Faces in the Clouds

Intelligence analysis is not so hard, if you have common sense, but then common sense is rare. One serious problem is that the enemy is seldom obliging enough to supply you with ground truth. If you had it, you could identify your mistakes, and better yet, identify classes of errors, which might allow you do better in the future. You could also get rid of those analysts who were uncommonly wrong, presumably by promoting them to management.

Consider the case of Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot shot down in the Gulf War. His fate was unknown in 1991: we had rumors that he was a captive in Baghdad. Let me steal some relevant lines from Wiki:

[In April 1994, a U.S. satellite photographed apparent human-made symbols on the desert floor near the wreck’s location, which might possibly be Speicher’s E & E (Escape and Evade) sign, suggesting that Speicher might have survived the crash.” Speculative theories were developed as to the circumstances of Speicher’s shoot-down, and assuming he was still alive, why the U.S. military might not want to find him and why Iraq might not want to return him. “U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gordon England said, “While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Capt. Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody, I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down. Further, it is my firm belief that the government of Iraq knows what happened to Capt. Speicher.”

Speicher’s possible situation became a more high-profile issue in the build-up to war. In March 2002, the Washington Times ran five successive front-page articles about it, National Review Online ran a long piece on it,[16] and on September 12, 2002, President George W. Bush mentioned Speicher in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly as part of his case for war against Iraq.

In April 2003, Speicher’s possible initials were discovered in a cell at Hakmiyah prison in Baghdad. But later, in 2009, we found (and identified) the body. He died back in the crash back in 1991, and some Bedouins buried him, which is why the Baathists couldn’t say what happened to him. The rumors were false, the reports of the Escape and Evade sign were wrong, the initials weren’t his, the speculative theories were wrong. The Secretary of the Navy was wrong, but then being wrong was part of the job.  National Review was wrong – guess there’s a first time for everything. There was smoke, but no fire – just a mystery that became fuel for a bunch of desperate, silly, and/or dishonest people. It can happen. It did happen. But in this example, we know the answer.

This was a typical Iraq story: somehow, we had developed an approach to intelligence that reliably produced fantastically wrong answers, at vast expense.  What so special about Iraq?  Nothing, probably – except that we acquired ground truth.


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24 Responses to Faces in the Clouds

  1. You are appropriately cynical and suspicious, but only in one direction. You hit it in the last line: we acquired ground truth. In retrospect, in virtually everything about other countries – hell, about our own country – what we thought we knew turns out to be flawed at best, and stunningly wrong at worst. The original Vietnam narrative was wrong, based on stupidity, bias, and lies. The counternarrative was also wrong, based on stupidity, bias, and lies. I believe we are on to the third counternarrative at this point, and perhaps…

    No, even that causes me to wince. As Luther said, we are like a drunk on a horse, lurching from one side to the other in overcompensation. There are problems in history of being too close, which gradually give way to problems of being too far away. It is fair to focus on the faults of those in power because hey, those were the sets of idiocy and misinformation we acted on and bear the consequences of. I’m just not convinced that any othe the other possible stupidities (except maybe the paleocons) would have been better. They would at least have been cheaper.

    Okay, maybe even that is fairy dust thinking. Doing nothing often turns out to be insanely expensive as well. Especially in the Middle East.

    • albatross says:

      Realizing how often our intelligence agencies, diplomats, news reporters, etc. are wrong should make us very careful about making expensive or dangerous decisions based on their current story.

    • gcochran says:

      I wonder what other direction you have in mind.

      You’re inspiring another post.

  2. east hunter says:

    “somehow, we had developed an approach to intelligence that reliably produced fantastically wrong answers, at vast expense.”

    Made me think you were talking about the NSA spying scandal as well.

    Speaking of which: given your knowledge on the importance of SIGINT to America, what do you think about the NSA scandal? or still too early to say.

  3. j3morecharacters says:

    Any large military organization would have reacted the same way in Capt. Scott Speicher’s poignant case. No one dares ever to say a soldier is dead when there is no body and there may be a small hope that he may return. In the case if the Sultan Yakoub battle in Lebanon two Israeli soldiers’s bodies were missing and the Army searched ten years after them. Hundreds of live Hizbullah terrorists were offered in exchange for information or the bodies, but the Hizbullah only could provide a video of the battle showing clearly that their tank was hit and exploded. The parents of the soldiers didnt accept the enemy’s document and campaigned tirelessly for the return of their sons whom they believed to be alive and prisioners in Damascus. I am not sure if at this date they have been oficially recognized as dead instead mysteriously missing in action. Who wants to tell the parents that their pathetic hope is futile?

    • Toddy Cat says:

      “Any large military organization would have reacted the same way in Capt. Scott Speicher’s poignant case”

      Personally, I’m inclined to doubt that the Soviets or Imperial Japanese would have given a s**t, but maybe I’m just racist.

