Pontificator: News and Commentary

Saturday, April 26, 2003 :::
Can You Spot the War Crime?

Read this article, and try to find it. You don't need a degree in international law, believe me.

::: posted by Pontificator at 6:50 PM

Thursday, April 24, 2003 :::
Secrets and Lies

The Cogent Provacateur wonders why we were so surprised that we never found any of those notorious Iraq weapons of mass destruction:

We really should have had a clue, shouldn't we? We did. Let's start at the shallow end of the open-source swamp.

Iraq told us they had nothing left. Take that with a large grain of salt ... the same officials swore "there are no infidels in Baghdad" ... but we played the same source cards high and low. When Saddam's in-law Kamel defected, we took his portrait of WMD programs straight to the bank. When Kamel told us the programs had been scrapped (as senior officials confirm in the post-Saddam era), we buried the story.

If we had a mountain of direct evidence, as claimed, Powell could have brought the Security Council more than a few shiny nuggets of fool's gold. He didn't.

More decisively, the very first week of renewed UN inspections produced unambiguous, direct categorical refutations of specific unhedged high-profile intelligence claims made by both US and UK.
Bush personally voiced specific accusations -- with supporting visual aids -- of "new construction" at Al Furat's former uranium enrichment plant. On-site inspection found no new construction ... only weathered rebar protruding from construction abandoned ten years earlier ... not the sort of thing you can readily counterfeit. Iraq suggested that corrosion on unprotected material gave it a different ("new") visual cast. Alternatively, improved high-resolution imaging capabilities may have exposed long present ("new") detail. Embarrassing either way.

Blair's Dossier fingered the al-Daura vaccine plant as a locus of resurgent bioweapons efforts. On the ground, no trace of anything resurging -- malevolent or benign. Again, politically-spun intelligence leads to embarrassment ... except for those who are incapable of embarrassment.
We were deep in the grip of war fever, and flashing neon warning signs of cooked intelligence went by the boards. Jane's Defence Weekly (2003-03-05) diagnosed a case of "incestuous amplification ... where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation".

If we had a large portfolio of direct, reliable evidence, we should have fed UNMOVIC more than "shit, shit and shit" for leads. A single verifiable tip would have done wonders for US credibility, and would not have given away the store (unless the shelves were practically bare).

Did we share our best intel with UN inspectors? There is controversy on this point. We said we couldn't (UNMOVIC was bugged, inspections would be a tip-off, disclosure would spoil sources & methods or compromise targeting data, Special Forces would be put at risk). We said we had done ... at least for all high and medium-value sites. After-class chatter suggested neither was entirely true, and we never played straight with anybody, least of all ourselves.

The strongest inference flows directly from the infertility of US intelligence ... from the pattern of haystacks torched and needles not found when the ashes were sifted.
Suppose -- per the standard thesis -- Saddam had major WMD research, production, inventory and deployment programs. That implies thousands of incriminating points of presence ... physical artifacts, persons, documents, messages. And suppose -- again per standard -- that we had immense stocks of specific leads ... some direct, some inferential, but altogether thousands of points of interest.

We wouldn't expect a perfect match, but what were the odds that these two lists would not overlap at a single point? Not likely. After probing enough points of interest, we'd have to hit some points of presence ... even if our suspect list was cranked out by monkeys with typewriters.

Benchmark illustration: US troops have already discovered caches of US currency, approaching a billion dollars worth ... stumbling on them in unlikely places, without looking for them, quite by accident. In case Saddam had 1,000 times as much WMD as he had cash, we should have found some by now.
CP could elaborate the damning Bayesian statistics here, but it comes down to a simpler rule of thumb: if a proposition is true and important, it's highly probable you can prove it without resort to probability theory. A universe of stubborn, contrary facts was screaming for attention, and we turned a deaf ear.

A endless series of slapstick intelligence antics led up to Snipe Season's opening gun. Home-brewed ricin in London ... a balsa wood Drone of Mass Destruction ... missiles that "could hit the US" (provided they were shipped here first) ... forged uranium transfer documents and the aluminum tube follies ... "mobile labs" that on firsthand inspection proved to be food testing trucks ... an intel dossier plagiarised (typos and all) from student papers with times, places and conclusions changed to bolster the argument.

