Tuesday, August 19, 2008
A Different Episode of '24'
All facts are not created equal
A while back, I attended a medical symposium, and one of the lecturers gave a long accounting of changing medical research practices moving towards evidence-based treatments. Okay, don't get scared, your doctor is not treating you based on voodoo or divine inspiration. What the talk was about was a combination of changing standards, funding, and abilities that lead to a large body of scientific evidence that isn't all equally reliable. A study done a hundred years ago may have been an individual case study, or based solely on a couple of outcomes of a single doctor, without any sophisticated procedures in place for eliminating confounding variables, systemic biases, and a host of other plagues of good scientific evidence. Likewise a modern study may have been a pilot, or something undertaken in a small lab or with a small amount of funding, so it might not have the statistical significance of a large, well-funded, long term effort. So the doctor was speaking of going back through all the diagnostic procedures and treatments, and labeling each fact according to the level of evidence, lowest would be case studies, then small studies, then large statistical samples. This might, in some cases be a prelude to revisiting procedures, or it just might be used to inform the physician who is examining a patient about the possibilities for exceptions to what she has learned.
But it is very telling that what this approach admits is that not all evidence is equally truthful. In time, one would hope that algorithms for working with that evidence, be they human algorithms or machine algorithms, would approach the truth making necessary adjustments for the lack of certainty. More importantly, accumulations of evidence are especially susceptible to this problem, in that they grow by agglomeration, and the next fact acquired will often depend on the question asked, which in turn depends on what is the accumulated evidence so far. This is innate to humans, it is how they accommodate to their world, so it is impossible that it would be done otherwise. Periodic review, necessary to keep the accumulation clean, might as well be called peer-iodic review: it won't happen without impartial persons, without impartial protocols, or without public scrutiny, the information in the accumulation has been fitted together, and all seems therefore logically part of a seamless whole.
'24' with Innocent Prisoners
Panic and torture, therefore, quite literally destroy the truth. Many members of the forensics community, the intelligence community, the press, the intelligensia, and the blogosphere have opined that information gained by torture is unreliable. On this blog previously, I have put together a case that it produces confessions, not intelligence, that even when one believes one is listening to intelligence, one is not, one is listening to confessions, and those confessions are what the prisoner believes the torturer wants to hear. There is a larger sense in which torture is unreliable for intelligence. It is the ultimate corrupter of an accumulation of evidence, and therefore taints all the evidence in the collection, even that which was obtained by other means.
How would the ratings reflect on the following fictitious scenario for a season of the infamous dopamine/adrenalin show '24'? First hour, Jack Bauer is confronted with a terrorist attack in progress, that he can't avert. The terrorists use a biological weapon, say H5N1 in weaponized form. Simultaneously, he gets word that a bomb is lurking again in Los Angeles. He doesn't know what kind of bomb, he believes that the two events are related, he has the usual 24 hours to keep Los Angeles from being completely destroyed (Aw, come on, what's a good thriller without the famous shock waves emanating outward from Capitol Records?). Let's say that by the 4th hour, he has a suspect in custody in the bomb threat, and by this time there are 10 dead of the flu. So he lights into his guy about the bomb, and every second question is about influenza, and he wants to know names. He mentions a foreign terrorist organization over and over, having read somewhere that they are investigating just such a biological weapon. He really wants information about the bomb, but his prisoner, desperate to make the torture stop, decides to concoct a story about a plot to create a biological weapon to attack Newark, picks the name of a taxi driver he knows as a perpetrator, links it to the organization that Jack has mentioned, and says that's all he knows, he doesn't know about any nuclear devices in L.A.
