WMD Cascades

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The editors of the New York Times strutted down the runway at a hair-shirt fashion show yesterday, acknowledging that the paper's coverage of Iraq/WMD claims had been insufficiently skeptical. Both Slate's Jack Shafer and James C. Moore at Salon have instant reactions.

One thing illustrated here is a problem with information cascades. Scientists and academics know the phenomenon well: Some result or fact is one "everyone knows," it's cited in hundreds of journal articles and papers. But those hundreds all cite the same dozen papers as their basis for the claim, and those dozen are all based on the same flawed ur-paper. It sounds a lot like something similar was going on with pre-war WMD reporting. Chalabi passes the info to U.S. intelligence services, the U.S. shares that with foreign allies, and soon there's the impression of unanimity based on the same problematic original source.

NEXT: The Trickle That Exploded

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  1. Yeah, Julian, the only reason anyone thought Saddam had WMD was Chalabi.

    The selective amnesia around here is kind of stunning.

  2. So it’s finally been proved–Saddam Hussein unilaterally destroyed all his WMDs and did it completely in secret, even though he kept the capacity to make them again quickly, held onto other illegal weapons, and even then forget a few here and there. Thank goodness that’s been cleared up. Everyone keeps repeating he had no WMDs, so it must be true, huh, Julian?

    (The great irony here is the New York Times should daily apologize for buying into the anti-Bush spin but you’ll have to wait a lot longer for that acknowledgement.)

  3. Given what’s proven to be very effective help from Operation Desert Fox and, especially, the UN Inspections teams during the 1990s, it’s a bit of stretch to say the destruction of WMDs was “unilateral.”

    Though I second Josh on selective amnesia. Reading the hawks’ posts, you’d be hard pressed to remember that this war was premised on a threat to the US from Saddam and his mighty mighty arsenal.

  4. Here’s quite a dilemma for the hawks:

    On the one hand, the NYT is claiming that it erred. That must put a smile on their faces, since the NYT is said to be the worst of the worst of the liberal media.

    On the other hand, the NYT is renouncing stories that appeared to bolster the case for war. By casting doubt on the case for war the NYT is just showing its liberal bias all over again. That should make the hawks mad.

    What’s the solution? Insist that this war was never about WMD.

  5. We must never expect objectivity from partisans nor should we have high expectation that evidence, or lack thereof, to pry them from their thinking box.

    We can still enjoy the occasional surprise.

  6. I like the referece to the cascade effect of knowledge. I’ve seen it in my field, natural resource managment, over and over. Usually it involves some sort of crisis though (Pacific salmon are going extinct!). “Crises precipitate change.” Government funds get directed towards a problem, when it’s a crisis.

    So it looks like the crisis effect (WMD threat) was married with bad data(500 tons of bad stuff), producing a national embarassment.

    IMHO, this is typical operating procedure for gubmint.

    Are you all surprised?

  7. “What’s the solution? Insist that this war was never about WMD.”

    ARRRRRGGGHHH!

    This war was IN PART about WMD. More to the point, it was in part about the WMD situation as perceived by western governments, fostered by Saddam’s actions, at the time. Not a single western intelligence agency stood up and said, “there is nothing there”.

    Imagine a company was cited for accounting fraud. They are given a year to account for the missing funds. For 10 years they refuse to provide any answer to the question, “Where is that money?” Everyone believes that the CEO has the money in a hidden personal account, but no one wants to go in and find out. Eventually, the SEC sends in the troops. “Ha ha!” says the CEO “I made a discretionary contribution to the retirement account of every employee! You all look like fools!” Should the SEC not have acted?

  8. I think the greatest libertarian information cascade is the undying myth that the Bush administration gave the Taliban money to help fight the drug war. I’m as opposed to the drug war as the next Reason reader, but this allegation is totally false.

  9. “Though I second Josh on selective amnesia. Reading the hawks’ posts, you’d be hard pressed to remember that this war was premised on a threat to the US from Saddam and his mighty mighty arsenal.”

    You’ve got your own selective amnesia going. The administration never claimed WMD was the sole justification for going to war with Iraq.

  10. Jason Ligon,

    “This war was IN PART about WMD. More to the point, it was in part about the WMD situation as perceived by western governments, fostered by Saddam’s actions, at the time. Not a single western intelligence agency stood up and said, ‘there is nothing there.'”

    That’s the only part that counts. Furthermore no western intelligence agency ever stated affirmatively that they had something as well; well, except the UK and the US.

    “Imagine a company was cited for accounting fraud.”

