“Mr. Keyes, I'm a Medford man. Medford, Oregon. If I say it, I mean it. If I mean it, of course I'll swear to it.” Double Indemnity, 1944
Except that any fashioner or overseer of military and civilian threat analysis could never swear to anything in a court of law or during a Congressional committee hearing, because he would invariably perjure himself. So he would hedge behind a well-rehearsed litany of presuppositions and assumptions.
Continuing a column on “Our Ignorance” from Stephen Coughlin’s Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad (pp. 443-484), from Institutionalized Ignorance of Islam, I will focus here on the rendering of language and words to meaninglessness by Army writing guides discussed by Stephen Coughlin in “Our Ignorance.” I thought a Socratic exposition of the subject would better drive home the point over a straight narrative.
In a fictive, imaginary setting, a House or Senate committee hearing member, identified here as the Interrogator, in full possession of his faculty of reason, might challenge the “expert witness” about what he knows and what he claims he knows – or doesn’t know. The hearing has been convened to examine the reason why the nation’s “War on Terror” has not prevented the commission of terrorist acts in the U.S., and is in general ineffectual.
The Witness, a captain in a U.S. Army counter-intelligence unit, has just finished delivering an opening statement about how his unit conducts threat analyses and contributes to the government’s ability to fight the “War on Terror.” He reads the conclusion of his statement:
Witness: Our recommendations and conclusions are then forwarded to the next echelon of threat assessment evaluation with the best assumptions and presuppositions underscored and emphasized, which subsume all possible likelihoods and scenarios concerning the enemy’s next activity. Our highly combed assumptions and presuppositions have played no little role in projecting anticipated enemy activity, and enabled us to counter hypothetical but very significant threats. Often, facts play a role in the final assessment.
The Interrogator replies: Assumptions and presuppositions are not admissible evidence, sir, neither as sworn testimony nor in depositions. We need to know why our counter- and anti-terrorism efforts have been salutary failures. You have already acknowledged that they are failures. Please state facts. Facts constitute evidence, not suppositions, presuppositions, or assumptions.
Witness: As I know them? As I see them?
Interrogator: No. As they are. You say facts often have a place in a final assessment. Shouldn’t they always? Shouldn’t they be the center point in any assessment, forecast, or prediction?
Witness: [Scoffs in reply] Begging your pardon, but we can’t be sure that they are factual. We can only assume or suppose that they’re raw, unrefined approximations of things as they really are, which we, as human beings susceptible to error and fallibility, can't know. That’s what facts are. This is especially true…I mean, applicable…concerning human actions and psychology. We in the services – or in the FBI, and the CIA, or DHS, or the Pentagon, and so on – are proud to admit that we don’t pretend to know anything. Anything at all…about this, I mean.
Interrogator: About who or what causes terrorism? So, you’re saying you can't know the truth, because facts are finicky, Heraclitean things, you can't depend on them to be true all the time?
Witness: [Blinks in confusion.] Excuse me, sir?
Interrogator: Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher. He claimed that things are never the same from moment to moment. Like a river. That’s a Heraclitean notion of yours, claiming that facts only occasionally play a role in your assessments and have little or no bearing on the truth. You insinuate that truths are chimerical. You have little use for them.
Interrogator: As for truth, or true, I think a definition is in order at this point. [Opens a book on his dais.] From Black’s Law Dictionary, sixth edition: “True – conformable to fact; correct; exact; actual; honest. In one sense, that only is ‘true’ which is conformable to the actual state of things.” [Puts the book aside.]
Witness: Well…It’s true about our not knowing everything about terrorism.
Interrogator: Are you certain of that, sir? Would you swear to that? Honestly, sir, you should be embarrassed to have such a position, while I find it disgraceful. [Grins, and shakes his head.] Never mind. Go on.
Witness: It’s a complicated issue, a frustrating task. There are so many variables, and motives, and causes, and interpretations. It’s very difficult to fix a vector on motives or to triangulate causes, often impossible to, although it’s our job to. But we can't pin terrorism on one single cause. It’s unfair and highly presumptuous to blame Islam or ISIS or other jihadist organizations for terrorism. It is policy that any analysis submitted by a subordinate that relies exclusively on Islamic motives and perverse interpretations of Islam is symptomatic of Islamophobia. The subordinate is then either disciplined or removed from the program and transferred elsewhere.
