You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘terrorism’ tag.

Romney advisor Richard Williamson says that the Middle East protests would not have happened under a President Romney:

“In Egypt and Libya and Yemen, again demonstrations — the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve and we can’t even protect sovereign American property.”

The implicit logic is that the protests are caused by weakness on the part of America.  The protestors are taking advantage of us because they think we will not strike back.  If we are strong, the protestors would be deterred by the threat of American reprisals. So, as President Romney would be strong, foreign policy would be easier as there would be no events like this.

But there is an equally (more?) compelling reverse logic.  The protestors are weak.  They are extremists who have little support in the population.  But if America is aggressive even the moderates in the population will favor fighting fire with fire.  Of course the extremists attacking the embassies would be happy if we withdrew.  But their strategy would also succeed if we respond with aggression.   So, the right move is not to over-react.  Use proxies to fight this battle.  Perhaps the moderates in the local populations themselves would be willing to work with us as they have a lot to lose if tensions escalate and conditions worsen.

The situation calls for smart lateral thinking not a one-size-fits-all bellicosity.


The Guardian has gotten hold the U.K. interrogation policy:

In deciding whether to give permission [for overseas interrogation], senior MI5 and MI6 management “will balance the risk of mistreatment and the risk that the officer’s actions could be judged to be unlawful against the need for the proposed action”.

At this point, “the operational imperative for the proposed action, such as if the action involves passing or obtaining life-saving intelligence” would be weighed against “the level of mistreatment anticipated and how likely those consequences are”.

I am attending a workshop organized by Eli Berman at UCSD.  Eli and his co-authors have been studying the military surge in Afghanistan.  Colonel Joe Felter, a key member of the research team, presented an overview of the theory of counterinsurgency (COIN) – How can the Afghan government and the US forces “win hearts and minds”?

Think of Apple and Samsung competing for consumers.  In the end, a consumer hands over some cash and gets an iPad or a Galaxy.  Both sides of the exchange have sealed the deal, an exchange of a product for money.  The theory of COIN works the same way.  Two potential governments compete for allegiance from an undecided population.  They offer them security and public goods in exchange for allegiance.  They may also use coercion and violence to compel compliance.  There is a key difference – an Afghan citizen can take the goodies offered by the U.S., claim he will offer his allegiance and then withhold it.  The exchange takes place over time and there is no “contract” that guarantees payment of allegiance for US bounty.

The Afghans will offer their allegiance to the government that will be around in the long run.  And the Taliban tell them, “The Americans have watches but we have the time.”  And this strategic issue undercuts the theory of COIN.  How can the surge work if one of the firms that is trying to sell you a product won’t be around to honor the warranty?

In the New Yorker, Lawrence Wright discusses a meeting with Hamid Gul, the former head of the Pakistani secret service I.S.I. In his time as head, Gul channeled the bulk of American aid in a particular direction:

I asked Gul why, during the Afghan jihad, he had favored Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the seven warlords who had been designated to receive American assistance in the fight against the Soviets. Hekmatyar was the most brutal member of the group, but, crucially, he was a Pashtun, like Gul.


Gul offered a more principled rationale for his choice: “I went to each of the seven, you see, and I asked them, ‘I know you are the strongest, but who is No. 2?’ ” He formed a tight, smug smile. “They all said Hekmatyar.”

Gul’s mechanism is something like the following: Each player is allowed to cast a vote for everyone but himself.  The warlord who gets the most votes gets a disproportionate amount of U.S. aid.

By not allowing a warlord to vote for himself, Gul eliminates the warlord’s obvious incentive to push his own candidacy to extract U.S. aid. Such a mechanism would yield no information.  With this strategy unavailable, each player must decide how to cast a vote for the others.  Voting mechanisms have multiple equilibria but let us look at a “natural” one where a player conditions on the event that his vote is decisive (i.e. his vote can send the collective decision one way or the other).   In this scenario, each player must decide how the allocation of U.S. aid to the player he votes for feeds back to him.  Therefore, he will vote for the player who will use the money to take an action that most helps him, the voter.  If fighting Soviets is such an action, he will vote for the strongest player.  If instead he is worried that the money will be used to buy weapons and soldiers to attack other warlords, he will vote for the weakest warlord.

So, Gul’s mechanism does aggregate information in some circumstances even if, as Wright intimates, Gul is simply supporting a fellow Pashtun.

The daring raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout has deeply embarrassed the Pakistani military and secret service ISI.  American helicopters were able to fly in undetected, kill the world’s most wanted man and leave with his body.  We might speculate about the consequences for Al Qaeda and the possible acceleration of withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.  Instead, I thought I would talk about the implication of the American attack on Pakistan.

