Threat Inflation and Deflation, Cont.

By James Fallows


For the rest of this month, I think I'll roll out a homemade logo, at right, to mark a range of discussion on what we've learned, forgotten, misconstrued, and never understood about the combat commitments that began when American forces invaded Iraq 10 years ago. This proceeds from a post one week ago on the necessary reckoning from the Iraq years, plus reader followups.

Today's theme: threat inflation and its many ramifications. Several readers offer supplements, nuances, and in some cases rebuttals to my previous claims. First, from James Pringle of the University of New Hampshire, an argument that in some crucial ways threat deflation is a bigger problem:
As an academic in the Earth Sciences, I would argue that threat deflation is rampant (but not in national security issues). Looking at where threat-deflation is common, and where threat-inflation is common, helps us to understand where either occurs. 

If you look at many threats to society, for example anthropogenic climate change or cigarette smoking, there are or were large campaigns to downplay either the impact or existence of these threats.  They are funded by organizations with a clear interest in the matter -- coal companies and tobacco companies in these examples. It takes energy, time and money to inflate or deflate a threat.

Peculiar to national security issues is that there usually no clear organized group that benefit from deflating the threat -- some general will make his career being the first leader of the new Cyber Command.  Is there anyone who can make a career saying it is not necessary?  Will any politician be celebrated for stopping some effort to "make us safer" in anywhere near the same proportion that he or she would be vilified when something bad happens? Are there any consultants who will earn large fees telling us something is not worth worrying about?  Why would we pay someone to deal with non-threats?

Threat inflation may be bad for everyone, but it is good for someone -- a tragedy of the commons, if you will, where the commons is our pool of resources to either deal with threats or to invest in society. 
On what I said was a specific current instance of threat-inflation: the drumbeat of warnings about the menace from Iran, a reader who asks that he not be named writes:
I am a graduate student studying the proliferation of nuclear technology (especially centrifuges for uranium enrichment) in the Engineering School at [distinguished East Coast university.]  [He goes on to name advisors with extensive experience in assessing weapons threats from the Middle East and elsewhere, and with reputations for skepticism about some claimed threats.] In this email, I speak only for myself.

Regrettably, I've found, this field of study is replete with slanderous rhetoric and name-calling on both sides of the spectrum, a good portion of  which is propelled by the colossal egos of a few with especially influential voices.  Mostly because I am loath to participate in such unpleasantries, I will keep my comments as brief and benign as possible.

For the record: I believe that military action in Iran is completely unwarranted at this point and will remain so for (at very least) the near future.

While I am thankful for the growing body of scientific experts willing to speak out and counterbalance our nation's penchant for "threat inflation,"  I worry that a number of anti-war scientist/activists are guilty of the same fundamental offense as their Bush-era nemeses: allowing their political agendas to shape their technical assessments.  Technical experts who maintain an a priori commitment to nonintervention can frequently do more harm than good.  By softening the facts, downplaying suspicious activity, and gratuitously applying the "alarmist" label to any and all who oppose them, these analysts weaken the public discourse and undermine the ability of the IAEA to insist on transparency from nations like Iran.

In a recent post, you link to two op-eds by Yousaf Butt.  (I feel obliged to stress that both are op-eds and quite likely do not reflect the position of many or most Bulletin scientists.)  Like many of my colleagues, I cringe when the Washington Post, for example, levels sweeping allegations at Iran based on a tiny amount of new (even if credible) information.  So, I applaud Butt in one sense.  Unfortunately, though, based on my own reading of the evidence, I cannot agree that he has "debunked" much of anything:

1. No loudspeaker magnet, barring a truly remarkable coincidence, would require the exact dimensions of the magnets in Iran's centrifuges, down to the nearest one-thousandth of a centimeter in two of the three specifications and to the nearest millimeter in the third.

2. While the diagram he attacks in his second piece is by no means a smoking gun, the reasoning that leads him to call it  " either slipshot analysis or an amateurish hoax," was later shown to be a mixup in units -- he simply didn't have sufficient information.

While I worry often about nuclear matters and "threat inflation," and while I am critical of the current trend that sensationalizes every alleged example of Iranian deception, I do believe in this statement, taken from a recent rebuttal to Butt: "the public needs to know the facts about Iran's nuclear program, even when uncomfortable, in order to design a responsible reaction to Iran that avoids war."

I will ask the author of those Bulletin of Atomic Scientists posts, Yousaf Butt, if he has a reply. And on the taxonomy of inflated threats, Charles Stevenson, a long-time defense expert often quoted here, writes to say:

I think your threat inflation discussion is mixing too many things and failing to make important distinctions. You're bundling apples, oranges, and walnuts.

One kind of threat inflation is through analytic error -- as was the case among some but not all people regarding the missile gap until McNamara conceded the error in 1961. The same was true of Soviet military spending estimates -- too high in the 1960s and 1980s, too low in the in1970s. The Tonkin Gulf issue was a misreading of flash reports -- despite the general military rule of interpretation that "first reports are [almost] always wrong" -- by political officials who found that initial reading happily consistent with their other policy views. LBJ said what he thought was true and then refused to admit of error.

A second type of threat inflation comes from worst case analysis and the impossibility of proving a negative. We want our analysts to consider worst case situations because sometimes they have turned out to be true [Japanese Zeros over Pearl Harbor = black swans]. Political leaders then face the challenge of being honest in citing threats without exaggerating likelihood. That was part of the problem with Iraqi WMDs. The other reason for the intelligence failure there was that VP Cheney kept asking, Is there evidence to prove that Saddam doesn't have WMDs? And the truthful answer, to the question posed that way, was no.

The third type of threat inflation is self-serving cherry-picking of reasonable analysis.That's what the Pentagon does every budget season and what Presidents do when they've made that 51-49 decision and want to persuade Congress and the public of the wisdom of their action. Like Reagan in Grenada.

We shouldn't automatically dismiss all threat claims as inflated, but subject them to questions of confidence and likelihood, etc., as the intelligence community does. But, yes, when Presidents lie, they too should be held accountable.
Finally for right now, a reader's comments on the panic that ensued in America after 9/11 and that has not fully subsided:
Since this all arises from a discussion of Threat Inflation, let me say that I was instantly offended by the spectre of Pearl Harbour that was purposefully raised in the aftermath of 9/11. They are not remotely similar events except in the number of deaths caused by an attack on American soil.  Pearl Harbor altered the military balance in half of the globe, which is why Yamamoto [Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had warned against attacking Pearl Harbor, since after the initial months of shock it would lock Japan into war with a far more powerful adversary] attacks was able to run wild for a while.  The 9/11 attacks didn't actually change anything, and I thought at the time it might be worthwhile for  the President to point that out.  "We mourn our dead, and we will pursue you and bring you to justice for your crime.  But we are as strong as we were before, and more united than ever..."  The speech writes itself, and has the virtue of being true. Instead we got the kind of panic that is unbecoming in great nation: "another Pearl Harbor", "the world will never be the same"    
And then we diligently did the terrorists' work for them. What they were powerless to accomplish, we did: we changed ourselves to our detriment, and diminished our  liberties, our honor, and our place in the world's imagination.... all in aid of promoting a pre-arranged war against a shitty little dictator who had nothing to do with it. 

I've highlighted "doing the terrorist's work for them" because I've so often argued that this is one of the most damaging aspects of U.S. policies and attitudes through the post-9/11 years (for instance in this cover story in 2006.) Thanks for everyone submitting ideas; more to come.

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