Interrogator: I think, sir, that had we relied on your assessment of Japanese strengths and intentions after Pearl Harbor, we would still be fighting that war, or lost it.
Witness: I am sorry, sir, that you have such a low opinion of our work.
Interrogator: As am I. Sir, I have here a Qur’an, which I have read almost in its entirety and in which I have attached Post-its to pages that contain what are called “violent verses.” That is, the ones that call for killing or enslaving non-Muslims, encouraging brutal and bestial behavior towards non-Muslims, and in general waging war on them. And, by extension, on us. [Interrogator holds aloft a Qur’an, then puts it down.] I asked my staff to cull those verses from the Qur’an and print them out for easier reference. There are about one hundred and sixty-four or sixty-five such verses, out of a total of over six thousand verses. These violent verses, which are quite explicit in their wording and intent, and, I have read, are frequently linked to verses, anecdotes, or Sunnah in the Hadith. [Interrogator picks up a sheaf of paper and wafts it in the air.] This is the printout of the violent verses. I have had a copy of the printout made for you. [Indicates to a committee clerk to give the Witness the printout.] The Hadith will not be a subject of discussion here, although I voice my own assumption that you and members your unit, sir, are more familiar with the it than I wish to be. And, it should go without saying, with the Qur'an.
Witness: [Giving a cursory glance at the pages handed to him by a clerk.] Thank you, sir, for the pages here. Many of the verses listed here I recognize instantly. But they have all been mis-interpreted all out of proportion to their original intent. They have nothing to do with Islam.
Interrogator: [Scoffing with incredulity.] The terrorists beg your pardon, sir, but in virtually every instance of terrorism in this country, regardless of the organization, the perpetrators have either quoted one or more of these verses, or it was learned that they had been cued or prompted by certain of these verses. They have everything to do with Islam. That is a fact. Moreover, the violent verses, I have read from authorities and scholars on the subject of the Qur'an, abrogated or replaced earlier ones that were more in line with the Judeo-Christian ethic of kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness.
Witness: Misinterpretations of these verses separate the terrorists from the authentic Islam, sir. We do not formulate our analyses and hypotheses on what is in the Qur'an. That is distinctly against overall policy. We construct our analyses based on how we think many of the verses have been misconstrued by terrorists.
Interrogator: You don’t take the violent verses literally, as they were written?
Witness: No, sir. That would be against policy. It would be in error. We look for individualized interpretations unique to a person to formulate a threat analysis based on what we think is or was meant.
Interrogator: What you’re saying, then, is that a verse that goes [Interrogator picks up his own copy of the violent verses and reads from it] “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His apostle and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned.” That’s verse five colon thirty-three, and it means something entirely different? Or, “They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of Allah; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper.” That’s from verse four colon eighty-nine. Or, “Fight in the way of with those who fight with you. And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out, and persecution is severer than slaughter, and do not fight with them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you in it, but if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers,” verses two colon one-hundred-ninety and ninety-one.” That doesn’t mean what it says, and you’re suggesting that it might be a hidden metaphor for a Betty Crocker recipe? [Almost all the spectators in the room chuckle discreetly, some not so discreetly.]
Witness: I can understand your confusion, sir, but I see no point in introducing levity into this discussion.
Interrogator: Forgive me, sir, but the absurdity of what you are insinuating in your answers invites some levity. Do not the words in those and in other violent verses mean what they say? Were the compilers of those verses master cryptologists? If not, and if something else is meant that is radically different from what we can read, why did not the compilers just come out say what the best way was to fix a falafel? [Again, subdued laughter is heard in the chambers.]
Witness: I don’t know, sir. We have put together some very unfunny scenarios based on our projected moves the enemy might make.