First, if Navy Seals were able to fly in and steal Osama Bin Laden, might they be able to steal Pakistan’s nuclear materials?   A much more difficult and perhaps impossible enterprise with weapons at different locations, some of them mobile. But the Abottabad adventure was highly improbable too. Therefore, one result of the death of OBL is that the Pakistanis will guard their nuclear weapons with more diligence. This is good for the rest of the world as it reduces the chances of a WMD falling into the hands of extremists.  It is bad to the extent that the rest of the world (i.e. the US!) has plans to capture Pakistani WMDs in some emergency scenario.

Second, the Pakistani military does not come out of this incident looking good. Either they are incompetent, unknowingly allowing OBL to live in an army town, or they are complicit, deliberately harboring a terrorist where he might be least likely to be found.  In either scenario, Pakistan might think that the American action emboldens India.  India now has cover to adopt a more aggressive stance against Pakistan.  This in turn implies that Pakistan might adopt a more aggressive stance itself to counteract any reputational fallout from its perceived ineptitude.  Some kind of cross-border incident in Kashmir is an obvious move for Pakistan to engineer.  There is some distance between Pakistani politicians and the military and some kind of “confidence-building” move by India might help to forestall any increase in tension.  Such a move unfortunately is politically difficult given the huge suspicion of the Pakistani military and ISI following on the heels of the discovery of OBL living safely in Abottabad.

The sources in this report say yes.  These reporters look again and conclude no.  I don’t believe any of them.  The basic fact is that we have no good data on the costs and benefits of torture and we never will.

Once you have decided whether you or not you believe the practitioner/advocates of torture when they say that torture gets results then these stories contain no new information, and here’s why:  all of the information comes from them.  There is no independent source.

If you already believed that torture works then you came to that belief because they told you and today they are just telling you the same thing again.  On the other hand, if you didn’t believe it that’s because you don’t trust them when they say it works and today you are just hearing another ex-post rationalization by people with dirty hands.

Actions speak louder than words.  Anarchists seeking to spread revolution resort to extreme acts hoping to stir the sympathy of the general population.  Would be change-agents differ in their favored instrument of provocation – assassination, bombings or general strike.  They are united by their intrinsic lack of real power.  They only way they can hope to achieve their ends is by persuading other players to react and indirectly give them what they want.  As such, the “propaganda of the deed” in practiced typically by people on the fringe of society, not in the corridors of power.   (See my paper The Strategy of Manipulating Conflict with Tomas Sjöström for illustrations of this strategy.)

But Mubarak has reached this lowly state even as President of Egypt.  He has conspicuously lost popular support and tensions long suppressed have burst asunder for all to see.  He has lost the support of “the people” and, perhaps even more importantly, the army.  What can he do to get it back?  The anti-Mubarak protestors have till recently refrained from looting and mob mentality has been notable for its absence.  As long as that remains the case, the army and the people are siding with the anti-Mubarak protestors or largely staying out of the fray.  Mubarak’s only hope is to get the people and the army to pick his side.  He needs to energize the mob and trigger looting.  That is his strategy.  Police disappeared from the streets of Cairo a few days ago, inviting looters to run amok.  That did not work.  So, now he has employed pro-Mubarak “supporters” to fight anti-Mubarak protestors.  Open fighting on the streets of Cairo, prodding the army to step in.  The people scared of the outbreak of lawlessness turning to the strongman Mubarak to return some semblance of stability to the city and the country.  This is where we are in the last couple of days.  Another obvious strategy for Mubarak: Get his supporters to loot and pin it on the anti-Mubarak protestors.  Not sure if that is happening yet.

What can be done to subvert the Mubarak strategy?  For the protestors, the advice is obvious – no looting, no breakdown of law and order.  The primary audience is the army and people – keep them on your side.  For the Obama administration there is little leverage over Mubarak.  I assume he has hidden away millions if not billions – cutting off future aid has little chance of persuading Mubarak to do anything.  Again, the army is the primary audience for the Obama administration.  Whichever side they pick will win.  The army cares more about the cutoff of future aid than Mubarak.  They have trained in US military schools and have connections here.  The only leverage the Obama administration has is over the army and it is hard to tell how strong that leverage is.

25 of them.  Ranging from “Creepy Animal Experiments” to “It Could Destroy The World” (i.e. LHC).  The usual suspects are there, but this one is new to me (from “Mind Control”)

MK-ULTRA was a code name for a series of CIA mind-control research experiments, heavily steeped in chemical interrogations and LSD dosing. In operation Midnight Climax, they hired prostitutes to dose clients with LSD to see its effects on unwilling participants.

