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The dossier debacle: Time to rethink secrecy?

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted January 16, 2017

This month has seen a rarity: two intelligence-related debacles that hit the Internet within a week of each other. The first was the joint report that was released Thursday before last, which proved to be eye-openingly controversial. Some, particularly the folks who are still butthurt about Donald Trump winning the Presidency, swallowed it whole. Others, like your humble scribe, were not impressed. The most popular point of criticism was the report's "Trust Us" air: except for the Annex, it was virtually all claims and no evidence. In my case, as I made plain in my roasting of the thing, I also pointed to the vagueness of the claims - in the sense that most of them could also be applied to a loyal Trump supporter - and the James-Bond-movie feel of them. It's one thing to claim that Vladimir Putin has little or no moral restraint. It's another thing entirely, and outright dubious, to also claim that he has no prudential restraint. That he'd be reckless (and, come to think of it, un-busy) enough to personally orchestrate a campaign to interfere in the U.S. Presidential race so as to get Donald Trump into the White House, while also seeing to his regular duties as Head of State. Not even Hitler was that reckless; there's zero evidence that anyone high up in the Nazi party helped push the campaign of Wendell Willkie - let alone Hitler himself.

For Vladimir Putin to be far more reckless than Hitler - or for that matter, every head of the Soviet Union including Josef Stalin - says a lot about what those intelligence bigwigs consider plausible.

Little did we know that the joint-report bomb was the first in a two-stage explosion. The second stage came with the publication of a raw dossier of company intelligence reports put together by ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele. As we know now, that dossier and its accusations have been floating around the anti-Trump insider circuit since last fall. The folks at 4Chan pol/ tried to claim that the source of the most lurid accusation was a 4Channer prank, but the folks at Gizmodo did a good job of demolishing that claim. I looked into it, as I related in this Steemit post, and concluded at the time "No proof either way." In retrospect, given that the 4Chan brag was an extraordinary claim even for the Current Year, pol/'s claim has to be pegged as empty braggartry. The original pol/ posts showed zero evidence that the poster knew anything about the contents of the report.

When Buzzfeed published the raw dossier, with the important disclaimer that it was unverified, the reaction was more lopsided. The lurid claim about a "golden shower" was quickly slammed as ludicrous. Michael Cohen quickly disproved the claim that he was in Prague when the report said so; as he was able to prove, he was in the United States. Buzzfeed itself pointed to two oddities in the dossier; others joined in to point out others. One of the more unbelievable claims in the report was the assertion that the Kremlin has been grooming Donald Trump to be a kind of Manchurian candidate long before he showed any interest in running for the Republican nomination.

Interestingly, that wild claim was nestled into a series of claims that was less unrealistic than the "Putin fixed the election" one. The author portrayed the Russkies as using the standard tactics of dirty diplomacy rather than they acting as recklessly as the leader of SPECTRE would.

Although it lit off a major scandal, I believe that Buzzfeed's publication of the raw dossier was a good thing. They doing so gave us a look at what anti-Trump insiders considered credible. (Some of them were shopping it around to MSM outlets during the campaign.) In so doing, it also gave us a chance to assess their limitations. As I explained in this post which complimented Buzzfeed for publishing it, they releasing it unleashed the process that makes for the magic in open-source software: crowdsourcing. A fresh set of eyes were brought to the dossier: its falsities, inaccuracies and dubieties were quickly scotched out. True, each of us alone could not verify or debunk the claims in that dossier. But it's also true that we don't live in isolation booths. There were some people who could debunk certain parts of that dossier, and the rest of us found out quickly what those inadequacies were. Through this crowdsourcing, which does work best with finding flaws, we saw that Linus' Law also works with intelligence reports.

"Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone." Or more famously: "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."

Rethinking Secrecy: Should Linus’ Law Be Applied To Intelligence Reports?

The double debacle, particularly the dossier debacle, does open the question. I'm not one to call insider experts dumb, but it is evident that they live in an echo-chamber wherein they sometimes miss implausibilities that are plainly evident to a fresh eye. In short, they have blind spots that go along with their expertise.

The fuzzier the subject, the more useful the naive approach is as a double-check against implausibility. This approach is used in computer programming all the time: it's called a "sanity check." If you multiply 3.14159 and 2.71828 and get something like 85.397212652, you know something went wrong. The product of those two can't be higher than 4 * 3.

In the area of intelligence reports, sanity checking means bringing in ordinary common sense. Imagine what would have happened if that dossier had been passed by some hard-headed folks with horse sense. "'Golden shower'? Good Lord, Donald Trump doesn't even drink. All he's done is cheat on his wives and snagged mistresses. Why am I supposed to believe that he's a pervert? Who put you up to this?" Meaning: ""Golden shower' - extraordinary claim, needs extraordinary verification."

"Hold on a moment. Is this report saying that Donald Trump is the Manchurian Candidate? Gosh sakes; are you sure the guy who wrote this isn't a screenwriter?" Meaning: "Lurid: needs tighter-than-normal verification."

I'm not suggesting an open-publication regime for intelligence reports: outside of a science-fiction novel, that's ludicrous. But what I am suggesting is a focus-group approach, perhaps with a clutch of ordinary folks vetted for both loyalty and common sense, on a spot basis. After swearing them to secrecy, show them a report that the pros consider credible. Then ask their opinions about it while making sure they can talk about it amongst themselves: no isolation booths. Then once their work is done, make sure they're on a list that disqualifies them for future focus-groups of that nature. If an ordinary citizen gets the chance to look at one intelligence report but not more, he can't glean anything about standard intelligence analysis procedure. It's impossible to accurately discern a pattern from a single datum.

True, this approach would have to be done cautiously. As the programmer maxim holds, new code should be thoroughly tested in a sandbox environment before it's put into production code. It can be tested with run-of-the-mill intelligence reports. Better yet, it can be tested with deliberately-altered intelligence reports salted with some absurdities to see what they catch and what they miss.

Sad to relate, this focus-group suggestion is not an innovation but a replacement for what we used to have. Before Washington became a groupthink-ridden insiders' club, the fresh sets of eyes were elected officials: politicians, who normally had a greater-than-normal ration of horse sense. Back in tha day, it was they who deflated the echo-chamber bubbles. Unfortunately, this type of old-style politician has been remaindered by the need to campaign continuously. To adapt Hollywood lingo, permanent-campaign mode has made it very difficult to stay real.

It certainly won't be the first time that such a fix has been employed. At least one President has relied on a "kitchen Cabinet" when the real thing has become too much of an echo chamber.

With this suggestion in mind, the dossier debacle can be seen in a more optimistic light: as an extraordinarily messy alpha test of Linus' Law. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.






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