Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Search for Certitude

MSNBC and other news outlets have reported Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denying any connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq, apparently dissolving the connection between Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terror. The MSNBC story dated 19:43 Eastern Time on October 4, 2004 reads:

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday that he knew of no “strong, hard evidence” linking Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaida, despite describing extensive contacts between the two before the invasion of Iraq.

“I have seen the answer to that question migrate in the intelligence community over a period of a year in the most amazing way. Second, there are differences in the intelligence community as to what the relationship was,” Rumsfeld said. “To my knowledge, I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two.

“I just read an intelligence report recently about one person who’s connected to al-Qaida who was in and out of Iraq. And it is the most tortured description of why he might have had a relationship and why he might not have had a relationship. It may have been something that was not representative of a hard linkage.”

The Department of Defense subsequently released a statement where Rumsfeld rejects the news interpretation, citing the content of the intelligence report itself as evidence of a connection between the former Iraqi regime and international terrorism.

A question I answered today at an appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations regarding ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq regrettably was misunderstood. I have acknowledged since September 2002 that there were ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq. This assessment was based upon points provided to me by then CIA Director George Tenet to describe the CIA's understanding of the Al Qaeda-Iraq relationship.

Today at the Council, I even noted that "when I'm in Washington, I pull out a piece of paper and say 'I don't know, because I'm not in that business, but I'll tell you what the CIA thinks,' and I read it."

What the CIA thought consisted of a list of indicators and assessments with the usual qualifiers: 'solid', 'credible', 'unspecified', 'believe to be reliable' -- associated with intelligence work but short of the one word which has become the retrospective requirement for action: 'certain'. What level of certitude is required of a wartime commander has never been specified, yet it is apparently something everyone should know when they see it. At the very least Senator John Kerry  thinks so. He describes a "Global Test" in his first televised debate with President Bush.

"No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded -- and nor would I -- the right to preempt in any way necessary, to protect the United States of America," the Democrat told moderator Jim Lehrer during the debate. "But if and when you do it, Jim, you've got to do it in a way that passes the, the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."

Kerry's comment drew immediate criticism from Bush: "I'm not exactly sure what you mean, 'passes the global test,' [that] you take preemptive action if you pass a global test," he said during the debate. "My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure."

The "Global Test" standard is likely to raise more questions than it answers because it is a threshold without a real specification, a probability without degree. It is analytically defective because the degree of risk one is willing to endure depends on the severity of the consequences. Most people would accept a one in six chance of losing $10 at a game of cards yet refuse the same odds at Russian roulette. The proof needed to pass a "Global Test" before preempting a suspected terrorist attack will depend on whether the threat is a gun or a suitcase nuclear bomb, and is therefore not global at all. Yet standards do have a value in this context, provided they are not the pseudo-absolute ones implied by a "Global Test". It is the test of reasonable action in the face of the best available information, the standard on which Eisenhower decided to launch Overlord in the middle of an Atlantic storm or which impelled Spruance to proceed to Point Luck in defense of Midway in ignorance of the exact whereabouts of the Japanese Fleet. It is no guaranty against mistakes. But it is a guaranty against paralysis.