Interrogator: I’m sure you have. But, taken altogether, sir, when you read these verses, and see that they conform to the actions taken by the terrorists, and to what their stated and iterated overall goal is, which is to impose Sharia or Islamic law on non-Muslims or unbelievers, to establish a Caliphate in this and in other countries – is that what is called in your circles a doctrine, or a philosophy of war? The verses cannot be taken to mean anything other than what they literally say, at face value, at face meaning. The doctrine is there in plain sight. What stops you from formulating a reciprocal doctrine, one that has the virtue of working, and which is based on reality, and not on what one expert on this subject – I believe his name is Stephen Coughlin – has called a pseudoreality? That is, with a projected threat analysis that does names the enemy and is based on facts, on reality? It seems to me that the simplest policy of your department would be to take the terrorists at their word, and formulate an answering doctrine. Wouldn’t you agree?
Witness: It isn’t as simple as that, sir. There are other considerations to take into account when refining a threat analysis to send up the pike.
Interrogator: What other considerations?
Witness: [After some throat-clearing and a glass of water, the captain replied.] Well….one is that our conclusions and assessments must agree in a general sense with those of our superiors, first with majors and colonels up the line, and then with generals and higher-up civilian overseers in the State Department, and the Joint Chiefs, and so forth. If our products don’t mesh with their assessments, they throw it all back in our faces
Interrogator: [A moment passes.] Tell me, sir: Are you happy with that situation? With your work? By that I mean that in large part your analyses only occasionally employ facts, and that they are what can only and loosely be called fabrications and excursions into pseudoreality, on which our national security and so many lives depend? Are you satisfied that you are adhering to your oath to defend this country?
The Witness remains silent, but is obviously uncomfortable. He looks away from the dais.
The Interrogator repeats his questions.
The Witness remains silent. Looks around the chamber with a stubborn expression.
Interrogator: You may plead the Fifth if you are reluctant to answer, sir. [Laughter in the chamber. He adds another remark.] You may avert your eyes and your mind from the questions, sir. I believe a great philosopher called such behavior “blanking out.” I think we are finished with you here.
The Interrogator turns to other committee members, and asks if any of them have questions for the Witness. The others shake their heads.
Interrogator: The committee is finished with this Witness. He is dismissed. The hearing will take a fifteen-minute recess, and reconvene to hear our second Witness.
The captain leaves hastily amidst a general hubbub, brusquely refusing to answer reporters’ questions and queries from some of his colleagues, and hurriedly exits the chamber.
When the hearing reconvenes, a new Witness, a first lieutenant in the same Army counter-intelligence unit, is seated at the table. After he is sworn in and identifies himself, and advised of the seriousness of his testimony, including the consequences of perjury, he recounts his career service, and at the end makes an opening statement.
Witness: If it pleases the committee, I have brought with me a document that will confirm the testimony of the previous Witness. I wish my testimony be focused on this document. [Witness rests hand atop a pile of purple-colored books.]
Interrogator: We shall see about that. And what document is it, sir?
Witness: It is the Joint Operation Planning manual, Joint Publication five-point-naught, issued by the Joint Chiefs in August 2011.
Interrogator: Has it been updated since then?
Witness: No, sir, not since October 2010. I have brought copies of it for the committee to peruse. [The Witness asks a clerk to hand the Interrogator and other committee members the copies. This is done. The Interrogator leafs through the manual. He exclaims.] What a morass of mealy-mouthed bureaucratese! [Continues leafing through the manual. Stops.] Ah! Here’s an interesting term, “Center of Gravity,” or COG. Sir, would you mind reading that aloud for the record? It’s under “Executive Summary, Elements of Operational Design,” Roman numeral page x-x-i.
Witness: [Turns to the page, reads.] “A COG is a source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act. An objective is always linked to a COG. In identifying COGs it is important to remember that irregular warfare focuses on legitimacy and influence over a population, unlike traditional warfare, which employs direct military confrontation to defeat an adversary’s armed forces, destroy an adversary’s war-making capacity, or seize or retain territory to force a change in an adversary’s government or policies.”
Interrogator: Thank you. COG. The “Center of Gravity.” Sir, would you say that was descriptive euphemism for a doctrine? It covers all the essentials of understanding one’s enemy’s means and ends.