Here’s wikipedia on MKULTRA, and on Operation Midnight Climax.

(Barretina bluster:  Arthur Robson who quips “Economics has the power to bore rather than to scare, at least.”)

Islam forbids suicide. Of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths, “The Koran has the only scriptural prohibition against it,” said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the causes of suicide terrorism. The phrase suicide bomber itself is a Western conception, and a pretty foul one at that: an egregious misnomer in the eyes of Muslims, especially from the Middle East. For the Koran distinguishes between suicide and, as the book says, “the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah.” The latter is a courageous Fedayeen — a martyr. Suicide is a problem, but martyrdom is not.

From an article in the Boston Globe on the psychology of suicide bombers.

To use the justice system most effectively to stop leaks you have to make two decisions.

First, you have to decide what will be a basis for punishment. In the case of a leak you have essentially two signals you could use. You know that classified documents are circulating in public, and you know which parties are publishing the classified documents. The distinctive feature of the crime of leaking is that once the documents have been leaked you already know exactly who will be publishing them: The New York Times and Wikileaks. Regardless of who was the original leaker and how they pulled it off.

That is, the signal that these entities are publishing classified documents is no more informative about the details of the crime than the more basic fact that the documents have been leaked. It provides no additional incentive benefit to use a redundant signal as a basis for punishment.

Next you have to decide who to punish. Part of what matters here is how sensitive that signal is to given actor’s efforts. Now the willingness of Wikileaks and The New York Times to republish sensitive documents certainly provides a motive to leakers and makes leaks more likely. But what also matters is the incentive-bang for your punishment-buck and to deter all possible outlets from mirroring leaks would be extremely costly. (Notwithstanding Joe Lieberman.)

A far more effective strategy is to load incentives on the single agent whose efforts have the largest effect on whether or not a leak occurs: the guy who was supposed to keep them protected in the first place. Because when a leak occurs, in addition to telling you that some unknown and costly to track person spent too much effort trying to steal documents, it tells you that your agent in charge of keeping them secret didn’t spend enough effort doing the job you hired him to do.

You should reserve 100% of your scarce punishment resources where they will do the most good, incentivizing him (or her.)

(Based on a conversation with Sandeep.)

Update: The Australian Government seems to agree. (cossack click:  Sandeep)

You manage a colony of slave-maker ants.  It’s a small colony (not a knock on you, all slave-maker ant colonies are small) so you have only a handful of scouts to send out on an enslavement mission. Do you target a similarly weak colony (better odds) or the biggest and strongest around (better slaves)? According to this account of a study published in Animal Behavior, you risk it and go for the big prize.

It’s fun to theorize why:

Now, like most animal fables, this one can be spun in any number of ways. (Ants are particularly suitable for, or susceptible to, this.) Are the populous, well-defended colonies doing anything wrong? Do these attacks work because whoever’s running the big, powerful colony doesn’t mind losing a few small members? Is the answer more defenses, or subtler ones? Do you change how you live because of a small band of violent actors? Should the hostages fight back when they’re older? (They sometimes do.)

Homburg Howdyado: The Browser.

For the sake of argument let’s take on the plain utilitarian case for waterboarding: in return for the suffering inflicted upon a single terror suspect we may get information that can save many more people from far greater suffering. At first glance, authorizing waterboarding simply scales up the terms of that tradeoff. The suspect suffers more and therefore he will be inclined to give more information and sooner.

But these higher stakes are not appropriate for every suspect. After all, the utilitarian cost of torture comes in large part from the possibility that this suspect may in fact have no useful information to give, he may even be innocent. When presented with a suspect whose value as an informant is uncertain, these costs are too high to use the waterboard. Something milder is preferred instead like sleep deprivation.

So the utilitarian case for authorizing waterboarding rests on the presumption that it will be held in reserve for those high-value suspects where the trade-off is favorable.

But if we look a little closer we see it’s not that simple. Torture relies on promises and not just threats. A suspect is willing to give information only if he believes that it will end or at least limit the suffering. When we authorize waterboarding, we undermine that promise because our sleep-deprived terror suspect knows that as soon as he confesses, thereby proving that he is in fact an informed terrorist, he changes the utilitarian tradeoff. Now he is exactly the kind of suspect that waterboarding is intendend for. He’s not going to confess because he knows that would make his suffering increase, not decrease.

This is an instance of what is known in the theory of dynamic mechanism design as the ratchet effect.

