Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The NIE: Where's the Disclaimer?

A friend once commented, "Every book that's written about the human brain should carry the following disclaimer: 'Caution. This is a book about an organ that was written by the organ itself.'" The same sentiment might apply to the recently released key judgements of the National Intelligence Estimate: They were written by our sundry intelligence agencies about themselves.

We should not be surprised to find this sentence, in which the agencies congratulate themselves, opening the document with fanfare:

United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa'ida and disrupted its operations.

Lovely. You all get medals of honor (and thanks for the precious glottal stop.)

For all the past discussion about the precise wording of these intelligence documents, about subjecting every word to miniscule review so that it means no more and no less than what it says, the document doesn't parse well and one occasionally senses that the authors are laboring to find a word, any word, to round off a sentence or thought. Take this example:

Concomitant vulnerabilities in the jihadist movement have emerged that, if fully exposed and exploited, could begin to slow the spread of the movement. They include dependence on the continuation of Muslim-related conflicts, the limited appeal of the jihadists' radical ideology, the emergence of respected voices of moderation, and criticism of the violent tactics employed against mostly Muslim citizens.

"Mostly Muslim citizens"? Why not say, "violent tactics employed mostly against Muslims"? Or perhaps there are citizens who are, say, 70% Muslim and 30% something else. Many of us labor under the assumption that one is either a Muslim or one isn't a Muslim. Even if we're wrong, and degrees of Muslim-ness do exist, why is it worse to kill a mostly Muslim citizen than a partly Muslim citizen who might be, for example, only 30% Muslim? Presumably the answers to those and other bewildering questions are found in the parts of the NIE that we mostly American citizens are not permitted to read.

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