Friday, August 2, 2013

The Benghazi Coverup

Hi, Mom!
The Internet is a-buzz with a new revelation from CNN: there were all kinds of CIA agents at Benghazi when it was hit--several were wounded--and the CIA is taking great pains to cover it up. This dovetails nicely with the story that it was then CIA Director David Petraus who massaged the talking points:
A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal Petraeus’s early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee’s request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency.
That was in May. Two months later "favorable to his image and his agency" might be the least of it. Hot Air speculates:
Maybe the skeletal security crew at the consulate wasn’t as skeletal as thought. Is that what happened here — not so much a security vacuum as a security presence so secret that it couldn’t be revealed publicly, despite the White House being pounded over its failures for months afterwards? None of which is to say that they shouldn’t have had more security; the consulate and annex were overrun regardless, no matter how many people were there. But maybe that helps explain why the formal security presence wasn’t bigger: There was a lot of CIA in the area and maybe the White House didn’t want to attract attention to what they were doing there by inserting a squad of Marines to patrol the grounds.
 With this revelation we have three likely possibilities:
  1. The White House and the CIA were involved in illegal and covert shipments of weapons to Syrian rebels without Congressional approval: OBAMA SCANDAL.
  2. The appropriate bodies in Congress were informed and this was merely a black op: REVERSE SCANDAL (Congressional Republicans look pretty bad).
  3. Everyone was appropriately involved--but what was being shipped were dangerous anti-aircraft missiles going to hard-core Jihadis: EVERYONE LOOKS BAD.
There's always the "something else" possibility to consider as well.

What Difference Does It Make?
This story is still unfolding and I expect anyone who reads this blog to be following it as new information comes out so what I want to take a look at here--during the "zero day" event is how we should approach breaking stories like this. To illustrate what I am talking about, let me tell you a (true) story you just may have heard:
An American couple using Google searched--variously on pressure cookers (the wife was thinking about getting one). Here husband was looking for a back-pack. A few weeks before, during the Boston Bombings, he had also clicked a link about how bomb-making instructions were widely available on the Internet. All this was done, as noted, through Google. At 9:00 AM a few days ago three black SUVs pulled up outside their house and six armed men (government agents) in casual clothes deployed, spread out, and approached the house. They badged their way in and (with permission--but clearly with intimidation) questioned the family about ... whether or not they were terrorists. The Moral Of The Story: Searching Google can bring Homeland Security down on you.
The above actually happened--more or less the way I summarized it there--but the moral isn't actually true. It wasn't Google that turned them in--it was their employer. The computer was a work computer and the company monitoring it is the one that phoned the feds. The real moral of the story is this: Don't do fucking anything but work with your work machine. They're watching it.

The point of the above is that for about 24 hours if you, like me, bought into the first moral things looked scary: I'm okay with the NSA monitoring meta-data. Fine: I'm a big-data guy and if that uncovers terrorist networks, that's okay. I'm okay with searchable databases of my content that can be accessed with a court order (even a shadow-FISA court--so long as there are any real checks and balances I'm willing to give some benefit of the doubt).

I'm not okay with XKeyscore, the NSA tool that gives employees extreme access just by typing in a "rationalization" for the search.
And I'm Totally Sick Of The Government Reading My Facebook Posts But Never 'Liking' Them ...
Finallly, I'm very, very, very not okay with Google searches being used to bring down anti-terrorism task-forces on American citizens. However, that's not what happened. While I'm no fan of employer Internet monitoring (I think it's a dick-move--but I understand why employers do it) and I'm not thrilled with busy-bodies calling in terror suspicions on their neighbors (which is essentially what happened here) I do think that it's okay to have a "if you see something [suspicious], say something [to the authorities]" policy and the feds are right to investigate these reports (although six guys and three SUVs might be, you know, excessive).

The takeaway here is that in light of startling revelations we need to keep focused on what's factual and what's speculative--the media creates narratives quickly, spontaneously, and, often, incorrectly (see: the Zimmerman racist narrative).

Statistically? This phenomena looks like this:
Conservatives Would Say This Is 'Phony Reporting'
The article makes two data-driven points: The first is that there is a great deal of coverage in the early phases of breaking news (which sets the narrative in most people's minds). The second is that when the story changes (or, if you will, in this case, "decays") the coverage is far less prevalent (the article breaks down these later stories by front-page vs. section stories (which are far less visible). Fewer people see the unfolding narrative.

As a result, evolving information is often not processed--even by people who are moderately plugged into the media data-feeds.

The Problem Is The Narrative
The driver of this phenomena is not that the media is lying (although sometimes, as with the NBC Zimmerman edit, the media is, in fact, lying) but that the process of producing news organically creates a narrative context. Facts, without the overarching story to support them, are difficult to digest. As a result, outlets tend to look for hero-vs-villain patterns or ways to fit new information into an established theme. When new information contradicts the theme (or makes the hero out to be a villain) it's far less visible because of the "losing interest" effect above--because it doesn't make for a good story--even if it's the real one.

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