Spy vs. spy: the problem of the false negative vs. the false positive
The excellent Callimachus has expanded on some of the points in this post of mine, about those who think Bush lied concerning WMDs in Iraq.
Callimachus tackles a subset of this group, those who say Bush didn't lie--well, not exactly, and not precisely--but that he nevertheless consciously and purposely did the next best (worst?) thing: he sifted through the intelligence information and took only that which fit his already-made decision to attack Iraq for other nefarious reasons such as to steal its oil. Or he told confederates and advisors to shape intelligence information to bolster his argument, and to block anything that didn't.
Callimachus writes, of espionage in general, and the need to evaluate possible threats such as Saddam's:
There are fundamentally two types of mistake you can make at it: to fail to perceive a threat, or to perceive one that does not exist.
Of the two, the former is more catastrophic -- think Pearl Harbor, or Sept. 11 -- and so if the two errors represent the Scylla and Charybdis of the system, the conscientious espionage worker will strive to sail between them, but tack slightly closer toward the error of over-assumption.
The intelligence trade has two components: collection and analysis -- call them hands and head. Agents in the field will gather a mass of data and information: tips from credible sources, rumors, the gleanings of wiretaps and intercepts, newspaper reports. Among them will be some true facts, and some wrong ones and some good guesses, and some bad guesses, and some deliberate deceptions planted by the other side.
It's the analysts' job to try to weed through them and find the best bits of information and use them to construct a coherent picture of what the other fellow is up to. Of course it's "cherry-picking." That's the whole nature of this part of the business. And, again, there likely will be a bias toward seeing something rather than not seeing it.
In fact, Callimachus is describing the age-old scientific problem of the false negative vs. the false positive. They are both bad. But in the case of self defense, the false negative is, as Callimachus points out, a good deal more dangerous, if one is looking at it from the point of view of the need to prevent a threat from becoming a reality.
In the case of the "Bush lied" or "Bush cherry-picked the information" people, however, they seem to act as though a false (or partly-false) positive is far worse than a false negative would be. Is this because they feel this country is so invincible that they don't believe any threats are real? Or is it because, in their hearts, the most important thing is to keep their own hands clean? Or is it some combination of the two? Sometimes it even seems to me as though they think the function of prewar intelligence was to have acted as defense attorney for Saddam---to make sure he was considered innocent till proven guilty.
Actually, I'm probably being too kind to them--or, at least, to some of them. For a certain number, if in fact Bush's intelligence-gathering had been guilty of a false negative rather than the false positive that appears to have been the case, they'd be saying the false negative was worse, instead (just look at the 9/11 Commission for examples). The bottom line seems to be, at least for some, that whatever Bush happens to have done is defined as worse--false negative or false positive. And unrealistic perfection is the standard by which he is to be judged.
In this respect, those who act this way are very fortunate to have been out of power during these trying post-9/11 times. As such, they have the wonderful luxury of constant Monday-morning quarterbacking. They get to criticize errors, whether those be of the false negative or the false positive variety. They get to pretend they had nothing to do with the situation that built up to those errors, such as 9/11. They get away with being altogether vague about what they could do differently to prevent such errors, if they were in power. Or, if they are specific, they get the luxury of knowing that, at least for now, their suggestions will not be tried and found wanting in the field of reality (this is always true of a party out of power, by the way).
And, most importantly, they get to enjoy whatever the Bush Administration may have actually done to prevent further attacks on this country, and thus to have preserved their right to speak out in any way they see fit. And this, of course, is as it should be.