowledge, including fundamental matters of relative importance of persons and events, is at the very least unreliable, and research methods are themselves most peculiar.  Concerning the latter, the privileged mode is the interview with secret intelligence officials, retired secret intelligence officials, spies and so forth.  Authors and researchers will carefully enumerate how many interviews they held, sometimes for attribution, more often not, the latter instances apparently more valued than the former.  This is an unusual practice, not that researchers do not routinely interview those thought to be knowledgeable about the subject at hand, but because these particular interviewees are known to be, by definition, unreliable witnesses.  Many are themselves trained interrogators; most are accustomed to viewing their own speech as an instrument for specific operational purposes; nearly all have signed security pledges.  The methodological difficulties confronting the researcher seem to allow only a single use for the products of these interviews:  the statement that the interviewee on this occasion said this or that, quite without any meaningful application of the statements made.
An additional, unusual, barrier to research is the reaction of the ensemble of voices from the secret intelligence world to published research not emanating from that world or emanating from particular zones not favored by certain voices.  Work that can be traced to other intelligence services is discredited for that reason; work from non-intelligence sources is discredited for that reason (“professor so-and-so is unknown to experienced intelligence professionals”); certain topics are off-limits and, curiously, certain topic are de rigeur (“The writer has not mentioned the notorious case y”).   And, finally, there is the scattershot of minutiae always on hand for the purpose—dates (down to the day of the week), spelling (often transliterated by changing convention), names of secret intelligence agencies and their abbreviations (“Surely the writer realizes that before 19__ the agency in question was known as XXX”).  All this intended to drown out dissident ideas or, more importantly, inconvenient facts, non-received opinions. 
What is to be done?  One suggestion would be that of scholarly modesty.  The scholar would be well-advised to accept at the beginning that much will never be available.  Consider the ULTRA secret—the fact that the British were able to read a variety of high-grade German ciphers during the Second World War.  This was known, in one way or another, to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and yet remained secret for most of a generation.  Are we sure that there is no other matter, as significant, not only to the history of secret intelligence, but to general history, that is not yet known?  Secondly, that which does become available must be treated with extraordinary caution in two ways:  is it what it purports to be, and how does it fit into a more general context?  To point at two highly controversial matters, there is VENONA, the decryptions and interpretations of certain Soviet diplomatic message traffic, and, on a different register, the matter of conspiracy theories.  Just to approach the prickly pear of the latter, the term itself was invented by James Angleton, chief of the CIA counterintelligence staff, as a way for discouraging questions of the conclusions of the Warren Commission.  It lives on, an undead barrier to the understanding of many incidents of the Cold War.  The VENONA material is available only in a form edited and annotated by American secret intelligence.  There are, for example, footnotes assigning certain cover names to certain well-known persons, but no reasons are given for these attributions.  The original documents have not been made available to researchers, nor the stages of decryption and interpretation. And yet great castles of interpretation have been constructed on these foundations.
Intelligence materials can be used, indeed, if available, must be used, if we are to understand certain historical situations:  the coup d’etats in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, for example.  The FRUS itself incorporates secret intelligence materials in its account of the Guatemala matter.  But such materials can only be illustrative; the case itself must be made from open sources.  There are exceptions:  Nazi-era German intelligence records were captured and are now available nearly in their entirety; occasional congressional investigations have obtained substantial amounts of the files of American secret intelligence agencies; other materials become misplaced into the public realm.  But this is a diminuendo of research excellence.  The historian concerned with secret intelligence matters must face the unpleasant reality that little can be known about such matters and, from the point of view of the reader, the more certainty with which interpretations are asserted, the more likely it is that such interpretations are yet another secret intelligence operation.
— Michael Holzman

Recent reading 2: Spooks

For the record, herewith brief reports of recent reading of books on espionage:

  • Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton:  The CIA, and the Craft of Counterintelligence. (Amherst, MA, USA:  University of Massachusetts Press).   A fascinating topic, not given justice in this poorly-written account.  Sentence without verbs.  Not fond of. I.   The author claims to have undertaken interviews with key players (although I only noticed one reference to such an interview), but the book is almost entirely written from secondary sources.    This means it has no new insights.  On some issues, the book is not up to date – eg, on the Nosenko affair, the author seems not to have seen Bagley’s book (see below), published a year before.  The writing is very vague about dates (a rather important failing for a writer of a history book), and lots of information is only provided en passant;   for example, we only learn about Angleton’s first child well after its birth.   Perhaps that is an editor’s failing, as much as an author’s.  There are worse problems:  the author appears to have a very unsophisticated understanding of marxism (p. 103), and his description of the Bay of Pigs invasion puts all the blame on Bissell and colleagues (p. 187), when some of it rightly belongs in the White House, including with JFK himself.    Relying on secondary sources and without new insights, Holzman could have shown us how Angleton’s literary training helped him in the world of intelligence.  Despite repeated claims that his literary education did help, we are not ever shown it doing so, nor given a detailed explanation of how it helped.   To show us this, Holzman would have needed to provide a detailed presentation of at least one theory of intelligence and counter-intelligence; this is something that would have been very interesting and very useful in itself, yet is also lacking from the book.
  • Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars:  Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press).  An insider’s account of the Nosenko affair, which I have blogged about here and here.  Bagley argues compellingly that Yuri Nosenko was a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.   From this he concludes that CIA should not have accepted him as a genuine defector.  As I argue, it is not certain that CIA did in fact accept him as such, despite what it looks like, and the benefits of accepting him (or appearing to accept him) may have outweighed the costs.  An intelligence agency needs to think through the wider consequences of its beliefs and of what are believed by others to be its beliefs, in addition to considerations of simple truth and falsity.
  • S. J. Hamrick [2004]:  Deceiving the Deceivers:  Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. (New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press). Hamrick argues that British intelligence knew that Philby, Burgess and Maclean were Soviet agents several years before their public exposures, and during this period used them to securely transmit messages — both information and disinformation — to the Soviet leadership, knowing it would more likely be believed if it came from the Soviets’ own agents.  If Holzman’s book about Jim Angleton (above) had included some discussion of theories of intelligence and counter-intelligence, this is just the type of case that such a theory would seek to account for.    The (alleged) facts of Hamrick’s book are fascinating, but the book itself is poorly-written, repetitious, acronym-rich and comes with added right-wing tirades.  There are even anti-Catholic tirades against the novelist Graham Greene and —for goodness sake! — the poet-priest Robert Southwell SJ (p. 32), who was executed in 1595.  These tirades are not only out-of-place here, but replete with errors.   One has to wonder at the immense power of a Catholic missionary that he can still provoke such an irrational rant four centuries after his murder by Elizabeth’s police-state. I am certainly one of Southwell’s admirers (see, for example, here), but there cannot be more than a score or two of people alive who even know of him.
  • Valerie Plame Wilson [2008]: Fair Game:  How a top CIA Agent was betrayed by her own Government. (New York, USA:  Simon and Schuster).  Published with CIA redactions shown.   Very well-written and her life story is fascinating.  Shame about her Government.
  • Tim Weiner [2007]:  Legacy of Ashes:  The History of the CIA.  (London, UK:  Allen Lane).  The best single-volume history of CIA, at least as far as an outsider can judge.  Well-written and thorough, although I would have liked more on Africa.  On page 80, Weiner claims the only two successful CIA-sponsored coups were both executed under Eisenhower, but what of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire in 1965 (see Devlin’s book below), and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 (and perhaps Malcom Fraser in Australia in 1975)?
  • Larry Devlin [2007]:  Chief of Station, Congo:  A Memoir of 1960-67.  (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).  An insider’s account of the role of CIA in putting Mobutu into power in Zaire.   Having once met Mobutu, I found this account fascinating, although, of course, I have no idea how honest or comprehensive it is.
  • Markus Wolf  and Anne McElvoy [1997]:  Man Without a Face:  The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster. (New York, USA:  Public Affairs).   A riveting read, which I read in a single day.  Markus Wolf presents himself, I am not sure how sincerely, as a reform Communist, an admirer of Andropov and Gorbarchev.
  • David C. Martin [1980]:  Wilderness of Mirrors. (Guildford, CT, USA:  The Lyons Press).  A detailed account of the relationship between Jim Angleton and Bill Harvey.  Well-written and an easy read.  However, the chronology of the events in the George Blake affair (pp. 100-102) is inconsistent.
  • Milt Beardon and James Risen [2003]:  The Main Enemy:  The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB. (New York, USA:  Ballantine Books).  Although mostly riveting, I skipped over the history of 1980s Afghanistan.   Reading of KGB watching CNN during the attempted coup of August 1991 to learn what has happening was very amusing.   The book would have been better if more had been included on the post-1990 period:  just when events get interesting, the book ends.

John Le Carre, please call your office

For a small country devoid of hills, the Netherlands certainly generates a lot of drama.  Tomorrow’s Sydney Morning Herald has a fascinating story about a good-looking Dutch spy who allegedly left the reservation, becoming a double- or maybe triple-agent, engaging in money-laundering, Middle-East real-estate scams, and perhaps worse, and was held prisoner in her own flat in Dubai by other Dutch agents while her lawyers and their lawyers sought to reach a deal.   No deal reached, she is now in prison in Egypt for money-laundering and weapons-trading.  
You folks in the back of the room will have trouple keeping up when the story includes successive paras like these:

Dutch police observation teams had seen a woman in the company of a British man, Simon John ”Slapper” Cowmeadow. Only later did they realise she was Karoum. Cowmeadow was shot dead in an Amsterdam street on November 18, 2007.
Nadim Imac, a suspected heroin importer and the sponsor of a Dutch soccer team, Turkiyemspor, was thrown to his death from a moving bus on February 17 this year. Police found €223,000 in his home.

Argumentation in public health policy

While on the subject of public health policy making under conditions of ignorance, linguist Louise Cummings has recently published an interesting article about the logical fallacies used in the UK debate about possible human variants of mad-cow disease just over a decade ago (Cummings 2009).   Two fallacies were common in the scientific and public debates of the time (italics in orginal):
An Argument from Ignorance:

FROM: There is no evidence that BSE in cattle causes CJD in humans.
CONCLUDE:  BSE in cattle does not cause CJD in humans.

