Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fog of War, Foggy Thinking, Pure Malice

Due disclosure: I have been writing here for years that the American public and that of its allies has not been facing the reality of its wars. The accounting routinely demanded of Israel is on an order of magnitude more severe than what the armies of the free world are called upon to deliver. I've been saying this, however, not so as to damn the Americans and their allies, so much as to call attention to the inconsistent standards. The war against the Islamists, I am convinced, is in its broad outlines not only just, it is essential; it's also inevitable if the free world wishes to remain free.
I've been looking through some of the Wikileak documents from Afghanistan, and I'm sick to the stomach. Unless the various Islamist forces which face humankind are all total idiots without Internet connections and with no ability to read English, these documents will get people killed. No ifs, buts, or any other comfortable lies with which to hide grim reality. Publishing this type of internal military documents and in such quantities, at a time of war, must harm the side whose innards have thus been exposed. It cannot be otherwise.

My personal experience with military-intelligence documentation has been limited to two very different cases. The first was in the 1970s, when at two different moments, one in my regular military service and one early in my reserve duty career, I was sat down on hills and told to observe the Arab country on the other side of the fence. (The earlier case was Lebanon, the latter was Jordan). We were given sheets of paper on which to record boring minutiae. Mind-numbing minutiae, actually, so of course we kvetched. In both cases someone mildly better in the know took us to task, going so far as to demonstrate why our intelligence services needed to know if it had been one uniformed policeman in that village or two, and how often they had come by. It dawned on me at the time that if one had a large enough collection of banal, innocuous and uninteresting data, one might find all sorts of important patterns in them. This was an entire generation before it became fashionable to talk about data-mining, pattern matching and all those things that make Wallmart so good at what it does.

The second, very different encounter, was when I was doing research about the SS and it's Nazi accomplices and collaborators, and I spent a few years poring over the slips of paper the bureaucrats sent back and forth with nary the expectation that I'd ever see them. Some of my fellow researchers and I had the time and patience to read the documents carefully and with a growing understanding of the world they were emanating from, and this enabled us to know not only who was doing what, but what different players would be likely to say - indeed, think - when confronted with some new situation.

So when I glance at a report such as this one, from 19 January 2009, even though I've never in my life seen this particular sort of document, I immediately take note that whoever's doing the reporting is gauging importance of participants in the meeting by the size of their security attachment; or that he (?) infers that Saroubi is likely Saroubi district - i.e that he doesn't know, he's guessing. Not to mention that the Americans know about the meeting at all: how do they know? Who told them? Which observer needed to gauge importance by retinue?

And that's one single document, analyzed on the fly by Yaacov who knows nothing from nothing about the context, the identities, the actions, nothing. Might we assume the connivers who managed to topple the WTC buildings might be able to glean actionable knowledge about their foes by spending a month or five carefully sifting through Wikileak's miraculous trove of operational military documents from an ongoing war?

In the snippet embedded here, Julain Assange says, and I quote: "We have tried hard to make sure that this material does not, umm, put innocents at harm, ahh, all the material is over seven months old, so it's of no current operational consequence, even though it may be of very significant investigative consequence".

At best, Mr. Assange appears to be a blathering idiot, an innocent ignoramus who has figured out a way to show us things we were never meant to see, and without ever stopping to ask why we weren't meant to see them invents a story about the evil powers-that-be and gleefully exposes. Though when he then goes on to pontificate about war crimes, the babe-in-the-dry-woods-with-a-flamethrower theory does seem a bit far-fetched.

The fog of war is often understood to mean the inability of soldiers clearly to see what's gong on around them; in its derivative meaning it then includes the limitations on the rest of us to make sense, at our remove, of what's really going on. Yet there's a third meaning, ultimately the most important one. The fog of war is the inability of each fighting side to know what the other side knows, what it intends, how it understands the battlefield it's in, how much longer it can stay on course. Julian Assange and Wikileaks have removed a huge amount of the fog that has been confusing the Islamists until this week. They will take advantage of it.

Democracies must craft an ever-adapting set of mechanisms to peer through the derivative sort of fog. Yet like all other parts of the democratic decision-making, there's a filter between total participation of all citizens, and real actions. There are elected representatives; there are means of oversight; there are all sorts of checks and balances. Shareholders don't participate in commercial negotiations, patients don't sit in staff-meetings of physicians, voters don't sit in the chambers of legislation, and no outsider is ever allowed into the room where the court or the jury deliberates its decisions. The idea that the military, of all organizations the one that most immediately deals with life and death, can be disrobed for all to see and no harm will be caused is breathtaking in its idiocy and its malice.