Taken to its logical conclusion this strategic twist means that the waterboard, once authorized, can’t ever just sit on the shelf waiting to be used on the big fish. It has to be used on every suspect. Because the only way to convince a suspect that resisting will lead to more suffering than the waterboarding he is sure to get once he concedes is to waterboard him from the very beginning.

The formal analysis is in Sandeep’s and my paper, here.

Regional data is available on civilian deaths from insurgent activity and counterinsurgent activity in Afghanistan.  There is also data on the level of insurgent attacks.  In principle, this might allow an analysis of the impact of civilian deaths on insurgent and insurgent support.  If civilian deaths caused by insurgents cause an increase in support for counterinsurgents, perhaps the local population will give information about insurgent location to the opposite side.  Then, insurgent attacks will decline.  If civilian deaths caused by caused counterinsurgent activity increase support for insurgents, perhaps insurgents find more recruits leading to more attacks in the future etc etc.

A recent paper by Condra et al attempts to study these issues.  One key finding:

“Counterinsurgent-generated civilian casualties from a typical incident are responsible for 6 additional violent incidents in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks.”

Are the causal statements water-tight?  I wasn’t sure but certainly the questions are apt.  This account summarizes many of the study’s findings.

Obama has two focal options in Afghanistan, “Stay the Course” or “Cut and Run”.  Stay the Course means continuing the current counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy of “winning hearts and minds” of Afghan civilians.  Cut and Run means getting out as soon as possible and leaving the Afghans to deal with their own mess.  In either scenario it is optimal to sack McCrystal.

McCrystal is a strong believer in COIN so if you want to Cut and Run, it s better to replace him with someone else, a true believer in Cut and Run.  If Obama wants to Stay the Course, McCrystal is a possible candidate.  But there is a reputational cost, looking weak, to Obama of retaining McCrystal.  Replacing him carries the risk that the COIN strategy fails.  But Petraeus is the author of COIN so this risk is minimized if Petraeus replaces McCrystal.  So, even if you want to Stay the Course, it is optimal to sack McCrystal.

Pretty simple?

Afghan security firms provide armed escorts for NATO convoys.  Some firms lost their employment because of violent incidents where they killed civilians.  But NATO Convoys them suffered greater attacks and the security firms were re-employed.  There is an obvious incentive problem:

“The officials suspect that the security companies may also engage in fake fighting to increase the sense of risk on the roads, and that they may sometimes stage attacks against competitors.

The suspicions raise fundamental questions about the conduct of operations here, since the convoys, and the supplies they deliver, are the lifeblood of the war effort.

“We’re funding both sides of the war,” a NATO official in Kabul said. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was incomplete, said he believed millions of dollars were making their way to the Taliban.”

This is a Mafia tactic: To get people to pay from protection, you have to create the demand for protection.  Supply creates its own demand.  There is also a reverse effect:  The security firms sometimes bribe the Taliban to keep away from the convoys.  With this source of steady income, the Taliban have no incentive to disband and may even have an incentive to expand.  Demand creates its own supply.

The second circle seems less pathological than the first.  If we cannot find the Taliban ourselves and kill them or bribe them then to stay away from the convoys, we have to use a local security firm.  The security firm is an intermediary, adding value and generating surplus.  The first circle is destroying surplus, like the Mafia.  It is creating a public bad, a security problem, to generate a transfer.

Beyond punishing anyone who is caught planning a deliberate attack, it is hard to see any simple solution.  Fewer and fewer countries want to be involved in Afghanistan and so using our own troops is difficult.  The Taliban might prefer to be employed in the real economy.  But the main alternative to attacking NATO convoys is growing opium.  Is that any better than attack and theft?

The entire episode signals that Afghanistan is a Mafia state with leaders acting an profit maximizers, destroying surplus to capture a bigger slice of what’s left of the economic pie.   A depressing state of affairs after eight years of war.

Sandeep and I are very close to finishing a first draft of our paper on torture.  As I was working on it today, I came up with a simple three-paragraph summary of the model and some results.  Here it is.

A number of strategic considerations play a central role in shaping the equilibrium. First, the rate at which the agent can be induced to reveal information is limited by the severity of the threat.  If the principal demands too much information in a given period then the agent will prefer to resist and succumb to torture. Second, as soon as the victim reveals that he is informed by yielding to the principal’s demand, he will subsequently be forced to reveal the maximum given the amount of time remaining.  This makes it costly for the victim to concede and makes the alternative of resisting torture more attractive. Thus, in order for the victim to be willing to concede the principal must also torture a resistant suspect, in particular an uninformed suspect, until the very end.  Finally, in order to maintain principal’s incentive to continue torturing a resistant victim  the informed victim must, with positive probability, wait any number of periods before making his first concession.

