Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The Bin Laden Mystery
OBL REVISITED. Sometimes the other shoe doesn't drop before something else does. Case in point: a second hanging question about Osama bin Laden that plumped softly to the floor between the lines of this story in Monday's Washington Times:
Seemingly untroubled by the worldwide search for Osama bin Laden and his allies, al Qaeda maintains a state-of-the-art multimedia production facility [as-Sahab] that is pumping out increasingly sophisticated audiotapes and videotapes at a rate of two or three a week....
Ben Venzke, chief executive officer of IntelCenter, said the amount of computing power required for the fast turnaround is considerable, and that the group appears to be using the latest widely available off-the-shelf hardware and software.
"They are right on the cutting edge of the adoption of new technologies," he said. "They grab hold of the new stuff as soon as it becomes available and start using it."
He said the latest bin Laden video was made available in five different versions, ranging from high-definition to a special format called 3GP that can be downloaded to mobile devices....
Al qaida has swift, efficient, "cutting edge" video production facilities? Interesting. Then why was the most recent bin Laden video so, uh, cheesy? (see it all here.) I don't mean just cheesy looking, but fundamentally cheesy in terms of its being immediately convincing that bin Laden had delivered a live video performance. That's the first shoe that dropped a couple weeks ago. People who are conversant with cutting edge video production were instantly suspicious. For example, Neal Krawetz of Hactor Factor, an expert on digital image forensics, studied the video in detail and reported in detail: (emphases added)
At roughly a minute and a half into the video there is a splice; bin Laden shifts from looking at the camera to looking down in less than 1/25th of a second. At 13:13 there is a second, less obvious splice. In all, Krawetz says there are at least six splices in the video. Of these, there are only two live bin Laden segments, the rest of the video composed of still images. The first live section opens the video and ends at 1:56. The second section begins at 12:29 and continues until 14:01. The two live sections appear to be from different recordings "because the desk is closer to the camera in the second section."
Then there are the audio edits. Krawetz says "the new audio has no accompanying 'live' video and consists of multiple audio recordings." References to current events are made only during the still frame sections and after splices within the audio track. And there are so many splices that I cannot help but wonder if someone spliced words and phrases together. I also cannot rule out a vocal imitator during the frozen-frame audio. The only way to prove that the audio is really bin Laden is to see him talking in the video," Krawetz says.
The obvious rebuttal to Krawetz's implications is that clumsy edits and awkwardly interpolated freeze frames might be proof of nothing but crude technology. One imagines the hand-held camera, the outdated editing console gradually succumbing to mould... and, well, that's the best they could do under trying circumstances. But apparently that's not right. They have all the slick techno stuff a body could want.
Which brings us back to the first hanging question: Why were the producers unable to provide incontrovertible proof that bin Laden was very much alive on the date the video was produced? If you're going to show videotape of bin Laden talking in the first place, surely the most elementary goal of the whole production would be to show him speaking the current, up-to-the-minute content live. Yet they do it only in freeze-frame. Is that a remarkable coincidence or a smoking gun?
Yet, we have been assured by the usual vaguely described "intelligence sources" that after studying the video, the experts have concluded bin Laden is alive.
Initially, I reconciled the discrepancy between Krawertz's analysis and the affirmations of U.S. intelligence sources by assuming that voiceprint technology probably proved what mere video analysis could not: that the voice on the tape was definitely bin Laden's. Call it the CSI effect. We've been conditioned to accept that computer-based voice recognition technology can make precise identifications. We've seen it done by Grissom and his acolytes.
On the other hand, we've also seen all the CSI shows blow up low-resolution 7-Eleven surveillance photos to the point where it's possible the read the gate number on the airline ticket poking out of the perp's pocket. Which is nonsense.
Just how good is voice recognition technology? I'm obviously an amateur and can't say for sure, but here's an interesting discourse on the state of the technology and its acceptance in courts of law (emphases added):
In 1979, an influential report from the National Research Council slowed the acceptance of> voiceprint specialists as experts. The report determined that voiceprint analysis, while accurate under ideal laboratory conditions, was not reliable enough for courts to depend on the technology when a recording was made under "real-world" conditions, where voice signals are degraded by problems like poor recording quality, background noise, and telephone transmission.
Occasional battles over voiceprints have continued to surface during the past 20 years, but most law enforcement agencies have stopped trying to> get them into court. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court tightened the standards for admitting scientific evidence in federal court, further reducing the motivation to use the technology. The voiceprint's demise as a valuable forensic tool has resulted in a broader decline in the interest in voice identification techniques generally. To many judges and lawyers involved in the criminal justice system, including leading experts on scientific evidence, voice identification has been equated with voiceprints and voiceprints are too unreliable.
