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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Uranium Mania!
The issue of Iraq seeking uranium in Africa has been interesting to me. The now infamous sixteen words in the State of the Union speech have caused untold controversy in the past few weeks, as the Bush Administration attempted to respond to critics (poorly, I might add - this is seemingly an exercise in what not to do when responding to a potential scandal). I've done a lot of reading, arguing, and head scratching in the past few weeks, and I thought I'd try and collect some of the pertinent information and perhaps some commentary I found particularly convincing.

To start, I'd like to go back to original sources. As usual, media accounts are varied and contradictory, so I find that going back to the transcripts is usually an enlightening experience. So here are some important transcripts and document excerpts (some of which have just recently become available... to me, at least): First things first, the infamous 16:
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Now I'm going to try and summarize the general questions and the administration's answers. The administration has done a poor job answering the questions and when compounded with the media's contradictory accounts, the picture has become somewhat muddled. I encourage you to read all of the information in the transcripts above, especially the White House background briefing and to form an opinion of your own. I am certainly not the authority on this matter, I just thought a summary was due.

Has the British government learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa?

The September 2002 British dossier was the source for the infamous 16 words, and has not yet been shown to be false. Much of the controversy hinges on a set of forged documents obtained by U.S. intelligence (these documents allegedly came from an Italian source. The forgeries, as published by the Italian paper La Repubblica, were posted at Cryptome.org). When these were shown to be false, it was assumed that the British intelligence was also false or based on the same forged documents. However, the British government maintains to this day that it's intelligence is reliable and completely separate from the forged documents. The British intelligence came from at least one, possibly 2, outside intelligence services. British intelligence is bound by bilateral agreements not to share this information without the originator's permission. There is some speculation that the French are behind the British intelligence, as Niger is a former French colony and its uranium mines are run by a French company that comes under the control of the French Atomic Energy Commission. Given the U.S. government's relationship with the French government over the past year, it would be easy to see why France would not want to grant the permission to share such intelligence, but this is again just speculation. Obviously, I have not seen the British reports, and thus cannot comment on it authoritatively.

So did Bush lie or not?

It appears that he did not. His statement in the SOTU was a general one, and it was referencing the September 2002 British dossier. The statement was based on a "body of evidence," not any single piece of information. The British information appeared to match up with the information in the October 2002 NIE. The statement did not say that Iraq had actually succeeded in purchasing uranium ore, nor did it specifically mention Niger. It said that Iraq "sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Wait, if Bush did not lie, then why has the administration acknowledged a mistake was made? What, precisely, was the mistake?

Despite this question being asked several times, I am still somewhat confused by the specifics given by administration officials (an example of how poorly they've communicated in the past few weeks). There appears to have been a communications breakdown within the CIA or between the CIA and the White House. That seems to be what they are apologizing for. As near as I can tell, in September of 2002, when the British government released their dossier, the CIA expressed some doubts to the British as to the authenticity of the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The British insisted that their intelligence was genuine, and apparently the matter was dropped. George Tenet testified that he should have taken this into consideration when approving the SOTU, despite the fact that he was apparently unaware of the complaint (I'm not sure I have that right, however). Also, it has been said that in hindsight, what is now known about the forged documents would have played a larger part in the decision.

If this information was in the October 2002 NIE, why did the SOTU reference the British dossier?

The SOTU obviously goes through many drafts. In an early draft, the section regarding Iraq's weapons programs made a series of assertions ("We know Saddam has X. We know Saddam has Y." etc...). Apparently what happened was, as they went from one draft to the next, they thought "it would be much more credible, much more explanatory to the American people to explain how [they] knew these things." So the administration asked the speechwriters to fill in the sources of this information. Naturally, they wanted to use public sources if they were available, including UN information, IAEA information, and Iraqi defectors' information. In this particular case, there were two sources available: The October 2002 NIE, which was still highly classified at the time, and the British dossier which had already been made public. Given that choice, they cited the British document.