Witness: In the short-term, yes, I would call that a doctrine. The term “moral strength” I think is a discreet term for a doctrine unique to Islam, or a prudent reference to it.
Interrogator: I agree. Say, rather, it is a singularly circumspect term for Sharia. [He leafs through the manual.] Also, I notice that the preferred term throughout is “adversary.” Is “enemy” too strong a word for whom they’re discussing? These are generals, war-fighters. [To himself.] Maybe they’re better golfers than they are generals.
Witness: I noticed that, too. I can't answer your question, sir.
Interrogator: Now, on to what you wished us to focus on.
Witness: Please direct your attention to Roman number Part Four, pages seven and eight, on the section on “assumptions.” The wording in the 2011 edition is similar to that of the 2010 and 2006 editions of the manual. It is under the heading, “Determine Known Facts and Develop Planning Assumptions.” The differences in wording are slight. I think this is important to bring to your attention. The term “assumption” occurs numerous times throughout the manual. But in the discussion of assumptions on the cited pages, there is a serious qualification which I think merits your attention, as well, because it affects every statement in the manual that employs the term.
Interrogator: [He has found the page and reads it.] I see what you mean, sir. Please read it aloud for the record.
Witness: “An assumption provides a supposition about the current situation or future course of events, assumed to be true in the absence of facts. Assumptions that address gaps in knowledge are critical for the planning process to continue. For planning purposes, subordinate commanders can treat assumptions made by higher headquarters as true in the absence of proof to the contrary. However, they should challenge those assumptions if they appear unrealistic. Assumptions must be continually reviewed to ensure validity. A valid assumption has three characteristics: logical, realistic, and essential for the planning to continue. Assumptions are made for both friendly and adversary situations.”
Interrogator: I see what you mean, sir. “Assumed to be true in the absence of facts”? That is an astounding confession of moral and cognitive decrepitude. Just because a general says so, you’re to go ahead and implement his plan which is based on an absence of facts?? Just on his say-so? On his gussied up, three-star conjecture? It’s curious that the statement is highlighted in bold. [Pauses.] How often do you subordinates challenge the assumptions of the higher-ups?
Witness: [Replies meekly.] Not very often, sir. But, I would also like to direct your attention to the Glossary, page GL dash five. It’s a qualification – or an emendation – to the entry on “assumption.”
Interrogator: [With other committee members, turns to the Glossary. The Interrogator scans the entry.] Please read it for the record.
Witness: [Reading from the manual.] “Assumption. A supposition on the current situation or a presupposition on the future course of events, either or both assumed to be true in the absence of positive proof, necessary to enable the commander in the process of planning to complete an estimate of the situation and make a decision on the course of action.”
Interrogator: An “absence of positive proof”?? [Shrugging, and gesturing with his hands.] But, it means the same thing as an “absence of facts”! It just isn’t as starkly brazen a way of saying the same thing. It’s what Mr. Sheridan would call “puffery.” But I’m not sure right now which category the phrase would fit into. I may have to invent a new one.
Interrogator: [Waving a hand.] Never mind. I was thinking of that play, The Critic. Tell me, sir: How often do you review assumptions to check their validity?
Witness: Too often, sir. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail. Nothing ever comes of it. However, our commander discourages reviews.
Interrogator: You have my sympathies. [Studies the Witness for a moment. He snaps the manual shut.] If it pleases the committee, I would like to adjourn this hearing until tomorrow. I need to take this document home to read and examine more closely. I would advise the committee to do the same. We should reconvene at ten a.m. [Addressing the Witness.] Sir, please make yourself available to continue your testimony. Thank you for your illuminating insights. I’m sure you have many more to convey.
Witness: Yes, sir. I do.
Interrogator: This hearing is adjourned until ten a.m. tomorrow.[General hubbub of people rising, talking, and leaving.]
Many thanks to Stephen Coughlin for the chance to pen this brief drama.
Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad, by Stephen Coughlin. Washington DC: Center for Security Policy Press, 2015. 788 pp.