I also found an online document designed to help attorneys and technicians obtain the maximum possible leverage from a technology that is far less accepted than fingerprints:
"Now law enforcement primarily uses the aural spectrographic method, which means we listen to the tape first and then do the spectrograph. The American College of Forensic Examiners, which now controls who gets certified, has taken the position that the only way to do this is the aural spectrographic method. You have to actually listen to the tape, not just look at the graph."
Certain precautions are observed during trials that provide clear context for the evidence and that work to ensure that all such testimony is properly understood. Juries are allowed to see the voiceprint and hear the tape recordings. The other side scrutinizes the expert's qualifications and the machine's quality. In the end, the jury is generally instructed to assign whatever weight they want to the evidence. That means that a lot will depend on the experience and demeanor of the voiceprint expert. To be convincing he or she needs proper training.
The author of the article clearly believes that voiceprints have value and can be persuasive, but why the need for an exhaustive "how to" section on submitting and presenting voiceprint evidence (which is the subject of the rest of the article)? Because voices, and therefore voiceprints, are dynamic, variable, and therefore subject, always, to interpretation.
The intelligence sources which blandly inform us that the latest bin Laden video does prove him alive are guessing. How many sons does bin Laden have who might be able to speak for him on an audio recording?
Now we have two more interesting questions. Since there must be doubt to some degree about whether the September 2007 bin Laden video is an authentic presentation of bin Laden himself, why has so little doubt been expressed by official sources? Who is helped by confusion on this vital point?
It doesn't seem to be al qaida that benefits. The same Washington Times piece that lauded al qaida's technical expertise also provides a dismal report card on al qaida's propaganda effectiveness in the muslim communities where it is recruiting terrorists:
Ironically, however, there is evidence that Muslim audiences are tuning out the al Qaeda propaganda even as the quality and frequency of the offerings increase...
Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, noted in an opinion article this month that support for al Qaeda has tumbled in Pakistan to just 34 percent, compared with more than 75 percent five years ago.
Recent polling has shown a similar trend in Iraq and Afghanistan, where more than 90 percent of respondents reported unfavorable views of al Qaeda and of bin Laden himself, Mrs. Hughes wrote.
Violence of the sort used by al Qaeda is considered a violation of the principles of Islam by 88 percent in Egypt, 65 percent in Indonesia and 66 percent in Morocco, according to polling by WorldPublicOpinion.org, Mrs. Hughes said.
Did you get that the source for this evidence is Karen Hughes of the Bush administration? Are you sure? Good. I would hate to mislead you. But despite the article's assurances elsewhere that al qaida videos are aimed at a primarily western audience, thus accounting for their ineffectiveness in the muslim world, does it really make sense that al qaida videos are not also conceived of as recruiting tools in the western countries where they want volunteers to organize their own autonomous terrorist cells? And when you're recruiting for an organization that was conceived and brought to prominence through the force of a single charismatic leader, wouldn't you do everything in your power to refute, decisively, rumors that that charismatic leader was dead?
Of course you would. So why didn't they? If he really is alive, they're fools not to demonstrate this fact to the whole world.
And more importantly, what contingent of the intelligence community or the Washington establishment, including the Bush administration, finds it preferable to perpetuate a general certainty that bin Laden is alive when it's entirely possible that he's dead as a doornail? Here's a final pertinent quote from the Washington Times piece:
U.S. officials are reluctant to talk in detail about as-Sahab, perhaps because a careful monitoring of its operations could offer the best chance of finding bin Laden.
Again, the implied certainty that he's alive. Why? It can't be just that past rumors of bin Laden's death have been proven to be untrue and they're afraid of still another PR hit. Mostly, the rumors haven't been proven untrue. Not in public anyway. But even if this is their fear, it makes no sense to declare that he is definitely alive based on the evidence of an ambiguous videotape when it would be equally free of consequence to say, "We just don't know."
There's the mystery. The lamebrain Democrat default position in the War on Terror is that we should abandon every overseas activity but hunting down bin Laden. Keeping bin Laden more alive than dead therefore doesn't seem to help the administration any. Does it serve the anti-Bush crowd at the CIA? Does it serve the military? Does it serve anyone?
Or is there some much bigger game that's being played here? You tell me. My only conclusion is, that's why this is a mystery.