Is it not true that George Tenet asked the speechwriters for a speech Bush delivered in Cincinnati to remove this information? If so, why did he fail to remove it from the SOTU?

The information that was to be included in the Cincinnati speech was very specific to a specific intelligence report. It was a "foreign-based, single-sourced intelligence source." Tenet's objection was that the President shouldn't cite specifics that are based on a single source. Intelligence is often backed up by multiple sources of information and he felt that that was not appropriate to include a reference to specific quantities mentioned in a single source.

But if the information was so flawed that it was prudent to remove it from the Cincinnati speech, why was it included in the SOTU?

It was not known at the time that the information was flawed (or, at least, that was not the reason it was removed from the speech). That was shown later by the forged documents. The reason it was removed from the Cincinnati speech was because it was based on a single source and it referenced specific amounts, not because it was flawed and that is a critical distinction.

So what's the big deal?

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about the matter. The account outlined above may not be entirely true, its just what I have been able to glean from the administration (and there is more to it than what is outlined above, of course - I did not even get into Ambassador Wilson's visit to Niger, for example). Those who are truly concerned about the matter are not so much concerned solely by the uranium line, but they think there was an effort to mislead the public by presenting ambiguous intelligence as fact. What matters to critics is whether the Bush administration went beyond ethical bounds in manipulating the intelligence information they had to sell the war. Certainly a worthwhile effort, but in my opinion the shame of the uranium debacle is that it is not really indicative of a malicious effort to sell the war, and thus a lot of good questions are not garnering the attention they deserve.

To conclude, I'm going list out a few links with commentary about the issue. If you find something that you feel should be linked here, feel free to email me or post a comment below.
  • Glenn Reynolds over at InstaPundit has been routinely collecting links and commentary about the affair and has proven to be a valuable resource for the debate.
  • As I mentioned above, the amount of time and attention paid to the uranium claim only serves to lessen the credibility of what is surely an important debate. The Democrats have pounced on the claim, but again, this will only serve to strengthen them in the short term, if at all. Especially given that there are plenty of things the Democrats could be focusing on, even with regards to national security.
  • Porphyrogenitus has made a few excellent posts about the situation: His Ten Real Lies (?) We Were Told About Iraq is a little snarky and satirical, but his follow up is an excellent summary of the situation, one of the best I've seen yet. A quote:
    So one looks at things like the Uranium intel, which some don't see as conclusive (a much fairer way of putting things than "lie", by the way, but the Propaganda Model is driven by things that will whip people into a frenzy, and "it wasn't conclusive but they decided to put it in anyhow and they took it seriously in light of the other information they had" simply isn't as melodramatic as "BUSH LIED! BUSH OFFICIALS ADMITTED THEY LIED!! LIES EXPOSED!!!" to paraphrase Tim Noah's Slate article.)
    Its an excellent post. Read the whole thing, as they say. What the hell, here's another quote, just for good measure:
    The point I was making is that intelligence is imperfect and even wrong intel does not amount to a lie. It could even be asserted, fairly (I'm not sure if it would be true, but it would be fairer accusation than the "Bush Lied" meme) that the Bush administration really wanted to believe this was true and so were inclined to accept at face value something that was more dubious than should have been given credence; groupthink happens. But that, too, would not serve the Propaganda Model as well (it's harder to whip people into a frenzy over an administration that's prepared to think the worst of a man like Saddam Hussein. IMO it's more deplorable for people to be prepared to give a man like Saddam Hussein the benefit of every doubt and cast everything done by Bush and Blair in the most malevolent light possible).
  • As I mentioned, the Democrats are pouncing on this. Here are statements from:
    • Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) listed out problematic assertions involving intelligence on Iraq in a floor statement on 7/15/03
    • Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), apparently among the first and biggest critics of the uranium story, wrote a long letter to the House Intelligence Committee outlining his view of the "four categories of unanswered questions" that the story presents (the letter, along with some other correspondence is included in that link).
    • Rep. David Obey (D-WI) questioned the role and structure of defense intelligence in a 7/8/03 floor statement.
    • Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) made a statement on 6/24/03 regarding the subject.