These features combine to give a sharp characterization of the value of torture and the way in which it unfolds.  Because concessions are gradual and torture cannot stop once it begins, the principal waits until very close to the terminal date before even beginning to torture. Starting much earlier would require torturing an uninformed victim for many periods in return for only a small increase in the amount of information extracted from the informed.  In fact we show that the principal  starts to torture only after the game has reached the ticking time-bomb phase: the point in time after which the deadline becomes a binding constraint on the amount of information the victim can be induced to reveal. This limit on the duration of torture also limits the value of torture for the principal.

Because the principal must be willing to torture in every period, the informed victim concession probability in any given period is bounded, and this also bounds the principal’s payoff.  In fact we obtain a strict upper bound on the principal’s equilibrium payoff by considering an alternative problem in which the victim’s concession probability is maximal subject to this incentive constraint. This bound turns out to be useful for a number of results.   For example the bound enables us to derive an upper bound on the number of periods of torture that is independent of the total amount of information available.  We use this result to show that the value of torture shrinks to zero when the period length, i.e. the time interval between torture decisions, shortens.  In addition it implies that laws preventing indefinite detention of terrorist suspects entail no compromise in terms of the value of information that could be extracted in the intervening time.

The second-closest gas station to our current apartment was place of employment for one of the men arrested by the F.B.I. last week.

A fungus is damaging opium poppies in Afghanistan.  The price of dry opium has gone up dramatically.  This is good for the Taliban in the short run as they have stockpiles of dry opium they can sell off at  higher price.  But in the medium term the price charged by farmers will go up as there is less crop to go around.  As input prices go up, profits go down.  Ceteris paribus, Taliban profits will go down in the medium term.  Drawn by higher profits, if entry of new farmers into opium production occurs in the long run, we will head back to the status quo.  Intermediate micro is kind of fun!

Seeing this logic at work, government intervention is possible: U.S. forces can discourage entry to keep input prices high and Taliban profits low.  I’m sure the Law of Unintended Consequences will be at work too.  What form it will take, by definition I cannot predict.

Is the marginal incentive to become a terrorist increasing or decreasing in the level of drone strikes?  In the former case, terrorist activity is a strategic complement to drone strikes and, in the latter, a strategic substitute.  Of course, the relationship may change sign with the level of strikes , e.g. at a medium level of drone strikes, terrorist activity is a complement but at very high levels it is a substitute (as we  kill terrorists more quickly than they can be created!).

This issue lies at the heart of the optimal policy of drone strikes.  Robert Wright asks whether hawkish policies:

“have, while killing terrorists abroad, created terrorists both abroad and — more disturbingly — at home.

These possibly counterproductive hawkish policies go beyond drone strikes — a fact that is unwittingly underscored by the hawks themselves. They’re the first to highlight the role played by that imam in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in inspiring Shahzad and other terrorists. But look at the jihadist recruiting narrative al-Awlaki’s peddling. He says America is at war with Islam, and to make this case he recites the greatest hits of hawkish policy: the invasion of Iraq, the troop escalation in Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan, etc.”

Wright adds:

“Unfortunately, President Obama isn’t discarding the Bush-Cheney playbook that has given jihadist recruiters such effective talking points. Quite the contrary: the White House thinks the moral of the Shahzad story may be that we should get more aggressive in Pakistan,possibly putting more boots on the ground. And already Obama has authorized the assassination of al-Awlaki.

Even leaving aside the constitutional questions (al-Awlaki is an American citizen), doesn’t Obama see what a gift the killing of this imam would be to his cause? Just ask the Romans how their anti-Jesus-movement strategy worked out. (And Jesus’s followers didn’t have their leader’s sermons saved in ready-to-go video and audio files; al-Awlaki’s resurrection would be vivid indeed.)”

David Jaeger and Daniele Paserman have done empirical work on this issue in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In one paper they find that Israeli fatalities in the last period are a good predictor of Palestinian fatalities the next (strategic complements) but Palestinian fatalities last period are not related significantly to Israeli fatalities the next.  It is not clear whether this translates to the Al Qaeda/Taliban context.  Surely the data is there somewhere to do the analysis.  Is Obama’s policy evidence-based or is he, as Wright suggests, just copying the Bush-Cheney playbook?

1. We have no clear strategy to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

2. The Taliban want peace.

3. Graham Allison gives Obama an “incomplete” on one aspect of his policy on nuclear arms.

4. Osama loves volleyball, de Gaulle and Field Marshall Montgomery.

From a wince-inducing article in Salon:

The documents also lay out, in chilling detail, exactly what should occur in each two-hour waterboarding “session.” Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to “dam the runoff” and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee’s mouth. They were allowed six separate 40-second “applications” of liquid in each two-hour session – and could dump water over a detainee’s nose and mouth for a total of 12 minutes a day. Finally, to keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.

