(Reuters) U.S. probe of Saudi oil attack; What is Intel Proof?

(Reuters) U.S. probe of Saudi oil attack shows it came from north – report.

Even though enough time has elapsed for thorough forensic analysis, this assertion, which was also made in the immediate aftermath, is actually less accusatory of Iran than some statements made shortly after the attack.  Two factors may be involved in the non-release of additional accusatory information:

The Iranians would add a third reason:  “You don’t have any proof.” The Iranians have leveraged deniability in a powerful way. The effectiveness of deniability divides between the tactic itself, and the response of the victim, which includes how we talk about it.  Two quotes from prior articles emphasize the sudden emergence. See US official: Iran has moved missiles to Persian Gulf. Quoting,

Is there something more we can tease out of open source? A template based on the recent past gives insight into Iranian tactics, which emphasize surprise, asymmetry, and deniability. Against the background of comparatively moderate posturing by the secular government, attacks against U.S. forces have occurred in a deniable manner.

From Iran Fires Second Shot in New Tanker War; Counter Strategies?,

In comparison to the previous attacks, this conclusion of Iranian responsibility has come quickly. The attacks show that deniable aggression has an important adjunct role in diplomacy, viewed by an adversary as promoting the favorable resolution of a conflict without the danger of full-scale war.

The way we discuss a deniable strike is what makes it deniable. Our habit is shaped by past errors. The partly falsified Gulf of Tonkin incident, a pretext for the Vietnam War, is an example of manipulations or failures that occurred multiple times  in the decades that followed. (WaPo) The Iraq War and WMDs: An intelligence failure or White House spin? is one dissection of the most recent notorious manipulation-or-failure.

In reaction to the above, to prevent political manipulation of intelligence, the requirement of proof has approached legal norms. We don’t trust ourselves. Our adversaries know this, and exploit it.

The Reuters article displays photos of some of the recovered guts of the drones, including the engine, which is similar in complexity and design to a lawnmower engine . It is remarked that the parts are similar to those of the IRN-05 UAV, while stating

“At this time, the U.S. Intelligence Community has not identified any information from the recovered weapon systems used in the 14 September attacks on Saudi Arabia that definitively reveals an attack origin.”

This is much weaker in tone than it has to be, unless it has deliberately been watered down to grease the diplomatic skids. Let me explain. If you’re old enough to have spent Saturdays repairing your car with parts obtained from Pep Boys, you are familiar with a curious fact: If you bought the same part over multiple years to keep your junker on the road, the part in the box may look different each time.

This is because “engine accessories”, such as water pumps, fuel pumps, and pulleys were often made by more than one subcontractor. Each made their own tooling, the jigs, molds, and extrusions used to form the part. The only required commonalities were fit and performance. Even carburetors were copied.

Now days, cars are much more technical. You can’t do much on a driveway anymore. But the propulsion system of the single-use IRN-05 is more like an old-fashioned car, simple because the economies of scale are lacking for sophistication in a throw-away product. The recovered castings are copies of whatever they could get their hands on from various Western sources.

The Iranians source their parts from many sources. The result is not a match, on the level of machining, for anything in our limited inventory of samples. Should we be surprised? Should it cause the label of “Truth: Iran-did-this” to fall off  our intelligence package? Consider the case of convicted murderer Scott Peterson. Quoting (LA Times) Lawyers in Peterson Trial Argue Over Single Strand of Dark Hair,

Detectives have testified they collected a single strand of hair from a pair of pliers found on Peterson’s boat — the vehicle prosecutors allege Peterson used to ferry his wife’s body out to San Francisco Bay.

The single hair somehow became two hairs,  the sole physical evidence tying Peterson to the murder of his wife. All the other evidence was circumstantial. If Peterson is guilty, he committed the rare “perfect crime”, undone by the circumstances of his behavior before and after the death of Laci Peterson. I think he is guilty, though it’s reasonable to ask whether the death penalty should be applied in cases not supported by substantial physical evidence.

The case against Iran is supported by more physical evidence than Scott Peterson, yet we withhold the verdict of “guilty.” We do this to protect us from ourselves, from intelligence manipulated by politics. This has consequences, in Syria or Ukraine, when the Russians say, “You have no proof”, and now, Iran.  Yet the definition of proof belongs to our discourse, not theirs. In the context of international relations, our adversaries use our definition against us.

This includes  media use of the word “alleged” for the misdeeds of foreign adversaries. In the English system of law, “alleged” asserts the innocence of the accused unless proven guilty. How did “alleged” wander into the lawless realm of international relations? I don’t see it in Strunk’s Elements of Style.

This is like a seat belt that takes lives instead of saving them.  It calls for  a new vocabulary, that,  while antagonistic to  intelligence manipulation, doesn’t put us on back foot to deniable attacks.

The “deniable” weapons are Iranian. The word belongs to us.

 

 

 

 

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