Post has been a busy man since fighting began in Libya in late February, appearing in numerous articles speculating about Qaddafi’s mental state. It is difficult to criticize Post for breaking the “Goldwater rule,” however, since it is, in effect, his job to do so. In the case of Libya coverage, the onus is journalists to put his remarks into proper context, sprinkling grains of salt on their stories where needed. After Qaddafi claimed that there were no protestors in Libya, in late February, and then that they were actually drug-crazed al-Qaeda members, Post told a Public Radio International and WNYC show that Qaddafi has “borderline personality” disorder—but the show did not mention, let alone explain, the caveats that come with such an assessment.
A Fox News article was even worse. Toward the end it cited Post talking about the dictator’s borderline personality. But it started by quoting two anonymous “U.S. officials,” the first saying, “Obviously, we all know [Qaddafi] is nuts,” the other saying, “We don’t know that he’s insane.” In between the two quotes were two paragraphs that read:
While admittedly non-clinical, the view that Qaddafi is “nuts” is widely shared, if not pervasive, within American policymaking and scholarly circles. The official spoke on the very day the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, a move that reflected growing U.S. uncertainty about what Qaddafi might do next.
The belief that Qaddafi is insane, a non-rational actor striding the world stage, is of course not new. It became conventional wisdom with the erratic appearance and conduct of Qaddafi himself over the years: the bizarre costumes, the dazed and confused manner, the aspirations to grandeur, messages that were both cryptic and apocalyptic.
The statement that Qaddafi’s insanity diagnosis is “admittedly non-clinical” is a weak disclaimer and totally inadequate given the forceful charges that follow. What all articles quoting Post call for is a longer explanation of who Post is and the methods he uses to make his assessments. The only outlet that has delivered that context seems to be The New York Times, which ran a detailed article about CIA profilers on the front of the weekly Science Times section on Tuesday under the headline, “Teasing Out Policy Insight From a Character Profile.”
The piece, by Benedict Carey, begins by knocking the media. It points out that “Journalists have formed their impressions [of Qaddafi] from anecdotes, or form his actions in the past,” and contrasts their behavior with intelligence professionals, who have “tried to construct a profile based on scientific methods.” After outlining the speeches, writings, biographical facts, and observable behavior on which clinical psychologists depend, however, the article quickly turns around and questions its own thesis, suggesting that “‘at-a-distance profiling,’ as it is known, is still more an art than a science.”
“Expert profilers are better at predicting behavior than a blindfolded chimpanzee, all right, but the difference is not as large as you’d hope it would be,” Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, tells the Times.
The article then delves into the history of CIA profiling. Carey cites embarrassing and flawed attempts to characterize dictators like Adolf Hitler (the agency’s first profile), Saddam Hussein, and Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as well as more successful profiles of men like Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat, which former president Jimmy Carter said helped him broker the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The piece also discusses efforts to improve profiling, noting that “Intelligence specialists have learned to hedge their bets over the years, supplementing case histories with ‘content analysis’ techniques, which look for patterns in a leader’s comments or writings.” Ultimately, however, Carey concludes that:
What is missing amid all this number crunching and modeling is any sense of which methods are most useful when. In an exhaustive review of intelligence analysis published this month, a prominent panel of social scientists strongly agreed: psychological profiling and other methods intelligence analysts use to predict behavior are sorely in need of rigorous testing.