An Argument from Analogy:

FROM:  BSE is similar to scrapie in certain respects.
AND: Scrapie has not transmitted to humans.
CONCLUDE:   BSE will not transmit to humans.

Cummings argues that such arguments were justified for science policy, since the two presumptive conclusions adopted acted to guide the direction and prioritisation of subsequent scientific research efforts.  These presumptive conclusions did so despite both being defeasible, and despite, in fact, both being subsequently defeated by the scientific research they invoked.   This is a very interesting viewpoint, with much to commend it as a way to construe (and to reconstrue) the dynamics of scientific epistemology using argumentation.  It would be nice to combine such an approach with Marcello Pera’s 3-person model of scientific progress (Pera 1994), the persons being:  the Investigator, the Scientific Community, and Nature.
Some might be tempted to also believe that these arguments were justified in public health policy terms – for example,  in calming a nervous public over fears regarding possible BSE in humans.   However, because British public policy makers did in fact do just this and because the presumptive conclusions were subsequently defeated (ie, shown to be false), the long-term effect has been to make the great British public extremely suspicious of any similar official pronouncements.   The rise in parents refusing the triple MMR vaccine for their children is a direct consequence of the false assurances we were given by British health ministers about the safety of eating beef.   An argumentation-based  theory of dynamic epistemology in public policy would therefore need to include some game theory.   There’s also a close connection to be made to the analysis of the effects of propaganda and counter-propaganda (as in George 1959), and of intelligence and counter-intelligence.
Louise Cummings [2009]: Emerging infectious diseases: coping with uncertaintyArgumentation, 23 (2): 171-188.
Alexander L. George [1959]: Propaganda Analysis:  A Study of Inferences Made from Nazi Propaganda in World War II.  (Evanston, IL, USA: Row, Peterson and Company).
Marcello Pera [1994]: The Discourses of Science. (Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press).

Epistemic modal logic at the CIA

Jim Angleton
A recent issue of the TLS ran a review by Terence Hawkes of the biography by Michael Holzman of Jim Angleton, head of counter-intelligence at the CIA.  Holzman’s book, although mostly written from secondary sources, is a fine summary of Angleton’s life and career.  It is marred, however, by (a) Holzman’s annoying (academic) habit of quoting something or somebody and  then repeating, verbatim, key words from that very quotation in the following paragraph, as if we readers were idiots, unable to read for ourselves or contemplate an idea for longer than a paragraph.  And, (b) by a casual sloppiness about dates.  Call me old-fashioned, but I think a historian should not simply say “in  May that  year”  when the last mention of the specific year was some tens of pages and several anecdotes or set-pieces back.   No doubt Holzman always knows which of the 71 years of Angleton’s life and the various ones before or since he is currently referring to, but this is rarely obvious to the reader of this book, even to a careful reader.   In view of the subject matter and Holzman’s theme (that Angleton’s training in so-called practical criticism was invaluable to his career in counter-intelligence), one has to wonder if such sloppiness is deliberate.
Holzman also does not tell us much about the actual theory and practice of counter-intelligence, despite the title and the claims he makes up front.   In particular, his treatment of the Nosenko case is misleading, partly he believes the official CIA line and because he does not refer to the most recent publication on the case, namely the book by Bagley. Hawkes seems to have followed Holzman in his garden-path-up-straying.
Unlike literary criticism, espionage is not only about what to believe, it is also about what to do.  It may be the case that Yuri Nosenko was a genuine Soviet defector, as Holzman claims CIA eventually came to believe.  Others closely involved in the case, such as retired CIA agent Tennent Bagley (2007) have argued compellingly that Nosenko was in fact a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.
Whether or not Nosenko was a genuine defector, and whether or not CIA leadership believed him to be a genuine defector, CIA would also need to concern itself with what impact a revelation of their beliefs would have on KGB, as I have argued before, and thus on what proposition to seek to have KGB believe about CIA’s beliefs in the matter.   If CIA were seen by KGB to accept Nosenko’s testimony (inconsistent and incomplete, by his own admission) too quickly, KGB may not accept as genuine any CIA profession of belief in his bona fides.  So, some delay and equivocation in decision-making was called for.  If CIA professed to believe that Nosenko was a plant or allowed KGB to conclude that CIA believed Nosenko to be a plant, then CIA risked signalling to KGB that they (CIA) were also rejecting all the testimony he arrived in the west with, which included detailed protestations of KGB non-involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.    Whether or not CIA believed that KGB were involved in that assassination, they may or may not have wished to let KGB know what they believed, at least at that particular moment.  In any case, perhaps a clever (and cunning) CIA would seek to have KGB believe that Nosenko was believed, in order to see how the game played itself out.
So, one possible course of action for CIA was to signal to KGB that they accepted Nosenko as a genuine defector, but to signal also that they came to this decision only slowly and painfully.   How better to do this than to interrogate the man at length and (allegedly) harshly, and then, after years of apparent indecision and multiple internal investigations (some of which may even have been genuine), decide to accept him publicly as a true defector.   This public acceptance – consultancy fees, letters, flags, medals, and all – even now, four decades later, may have absolutely no connection whatever with what CIA leadership really believed then or, indeed, what they believe now.
It’s not only litcrit that gets an outing in these events.  If any philosopher reading this wonders about the practical usefulness of dynamic epistemic modal logic, wonder no more.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Terence Hawkes [2009]: “William Empson’s Influence on the CIA.”  Times Literary Supplement, 2009-06-10.
Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton, the CIA and the Craft of Counterintelligence.  Boston, MA, USA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Here we go again! Secret decisions about Iraq

