My namesake, Tom Quiggin has been in the news lately, debunking the idea that Al Qaeda cultivates sleeper agents and also tracing to its source the urban myth that Osama Bin Laden used a private fortune of $300 million to promote the group.

He’s sent me some reflections on the sloppy research that’s been used to promote some of these ideas, noting

. A disconnect between the statement in the body of the article and the sources in the footnotes which do not back up the statement being made,
2. Strong statements which are made, but which are built on weak foundations or on assumptions which cannot be shown to be valid,
3. Information from two different situations is overlapped or mixed together, leaving the reader with a false impression about the nature of a particular problem or situation,
4. In a limited number of cases, information provided in articles is simply false.

The faults he points out are, I think, found to some extent in every field (I’ve certainly found plenty of instances in economics, though the prevailing flaws are a bit different), but fields like the study of security issues have the added problem that replication and verification are particularly difficult. Processes such as peer review, replication and empirical testing aren’t panaceas, and errors will always slip through, but they work pretty well in the long run.

10 thoughts on “Sleepers

  1. Isn’t the whole point of op-ed a la tabloid mass media, precisely that it bypasses those features of the academic tradition mentioned above, since this rates facts and the truth higher than a harlot’s fee for sly character assassination and wilful deception?
    I just feel sick thinking back to 11/9, blogging at the that the US needed to step back, take time out to look at itself objectively and finally comprehend a world of “others”capable of the same feelings and rights as the average yank, herself.
    But no.
    Cheney Bush, having hijacked what remained of US democratic processes in 2000, were going to war; not for any righteous reason, not just for for econonomic and geopolitical reasons, but venal and conceit driven motives at worst.
    The securing of the Middle East and its oil was fascistic, so the media and politicans went thru this awesome, intense beat up to bring about critical mass for actualisation of a totalising myth that would not justify but valorise tawdrey aggression, not least to and for the aggressors themselves. This thru vilifying everything about the confected “enemy”, in the same way that Mitteleurope ran vile blood-libelling Judenhecht/ Ewige Juden type campaigns scapegoating Jews for generaton after generation.
    Funny, how that’s been reversed in the last fifty years; nowadays ask your average Palestinan what they must think of the US Jewish Lobby, for example and I’ll bet that they’d say something similar to the Russian Jews of the nineteenth century subjected to Czarist Pogroms, for example.
    But belief is a powerful thing, as McCarthyism also demonstrated and essential as the precondition for engineered consent. As Bush/Cheney demonstrated, this is the political equivalent of Archimedes- give me a lever and I’ll move the world ( even if it’s perfectly ok for most, where it is ).

  2. surely when there is one source (the government) for the vast majority of information on the subject, it is farcical to suggest that there can be replication and verification of info,
    Tom for instance raises the 9/11 hijackers in the context of sleeper cells,
    but virtually everything known about them comes from the FBI,
    he says “his research suggests …” but how can you independently research hijackers,
    the only thing you have to go on is what the FBI tells you

    couple with the fact that most writers on the subject are not scientists but political writers who have a barrow to push and the whole notion that there can be good rigorous scholarship seems absurd

    he calls it sloppy research, i find that ridiculous but unsurprising,
    lets face it, the wall came down, the pentagon had relevance crisis, an enemy was created, and to quote the downing street memo, “the facts were fixed around the policy”,
    more realpolitik than scientific rigour clearly

  3. here’s just one example of the information problem from a March 2009 story

    Five accused planners of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States have said they are proud of the effort that killed nearly 3,000 people and called it a model of Islamic action.
    In a filing with the Guantánamo Bay military commission trying them, the alleged co-conspirators describe themselves as “terrorists to the bone”.
    The document … bears the names Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafa Ahmed Al-Hawsawi, all of whom are currently held in a high-security camp at Guantánamo Bay.
    A Pentagon spokesman confirmed the men had authored the statement.
    Attorneys for two of the men,
    army major Jon Jackson and navy commander Suzanne Lachelier, said they had not discussed the document with the men and could not vouch for its authenticity.

    clearly, not one word of this is verifiable,
    not only that,
    how is that that these top terrorist suspects get together to formulate their statements inside Gitmo given that other stories say they are held in isolation,
    the filing was accepted by the court even though the attorneys had not seen it and couldnt vouch for it,
    the alleged “self-confessed mastermind was tortured repeatedly

    to suggest that research can be done into these people and that authenticity can be established on any of the details is absurd

  4. More zombies.

    I’m surprised that this is getting a run at all. It was put to bed immediately after 9/11 when an massive no-stone-unturned operation failed to turn up any evidence at all of anything remotely like a sleeper operation. This was initially a possibility and had to be eliminated. It was also contrary to the modus operandi of the 9/11 attacks, which was fairly well understood. There was no support staff popping up and providing assistance. The attackers only used a simple level of subterfuge, basically keeping a low profile and not telling anyone what they were up to, eg, they used their real names. The main reason that it worked was that it was unexpected.