The article details the use of saline solution to reduce the possibility of death from dangerously low sodium levels, a specially designed gurney for tilting the head at the optimum angle and quickly uprighting the victim in case he stopped breathing, and doctors assisting by monitoring blood pressure to allow interrogators to bring the victim close to the line of death.  And more.

Budenovka bow:  The Morning News.

The hypothetical “ticking time-bomb” scenario represents a unique argument in favor of torture.  There will be a terrorist attack on Christmas day and a captive may know where and by whom.  Torture seems more reasonable in this scenario for a few reasons.

  1. It’s a clearly defined one-off thing.  We can use torture to defuse the ticking time-bomb and still claim to have a general policy against torture except in these special cases.
  2. The information especially valuable and verifiably so.
  3. There is limited time.

If we look at torture simply as a mechanism for extracting information, in fact reasons #1 and #2 by themselves deliver at best ambiguous implications for the effectiveness of torture.  A one-off case means there is no reputation at stake and this weakens the resolve of the torturer.  The fact that the information is valuable means that the victim also has a stronger incentive to resist.  The net effect can go either way.

(Keep in mind these are comparative statements.  You may think that torture is a good idea or a bad idea in general, that is a separate question.  The question here is whether aspects #1 and #2 of the ticking time-bomb scenario make it better.)

We would argue that a version of #3 is the strongest case for torture, and it only applies to the ticking time-bomb.  Indeed the ticking time-bomb is unique because it alters the strategic considerations.  A big problem with torture in general is that its effectiveness is inherently limited by commitment problems.  If torture leads to quick concessions then it will cease quickly in the absence of a concession (but of course continue once a concession has revealed that the victim is informed ). But then there would be no concession. And as we wrote last week, raising the intensity of the torture only worsens this problem.

But the ticking time-bomb changes that. If the bomb is set to detonate at midnight then torture is going end whether he confesses or not.  Now the victim faces a simple decision: resist torture until midnight or give up some information.  The amount of information you can get from him is limited only by how much pain you are threatening.  More pain, more gain.

Sandeep and I are writing a paper on torture.  We are trying to understand the mechanics and effectiveness of torture viewed purely as a mechanism for extracting information from the unwilling.  A major theme we are finding is that torture is complicated by numerous commitment problems.  We have blogged about these before.  Here is Sandeep’s first post on torture which got this whole project started.

A big problem is that torture takes time and when the victim has resisted repeated torture it becomes more and more likely that he actually has no information to give.  At this point the torturer has a hard time credibly commiting to continue the torture because in all likelihood he is torturing an innocent victim.  This feeds back into the early stages of the torture because it increases the temptation for the truly informed victim to resist torture and pretend to be uninformed.

In light of this it is possible to say something about the benefits of adopting more and more severe forms of torture, waterboarding say.   A naive presumption is that a technology which delivers suffering at a faster pace would circumvent the problem because it makes it harder to resist temptation for long enough.

But this logic is backwards.  Indeed, if it were true that more severe torture induced the informed to reveal their information early, then this would only hasten the time at which the torture ceases because the torturer becomes convinced that his heretofore silent victim is in fact innocent.  So credible torture requires that those who resist the now more severe torture must find compensation in the form of less information revealed in the future.  In the end the informed victim is no worse off and this means that the torturer is no better off.

Once you account for that what you are left with is that there is more suffering inflicted on the uninformed who has no alternative but to resist.  And this only makes it more difficult to continue torturing once the victim has demonstrated he is innocent. That is, the original commitment problem is only made worse.

Government organizations often compete not cooperate.  They compete for funding from the central government and if say the C.I.A. succeeds in some task and the N.C.T.C. does not, money, status, access etc. might move naturally towards the former from the latter.  If the N.C.T.C. helps the C.I.A. catch a terrorist, ironically, their own hard work is punished.  On the other hand, competition helps to give the bureaucracies the incentive to work hard.  That is, the positive effect that must be counterbalanced against the negative effect on incentives to cooperate.  What is the optimal incentive scheme?

This seems like a pretty important question and someone has studied an important part of it.  The classic paper is Hideshi Itoh’s Incentives to help in Multi-Agent Situations.

