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01 March 2006

Evaluations conducted in the public eye…

Once this was a specialist’s game, as we have said before. Now increasingly every assessment may well be carried out almost in the public eye, and certainly under a harsh light of scrutiny the community is ill prepared to endure. One can argue, from an academic basis, the merits and the pitfalls of this new transparency, but it has been thrust upon us whether we like it or not. And it will only grow more obvious in time, as advances in commercial systems begin to offer those outside of government capabilities which increasingly mimic what once was the exclusive preserve of state entities.

One of the most fascinating areas to watch this evolve has been the ever more frequent revelations of what once were clandestine facilities in denied areas. From Chinese underground facilities to the Iranian nuclear program, the eye of the public falls again and again on that which once would have been hidden.

In the counterterrorism field, among the most famous examples have been the persistent reporting of Ba’athist era terrorist training efforts conducted in and around Salman Pak. Initially suspected based on defector and other human source reporting, the former regime’s activities there attracted the attention of the UN inspection teams and others. Statements from former instructors were even published by Mark Bowden (the author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo) in an Atlantic Monthly article, Tales of the Tyrant. Among the most interesting of indicators that emerged in the public eye was overhead imagery which captured a scene very close to that which was described publicly by human source accounts. This reporting was in many cases very publicly discounted by a number of officials responsible for evaluating the former Iraqi regime’s support to terrorist entities, and has subsequently faded from public discussion, despite documentary confirmation of an apparently organized training program carried out by the former regime in the build-up to the 2003 campaign.

It appears that this kind of discussion will now be revisited. A number of similar facilities may have been pinpointed in Iran, allegedly based on the statements of a defecting Pasadran member. In the past, the very knowledge of such a defection would have itself have been limited to a selected small circle of professionals within the diplomatic and intelligence communities of perhaps a few countries. It has however become the stuff of Internet news – further complicating evaluations, as one must be always mindful of deliberate propaganda. However, commercial imagery is sure to follow…

The community is no longer the only voice. The question remains if it is still capable of finding the “best truth”.

(With thanks to Robert Spencer at Jihad Watch.)