    I had already linked to the Byrd statement a few weeks ago, and I think my main criticism still holds, and to a certain extent can be applied to other Congressional critics. Essentially, it seems somewhat ironic that Congress is choosing now to examine the intelligence that was brought before them, rather than examining it in October, before they authorized war...
  • As you may have noticed, FAS's Intelligence Resource Program has also been and indispensible resource in keeping track of the situation. CNN also has a decent transcript service, though I've had some trouble finding some transcripts that I would like to have seen...
Well, that about wraps it up for now. I'm probably going to try and collect some more links, especially for the "Bush Lied!" crowd, as they are somewhat underrepresented above. Again, if you have any information that you think I should include, post it below or send me an email.
Posted by Mark on July 27, 2003 at 11:56 AM .: link :.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Footnotes from Beyond the Zero, Part V
I recently finished off Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and since my brain has stopped hemorrhaging, I figured it was time to go back and continue cataloguing items of interest, quotes, and other footnotey type stuff. I've been doing this since I started the novel, about a year ago. See: [part I | part II | part III | part IV]
  • Zipf's Principle of Least Effort: George Kingsley Zipf studied word frequencies and found that analyzing texts in many different languages throughout history produced strikingly similar results, which when graphed were always close to a straight line. Zipf's 1949 book Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort states the mathematics of Zipf's Law, but also "crosses a line, blending statistics with paranoia as Zipf - not sounding at all like a statistician - pleads to the reader that his Principle lays bare nothing less than the secret structure of all social relations - not just linguistic, but economic, political. etc. He waxes utopian about the explanatory power of the Principle." Basically, what this means is that most people, most of the time, will not take the time to overcome small challenges. "To be habitual, an action must be relatively effortless or carry a particularly large psychic reward."

    Or, as Robert Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love: "The Principle of Least Effort: 'Progress doesn't come from early risers--progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.'"
  • At one point Pynchon refers to "The American vice of modular repetition", which I though was just a fantastic way of putting American ingenuity during the war. Our equipment during the war wasn't always the best, but we invariably made one hell of a lot of them (taking advantage of "modular repetition"), and they were robust, simple to repair and maintain.
  • A quote (page 350): "Simple talion may be fine for wartime, but politics between wars demands symmetry and a more elegant idea of justice, even to the point of masquerading, a bit decadently, as mercy." Nowadays, talion doesn't cut it during wartime, but its an interesting quote nonetheless.
  • Yet another quote (page 434): "If there is something comforting - religious, if you want - about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long." Paranoia is one of the main themes running throughout the novel, and probably warrants a discussion of its own...
  • And another (page 587): "Non-Masons stay pretty much in the dark about What Goes On, though now and then something jumps out, exposes itself, jumps giggling back again, leaving you with few details but a lot of Awful Suspicions. Some of the American Founding Fathers were Masons, for instance. There is a theory going around that the U.S.A. was and still is a gigantic Masonic plot under the ultimate control of the group known as the Illuminati. It is difficult to look for long at the strange single eye crowning the pyramid which is found on every dollar bill and not begin to believe the story, a little." Imagine the fun the "Bush Lied!" folks could have if Bush was a Mason. Alas, he is not... yet the conspiracy theories march on. There is a "Masonic Home" about a mile down the road from me. Very strange buildings; they look almost majestic, yet forbidding. I wonder sometimes if I should worry about that.
  • Gravity's Rainbow is a strange book, in that it is at times incomprehensible and deadly serious, while other times lighthearted, goofy and even humorous (often times simultaneously incomprehensible, lighthearted, funny, and deadly serious). For instance, Pynchon seems to delight in naming people and places and things such as Seaman Bodine's ship: the U.S.S. John E. Badass, a place where they hold Runcible Spoon fights. Or Dr. Lazlo Jamf, whose last name is an acronym for "Jive Ass Mother Fucker", which lets you know just how trustworthy the man is...
Well, that about does it for this installment. I think theres enough here for at least one or two more entries, and a review is coming as well. See also: [part I | part II | part III | part IV]
Posted by Mark on July 20, 2003 at 09:36 PM .: link :.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Three Years of Blogging
Its hard to believe, but today marks the third anniversary of this here blog. In taking a look over the past year, it seems to be... well... lame. Not in the sense that what I was posting was crap, but, rather, that I wasn't posting much. There was a brief resurgence of posting in July of last year, when I first switched to Movable Type, but that only lasted a few months (and there wasn't much there anyway). I stumbled through the winter months, mostly posting at a rate of about once a month. Things sped up around March and April, as I became more comfortable posting about politics and, in particular, the military and the intelligence community. Thanks to an indirect but swift kick to the butt from Steven Den Beste, I came to the conclusion that my totally irregular posting schedule was a really bad thing. I started slow, resolving to post every Sunday, in the hopes that such a loose schedule would help me stick to it. So far it has, and its actually caused me to increase my posting in general. The last few months have been really good, IMHBCO.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite posts from the last year: There are others, but I always have difficulty compiling these sort of lists... If you have any favorites of your own, feel free to post them in the comments below (along with any other bitter criticism, astute observations, or death threats...)
Posted by Mark on July 14, 2003 at 08:49 AM .: link :.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