Information goes out over the wire. The FBI confirms that it has been watching a group near Newark because of a SAR from a local bank. There isn't a suspect with the same name that was mentioned, but a slightly different name is linked to one of the people who donated to the group that had the SAR. They pick up the head of the group, and Jack Bauer gets his brother, Harry Bauer, to do the deed on the new suspect. Meanwhile, they put out an APB for the person with the slightly different name, and all of Newark goes on alert. Intelligence operations are launched, and epidemiologists are brought in to figure out how the 10 cases of bird flu could have originated in Newark, and all passengers on flights between Newark and Chicago are searched and tested for flu. One tests positive, and is taken into custody. Information about a bomb threat in Los Angeles is modified, because of data taken by Harry Bauer, who tortured his suspect and got ties back to the original suspect, confirming that everything the original suspect said during torture is true, and gave all the details after being grilled on Los Angeles and the bomb threat, of a nationwide plan, originating in a cave in Uzbekistan, to launch H5N1 bird flu in Los Angeles using a modified fuel-air bomb that will spray aerosol bird flu and create poisonously infected "colloidal smog" by reacting to the sunlight. Interpol is alerted in Uzbekistan, the Uzbekis begin to round up the usual suspects, who under harsh treatment themselves, admit that they bought 100,000 contaminated chickens with money from the Newark charity, but only for Uzbeki soup kitchens.
By this time, everyone who has been tortured is guilty, a large conspiracy has been revealed, there is confirmation from "independent sources", and there are dead people. The fact that none of the burgeoning plot and scenario has any basis that cannot be traced back to torture, or to hypotheses formed on the basis of information linked to torture, has not occurred to anyone collecting intelligence, or attempting to defeat the terrorist attack on Los Angeles. At this point, they locate the taxi driver, and he is a man who has overstayed his tourist visa by 3 years, and hails from Uzbekistan. It is learned that he had a license to practice medicine back in the old country. He is located and chased down in a manhunt, arrested at gunpoint, and is shipped back to Los Angeles on a Gulfstream jet with tail numbers N950-???, stripped, shackled, hooded, and with an anal suppository. In actuality, he knows nothing about the whole plot, is scared for his family now that he has been busted on what he thinks is an immigration charge, and his family sees his picture on the news, "Terrorist Kingpin Arrested, Flu Bomb Imminent".
What will happen now? He is the nexus. There is no way for him to carry on the forensic chain letter, his ignorance will be interpreted as Manchester Manual training, and any admission will be checked, and if it comes up dry, he will now be asked again. If the bomb doesn't go off on schedule, the terrorist network is still in existence, confirmed independently by Uzbekistan, and potentially dangerous "suspects" with Uzbeki names begin to fill federal databases and watch lists. Three months later, after severe sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation, he begins to crack, and admits to a series of crimes he's been asked about. He names names. The cycle begins again. As more links are formed in what may have been a very clean database to begin with, more and more of the database is corrupted by the tortured confessions. They go back to this man, over and over again to get more information, over a period of years. Finally, during one interrogation, someone gets furious at their frustrations with being unable to keep their country safe, and the man is beaten to death. Two years later, the 10 cases of bird flu are attributed to an immigrant from West Africa who was sick when they boarded a plane, but hadn't exhibited symptoms yet. A story that a great threat was averted circulates, an investigation over the death of the taxi driver finds that everyone acted in what they thought was the best interests of national security, and papers write about how it was a different time then.
True confessions in a place where truth does not exist
Notice how, in this fiction, the corruption spreads through the facts, changing them to support theories derived from torture. Notice how the torture becomes focussed on gaining intelligence about those changed facts. Notice how confessions -- answers to questions the prisoner believes are already known and will assert his cooperativeness -- are mixed inexorably with intelligence. It's hard to overemphasize this: The prisoner is giving facts that will prove his cooperation, not his reliability. Cooperation stops torture, and the prisoner has only one goal. Confessions are always a sign of cooperation. Embellishments are meant to convince the torturer that the prisoner is cooperating. Embellishments become the subjects of the next interrogation. So the plot can only grow larger. The urgency can only increase. The torture must become harsher. The torturer and his accumulation of fact must separate from reality over time, there is no force pushing in any other direction. When the nexus is captured, it is impossible to presume innocence, because it is impossible to re-anchor the process in reality. It is impossible to know how many changes to the fabric of the case have been made from each wrong fact, so it is impossible to return to a state of null suspicion. With no reality, there can be no innocents.
In the end, there is no database that has touched tortured information that still represents the truth. And in the end, the most harshly tortured person will always be one who is at the nexus, but is innocent.