Saturday, February 10, 2007

War by PowerPoint? 

Via Raw Story and Laura Rosen we find this recent National Journal article on the politics of Iran intelligence:
Amid the continued political fallout over the faulty intelligence case for going to war in Iraq, the Bush administration is newly cautious about the specific intelligence it plans to present to the public to back up its claims that Iran is fighting a kind of proxy war with the United States in Iraq.
At least twice in the past month, the White House has delayed a PowerPoint presentation initially prepared by the military to detail evidence of suspected Iranian materiel and financial support for militants in Iraq. The presentation was to have been made at a press conference in Baghdad in the first week of February. Officials have set no new date, but they say it could be any day.
Even as U.S. officials in Baghdad were ready to make the case, administration principals in Washington who were charged with vetting the PowerPoint dossier bowed to pressure from the intelligence community and ordered that it be scrubbed again . . . the presentation was sent "back into the interagency process" . . .
I know this is a apparently-trivial side issue, but . . . PowerPoint?
They're promoting a war with PowerPoint? Haven't they ever heard of this?
Yes, its funny, but there is a more serious discussion about the problem of technical presentations on PowerPoint here.
Edward Tufte writes about the Columbia disaster and the findings of the investigation board that faulted NASA's reliance on PowerPoint presentations rather than technical reports as a primary cause of its inability to properly assess the risks of damage to the Columbia space shuttle mission:
In the reports, every single text-slide uses bullet-outlines with 4 to 6 levels of hierarchy . . . the rigid slide-by-slide hierarchies, indifferent to content, slice and dice the evidence into arbitrary compartments, producing an anti-narrative with choppy continuity . . .
As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information are filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation. At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.
So I wonder if the reporters who are going to have to analyze the Pentagon's PowerPoint slides to evaluate Iranian activity in Iraq have ever read the Columbia report?
But maybe it doesn't really matter, anyway. Returning to the National Journal article, it makes the point that the war is on regardless of any actual intelligence or evidence:
"Even if this PowerPoint presentation eventually gets made public ... what does this show us as to where Iran is really coming from?" [former National Intelligence Council Middle East analyst Paul] Pillar asked. "What is the larger significance? Even if Iranian assistance to an Iraqi group is proven to everyone's satisfaction, the [administration's] policy never rested on that. The policy [is being driven by a] much larger sense of Iran as the prime bete noire in the region, and that is why the administration is trying to put together these coalitions with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Sunni states, that we've been reading about. None of this hinges [on the Iran dossier]. We are not going to call this off if we can't prove that Iran is furnishing munitions to Iraqi groups. ..."
Oh, well, that's alright then...

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