The Bloody Lens – Thursday Evening Event in London!

I’m participating in an event in London this Thursday evening.  Please come!  It should be really interesting and there are still a few (free) tickets left.

Below is the event description.

You can sign up here.

(Note there is a room change.  It’s now in room 104 of Senate house rather than the Court Room.  There will be signs up.)


Bloody Lens



The Torture Trial

I’m mesmerized by this New York Times article which shows video footage of key people testifying under oath about the US post 9/11 torture program, also known as “enhanced interrogation”.  The most interesting bits are the testimony of military psychologists John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell.

The two psychologists — whom C.I.A. officials have called architects of the interrogation program, a designation they dispute — are defendants in the only lawsuit that may hold participants accountable for causing harm.

The trial begins in September.  Here are a few thoughts.

First, the case is brought only against the two consulting psychologists.  No government official is named:

The two psychologists argue that the C.I.A., for which they were contractors, controlled the program. But it is difficult to successfully sue agency officials because of government immunity.

The apparent untouchability of government officials is frustrating.  Based on a recent National Security Law podcast I’m not sure that immunity is as absolute as the above quote suggests but I do gather that government workers have quite strong protection against law suits.

I wonder, then, why the CIA hired outside consultants since this move seems to have created a possibility for an embarrassing law suit which, otherwise, may not have been possible.  Maybe the  CIA just couldn’t imagine a court challenge?  Or maybe it is possible, although very difficult, to sue government officials directly so dangling more vulnerable consultants before hungry lawyers could be a good way to divert them away from the CIA itself?  I don’t know.

The price tag for the consulting psychologists is astonishing.

Under the agency’s direction, the two men said, they proposed the “enhanced interrogation” techniques — which were then authorized by the Justice Department — applied them and trained others to do so. Their business received $81 million from the agency.

I guess the CIA didn’t take competitive bids.  Surely somebody would have signed up for $80.5 million.  My understanding is that the enhanced interrogation techniques were, essentially, adaptations of North Korean torture interrogation methods from the 1950’s.  So it would appear that Jessen and Mitchell were overpaid.

Seriously, though, I’m really struggling to work out what Jessen and Mitchell could have provided that the CIA valued so much.  I suspect that their consulting fees exceeded the amount of money the US government spent on counterinsurgency research during a period when the US conducted counterinsurgencies in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making this sum seem gargantuan.  On the other hand these fees are a small fraction of the money spent on a single fighter plane, making them look like a rounding error.  So maybe the CIA was just shoveling counter terrorism money out the door indiscriminately. As a government contractor once explained to me; if you pile enough shit on top of a hill eventually some will start sliding down the hill.

The last main thing that jumps out at me is the claim that at least some of the enhanced interrogation methods do not inflict pain on their targets.  For example,

“Walling,” in which a prisoner is repeatedly slammed against a flexible plywood wall, was “one of the most effective,” Dr. Jessen said. “It’s discombobulating. It doesn’t hurt you, but it jostles the inner ear, it makes a really loud noise.”

Surely it hurts to get slammed into a wall even if it’s true that a flexible wall causes less pain than an inflexible one does.  I find it hard to trust someone who says otherwise.

Enhanced interrogation must be….well….enhanced relative to unenhanced interrogation.  Most people, myself included, have understood that enhancement means more pain.  The underlying idea needs no explanation; a prisoner may be willing to withstand some pain without giving up information but with enough pain he’ll crack.  Many experts dispute this simple idea (e.g., see this monumental book.) but, at a minimum, the more-pain-more-information theory is intuitive.  It seems, however, that the consultants will not invoke it in court.

Rather, the consultants seem poised to argue that their enhancements created non-painful psychological states, such as “discombobulation”, that softened prisoners up without hurting them.  That said, the prisoners in the videos clearly recall experiencing a lot of pain and these recollections seem credible.  My point is simply that the consultants’ case should go better if they acknowledge the pain but argue that inflicting it was worthwhile.  Denying that there was any pain and claiming that their enhancements went in non-painful directions seems like a losing argument to me.


I’m tweeting

I finally started tweeting from @Michael_Spagat

Please follow me!

I plan to do more than just robo tweets of my blog posts.  For now I’m expecting to cover the usual subject matter of the blog plus Trump and probably a little Brexit.   But we’ll see how it goes.


Data Dump Friday Returns!

Hello again.

I’ve loaded up the data page with more than 20 new public opinion surveys.  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these are all surveys fielded in Iraq by D3 Systems and KA Research Limited.  So I expect them to be loaded with fabricated data.  Ultimately, I think the main value of these datasets will be that they will help people to refine their skills at detecting fabricated survey data.

I’ve now posted everything I have by D3/KA.

There is more D3/KA Iraq data out there but organizations like ABC News and Langer Research Associates are hiding what they have.  There have been some developments on this front which I will start sharing in a new regular feature of this web site which I will call Secret Data Sunday.

Stay tuned.


Mystics and Statistics Blogs on the Economics of Warfare

A while back I directed readers to the Mystics and Statistics blog which I continue to recommend.  Mystics and Statistics now returns the favour with interest.  Check out their series of posts on my Economics of Warfare lectures.

I’ve just been dumping these lectures onto my blog without comment.  So you should appreciate the way that Chris Lawrence highlights just a few key moments in each lecture. Chris is a real authority on the quantitative analysis of war (See this, this and this).  Moreover, he operates much more closely to the policy, as opposed to the academic, world than I do.  So his perspective complements mine nicely.

Have a look!

PS – I expect to do a lot more blogging now that I’ve stepped down as Head of Department (hurray!)