Judith said...

Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

thank you, Yaacov!

here is Malcom Gladwell on Ben Macintyre's book "Operation Mincemeat" with some musings about "fog" and the pitfalls of deception

btw I think it was last year that I heard that none of the staff at Bletchley Park ever talked before the archives were opened, i.e. nobody cashed in on leaking ...
dumb all of them or decent? I vote for decent.


Anonymous said...

Of interest from JPost:


AKUS said...

I can't help comparing this case with Jonathan Pollard - thrown into prison for life for possibly revealing some secrets that could in no way have compromised US security.

What then is a sutiable punishment for the leaker, and what should the US do about Assange? He may think he is performing a service to humanity, but he is, in fact, a deadly enemy of a country at war.

Morey Altman said...

For some reason, this quote came to mind:

'The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.'

Bertrand Russell

Anonymous said...

last night I learned via Nick Cohen, whom I like, his occasional bleeding heart tendencies notwithstanding, that Wikileaks has its uses for journalists. Does that explain their leniency towards him?

I have a huge amount of time for Wikileaks. There are stories of mine that the wretchedly authoritarian libel laws would have purged from the Net, had Julian Assange not intervened and found a safe home for them far from the reach of Mr Justice Eady. The next time he is London, I will shake his hand. But there is no way that he could have vetted 90,000 documents to ensure that he was not putting sources or others at risk. Nor, significantly, is he claiming to have agonized over the contents of each of them as an old-fashioned editor would have done.

and here is a report on the time table imposed by Assange which seems so tight to me from a strictly "how to organize an office" point of view as to make me doubt the trustworthiness of the 3 papers. Vetting more than 90.000 documents for potential harm in four weeks with no prior organized for it task force available - that's let-em-die hubris.
Also interesting in it, Assange wants to be equal partner, the journalists tell him, he's just a source. May that turn into a wedge.

As I have fallen myself for pranks from these folks until they came up with their evil Israel-thing
I think it may be time to dig up what W. Somerset Maugham had to say about wise-cracks and that one shouldn't fall for them too willingly.


Paul M said...

I agree with every word you wrote, Yaacov, but there's another aspect that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere:

Security was so porous that someone could walk off with 90,000 documents, or copies thereof, and make a huge media splash by passing them on to Wikileaks. How could that happen, and what confidence could we possibly have that 10 or a 100 times as many haven't already been quietly copied by or for the Taliban, the ISI or the Iranians? In other words, even if we could know the extent of the harm done by Wikileaks, or could have persuaded them to suppress the material for the common good, the real concern goes far, far beyond that.

Anonymous said...

Paul M

you are perfectly right - a couple of days ago I read installation 2 of the WaPo's great series about intelligence gathering in the US
- as I have spent my working life in offices I have a feel/an experience for the difference it makes, if you have/do everything inhouse as to when you "outsource" it. The WaPo piece describes horror pure i.e. by my guess secrets are by now only half way secure, if they are hidden in plain sight disguised either by disorder/confusion or dullest ordinaryness.

From what I gathered from the Columbia piece linked above it may have been that Assange was almost subdued by the "plain sight" factor until that is he got himself some MSM-lers willing to mine it into stories, presumably all citizens of NATO-members cheerfully working away at hurting their own and their allies.

to summarize:
unless you have tight knit units who feel pride or love or honour or loyalty for eachother and for their outfit and for their state, forget about security -
keeping your mouth shut to the outside world while all the time revealing everything to this or that outfit competing for a contract destroys at least with us lower orders any feeling of urgency and/or legitimacy the demand for secretness may have once had.


Derick Schilling said...


You mentioned Bletchley Park. I believe I read this story years ago in ULTRA GOES TO WAR, by Ronald Lewin (1978):

There was a woman who worked at Bletchley Park. One day she had a serious stroke at her home in rural England. An ambulance came and took her to a hospital in a nearby town (I think it may have been Oxford.) As she slipped in and out of consciousness on her way there, she kept telling herself that what mattered above all else was that she not let slip the secret she knew--that Bletchley was reading Enigma cipher messages. And she didn't.

What moves me about this story is that she had her stroke sometime in the period 1965-70. Over two decades after the war ended, under the most extreme and terrifying circumstances, her most basic response was to remember her obligation to protect the lives of others by keeping the secret that had been entrusted to her.

pj said...

Hi Yaacov

I hope you don't mind that I've linked to this post. I thought that it provided some interesting insights and background in light of the latest wikileaks/cablegate kerfuffle.

Peter Johnston (PJ)