Known unknowns (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

In September 2002, according to Politico magazine, Donald Rumsfeld received a report (mostly declassified in 2011) stating that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons programs was essentially worthless. For example, the report says:

Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence

The report was seen by Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary and now an adviser to Jeb Bush, but wasn’t shared with President George Bush, or with other members of the Administration, such as Colin Powell. And despite his musings about known and unknown unknowns (unsurprisingly the subject of some sardonic comment in the Politico piece, Rumsfeld showed no doubt in his public pronouncements about the supposed weapons.

This report ought to be (but won’t be) enough to discredit Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz once and for all. Given that they knew that the claimed legal basis for the war relied on spurious intelligence, both are guilty of the crime of a war of aggression. More to the point, in terms of US political debate, a Defense Secretary who sends thousands of US troops to their deaths in pursuit of a goal he knows to be illusory ought to be condemned out of hand.

On the other hand, does the report help to exonerate those who advocated war based on the spurious intelligence being pushed by Rumsfeld? Not to any significant degree. The fact that Rumsfeld was a four-flusher was obvious in December 2002, when Saddam denied having any weapons. As I observed at the time

In the standard warblogger scenario, the declaration was the trigger. Once it came out, the US would produce the evidence to show Iraq was lying and the war would be under way … Instead, Iraq is denying everything but the US is in no hurry to prove that Saddam is lying … The only interpretation that makes sense is that, despite all the dossiers that were waved about a few months ago – including satellite images of ‘suspect’ sites – the Administration doesn’t really have anything

Anyone who wasn’t already committed to war could have followed the same reasoning, and many did.

22 thoughts on “Known unknowns (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. Dishonesty notwithstanding, Rumbo was unfairly pilloried for that formulation. In psychology it’s known as the Johari window, and it’s a useful way of assessing cognitive limitations.

    Beyond that, total bastardry, but the phrase is legit.

  2. It was notable that our own Alexander Downer, in supporting the war case, reversed the standard assumption of innocence. Downer demanded that Saddam prove he had no WMD. This demand entails not just a legal non sequitur but a distinct logical fallacy. Under law, guilt is particular and innocence is general. Thus, guilt of a particular action can on occasion be proved beyond reasonable doubt with sufficient evidence. However, general innocence cannot be proven. A man may never have beaten his wife but he cannot prove it. There will be many situations where a man and a wife are together without witnesses. The wife’s apparent well-being when in public is only circumstantial evidence.

    In like manner, Saddam could have shown any number of sites to be devoid of WMD (and he did) but objections, always inventive, could be and were raised. One allegation was that Saddam was trucking WMD around constantly. Clearly, Saddam could never technically prove general innocence in this case (no matter what else he might have been guilty of).

    When clear and well-established principles of law, justice, openness and accountability are departed from, the WMD fiasco and the ensuing illegal and immoral war are usually what ensues. The executive government members (at least) of the USA, UK and Australia at the time were (and are) clearly and correctly indictable for war crimes. They should have been/should be tried in the Hague over GW2 (Gulf War 2) and Afghanistan.

    But legally, they are innocent until and if found guilty in an accredited court. The problem to this point is that they have not been charged and likely never will be.

  3. The term weapons of mass destruction sounded like a entree to deception from the first time I heard it used. There was a remarkably candid interview with Rumsfeld at the time (sorry, no link) where he admitted that they went with WMDs as public justification because their geopolitical reasons were too hard for people to follow.

    For me the real crime they should be held to account for is not the use of flaky WMD evidence but the failure to even run basic reality checks on the potential impacts of the invasion. As I see it, politics is always aspirational so prone to all kinds of weird ideas and fashions but it should be incumbent on those in power to properly consider potential downsides of their actions, especially actions that will entail loss of life and well-being. The Iraq invasion has been an appalling failure on just about every count, and this was not due to unforeseeable events and circumstances.

  4. As I recall, the WMD only became an issue when Powell went to the UN to get approval for our invasion. Chances are WMD was not a reason for the invasion, only an excuse. A more likely motive was TOTAL, the French oil company had contracts for 75% of Iraqi Oil [hence the big upset with the French government and consequent Freedom Fries], and Sadam wanted to be paid in euros, not dollars – or so I have read elsewhere.

  5. @Jim Birch

    This phrase gave me a wry, black humour chuckle; “their geopolitical reasons were too hard for people to follow.” There is not much hard to follow about “We elite Americans want to control everything and to heck with anyone else.”

    There is not even much that is hard to understand about; “We consider oil is a strategic resource so we want to control it” or “We follow the Mackinder Geographical Pivot theory of geostrategy.” The latter can be explained in its essentials in a paragraph.

    The truth is they want to keep the masses ignorant about political economy and geostrategy.

  6. @Sancho
    Thanks for giving me the technical term for the Rumsfeld statement. I never really understood why people made fun of it. It seemed more than reasonable to me; perhaps journalists have problems with complex syntax?