    Sorry, but this analogy is, well, stupid. We’re discussing war here; people aren’t generally killed during SEC investigations; furthermore, it was the UNSC doing the investigation, and a majority of that body wanted it to continue. If you are basing this on the UNSC resolutions, then the U.S. and the U.K. acted like a rogue portion of the UNSC and flouted its will. Indeed, the weakest justification for the war has always been the “enforcing UNSC resolutions” line. Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. have the power to enforce such on their own; and that is clearly outlined in the charter itself if you look at Articles 38-43 I believe.

  11. “We cannot allow the world’s worst regimes to threaten us with the world’s most dangerous weapons.”

    Absent WMDs, that statement is about strafing runs by Mirage fighters that can’t reach our shores.

    Though I agree, Gil, that the stated justification was not the actual justification. I’m glad to see that the hawks are no longer calling me delusional for saying so.

  12. This brings me to the people shredder thing, possibly another myth such as the babies taken from incubators in Kuwait in ’91.

    Try as I might, I cannot find the source of that story or any evidence to back it up. Best I can tell, a former prisoner of Abu Ghraib said it to a British PM 3 days before we invaded. Nothing more. We run the prison now but nobody ever said, as far as I know, of finding a shredder there or any other evidence of one being used.

    Anybody?

  13. “Though I agree, Gil, that the stated justification was not the actual justification. I’m glad to see that the hawks are no longer calling me delusional for saying so.”

    Sounds to me like you’re being delusional now – since WMD was never the only STATED or ACTUAL justification for the war.

  14. Gary Gunnels said:

    “That’s the only part that counts”

    LOL

    Not on your say so.

  15. Gary:

    “We’re discussing war here; people aren’t generally killed during SEC investigations;”

    What does that have to do with the point of the analogy, which is the decision making process behind forcing someone’s hand?

    “Indeed, the weakest justification for the war has always been the “enforcing UNSC resolutions” line.”

    It all depends on how one views the origins of the legitimacy of the UNSC resolution. It has legitimacy to pass resolutions making requirements on Saddam because our military gave it such legitimacy. It is as useful as the military that backs its play. I prefer to view this not in terms of the titanic joke that is the UN’s point of view, but rather that Saddam demonstrably never complied with the terms of his surrender. The charter doesn’t matter because international law is completely empty absent a willingness to enforce dictates, particularly those imposed as terms of surrender. Once it demonstrated that it had no such will, no one should feel compelled to pay much attention to it.

  16. Is there a statute of limitations on terms of surrender? Saddam was originally given 90 days. We “enforced” it 10 years later.

  17. There is absolutely no point in continuing to debate the rationnale for the war in Iraq, the role of (and fate of) Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons programs, and the like. I’ve come back to these boards after a break, and I see the same tired arguments trotted out by the same people without even a scant acknowledgement that these arguments have already been exchanged, multiple times, to no effect.

    Here, someone actually restated the old canard that the asserted existence of a huge WMD stockpile was the sole justification for going to war in Iraq. It never was. Multiple reasons were provided, early on, by the administration and others, explicitly. And the weapons argument was not so simplistic; indeed, David Kay’s point buttressed the existence of a grave risk, if not some of the predictions of prewar intelligence.

    What, may I ask, is the point?

  18. When are these fools going to realize that the discovery of weapons of mass destruction is conclusive proof that they do not exist.
    Sheesh!

  19. “There was nothing real ever presented that justified a war.”

    Says you.

  20. “What’s the solution?”

    Ignore the NY Times.

  21. There was never any discovery of weapons of mass destruction post war.

    The words;“Says you” do not constitute a valid refutation in political debate, unless of course you’re using Democratic Congressional Election Committee standards.

  22. ” Multiple reasons were provided, early on, by the administration and others”

    Do we count fabricated reasons as well? There was nothing real ever presented that justified a war.

    “What, may I ask, is the point?”

    So we don’t get fooled again. Also, it creates impetus for the government to depart Iraq.

  23. If nothing else, in view of all the duplicity that we now know went into the case for the war; the statement: “There was nothing real ever presented that justified a war.” shouldn’t really be characterized as “gratuitous”, should it?

  24. I think what Gilbert was really saying was ‘gratuitous assertions may be equally gratuitously denied.’

  25. The ex post facto “humanitarian intervention” argument was real. Not terribly compelling to people who didn’t already have costs sunk into a pro-war position, but a real argument nonetheless.

    A better statement would be “There was nothing real ever presented prior to the invasion to justify the war.”

  26. joe,

    I thought that, “prior to the invasion” was implied since I was responding to the statement at May 27, 09:26 PM :
    “Multiple reasons were provided, early on, by the administration and others”

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