The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

“The Absence of Facts” in the War on Terror

“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
: 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.
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.
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.
Witness: Oh….
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
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
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?
Witness remains silent, but is
obviously uncomfortable. He looks away from the dais.
Interrogator repeats his questions.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
”? 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.
Witness: Sir?
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.

: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad
, by Stephen Coughlin. Washington DC: Center
for Security Policy Press, 2015. 788 pp.


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  1. Edward Cline

    The lieutenant, possibly fresh out of West Point and the War College, was sharp enough to catch the incongruities in the Joint Chiefs manual, but not sharp enough to realize that his honest and forthright testimony will have dire career consequences. I left that for readers to infer.

  2. Edward Cline

    Some readers have asked what might have happened to the First Lieutenant witness who testified in a Congressional hearing delving into the causes behind the U.S.’s failure to make any progress in the “War on Terror. I think that’s fairly obvious. Once he had further instructed the committee on how words had been rendered meaningless by the Joint Chiefs policy of imposing political correctness on the task of threat analysis, and returned to his counter-intelligence unit, he would discover that he was relieved of his duties there and reassigned to some less “threatening” job in IT maintenance or the like that would have not demanded much of his critical thinking skills.

    And the Interrogator himself, once he had grasped the enormity of the gulf between reality and the government’s aversion to formulating an efficacious warfighting doctrine against Islam (“we are not at war with Islam”), would encounter a cabal of silence on which no amount of shouting could have any effect on, because it simply absorbs but does not reflect sound

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