  7. I took issues with it because it seemed deliberately obfuscatory; the meaning words carry depends as much on who says them as what the words are, and “These words can carry a reasonable meaning” doesn’t mean that any particular speaker saying them is using them to convey a reasonable meaning.

    Context matters. The same words spoken by different people mean different things, and it’s only fair to judge statements by what they mean than by what they could mean if someone else said them.

  8. @jrkrideu

    Yeah, my thanks also to Sancho for a piece of useful information. However, I must say that although the Johari Window was introduced in 1955, and Rumsfeld was doing his known-unknown thing around 2003, I don’t think I’d glorify Rumsfeld’s effort by associating it with Luft and Ingham’s fine effort.

    According to Wikipedia, the Johari Window “… is a technique used to help people better understand their relationship with themselves as well as others. It is used primarily in self-help groups and corporate settings as a heuristic exercise.”

    Now I don’t know about you, but I reckon there’s very few humans that I would count as less interested in “better understand[ing] their relationship with themselves as well as others” and less desirous of “self help” than Donald Rumsfeld (though Dick Cheney would run him awful close). Naah, Rumsfeld was merely farting into the wind as usual and just happened to come up with his very own little entertaining schema.

    Nonetheless, well “Daily, the clever man learns something. Daily, the wise man gives up some certainty.” (as the wise Monkey narrator once said). And today I have learned something.

  9. @Collin Street

    Hmm, so you reckon that ‘deconstruction’ isn’t an infinite regress, and that we can, magically, somehow come to “the one true interpretation” of everything that’s said, or written.

  10. ‘Our knowledge … is based largely … on analysis of imprecise intelligence.’

    Is ‘analysis of imprecise intelligence’ anything other than a euphemism for ‘guesswork’?

  11. @J-D

    Yes, it’s sometimes a euphemism for ‘bounded guesswork’.

    Besides, ‘guesswork’ is a major component of the creative heuristics that have so enlightened human science; so when, and why, did ‘guesswork’ become a dysphemism ?

  12. And what ever valid and reliable ‘intelligence’ they had from the ground got killed off, while the public broadcaster who dared to give voice to such was “decapitated” by Blair and Alastair Campbell.

    “Later this year (June/July 2016) the Chilcot report is expected, but for ex-BBC boss Dyke, a one-time supporter of Tony Blair, the verdict is in: “History tells us Blair was destroyed by Iraq. Blair will be only remembered for that, just as Sir Anthony Eden will be remembered for Suez.”

  13. @Collin Street
    Personally, I’d want be careful with that kind of thinking, it is really the basis of sectarianism. Extend respect to your enemies.

    Rumsfeld was a very bright and straight thinking guy, I bet most of us could learn a lot from him even if we don’t actually want to follow him down the US-supremacist war-why-not (etc) narrative. Aren’t the smartest members of the opposition are the ones that you really want to test your ideas against?

    I would also add that the known and unknowns statement contains at least a seed of humility and it probably warrants regular repetition: despite being a key epidemiological insight of science and modernity it remains, as far I can tell, news to a lot people.

  14. @Jim Birch
    Rumsfeld’s oft-quoted known-unknown riff continues to be referred to long after the event. In fact I’d bet the riff will outlive all the so-called wise commentators, whom after all are mainly whored scribes and tv suits. The sheer perseverance of the riff actually validates it, does it not? What is interesting is that the commentary on it is still in a mocking tone, much as it was in the beginning. Paid scribes and tv suits just don’t get it. They read out what they’re given. Rumsfeld wasn’t the fool making the riff, just those back referencing it.

  15. @Charlie Anderson

    As I recall, the WMD only became an issue when Powell went to the UN to get approval for our invasion.

    Well, not entirely. Richard Butler raised something of a fracas in the late 1990s when he was a UN weapons inspector. I fully agree that the WMD issue was only a pretext for the invasion, though.

  16. @dedalus

    The sheer perseverance of the riff actually validates it, does it not?

    Yeah, like the sheer perseverance of the Titanic story validates running it into an ice-berg.

  17. GrueBleen :
    @Collin Street
    Hmm, so you reckon that ‘deconstruction’ isn’t an infinite regress, and that we can, magically, somehow come to “the one true interpretation” of everything that’s said, or written.

    We don’t have to, is the thing. Infinite regress may still be bounded, if each individual term in the sequence is enough smaller than the one before. Limits, converging sequences/sums, and all that. You might never understand people perfectly, but iterated successive approximations eventually get good enough, for any realistic purpose.

    “Realistic”, note. If your purpose requires perfect 100% absolute platonic understanding of another person’s thought processes, then my framework isn’t going to offer you the possibility of that, to be sure. This is not an objection I find compelling, though.

  18. iMHO, Donald Rumsfeld’s finest moment was his appearance in the film Dark Side of the Moon.

  19. The Errol Morris film Known Unknowns featured Rumsfeld tying himself in knots of self-deception about this phrase.

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