The British Government has this week announced a secret inquiry into the invasion of Iraq in 2003.   [UPDATE: The Government subsequently announced that the enquiry would not be held  in secret.]  How appropriate that a decision made in secret, with only scarce, belated and begrudging justification presented to the citizenry, should now be re-evaluated in secret.   Even though today Gordon Brown says that the decision about secrecy is not his preference, he has delegated the decision about openness to the Chairman of the Inquiry.  For this cowardice, Gordon Brown deserves the widespread contempt in which he is held.
On 14 February 2003, annoyed that the major public policy decision to invade Iraq had apparently already been made, and made in secret without due public consultation, I asked myself if such secrecy could ever be justified.  The text below is what I wrote then. The existential wackawacka hunakuna about weapons of mass destruction since the invasion alters my arguments below not a jot.
In order to avoid re-appearance of comments I received in 2003, let me repeat that I make below no case about the worth of the invasion itself, neither for nor against the invasion.  My case, is as the title says, a case for a justification for a claim, to be presented in public and subject to contestation and debate.  If we’d had such a debate BEFORE the decision to invade had been made (ie, before July 2002) we would have either ended up with no invasion of Iraq at all, or one which many more citizens could have supported.



The Case for the Case for War

14 February 2003

The strange public debate we in the West have been having these last few months about whether and how to undertake military action against Iraq has led me to reflect on the role of argument in public life, especially as it concerns the making of major public policy decisions. While I have strong views on the substantive issues involved here, I am trying not to let them be apparent in my discussion this month of the decision-making processes involved. In particular, in this column, I am not putting the case for military action against Iraq at this time, and nor am I putting the case against such action. This column has no view on the matter. My argument is about the use of argument in decision-making in this domain.
1. The debate has been strange because of the refusal, until recently, of the main proponents of military action against Iraq (which action I’ll call simply “war”) to defend their claim publicly. Only last week, 6 months or so after public debate on this issue began, did the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meet and debate the issue with ordinary people. Only last week, did the US Government present its intelligence evidence publicly to the UN. Only the week before did the UK Government release a document outlining its case (a document, it turned out, that was mostly plagiarised from public sources). As far as I’m aware, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, has still not provided reasons publicly for his Government’s policy of uncritical support for the US position, a refusal which led to him being censured by a majority vote of No Confidence in the Australian Senate, the first such in its history. In Britain, the authorities which operate the House of Commons have recently refused to permit a debate in the House on the question.
2. Why is this? Why have the main protagonists been unable and/or unwilling to defend their position, on an issue of such manifest importance? After all, every bar and every cafe the length of Britain (and elsewhere, if TV news reports here are any guide) is filled with ordinary people discussing the proposed war, so it is not as if people are uninterested in the question.
3. So, I asked myself: What would be good reasons for a Government not to give public justification for its desired action of war against Iraq? I thought of the following possible reasons for not giving reasons (in each case, as perceived by the proponents):

3.1 Revealing the case for war would endanger national security.
3.2 Revealing the case for war would place at peril the lives of, or in other ways compromise, intelligence sources.
3.3 The case for war is weak. For example, this would be the situation if the evidence for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction is only circumstantial.
3.4 The case for war dishonours the proponents. This would be the situation, for example, if the reasons for war were: “To capture Iraq’s oil”, or “To avenge the attempted assassination of George Bush senior.”
3.5 There is no need to put a case for war. In Britain, for example, it seems, as the Defence Secretary reminded us all last week, that the Government can engage in foreign wars simply by convincing the Queen to sign the relevant order; there are no legal or constitutional requirements to convince the House of Commons, or Parliament, or the public at large. I imagine the US War Powers Act, which requires the support of Congress before the President can declare war, may limit the US administration’s freedom somewhat more.
3.6 The case for war is so complex that the public would not understand it.
3.7 The proponents do not respect the other parties in the debate (those opposed to the war, and those still undecided), and so are not bothered to put the case to those others. Many Australians appear to believe that this is the attitude of the Australian Prime Minister on this issue.

