Tom Maguire and his commenters dissect an Yglesias post, and do a pretty good job of it as usual. What struck me, though, was one sentence out of what Maguire quoted:

The fact that Abdulmuttalab was on that plane, alone, with a not-very-impressive explosive stuffed down his pants is about the best proof you can think of that al-Qaeda doesn’t have a massive nuclear weapon hidden somewhere beneath Manhattan that they’re about to set off. The guy may or may not have some information that would be useful to intelligence officials, but he clearly doesn’t have specific information about imminent attacks.

The bolded words were written by someone who gets his picture of “intelligence” from Spy Kids and Get Smart reruns.

Genuine intelligence work is boring, folks. It’s a matter of bits here and snippets there, and (the modern cliche) “connecting the dots”. You go after big, important secrets with immediate significance using the only shovel that can uncover them: money and/or self-importance. For everything else — which is to say, for all but 0.01% of it — you patiently look over this newspaper and that radio interview and (nowadays) those Internet posts, looking for connections that might lead to other connections. It’s not just boring, it’s stultifying. One of the real problems is that it’s done by Civil Servants as their main job, forever. I don’t know where the breakpoint is, but anybody doing it for very long becomes useless at it. Their brains get so stuffed that anything new just slides off.

The real value of people like Abdulmutallab is that they provide pointers as to where to look. There is nobody on the planet who can look at 10,000 hours of surveillance videos and pick out the one terrorist; they reach the MEGO point long before they get through a tenth of it, and fast forward makes it worse, not better. But they now know approximately when the guy passed through the system, and can spend some attention on that (maybe) hundred hours or so of recordings with reasonable hope of getting something useful.

“Torture” or not is a side issue. The point is that in their zeal to avoid “torture” they’ve made the opposite error — supported the guy’s clamming up, reducing his responses to “talk to the lawyer”. What they need to do is have agents, recording equipment, or preferably both present while Abdulmutallab is sedated or anesthetized, looking not for material to convict him but for bits and pieces that might fit with pieces and bits gained elsewhere to get a little more of the picture.

No, the Eunabomber doesn’t have “specific information about imminent terrorist attacks”. But he might have noted, even unconsciously, that one of his fellow trainees had an unusual pattern in his keffiyeh, and looking around for where that pattern came from might lead to a shop somewhere in Yemen whose proprietor might remember another guy who bought the same cloth who might have noticed another customer who made suggestive remarks… you see how that goes. That’s intelligence work. The real value of prisoner interrogation comes when you get them to babble irrelevancies, because there’s no such thing until everything’s been checked. You get them to babble by tiring them out and distracting them from the main chance, and a lawyered-up “suspect” is getting plenty of rest.

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