Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Notes on False Positives

I will write a proper introduction later but this blog is going to contain some documentation of collateral damage or "Can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs" situations, both related to post-2001 policies in the U.S. government, and elsewhere. I am going to try to stick with documenting examples. I will be writing commentary, but I want to frame these notes with things that are actually happening. I am inspired to put up this blog by the new Eli Lake article in the Washington Times. I would consider discounting the WT or taking it with a grain of salt because it is common knowledge that it is a conservative newspaper. But it's clear from Lake's many appearances on Bloggingheads that he has a strong conscience about journalism. In any event, I'll cite things and just deal with mentioning a bias in something if I think that ameliorates the points they are making.

So Eli's full story is here, and I want to quote Eli quoting Dennis Blair, basically to take the temperature of the times in 2010, early Obama administration, sort of early post-Cheney:

"Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen must get special permission. 'We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,' he said. 'If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.'"

The observation I want to add to this quote is my general anxiety about two major kinds of problems that might come up when the government is declaring a certain person OK to kill.

(1) They could be well-meaning, but mistaken.
(2) They could be deliberately targeting someone they want to kill for other reasons, using terrorism as a pretext.

Both of these possibilities are very worrisome. And they are long-lived. If you stipulate that the Obama administration is somehow "more honest" than Bush/Cheney and less likely to label someone a terrorist as a way to get away with executing them (and I am aware that some readers will say "come on, dude, that is a naive stipulation" - I mention it because hordes of people think Obama walks on water), this general configuration will be with us for a long, long time. We may have another Nixon, in 2016 or 2032. And once again, I realize I may be naive in taking the liberals to be "nice." It's entirely possible that during the times in U.S. history when liberals/progressives had power, they were still breaking in to their own Ellsberg's-psychiatrist's-offices, but they were just keeping their secrets better.

Even cuddly Jimmy Carter may have engaged in the kinds of things that Eli quotes Dennis Blair talking about, and even cuddly Jimmy Carter employed fallible human beings in his administration who probably had an average susceptibility to accidental or deliberate false positives.

My anxiety over these types of collateral damage/false-positives issues is not politically partisan.
I'm interested in our changing perception of how many "eggs" is okay. Would it be okay to kill 100 to save 1000? Would it be okay to kill 1000 to save 10,000?

Other kinds of mistakes that I think are relevant here include death-penalty executions where someone was later exonerated by DNA evidence, and action by police officers where a bystander is killed in the course of stopping a genuinely dangerous criminal.

My feeling is, I don't purport to say that society can avoid this kind of thing necessarily, but at the same time, I do think it's wrong for anyone, ever, to have their life screwed with or ended, because of either of the two kinds of problems listed above. We trust Dennis Blair to be right, and we trust him to be honest, and if either of those things aren't true, it's a very dangerous thing to be permitting.

1 comment:

  1. I love the title of your blog first of all. Because in omitting the second half of the phrase, you've inspired a fertile ground of impressions and directions in my mind:

    The literal meaning: "I can't make an omelette."

    The unaware of English phrases meaning: "Oh, he can't make an omelette."

    The helpless meaning: "Woe is me, I can't make an omelette."

    The problem-solver's meaning: "Is he out of ingredients?"

    The directive meaning: "Is he telling me not to make an omelette?"

    The inferential meaning: "I'm not allowed to make an omelette."

    The meaning the mind fills in: "Without breaking some eggs."

    The moral meaning: "Should I not be breaking eggs?"

    The ethical meaning: "Is it wrong to break eggs?"

    The scientific meaning: "What are eggs? Can I break other things?"

    The philosophical meaning: "What does it mean to break something?"

    The all inclusive meaning: "What about the other ingredients, don't they have equal protections too?"

    The Aesop's Fables meaning: "Does this mean I shouldn't do anything at all? Or does this mean I should do everything?"