  4. John Harvey says:

    Two of the current items of intelligence used to advocate Western intervention are that the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons and that the Iranian regime is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Curiously, the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is never used to describe either.

  5. Jefferson says:

    You don’t know the half of it. I was military intel working Iraq in the second war; one of my original training instructors had been on Iraq in the lead up and was *100%* convinced that the Iraqis had an active WMD program and that they’d stashed it all somewhere. Any non-tactical intelligence is a coin toss at best; there’s so much ambiguity, and nobody gets rewarded for pointing out the smoke lacks fire. If you err and you’re wrong and lots of Americans die, no good. If you go the other way and you’re wrong, the worst that happens is a bunch of Iraqis getting killed by US weapons (instead of getting killed in the sectarian strife). The incentive structure is designed to generate false-positives.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      Sounds like you’ve got a lot of insight on this topic, Jefferson. Tell us more.

    • gcochran says:

      On some questions, American Intel does a decent job. For example, when they found fresh fission products in the air drifting out of the Soviet Union in 1949, we knew they had tested a plutonium bomb.

      On the other hand, even good technical information can be misused. Consider the Vela incident: it sure looks as if it was an Israeli nuclear test, in cooperation with the South Africans,. but Jimmy Carter pretty much mandated a finding that there was no such test.
      I havethe weird impression that he actually thought it he could make it not have happened… .

      • Jefferson says:

        When the expectations are set appropriately we can do some really really good work. There was a particular baddie we were after in Iraq. The guys on the ground knew him and knew his friends and associates and neighborhood, etc, and so it was easy to apply the other intelligence disciplines in support. If we’d suggested that he, for example, was keeping a small stockpile of WMD in his basement there were guys who *knew* firsthand that, well, he didn’t have a basement, so no dice. If he did things within expected parameters, it was plausible that we could confirm or deny those actions.

        Clueless leadership making clueless demands can lead to some really bad results though. The guys on the ground knew that the Iranians were training and supplying weapons to all sorts of bad dudes in Iraq, so everyone working Iraq was expected to find evidence of that. Obviously false positives are a lot less obviously false when they’re what you’re expecting to find. That’s not to say that the Iranians weren’t doing all the bad things that our guys down range knew they were doing, just that the Iranians weren’t complete idiots about it.

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Well, that was Carter for you. What with all the crappy leadership we’ve had since then, lots of people have forgotten just how bad ol’ Jimmy was, but he was a real prize.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    Why did Saddam let all the foreign nationals in Iraq go before the American attack in 1991? They would have made good hostages / human shields, but instead Saddam just did the decent thing and let them all leave.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      Those close to Saddam say he simply couldn’t imagine how it could benefit America to invade Iraq and replace his government:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzuP-x5RPMw (around 12 minutes).

      I still don’t understand why the US invaded Iraq. The only non-rubbish reason I’ve heard goes something like this. After 9/11 the US government finally realised how vile Saudi Arabia was. But they’d only throw the Saudis under the bus if they had a substitute major Arab oil-producing country under their control. And Iraq was thought to be that country.

  7. Jim says:

    There may not have been a rational reason in terms of US strategic interests but presumably there was a motivation. I don’t think they we invaded Iraq just because our intelligence was bad. The administration put enormous pressure on the intelligence people to come up with the answer they wanted.

  8. Jim says:

    To Steve Sailer – Its hard to credit Saddam Hussein with any decency.

  9. Ralph Hitchens says:

    So it was a waste of time that US intelligence went to such lengths to follow every lead, no matter how insubstantial, to find out what happened to Scott Speicher? Perhaps, but as noted above, most other nations wouldn’t have bothered. The poor performance of the intelligence community in the WMD assessment prior to the 2nd Gulf War has been widely publicized and examined, and as the world knows, produced only “wrong answers, at vast expense.” But neither the Speicher search nor the WMD failure tells the whole story. A lot of mundane intelligence collection & analysis goes unremarked by the critics, but is appreciated by the main customer — the military. In the 1st Gulf War company and battalion commanders knew exactly what lay beyond the next sand dune, thanks to a complete laydown from overhead imagery. The fragility of the defending first-line Iraqi forces (seriously understrength units with bad morale) was not grasped by the “inside the beltway” intelligence organizations, who routinely discounted the abundant evidence from “line crossers” handled mainly by the Saudis. In any event the first-echelon Coalition forces had high confidence in their training and equipment, and information of this sort would have been dismissed as both overconfident and irrelevant. It’s a military truism that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” and the same might be said about the shelf-life of intelligence. So should the whole apparatus be dismantled in the wake of its proven (too often) uselessness? About that, I’m not so sure.

    • gcochran says:

      Those weren’t leads, any more than there are really faces in the clouds. They were excuses to sell articles, raise money, and finally one extra argument in favor of a pointless war. Without a hard fact or two, it’s all vapor, useless.

      Our tactical intelligence was fine in the Gulf War, but that doesn’t mean that the military, or worse yet the people who make and influence decisions had any sense, then or now.