Categorical refutation of a single highest-confidence intelligence estimate should have premised a discreet inquiry. Umpteen such events in rapid succession should premise an Inquisition.

The follies continued after the ground campaign got underway. A warehouse full of SCUDs in one news cycle evaporated by the next. A "nerve agent" cache was a pesticide dump. Buried "chemical warheads" near a northern airfield failed the acid test. Likewise a half-rack of MLRS rockets. Special Forces broke down a terrorist camp in Kurdish territory and found recipes for "three kinds of chlorine gas" (probably the same three kinds you'd produce at home if you ignored the warning labels on household bleach). Numerous CW "finds" were defensive -- gas masks and atropine injectors -- and often past shelf-date.

No inspection regime can find everything ... but no concealment regime can hide everything either. UNMOVIC probed aggressively starting in December. Special Forces probed more aggressively prewar. There's no concealment regime left, we've probed scores of high-value targets, hundreds of medium-value targets ... and we are still batting 0-fer. At some point the question morphs from "Where are the WMDs?" to "How did we let ourselves swallow that WMD line without de-baiting it?".

It is still possible that we'll find such weapons, but if even we do, it is clear that our intelligence services didn't have clue where they were, or if they even really existed. Yet we pretended we were sure (some would say we lied) to justify, both to the American people and to the world, a massive and unprecedented war, in which thousands of people died.

Oh well, at least no one lied about getting a blow job!

::: posted by Pontificator at 10:56 PM

Tuesday, April 22, 2003 :::
Unwelcome Mat

The Republican National Convention is going to be in New York City for the 2004 convention. Apparently, Bush intends to exploit the City's September 11 tragedy to win re-election.

Now, as you may have guessed, Bush is not too popular in New York City. You might call it, "enemy territory" for him. My guess is New Yorkers, many of whom experienced September 11 first hand, will feel used and abused by Bush's September 11 exploitation. (Full disclosure, I live in NYC, feel strongly about September 11, and, as some of you may have guessed, would like to see Bush running a minor league baseball team starting around January 20, 2005).

The way I see it, us New Yorkers have to make common cause against the foreign Republican invaders. We have approximately 16 months to figure out how to most effectively interfere with the Bush September 11 propaganda machine. A run of the mill protest won't do it. But we're creative people, we ought to be able to think of something. . . .

More on this later.

::: posted by Pontificator at 11:46 PM

Monday, April 21, 2003 :::
Competition is Healthy

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC's latest right-wing talk show nitwit, reams his Fox News competitor Bill O'Reilly, over his racially insensitive comment (he thought it might be funny to joke about about black schoolchildren stealing hubcaps at a charity for the kids' benefit).

SCARBOROUGH: It’s interesting that you said that he just dismissed it and said it was foolish. When Trent Lott got into the mess he got into this past winter for his remarks that he made at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, Mr. O’Reilly said, “Excusing bad behavior by the powerful is a dangerous game. Trent Lott offended millions of Americans and probably didn’t even realize he was doing it. There comes a point in every person’s life when they either surrender to prejudice and ideology, or they become independent thinkers. It’s easier to surrender. The people of the United States must hold those in power responsible for what they do and say.”
Now, isn't what Bill O’Reilly said the other night about the same as what Trent Lott said in an off-the-cuff remark this past winter?

Damn right Scarborough. Now, I fully expect O'Reilly to counterattack, and hopefully the both of them will get stewed in their own bile.

::: posted by Pontificator at 11:57 PM

Filibuster Update

Bob Novack says the Republicans are growing tired of the fight over Bush's judicial nominations. Good, because the Democrats are totally stoked -- and will only grow stronger as the 2004 election approaches. But, if the Republicans still want to make a game of it, they're welcome to raise the stakes. I'm sure the theocratic whackjobs Bush enjoys nominating would play really well in mainstream American. Come on Bush, let's give it a go. Take your fight to the American people. We're ready.

::: posted by Pontificator at 12:17 AM


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