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The imperiling of validity of source, and validity of datum from source


The increasing clouding of provenance, content, context and interpretation of information both inside government and without, notably the fourth estate that is supposed to comment on the actions of government, is very disturbing. I am as worried by the actions of Miss Run Amok (Judith Miller) and her Executive Editor Bill Keller at the Times as I am the apparent Bush43 administration assertions of Iraqi nuclear weapons capacity when the "DIA did not trust or believe the source of" those assertions. If readers to my right and left are discomfited by this note, I may just have achieved my goal.

Writing in Blog speed, visibility, deception, and counterdeception, Feb 2005:

Traditional journalists have rightly commented that some bloggers rush materials on-line without sufficient fact checking and that due process should reign, which means the journalists' due process speed and not the medium's speed. Rubbish says I, these people might as well be Xerxes flogging the sea. Highstreet press has acknowledged the trend by permitting/nudging their serving journalists to put their own blogs.

The key for an open source analyst as myself is identifying an accurate datum regardless of provenance:

Figures vary on the percentage of open versus covert sources, but 90+% figures consistently cling to the open source category. Yes, one must apply the same critical analysis as one would do with classified data, starting with validity of source and validity of datum from source, but the data is there and it is often free of a central overriding institutional filter.

The intertwining of validity of source (sometimes called source reliability) and validity of datum from source (sometimes called information validity) is often overlooked outside the intel community as a valid source can periodically pass invalid data while a valid datum can emanate from an unreliable source.

While I have long said that commercial practitioners do not collect enough information in first instance (cultivate enough sources), and then do not apply a meaningful confidence factor to what is collected, my concern is turning to the willful manipulation of data, even deception (where there is no expectation of its presence) so as to rob the reader of a means of forming an accurate assessment. As omissive or comissive deception is at play, I suggest this trio:

Returning to Miller, I submit that The Reporter's Last Take is a damning indictment regardless of gender to the point that anything that she has or will write is suspect in my opinion. In the dupe category, I am no more comfortable with Keller and I recommend readers to Will Bunch's The Editor Who Cried 'Wolfowitz' in which Bunch cites two early pieces by Keller, the 2002 The Sunshine Warrior and the 2003 The Boys Who Cried Wolfowitz. (Mirrors of both articles now in archive are cited below.) To read those pieces today, especially Sunshine Warrior, in the light of what we now know of the failed planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Wolfowitz's participation in that planning, the kindest thing to say of Keller is that he is a distressing easy sale for a bridge in Brooklyn. Unlike Miller, Keller remains at the Times in the position of executive editor. No joy there.

Shifting to government, it is difficult for this analyst to escape the opinion that administration pre-war intelligence analysis utilized very selective sources and very selective data from those sources to construct their threat assessment and its presentation of evidence to the electorate was flawed to the point of being misleading. One can see the requirement of protecting Iraqi nuclear, chemical and biological WMD as a rationale for war when one reads Wolfowitz's comments to Vanity Fair's Sam Tannenhaus:

"The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason… there have always been three fundamental concerns. One is weapons of mass destruction, the second is support for terrorism, the third is the criminal treatment of the Iraqi people. Actually I guess you could say there's a fourth overriding one which is the connection between the first two."

We now know that reasons one and two were erroneous, the third was not a motivator for war and the fourth is a conjunction of the erroneous. It must be daunting when the two primary legs of support are removed. While Jehl's Report Warned Bush Team About Intelligence Doubts speaks of the use of known dubious sources (Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Curveball) to support a cherry picking justification for war, it is instructive to read the attachments (here, here and here) to Levin's press release. It is difficult to square the circle when one accepts the existence of the "earlier and more skeptical" 2002 DIA report.

It would appear that the practice of employing selected, continually shifted data (as earlier rationales are discredited) has cost the administration dearly. Always an excellent site for the analysis of polls, Mystery Pollster makes thoughtful analysis on this slip and points to Polling Report Iraq data on the question if the administration were themselves misinformed by bad intelligence, intentionally misled, or lied to provide a reason for invading Iraq. Scroll through the polls by Pew Research Center, Nov 3-6, 2005; ABC News/Washington Post Poll, Oct 30-Nov. 2, 2005; CBS News Poll, Oct 30-Nov 1, 2005; and CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, Oct 28-30, 2005. The numbers are grim.

Add to this the White House's self inflected wound of attempting to rewrite history by changing Scott McClellan's reply in a press conference caught on video tape to the inverse in the White House transcript and then try to get Congressional Quarterly (CQ) and Federal News Service (FNS) to do likewise. Wonkette's The White House's War on Transcripts is excellent. Adding insult to injury, the White House continues the denial when it could have so easily issued a correction that McClellan misspoke.

The net result for this analyst is to doubt more and more of what emanates from government and the supposedly lofty high street press, yet even here newspaper and print hold a far higher trust factor than TV. I do concur in the poll's ranking of PBS and NPR as the most trustworthy.

Newspapers Rate High in Public Trust Factor, But Public Broadcasting Tops All Media
By Miki Johnson
Editor & Publisher
November 10, 2005 1:40 PM ET

The Reporter's Last Take
In an Era of Anonymous Sources, Judy Miller Is a Cautionary Tale of the Times
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post
November 10, 2005

Miller and the Times Agree to Part Company
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post
November 10, 2005

The Editor Who Cried 'Wolfowitz'
By Will Bunch
Editor & Publisher
November 09, 2005

White House Stands by 'Not Accurate' Quote in Dispute
By Joe Strupp
Editor & Publisher
Published: November 09, 2005 11:30 PM ET

The White House's War on Transcripts
Nov 8, 2005

Report Warned Bush Team About Intelligence Doubts
New York Times
Nov 6, 2005

Levin Says Newly Declassified Information Indicates Bush Administration’s Use of Pre-War Intelligence Was Misleading
Senator Levin Press Office RELEASE
November 6, 2005

DIA Letter

Administration Statements on Iraq Training al Qaeda in Chemical and Biological Weapons

Administration Statements About Iraqi – al Qaeda Links

Survey Finds Most Support Staying in Iraq
Public Skeptical About Gains Against Insurgents
By Richard Morin and Dan Balz
Washington Post
June 28, 2005

The Boys Who Cried Wolfowitz
New York Times
June 14, 2003
Fee Archive
Cache here and here

Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Sam Tannenhaus, Vanity Fair
Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz Friday, May 9, 2003
United States Department of Defense
Updated 29 May 2003

The Sunshine Warrior
New York Times
September 22, 2002
Fee Archive
Cache here, here and here

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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