To me, speaking personally, reasons 3.1 and 3.2 would be a compelling justification for not revealing the case for war, but I don’t recall any of the proponents giving these as their reasons. None of the other reasons would be compelling to me as reasons for not engaging in public argument on this issue.
4. So, I then asked myself: How would I persuade the proponents of war to give us, the citizenry, their reasons for their proposed actions. Again, I thought of several reasons for giving reasons for war:

4.1 Failure to put any case at all leads people to suspect that the real case is weak or dishonourable. One might call this the Baskerville Argument for giving reasons: If the dogs don’t bark, then why are they silent?
4.2 Engagement in argument enables each side to strengthen their case: to learn of the possible attacks against it, to identify defences and counter-attacks for these, and so to bolster the arguments. The outcome of any comprehensive public debate should be a stronger case for war.
4.3 For complex public policy decisions, such as this one, there are usually many alternative action-options, and many and diverse implications and consequences of those options. In fact, the complexity may be such that no one person, or even no single team of people, could adequately hope to assess and comprehend all these. (This is especially the case for teams of politicians and bureaucrats, out of touch with ordinary reality, as the group think of the CIA in the Bay Of Pigs incident showed.) Only by allowing a full public debate before a decision is made can society be certain that all the relevant issues have been raised and have informed the decision, and thus that the best action-option has been chosen.
4.4 Military action is an example of a public policy decision where ultimate success or failure may depend greatly on the quality of execution, as much as on the particular action-option selected. This in turn may depend on the morale of the military personnel undertaking the action, which in turn may depend on the extent of public support those military personnel have. Without public support for a particular military action, it is much less likely to be successful, at least in a democracy. (I believe this argument is part of the so-called Powell Doctrine, formulated by the US Secretary of State when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Defense Forces Staff under US Presidents Bush snr. and Clinton.)
But public support depends crucially on public acceptance of the final decision made, and this in turn depends on the public believing that they have played a part in the decision process. Public debate is necessary, therefore, to establish and sustain public involvement in the decision-making process. People may support a decision outcome even when they disagree with it, if they believe they played an appropriate part in the decision-making process. (I believe this is is real lesson of the experience of the US and Australia in Vietnam: not that the decision to wage war in Vietnam was inherently wrong — it may or may not have been wrong — but rather that the public did not feel they had been sufficiently consulted before it was made, or sufficiently consulted as the military involvement increased. Thus, they did not support it.) Prior and ongoing public debate, rather than being a hindrance to execution quality, may therefore increase execution quality, and may in fact be essential to the ultimate success of the military action itself.
4.5 In a democracy, failure to justify and persuade the citizenry of the wisdom of some major policy is ultimately a mistaken strategy, electorally.
4.6 On important public policy issues in a democracy, consensus is unlikely if not impossible. It is therefore crucial to channel disagreement into public argument and debate, in order to prevent recourse to other forms of expression of opinion, such as mass protests and acts of violence. Public argument thus acts as a “safety valve”.
4.7 In a democracy, politicians have a duty to explain their proposed actions to the citizenry who pay their salaries.

5. Reasons 4.1 – 4.6 are instrumental: they are attempts to show that providing public reasons for war will behoove the proponents of war, and/or improve the quality of decision-making and decision-execution. Reason 4.7 is a moral claim.
6. Some of the arguments listed in Section 4 are not new. For example, argument 4.3 about deliberative processes improving the quality of decision outcomes was made by D. J. Fiorini in 1989, and, in a different form, by Bill Rehg in 2001:

D. J. Fiorino [1989]: “Environmental risk and democratic process: a critical review.” Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, 14: 501-547.
W. Rehg [2001]: “The argumentation theorist in deliberative democracy.” Keynote address to the Conference of the International Debate Education Association (IDEA), Prague, October 2001. Revised version published in Controversia, 1(1): 18-42 (2002).

Similarly, James McBurney and Glen Mills, briefly argued a case similar to my argument 4.6, in:

James H. McBurney and Glen Mills [1964]: Argumentation and Debate: Techniques of a Free Society. New York, USA: Macmillan, Second edition.

Moreover, my argument 4.4 may be a valid inference from the Powell doctrine, as I suggest above.
7. However, these works are all primarily concerned with other issues, and do not aim to present an argument for public argument over matters of importance.  Does anyone know of papers or books which do put such a case?

Postscript 1 (added 17 February 2003): The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has just presented a detailed case for taking military action against Iraq, in a speech to the British Labour Party in Glasgow two days ago. I believe this was his first extended public presentation of his arguments for military action; the speech was given on the same day that a million people marched in central London against any war in Iraq. The British House of Commons has still not been permitted to debate the matter.
Postscript 2 (added 17 February 2003): British political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, wrote in his weekly column in The Observer yesterday:

“There are powerful arguments and there are dreadful arguments in favour of definitively dealing with the Iraqi tyrant, and it has been one of the failures of the British and American governments not to advance the better ones.” (Andrew Rawnsley: “It’s do or die, Prime Minister”, The Observer, 16 February 2003.)

Postscript 3 (added 17 February 2003): From an editorial today in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper:

“In fact, the public is wary of the power of argument because it is attenuated, circumscribed and distorted by political calculations. This may explain why many suspected the government of trying to scare people into war when tanks were placed near airports. The temper of these times is to distrust more than trust.” (“The march of history: A moment of truth for British politics”, The Guardian, 17 February 2003.)

Postscript 4 (added 26 February 2003): Finally, the British House of Commons is permitted to debate this issue. Here is Tony Blair’s statement to the House yesterday.
Postscript 5 (added 12 April 2003): Playwright David Hare is unable still – after three weeks of fighting and the capture of Baghdad – to determine the reasons for the war.
Postscript 6 (added 8 May 2003): At last, an argument I can understand decision-makers in the US and British Governments may have found was compelling: that, although the probability that the Iraqi regime had links with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists may not be large, the consequences of such links may be catastrophic. See the article by Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Unknown: The C.I.A. and the Pentagon take another look at Al Qaeda and Iraq” in The New Yorker magazine, published 10 February 2003. Why did the decision-makers not trust us citizens enough to share such analyses?
Postscript 7 (added 21 June 2003): Author and publisher Jason Epstein, writing in The New York Review of Books, May 1, 2003, in an article entitled “Leviathan” (pp. 13-14), said this about the Second Iraq War:

Meanwhile, Americans are sharply divided over a preemptive assualt whose urgency has not been adequately explained and for which no satisfactory explanation, beyond the zealotry of its sponsors, may exist. (page 13)

Postscript 8 (added 14 September 2003): The Observer’s superb political journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, argues in his column today that Tony Blair “didn’t trust the British people to follow the moral argument for dealing with Saddam. This mistrust in them they now reciprocate back to him. For that, Tony Blair has only himself to blame.”
Postscript 9 (added 28 November 2003): Thomas Powers, in an article entitled “The Vanishing Case for War”, in The New York Review of Books, 50(19): 12-17, 4 December 2003, says this (p. 12):

“The invasion and conquest of Iraq by the United States last spring was the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of secret intelligence information in American history. Whether it is even possible that a misreading so profound could yet be in some sense “a mistake” is a question to which I shall return. Going to war was not something we were forced to do and it certainly was not something we were asked to do. It was something we elected to do for reasons that have still not been fully explained.The official argument for war, pressed in numerous speeches by President Bush and others, failed to convince most of the world that war against Iraq was necessary and just; it failed to soften the opposition to war by longtime allies like France and Germany; and it failed to persuade even a simple majority of the Security Council to vote for war despite immense pressure from Washington. The President’s argument was accepted only by the United States Congress, which voted to give him blanket authority to attack Iraq, and then kept silent during the worldwide debate that followed. The entire process – from the moment it became unmistakably clear that the President had decided to go to war in August 2002, until his announcement on May 1 that “major combat” was over – took about nine months, and it will stand for decades to come as an object lesson in secrecy and its hazards.”

Postscript 10 (added 5 April 2004): Richard A. Clarke in his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004), lists (page 265) five rationales which have been attributed to senior Bush II Administration officials (GW Bush, D Cheney, D Rumsfeld and P Wolfowitz) for seeking a war against Iraq. I paraphrase these here:

To finish the Gulf War of 1991
To remove a hostile enemy of Israel
To create an Arab democracy as a model for other regional states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia
To remove a potentially hostile enemy of Saudi Arabia (and hence enable the withdrawal of US troops stationed there)
To create another friendly source of oil for the US, and so reduce dependency on Saudi oil.

Postscript 11 (added 15 August 2005): George Packer, in an article entitled “The Home Front: A soldier’s father wrestles with the ambiguities of Iraq” (The New Yorker, 4 July 2005, pp. 48-59) says this:

“In the fall of 2002, it still might have been possible for President Bush to construct an Iraq policy that united both parties and America’s democratic allies in defeating tyranny in Iraq. Such a policy, however, would have required the Administration to operate with flexibility and openness. The evidence on unconventional weapons would have had to be laid out without exaggeration or deception. The work of U.N. inspectors in Iraq would have had to be supported rather than undermined. Testimony to Congress would have had to be candid, not slippery. Administration officials who offered dissenting views or pessimistic forecasts would have had to be heard rather than silenced or fired. American citizens would have had to be treated as grownups, and not, as Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, once suggested, as ten-year-olds.” (page 54).

Cheney rebutted (again)

Former US Vice President Richard Cheney and former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have been arguing of late that unless you were there in the White House on 11 September 2001, you can’t criticize the actions they took in response.  Well, Richard Clarke WAS there, as the President’s chief counter-terrorism adviser in the NSC, and he does.   I believe Clarke is still the only official from the Bush administration to have apologized for the administration’s failure to protect American citizens on 9/11.   Clarke was a serious, dedicated and professional civil servant for 30 years, which is no doubt why he did not last very long under the Bush-Cheney administration.