Suppose the marginal cost of helping is zero at zero effort of helping.  Then, if one agent’s help reduces the other’s marginal cost of effort at his main task, it is optimal to incentivize teamwork.  How do you do that?  One agent has to be paid when the other succeeds.  The assumptions that efforts are complements and that the marginal cost of help is zero at zero do not seem to be a big stretch in the present circumstances.  The benefits of greater competition, lower resource costs, must be traded off against the costs, less cooperation and hence more chance of a successful terrorist attack if “dots are not connected” across organizations.

Itoh also shows that if the marginal cost of helping is positive at zero help, the optimal scheme either involves total specialization or,  more surprisingly, substantial teamwork.  This is because giving agents the incentive to help each other just a little is very costly, given the cost condition.  So, if you are going to incentivize teamwork at all,  it is optimal incentivize large chunks of it.   If the benefits of catching terrorists is large, this logic also pushes the optimal scheme towards teamwork.

With much information classified, it is impossible to know how much intra-bureaucracy competition contributed to intelligence failure.  But whether it did not or not, it is worth ensuring that good mechanisms for cooperation are in place.

The safeguards that are employed in airport security policy are found using the “best response dynamic”: Each player chooses  the optimal response to their opponent’s strategy from the last period.  So, the T.S.A. best-responds to the shoe bomber Richard Reid and a terrorist plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives.  We end up taking our shoes off and having tiny tubes of toothpaste in Ziplock bags.  So, a terrorist best-responds by having a small device divided into constituent parts and hidden in his underwear.  One part has to be injected into another via a syringe and the complications that ensue prevent the successful detonation of the bomb.  In this sense, each player is best-responding to the other and the airport security policy, by making it a bit harder to carry on a complete bomb, succeeded with a huge dose of good luck thrown in.

What should we learn from the newest attempt to blow up an airplane?

First and most obviously, the best way to minimize the impact of terrorism is to stop terrorists before they can even get close to us.  This appears to be the main failure of security policy in the recent incident – more focus on intelligence and filtering of watch lists is vital.  Second, the best response dynamic should not be the only way to inform policy.  There are already rumors that no-one will be allowed to walk around for the last hour of the flight or have personal items on their lap.  Terrorists will respond to these policies by blowing up planes earlier in flight.  Does that make anyone feel any safer or the terrorists less successful?  The main problem is that terrorists are thinking up new schemes to get to nuclear power stations, kidnap Americans abroad and other horrible things that should being brainstormed and pre-empted.  The best response dynamic is backward looking and cannot forecast these problems or their solutions.  This second point is also obvious.  The fact that a boy whose father turned him in got on a plane with a bomb suggests that even obvious points are worth making.

According to the Times:

“A 2008 firefight in eastern Afghanistan has become a template for how not to win there, and helps to explain the strategy of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander.”

A new study is being released of the fire-fight.  Among other things it says:

“Before the soldiers arrived, commanders negotiated for months with Afghan officials of dubious loyalty over where they could dig in, giving militants plenty of time to prepare for an assault.

Despite the suspicion that the militants were nearby, there were not enough surveillance aircraft over the lonely outpost — a chronic shortage in Afghanistan that frustrated Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at the time. Commanders may have been distracted from the risky operation by the bureaucratic complexities of handing over responsibility at the brigade level to replacements — and by their urgent investigation of an episode that had enraged the local population, the killing a week earlier in an airstrike of a local medical clinic’s staff as it fled nearby fighting in two pickup trucks.

Above all, the unit and its commanders had an increasingly tense and untrusting relationship with the Afghan people.”

As far as I see from the story in the Times, the report on the firefight examines the mistakes that were made in implementation of a strategy.  There are lots nuances but basically the army unit was meant to set up an outpost and they were not given the intelligence and manpower to do their job effectively.  In other words this was a failure of “operations management” or what we might call tactics.  We can learn from it in terms to how not to make the same mistake again.

What we cannot learn from it is what our strategy should be in Afghanistan.  A strategy here is broader than what we usually mean in game theory.  It is a description of an objective function as well as a plan of how to maximize it.  (The objective function for Afghanistan is part of a grander objective function for U.S. domestic and foreign policy.) It will suggest questions such as: Should we ensure a stable democracy in Afghanistan?  Or should we focus on Al Qaeda?  Or have we overreacted to 9/11 overall and we should leave?  None of this is answered by the study of the incident in 2008.  Hence, we would be wrong to extrapolate from an issue of tactics to an issue of overall strategy.  Maybe we decide we do not want outposts at all. Then a counterinsurgency strategy is moot.

Want to work for Al Qaeda?  The pay is terrible, your future is bleak and Al Qaeda has not managed a big attack for many years so you’ll be working for a declining terrorist entity.