The Point of Vanishing Interest
Tacitus threw out a brief mention of the Black Book of Communism and the Cambodian Genocide Program a few days ago, and it got me thinking. I've often debated politics in various forums, and I would sometimes come across someone who would claim that the U.S. was actually the worst source of pain, suffering, and death in recent history. I've never quite known how to respond to such arguments, much less understand how someone can even say so with a straight face. This is not to minimize American mistakes. We've made our fair share, and many have suffered because of that. But when you look at the actual numbers, it's difficult to see how the U.S. even begins to approach the horrors of Communism or fascism. When I see the estimates that Communism has killed anywhere from 85 to 100 million people, I have to wonder what those who minimize these horrors are thinking.

Indeed, its quite difficult to even internalize that many deaths. I know the numbers, but they're not quite real or comprehensible to me. Perhaps the answer lies there.

C. Northcote Parkinson, in his excellent book Parkinson's Law, wrote a short essay called High Finance or The Point of Vanishing Interest (the entire book is superb; filled with wry observations about the nature of the world which have held up over time). In it, he speculates on the nature of financial committees.
People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is these that finance committees are mostly comprised.
He then postulates what might be termed the "Law of Triviality". Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved. Thus he concludes, after a number of humorous but fitting examples, that there is a point of vanishing interest where the committee can no longer comment with authority. Astonishingly, the amount of time that is spent on $10 million and on $10 may well be the same. There is clearly a space of time which suffices equally for the largest and smallest sums.

So what does that have to do with Communism? Joseph Stalin infamously said "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Its clear that he understood the same thing Parkinson understood: there are few who can internalize numbers that high. Thus when discussing, say, American and Soviet misdeeds of the past century, an incident in which millions of deaths are directly caused by the Soviet actions are given the same time and credence (actually, often significantly less time and credence) as an instance in which thousands of deaths are directly caused by U.S. actions. Given the lack of focus on the larger tragedies of the world, and the magnifying lens that is usually applied to U.S. policy, is it any wonder that there are those who believe the U.S. to be the single worst source of pain and misery in the world? Its not, and unfortunately, I see no way to counteract this sort of thinking.

The only consolation is that the U.S. is only strengthened by such excessive criticism; at least, I would hope we are - we are certainly not saints, and while I do believe our system to be superior to Communism (which ain't saying much, I know), it is far from perfect (in our struggle against communism during the Cold War, we have sacrificed many of our finest values in order to maintain stability, for instance). We can only improve if we are criticized, and it is a testament to our system that there is so much criticism because it is assumed that such a criticism can actually make a difference...

Update 7.14.03 - Something doesn't quite sit right with me about this essay. I don't exactly know how to explain it, but its, well, its such a clinical view of the situation. I'm only talking about numbers here, but there is a whole lot more to it than just a number of deaths, and I don't mean to imply otherwise.
Posted by Mark on July 13, 2003 at 11:37 AM .: link :.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Dude, Where's My Dude? Dudelicious Dissection, From Sontag to Spicoli by Ron Rosenbaum : Dude, this is some seriously funny reading. The complete history of Dude, from its humble origins as a "aesthetic craze" in New York, circa 1883, to Dude, Where's My Car? in 2000.
Everybody thinks "dude ranch" came first and was somehow the origin. But whence came the dude in "dude ranch"? Before the dude-ranch dude there was dude as dandy, the dude as an urban aesthete; it was the urbanity of dude that made the dude-ranch dude dude-ish.
This is so stupid, but its a smart stupid. Almost Pynchonian, really. Seriously, its a surprisingly complete article, worth reading if only to experience the whopping 160 or so occurrences of the term "Dude" or its derivatives. [via Ipse Dixit - Thanks Dude!]

Update: Unrelated, but interesting: A brief Googling of Pynchon and Dude turned up this article, also by Rosenbaum, about Pynchon and Phone Phreaking.
Posted by Mark on July 11, 2003 at 12:40 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Today marks the first blogiversary of IMAO, and since I do not want to be known as an enemy to IMAO (nor do I wish to be destroyed), I am linking to his uh... much anticipated... One Year Blogography. I'm a little short on the presents and offerings that Frank has demanded; I can only heap praise upon his brilliantly funny "In My World" posts, which have the unique distiction of being universally entertaining (as he notes in another blogiversary post: " I receive very little hate mail. I've often seen liberals link to my posts saying, 'Hey, look at this great Rumsfeld bashing.'"). Also, whenever his stories feature Bush, I picture the lines being delivered by Will Ferrell's Bush (which I miss dearly - that new guy stinks). Seriously, every time I stop by IMAO, I laugh out loud, garnering some strange looks if I'm at work.

Incidentally, the Kaedrin Weblog will be celebrating 3 years of bloggy goodness this coming Monday. Yes, 3 whole years, and I can't even claim a meteoric rise to fame. Given my generosity today, if I don't end up on Frank's Links of the Day list that day, there will be hell to pay. You hear me Frank? I'm just itching for a reason to test out the .50 AE Desert Eagle in a combat situation. Don't tempt me... (Heh, j/k of course)
Posted by Mark on July 09, 2003 at 12:51 PM .: link :.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Heard, Understood, Acknowledged
R. Lee Ermey, the infamous drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, has his own T.V. show, called Mail Call. I've seen it several times before, but I never really got into it. You see, its on regular cable T.V. so his speech is somewhat... toned down - and so we're missing out on half the fun! There aren't any grabastic pieces of amphibian shit on his show. There isn't even any neck-shitting, no steers or queers either, and certainly no skull-fucking! About the worst thing I've heard him say on that show is "Maggot"... I guess some things are the same. He's still not a bigot, for instance.

Ok, so that's just a superficial complaint (and a nice excuse to link to some fun sound clips:P) and I happened to catch the back half of his show tonight, and I really enjoyed it. This season, his shows are being broadcast live from the Gulf, and from what I saw, they're great. Because of his military background, he's able to develop an instant rapport with the troops, and it shows. There is an effortless sense of mutual respect there that just can't be faked. Its also nice to see the spotlight on our courageous and honorable fighting men and women. They're doing a fantastic job over there, so far from home, and I'll bet they really enjoyed this visit from Gunnery Sergeant Ermey...

At one point, a lucky marine was demonstrating their chemical protection gear and after everything was explained, R. Lee says that maybe we should get that marine out of the gear before he suffocates... "But not before you drop and give me 20!" (again, Ermey is more... respectful... than he used to be). The bundled marine instantly moved to start his assigned pushups - Ermey had to walk over and pat him on the shoulders and tell him he was joking. It was a great moment. HUA!