Hearing is (not necessarily) believing

Someone (let’s call her Alice) tells you that something is true, say the proposition P.  What can you validly infer from that utterance of Alice?  Not that P is necessarily true, since Alice may be mistaken.  You can’t even infer that Alice believes that P is true, since she may be aiming to mislead you.
Can you then infer that Alice wants you to believe that P is true?  Well, not always, since the two of you may have the sort of history of interactions which leads you to mostly distrust what she says, and she may know this about you, so she may be counting on you believing that P is not true precisely because she told you that it is true.  But, you, in turn, may know this about Alice (that she is counting on you not to believe her regarding the truth of P), and she knows that you know, so she is actually expecting you not to not-believe her on P, but to in fact infer either no opinion on P or to believe that P is true.
So, let us try summarizing what you could infer from Alice telling that P is true:

  • That P is true.
  • That Alice believes that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

Apart from life, the universe and everything, you may be wondering where such ideas would find application.   Well, one place is in Intelligence.   Tennent H. Bagley, in his very thorough book on the Nosenko affair, for example, discusses the ructions in CIA caused by doubts about the veracity of the supposed KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko.    Was he a real defector?  Or was he sent by KGB as a fake defector, in order to lead CIA astray with false or misleading information?  If he was a fake defector, should CIA admit this publicly or should they try to convince KGB that they believe Nosenko and his stories?  Does KGB actually want CIA to conclude that Nosenko is a fake defector, for instance, in order to believe something by an earlier defector which CIA may otherwise doubt?  In which case, should CIA pretend to taken in by Nosenko (to make KGB think their plot was successful) or let KGB know that they were not taken in (in order to make KGB believe that CIA does not believe that other earlier information)?  And so on, ad infinitum.
I have seen similar (although far less dramatic) ructions in companies when they learn of some exciting or important piece of competitor intelligence.   Quite often, the recipient company just assumes the information is true and launches itself into vast efforts executing new plans.  Before doing this, companies should explicitly ask, Is this information true?,  and also pay great attention to the separate question, Who would benefit if we (the recipients) were to believe it?
Another application of these ideas is in the design of computer communications systems.   Machines send messages to each other all the time (for example, via the various Internet protocols, whenever a web-page is browsed or email is sent), and most of these are completely believed by the recipient machine.   To the extent that this is so, the recipient machines can hardly be called intelligent.   Designing intelligent communications between machines requires machines able and willing to query and challenge information they receive when appropriate, and then able to reach an informed conclusion about what received information to believe.
Many computer scientists believe that a key component for such intelligent communications is an agreed semantics for communication interactions between machines, so that the symbols exchanged between different machines are understood by them all in the same way.   The most thoroughly-developed machine semantics to date is the Semantic Language SL of the Agent Communications Language ACL of the IEEE Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (IEEE FIPA), which has been formalized in a mix of epistemic and doxastic logics (ie, logics of knowledge and belief).   Unfortunately, the semantics of FIPA ACL requires the sender of information (ie, Alice) to believe that information herself.  This feature precludes the language being used for any interactions involving negotiations or scenario exploration.  The semantics of FIPA ACL also require Alice not to believe that the recipient believes one way or another about the information being communicated (eg, the proposition P).  Presumably this is to prevent Alice wasting the time of the recipient.  But this feature precludes the language being used for one of the most common interactions in computer communications – the citing of a password by someone (human or machine) seeking to access some resource, since the citer of the password assumes that the resource-controller already knows the password.
More work clearly needs doing on the semantics of machine communications.  As the example above demonstrates, communication has many subtleties and complexities.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Knowing and understanding The Other

I have previously defined marketing as the organized creation and management of perceptions, which I am sure is not a controversial definition among marketers.   Effective perception management requires you to know and understand all the other entities in your business environment —  your customers, your competitors, your upstream suppliers, your downstream distributors, other partners (such as providers of credit to your customers), and your regulators.  What does it mean to “know and understand” someone?
Well, you can listen to their words and observe their actions.   But words may not provide much guidance to actions – people are notoriously unreliable predictors – or even recallers – of their own behaviour, and they may have many reasons (legitimate or not) to prevaricate, dissemble or distort reality when speaking about their own past actions and intentions.   And observing their actions may be too late if you have a major investment decision to make, such as Go-No Go decision for new product development or new venture launch.  So, “understanding” people means you need to know their intentions, perhaps better than they do themselves.   And for this, you need to understand people’s personalities, their attitudes, their cultures, and the environments in which they make their decisions.   None of this easy, and it requires a great deal of empathy and sympathy with the people you are trying to understand.  Marketing research might be defined as an organized attempt to identify and deploy rigorous methods aiming to know and understand a target group of entities.
The same deep challenge arises for intelligence agencies, who are also trying to know and understand a group of people.    As CIA veteran Robert Baer (among many others) has argued, all the sophisticated satellite imagery and data-mined mobile phone calls in the world won’t tell you about what is inside people’s heads, and what intentions they have.  For that (he argues), people on the ground are needed, able to operate seamlessly within the culture of the targeted community, listening and talking to the enemy.    Empathy and sympathy are necessary here too, although these attributes are often disparaged by many involved as “taking the side of the enemy” or “going native”.     I have long been struck by how much the people leading CIA and successive US administrations in the 1950s and 1960s were able – sometimes more so and sometimes less – to empathize with their opposite numbers in the Kremlin (eg, during the Cuban Missile Crisis), but completely unable to empathize with the supporters of the Vietminh and the Communist Party of Vietnam in the same period.  Former US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, to his lasting credit, seems to have realised this, if only in retrospect.  (This failure to empathize with the Vietnamese is even more remarkable given the USA’s own armed struggle to achieve Independence from colonial rule.)
Seeing last week Uli Edel’s film, Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (a film treatment of Stefan Aust’s book) brought these thoughts to mind again, because the film portrays the primary intelligence official leading the West German Government’s anti-terrorist efforts against the Baader Meinhof Group (aka the Red Army Faction, RAF) in the 1970s as quite able to empathize with the RAF, or at least to understand with sympathy their reasons for turning to violence.   When 10% of the population in northern Gemany (according to some polls) felt able to say to a pollster that they would be willing to hide members of the RAF in their homes if asked, then considerable tactical cunning and subtlety would be required to defeat the terrorists.    Such tactics do not come from nowhere, but require empathy and sympathy of the terrorist cause for their ideation and effective execution.

Alex Goodall, over at A Swift Blow to the Head, has a new post trying to understand the historical motivations of the terrorists likely to have been behind the Mumbai atrocity last week.   Such efforts at understanding are to be applauded.  Were President-elect Obama to nominate me to the post of Director of CIA, my first action would be to commission independent historical analyses of Catholic resistance to the Protestant rule of Elizabeth I’s police-state in 16th century England (among whose victims was Robert Southwell), and of the anarchist and revolutionary socialist campaigns of terror and assassination in the second half of the 19th century common across the developed world.  My aim in this would be to ask what lessons have been learnt from these past experiences.   Which leads me to wonder:  where is the intelligence community’s Centre for Lessons Learned?
Postcript: An immediate objection to the relevance of these ideas to contemporary events may be that the Catholic recusants in Elizabethan and Jacobean England were not, in general, suicide bombers.   While it is correct that they were mostly not bombers, a characteristic common to the English Catholic priests illegally returning to England to work underground in this period was apparently a great personal desire for martyrdom.  And in this desire they had  – and perhaps still have – considerable sympathy in the Catholic community.   The nearest Roman Catholic Church to where I am writing this post (in England), and built just 40 years ago, has a side chapel devoted to The English Martyrs.
Stefan Aust [2008]:  The Baader-Meinhof Complex.  London, England:  The Bodley Head. (Translation by Anthea Bell.)
Robert Baer [2002]:  See No Evil.  The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.  New York, NY, USA:  Three Rivers Press.
Uli Edel [Director, 2008]: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex.  Germany.
Errol Morris [Director, 2003]:  The Fog of War:  Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. USA.

Presidential planning

Gordon Goldstein has some advice for President-elect Obama in managing his advisors.  Goldstein prefaces his remarks by a potted history of John F. Kennedy’s experience with the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs action, an attempted covert invasion of Cuba.    Although Goldstein’s general advice to Obama may be wise, he profoundly mis-characterizes the Bay of Pigs episode, and thus the management lessons it provides.   As we have remarked before, one aspect of that episode was that although the action was planned and managed by CIA, staff in the White House – including JFK himself! – unilaterally revised the plans right up until the moment of the invasion.   Indeed, the specific site in Cuba of the invasion was changed – at JFK’s order, and despite CIA’s reluctance – just 4 days before the scheduled date.  This left insufficient time to revise the plans adequately, and all but guaranteed failure.  The CIA man in charge, Dick Bissell, in his memoirs, regretted that he had not opposed the White House revisions more forcefully.
Anyone who has worked for a US multi-national will be familiar with this problem – bosses flying in, making profound, last-minute changes to detailed plans without proper analysis and apparently on whim, and then leaving middle management to fix everything.  Middle management are also assigned the role of taking the blame.  This has happened so often in my experience, I have come to see it as a specific trope of contemporary American culture — the supermanager, able to change detailed plans at a moment’s notice!     Even Scott Adams has recorded the phenomenon. It is to JFK’s credit that he took the public blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco (although he also ensured that senior CIA people were made to resign for his error).  But so indeed he should have, since so much of the real blame rests squarely with the President himself and his White House national security staff.

The Bay of Pigs action had another, more existential, problem.  CIA wished to scare the junta running Cuba into resigning from office, by making them think the island was being invaded by a vastly superior force.  It was essential to the success of the venture that the Cuban government therefore think that the force was backed by the USA, the only regional power with such a capability and intent.  It was also essential to the USA’s international reputation that the USA could plausibly deny that they were in any way involved in the action, in order for the venture not to escalate (via the Cold War with the USSR) into a larger military conflict.   Thus, Kennedy ruled out the use of USAF planes to provide cover to the invading troops, and he continually insisted that the plans minimize “the noise level” of the invasion.   These two objectives were essentially contradictory, since reducing the noise level decreased the likelihood of the invasion scaring Castro from office.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco provides many lessons for management, both to US Presidents and to corporate executives.   One of these, seemingly forgotten in Vietnam and again in Iraq, is that plans do matter.   Success is rarely something reached by accident, or by a series of on-the-fly, ad hoc, decisions, each undertaken without careful analysis, reflection and independent assessment.