Not much glamour in that job description and the Guardian reports that Al Qaeda is having a hard time finding recruits:

Amid a mood of cautious optimism, some experts talk of a “tipping point” in the fight against al-Qaida. Others argue that only Bin Laden’s death will bring significant change. But most agree that the failure to carry out spectacular mass attacks in the west since the 2005 London bombings has weakened the group’s “brand appeal” and power to recruit.

And there’s a backlash against Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri by other Islamic leaders who are offended because they have been vilified by Bin Laden or regret attacks on Muslims perpetrated by Al Qaeda (links here).

Jeff Miron writes

If the CIA had convincingly foiled terrorists acts based on information from harsh interrogations, the temptation to shout it from the highest rooftops would have been overwhelming.

Thus the logical inference is that harsh interrogations have rarely, if ever, produced information of value.

Without taking a stand on the bottom-line conclusion, I wonder about the intermediate claim.  If, for example, the CIA can document that torture produced critical intelligence, when would be the optimal time to release that information?  There are many reasons to wait until an investigation is already underway.

  1. If it was already in the public record, that would be in effect a sunk-cost for prosecutors and have less effect on marginal incentives to go forward.
  2. Public information maximizes its galvanizing effect when the public is focused on it.  Watercooler conversations are easier to start when it is common-knowledge that your cubicle-neighbor is paying attention to the same story you are.
  3. Passing time make even public information act less public.  Again, its not the information per se, but the galvanizing effect of getting the public focused on the same facts.  Over time these facts can be spun, not to mention simply forgotten.

I expect that the success stories are there as a kind of poison pill against the investigators.  They will reach a point where any further progress will require that the positive results will come to light.

Think of the big events that came out of nowhere and were so dramatic they captured our attention for days. 9/11, the space shuttle, the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor. If you were there you remember exactly where you were.

All of these were bad news.

Now try to think of a comparable good news event. I can’t. The closest is the Moon landing and the first Moon walk. But it doesn’t fit because it was not a surprise. I can’t think of any unexpected joyful event on the order of the magnitude of these tragedies. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine such an event. For example, if today it were announced that a cure for cancer has been discovered, then that would qualify. And equally significant turns have come to pass, but they always arrive gradually and we see them coming.

What explains this asymmetry?

1. Incentives. If you are planning something that will shake the Earth, then your incentives to give advance warning depend on whether you are planning something good or bad. Terrorism/assassination: keep it secret. Polio vaccine, public.

2. Morbid curiosity. There is no real asymmetry in the magnitude of good and bad events. We just naturally are drawn to the bad ones and so these are more memorable.

3. What’s good is idiosyncratic, we can all agree what is bad.

I think there is something to the first two but 1 can’t explain natural (ie not ingentionally man-made) disasters/miracles and 2 is too close to assuming the conclusion. I think 3 is just a restatement of the puzzle because the really good things are good for all.

I favor this one, suggested by my brother-in-law.

4 . Excessive optimism. There is no real asymmetry. But the good events appear less dramatic than the bad ones because we generally expect good things to happen. The bad events are a shock to our sense of entitlement.

Two related observations that I can’t help but attribute to #4. First, the asymmetry of movements in the stock market. The big swings that come out of the blue are crashes. The upward movements are part of the trend.

Second, Apollo 13. Like many of the most memorable good news events this was good news because it resolved some pending bad news. (When the stock market sees big upward swings they usually come shortly after the initial drop.)  When our confidence has been shaken, we are in a position to be surprised by good news.

I thank Toni, Tom, and James for the conversation.

Mindhacks has an interesting article about the use of robots in war.  We know the U.S. is using pilotless drones to attack suspected terrorists in the mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This can save lives and presumably there are technological capabilities that are impossible for a human to replicate.  But the possibility of human error is replaced by the possibility of computer error and, Mindhacks points out, even lack of robot predictability.

I went to a military operations research conference to present at a game theory session.  Two things surprised me.  First, game theory has disappeared from the field.  They remember Schelling but are unaware that anything has happened since the 1960s.  Asymmetric information models are a huge surprise to them.  Second, they are aware of computer games.  They just want to simulate complex games and run them again and again to see what happens.  Then, you don’t get any intuition for why some strategy works or does not work or really an intuition for the game as a whole.  And what you put in is what you get out: if you did not out in an insurgency movement causing chaos then it’s not going to pop out.  This is also a problem for an analytical approach where you may not incorporate key strategic considerations into the game.  Cliched “Out-of the-Box”  thinking is necessary.  Even a Mac can’t do it.

So, as long as there is war, men will go to war and think about how to win wars.

(Hat tip: Jeff for pointing out article)

%d bloggers like this: