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Intelligence And Epistemology

I have no real reason to intercede in Marcy’s argument with Marc Ambinder, but I just want to take up one point. Marc wrote:

And yet — we, too, weren’t privy to the intelligence. Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a Democratic system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit.

I’m going to leave that last part aside for a second and focus on the first — the "we, too, weren’t privy to the intelligence." It’s a fairly important part of Marc’s point, because it establishes the epistemic premise that there’s an extant body of facts that will adjudicate the truth or falsity of the claims at stake that lead to either the conclusion This threat is politicized or This threat warrants a rise in the terror alert. Without access to this body of information, journalists have little choice but to seek adjudication through other sources; or to accept ambiguity.

The trouble is the premise is false. Intelligence is rarely, if ever, definitive. It’s fragmentary and subject to interpretation. Talk to anyone who’s handled raw intelligence and s/he will tell you something on the order of this: "I thought it would be like a secret newspaper, but instead what’s already available in open-source materials is often more useful." Rarely is there ever a clear policy option "implied" by intelligence — that’s a category error. Policymakers read intelligence, use it or discount it in whole or in part, and then make decisions. Intelligence is a text to be interpreted, not a compass pointing to true north. What’s more, those who acquire and analyze intelligence on a discrete subject use the same body of open-source information to shape their judgments as the rest of us do.

Which implies choices for journalists. We can choose to treat intelligence as more definitive than it is and enable the presumption of deference to those who say, Well, if only you saw the intelligence I saw… Or we can choose to treat intelligence-based claims as valuable but not definitive, and contextualize such claims within larger bodies of evidence.

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Intelligence And Epistemology

I have no real reason to intercede in Marcy’s argument with Marc Ambinder, but I just want to take up one point. Marc wrote:

And yet — we, too, weren’t privy to the intelligence. Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a Democratic system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit.

I’m going to leave that last part aside for a second and focus on the first — the "we, too, weren’t privy to the intelligence." It’s a fairly important part of Marc’s point, because it establishes the epistemic premise that there’s an extant body of facts that will adjudicate the truth or falsity of the claims at stake that lead to either the conclusion This threat is politicized or This threat warrants a rise in the terror alert. Without access to this body of information, journalists have little choice but to seek adjudication through other sources; or to accept ambiguity.

The trouble is the premise is false. Intelligence is rarely, if ever, definitive. It’s fragmentary and subject to interpretation. Talk to anyone who’s handled raw intelligence and s/he will tell you something on the order of this: "I thought it would be like a secret newspaper, but instead what’s already available in open-source materials is often more useful." Rarely is there ever a clear policy option "implied" by intelligence — that’s a category error. Policymakers read intelligence, use it or discount it in whole or in part, and then make decisions. Intelligence is a text to be interpreted, not a compass pointing to true north. What’s more, those who acquire and analyze intelligence on a discrete subject use the same body of open-source information to shape their judgments as the rest of us do. 

Which implies choices for journalists. We can choose to treat intelligence as more definitive than it is and enable the presumption of deference to those who say, Well, if only you saw the intelligence I saw… Or we can choose to treat intelligence-based claims as valuable but not definitive, and contextualize such claims within larger bodies of evidence. 

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Spencer Ackerman

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