      For example, I have long had an amateur interest in these things, and I got the impression, in the summer of 1990, that Saddam Hussein was about to invade Kuwait. I was telling everyone at work that Saddam was about to invade, till they got bored with it. This was about two weeks before it actually happened. I remember thinking about making a few investments based on that possible event, but never got around to, partly because I was really sleepy, since we had a month-old baby girl at home.

      As I recall, the “threat officer” at the CIA warned about this, but since the higher-ups ignored him, his being correct embarrassed them, so he was demoted.

      The tactical situation was as favorable as it ever gets, and most of it was known. We had near-perfect intelligence:: satellite recon, JSTARS, etc Complete air domination, everything from Warthogs to F-15s. . Months to get ready. A huge qualitative weapons superiority. For example, our tanks outranged theirs by about a factor of two, had computer-controlled aiming, better armor, infrared sights, etc etc etc etc. I counted something like 13 separate war-winning advantages at the time, and that count was obviously incomplete.. And one more: Arabs make terrible soldiers, generally, and Iraqis were among the worst.

      But I think that most of the decisionmakers didn’t realize how easy it would be – at all – and I’ve never seen any sign that Colin Powell did either. He’s a “C” student type – not smart. Schwartzkopf may have understood what was going on: for all I know he was another Manstein, but you can’t show how good you are when you beat a patzer.

      • Ralph Hitchens says:

        Interesting. No disrespect, but after the fact I heard from more than one intelligence community colleague that there was widespread belief that Saddam would move on Kuwait. Of course he had been rattling sabres over the alleged cross-border pilfering of Iraqi oil for several weeks, but I can say with high confidence that the IC consensus was that there would be no invasion. The “Arabists” at CIA & DIA held the high ground, & were convinced that Arab countries don’t invade each other, or some nonsense. My belief echoed the IC consensus until — a day I remember well — Friday, July 27th, when I saw some late-breaking SIGINT about certain Iraqi moves that abruptly convinced me that yes, Saddam WAS going to invade. The “Arabists” in charge continued to deny this possibility, citing the upcoming Iraq-Kuwait mediation conference with Saudi Arabia which would undoubtedly resolve the crisis. I continued to believe the hard military evidence I had seen in SIGINT & conveyed my conclusion informally with several people, but there was not much interest & I went on leave the next day. I was not surprised to get a call from my USAF Reserve boss the following Thursday, that the s**t had hit the fan.

        • gcochran9 says:

          For me it was a hobby – I was doing adaptive optics at the time in Colorado Springs. All I knew about particular military moves was from the newspapers, but my reasoning went like this:

          A. Kuwait had a lot of oil. Worth stealing, if you could get away with it.

          B. Kuwait was militarily impotent and had no defense treaty with anyone. Most people found Kuwaitis annoying.

          C. Iraq owed Kuwait something like 30 billion dollars, and was generally deep in debt due to the long conflict with Iran

          D. I figured that there was a fair chance that the Iraqi accusations of Kuwaiti slant drilling were true

          E. There were widely reported Iraqi troop movements towards Kuwait

          F. Most important was my evaluation of Saddam, from watching the long war with Iran. I thought that Saddam was a particular combination of cocky and stupid, the sort of guy to do something like this. At the time I did not know about April Glaspie’s, shall we say, poorly chosen comments.

          • Ralph Hitchens says:

            gcochran9, your “civilian” analysis made sense for the most part, except the well-publicized Iraqi troop movements prior to about 27 July 1990 were part of the sabre-rattling. Large numbers of tanks & artillery were parked along the highway going north out of Kuwait toward Baghdad, for everyone to see. It was other, covert deployments, described in both SIGINT and overhead imagery, that were mostly invisible to the public driving along that highway but far more serious indications that this was not a drill.
            And Jim, you’re absolutely correct. I was shocked by the extent to which Iraqi capabilities were magnified in the media during the Desert Shield period. Even what well-respected military scholars and experienced retired senior officers said made very little sense to me. But there was also a tendency within the intelligence community to overestimate Iraqi capabilities, from analysts who should have known better. A lot of Air Force & Navy intelligence analysts I worked with during that period expected a full-scale “Battle of Britain over Baghdad,” which I thought was a ludicrous idea — I recall saying during one discussion that the Iraq Air Force “would be lucky to score a single kill.” & in fact they apparently did score just one — Scott Speicher.

  10. Jim says:

    I remember the media coverage before the Gulf War. There was story after story about how difficult it would be for the US. I didn’t have anything like your knowledge of war but the media coverage struck me as very bizaare. I remember listening to one television show which explained how sand in the Iraqi desert would foul up the workings of US tanks and disable them. Someone from Mars just dependent on information from the US media would have concluded that we didn’t stand a chance.
    The actual course of the Gulf War demonstrated to me how unreliable the popular media is as a source of useful information.

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