Apparently, Ermey's going to be visiting all the military bases in the region (this episode was in Kuwait - I wonder if he ran into L.T. Smash...) so it should make for an interesting series... Check it out, maggot!
Posted by Mark on July 07, 2003 at 09:52 PM .: link :.

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Trivial Pursuit
I was playing Trivial Pursuit the other day, and I was again struck by the victimology that always seems to play out during such a game. "You get all the easy questions! Its no fair!" At times, that's probably true, but over the course of an entire game, its a little less clear who is really getting the short end of the stick. Ignoring for a moment what questions are considered easy (if I answer a question immediately after it was asked, was it an easy question?), this sort of victimology is a difficult thing to avoid. I definitely feel that way sometimes, but I'm beginning to come around. Besides, in the end there's really nothing you can do about it. Nobody said life would be fair.

Obviously, this doesn't just affect trivia games either. My first programming class in college was extremely difficult. The professor was a stickler for things like commenting and algorithmic efficiency (something we didn't even know how to measure yet), but he never told us these things. When we did an assignment, we'd get it back, all marked up to hell. "But it works! It does exactly what you said you wanted it to do!" Obviously, everyone hated this man, myself included. Only two As were given out in his class that semester, and I ended up with a B (and I wasn't too happy about that). Classes taught by other professors, on the other hand, were much simpler. However, during the course of the next year or so, it became abundantly aware to me that I learned a hell of a lot more than everyone else, so when it came time to buckle down and write an operating system (!) I ended up not having as much trouble as many other students.

It didn't work that way for everyone in the class. While I hated the professor, I never stopped trying. I ended up learning from my mistakes, while others bitched and moaned about how unfair it was. Ironically, even those in the "easy" classes were complaining about how difficult the course was.

So now its occurring to me that everyone feels like a victim. Take a little trip around the blogosphere and you'll see lots of protestations about the "liberal media". Then I head over to 4degreez and hear all the complaints about the "conservative media". Well, which is it? With respect to the media, everyone is a victim. Why is that?

I see both, all the time. The truth is that there are tons of both liberal and conservative media sources. You just have to know which is which and take them with the appropriate grains of salt. Yes, its frustrating, I know, but playing the victim leads to ruin and it prevents you from honing your arguments, making them stronger and more resistant to criticism.

Don't take this to mean that we should not be criticising the media. We should be, emphatically. Blogs are great for this in that they are fact-checking everyone and their mother, and will often print retractions of their own mistakes quickly and efficiently (alas, not all blogs are that trustworthy).

And really, the media could be doing a whole lot more to help us than it currently does, especially on the internet. On the internet, there are no compelling spacial boundries, no character limits. There is no reason complete interview transcripts or offical documents can't be posted along with an article. Hell, its the internet, link to other sources and even criticisms. Let us make up our own mind! Traditional media is awful at this, though I have seen at least some examples of this sort of thing around. The only "problem" with that is that the media could no longer misquote people on a whim or creatively skew statistics, simply because they don't like someone or something (if I had a dime for every time Wolfowitz was misquoted, I'd be a rich man. I know this because the DoD posts full transcripts of briefings, interviews, and press conferences on their site, much to the dismay of the media, who are now getting caught). There are tons of great ideas, none of which would be all that difficult to implement from a technical standpoint.

The media has lots of work to do, and with the increase of informational transparency in our society, they better get going. Soon. In the mean time, if you're conservative, look at the liberal media as an opportunity for strengthening your arguments. Don't bitch and whine about the liberal media and dismiss it out of hand. If your liberal, don't get pissed off that the media isn't repeating whatever new contradictory conspiracy theory you've concocted and take a page out of the bloggers book. Fact-check their asses!
Posted by Mark on July 06, 2003 at 01:21 PM .: link :.

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