    I guess a significant reason why this wasn’t more plain to everyone was that there was an ongoing FUD campaign to provide public support for activities like the Iraq invasion, Guantanamo, and, re-electing Bush.

  5. @Jim Birch
    “The attackers only used a simple level of subterfuge, basically keeping a low profile and not telling anyone what they were up to, eg, they used their real names. The main reason that it worked was that it was unexpected.”

    Wrong on both counts (low profile and unexpected):

  6. Pr Q said:

    fields like the study of security issues have the added problem that replication and verification are particularly difficult. Processes such as peer review, replication and empirical testing aren’t panaceas, and errors will always slip through, but they work pretty well in the long run.

    Security studies looks like an academic make-work. Their output is not much better than flackery-hackery trying to drum up support for the next round of funding. I guess pol-sci types have got to find some work somewhere.

    The most likely source of terrorist attacks now appears to be of the home-grown (7/7), rather than foreign-based (911), kind. As in Bali, Londonistan and Fort Hood.

    Dealing with this threat is a civic, rather than strategic, issue. Its about “managing diversity” or mis-managing it as we have seen with the British authorities, who have been all over the place like a mad-woman’s underwear.

    It can be done well, as the example of John Howard shows. Rolling out some draconian anti-terrorist laws for headline effect, backed up by plenty of softly-softly arm-twisting behind the scenes to community leaders topped up with a well-deserved smack-down for the multicultural wank-festival goers. Rounded off with tight border-control.

    On the Left we have the mirror image of strategic studies, the so-called discipline of “Terrorism Studies” which treats terrorist threats in the usual glib, post-modern fashion as “constructs” of the over-heated public imagination. Usually topped up with some tired Left-wing boiler plate about “moral panic” and “wedges”. Stephen Crittenden (sorely missed) has the goods on yet another pseudo-scientific cultural studies subject:

    Stephen Crittenden: And you say that we’ve seen the emergence of a new field of study, called Critical Terrorism Studies, with its own units, springing up inside Australian universities to take advantage of the extra funding available since September 11; that it’s got its own journals, and that it features work by post-modern theorists who have little discernable expertise in actual terrorism.

    Mervyn Bendle: Yes. Most things in academia these days, whatever they are, seem to spawn almost like a vampire-ic, sort of parasitic sort of growth, a critical study version of themselves, and whereas we’ve had terrorism study as a legitimate area of academic enterprise for decades.


    Mervyn Bendle: Well critical terrorism studies associates itself with post-modernism, deconstructionism, discourse theory. It tends to see reality as primarily a social construction. It’s got a cultural-relativist epistemology.

    Stephen Crittenden: And you say critical terrorism studies talks about terrorism as a construct of the Western imagination.

    Mervyn Bendle:Exactly. It’s really quite interesting reading the literature, because so often the term ‘terrorism’ is put in scare-quotes as if it’s not a real thing. Critical terrorism studies tends to see terrorism not primarily as an act of murderous violence like we witnessed in Bali that occurs in the real world but merely is what they call a signifier in a discourse; a myth that’s been generated to cause fear and to mobilise the population behind what critical terrorist theorists would say are just conservative political figures and political movements in the West.

    The whole subject degenerated into uncontrollable farce when the ADF appointed Anthony Burke, a radical open-borders pacifist, as its professor in terrorism studies. It would be like appointing Richard Dawkins as Arch-bishop of Canterbury.

    If there is one thing more un-edifying that a ruling class in a position of dominance it is a ruling class, like ours, on the run. They are capable of every kind of folly and misjudgement, mistaking their friends for their enemies and vice-versa. And feel bound to go out of their way to encourage whoever seeks their destruction.


  7. Jeez.
    Amd they call themselves “realists”.
    Sounds like a fascinating universe, Jack Stroccchi’s; one hopes he can come over and visit the real world too, from time to time.
    Let’s hope he starts with Iraq.

  8. Jack Strocchi,

    No, there’s just Quiggins. Your delusions as to their handedness is your own problem.

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