“If it were a fact, it wouldn’t be called intelligence.”
– Donald Rumsfeld
It was the 12th of September 2001 and in a small classroom in Sweden sat about 15 kids wondering what implications the previous day’s events would have on their lives.
The teacher went around the room asking what everybody was thinking and feeling.
Some were sad, some were angry, some were confused and didn’t know what to feel, and some didn’t really feel this, that or the other.
I don’t remember feeling anything but confusion. What’d really happened?
Once we’d vented for a while we returned to the topic at hand: journalism.
Now the teacher asked another question that would change the way in which I viewed the world.
She asked: “Do you think the news reports the truth?”
However, it wasn’t the question itself that changed my view.
It was that there was one guy who said “Yes”.
She asked him why he thought so. He apparently thought that they were obligated to tell the truth. That there was no way they could tell a lie.
The teacher asked him if he hadn’t noticed all the corrections and retractions that occur on an almost daily basis. He hadn’t given it much thought. He just went in believing the best in people and the news.
That’s the first time I remember thinking that it’s not about whether the news we read at the moment are true or false. Time will reveal that. It’s about whether we choose to look at it simply as information.
Now, having a critical eye and a healthy amount of skepticism is good. However, we also have the ability to simply gather information without necessarily categorizing it as fact or fiction.
When facts become available we can be certain. For a long time the world was believed to be flat. We simply assumed this and operated as if it was, until facts revealed it wasn’t.
After talking about some of the biggest events that’d been reported through her lifetime she closed class by saying:
“In the coming weeks and months you’re going to hear a lot of different stories surrounding this tragedy.
Don’t take them at face value. Some of it will be true, some of it will be false.
Watching “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” where he interviewed former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld I was impressed by Colbert’s question:
“Were there things that the administration or you knew that we didn’t learn about out of the best possible intentions ‒ which is, there were things that would undermine the case for a war you thought was necessary to save the United States?”
The answer Donald Rumsfeld gave was almost mindboggling:
“The president had available to him intelligence from all elements of the government, and the National Security Council members had that information. It was all shared, it was all supplied, and it’s never certain ‒ if it were a fact, it wouldn’t be called intelligence”
I wanted to laugh.
I wanted to, but I couldn’t. My mind raced back to the 12th of September 2001.
Here was the very same thing that’d become clear to me on that day. That there is a difference between the two.
In our everyday world there isn’t. We don’t always make that distinction.
When people speak about “intelligence” and present is as fact our job is to discern if they mean it in the sense of it being a “fact” or do if mean it in the sense of “information, especially secret information gathered about an actual or potential enemy or adversary” the operating word here being “information”.
It’s like the difference between quantitative data and qualitative data. One deals in pure numbers and one deals with descriptions.
I don’t know if Colbert stumbled on this by accident or not. He’s highly creative with good people surrounding and enabling him to do his work. We need to remember that Colbert’s a comedian first but here I found him doing something not enough of us do.
Colbert got to the core of what Rumsfeld actually meant. He asked the questions that drove us to understand the distinction Rumsfeld makes between “intelligence” and “fact”.
During all this time we were standing at the spelling bee of life when we were presented with the word “intelligence”, and we failed to ask:
“Can I have the definition, please?”
Somebody probably did ask that question and somebody probably told a bold face lie.
My best guess is that they were afraid that if they sat around waiting for the facts to come in that there would be something even more terrible waiting around the corner.
Luckily we don’t have to tackle these things every day. For the most part life goes on without that much pain.
When someone presents something as an established fact in our daily lives, how likely are we to question that assumption?
What if we start asking these questions on a regular basis?
Maybe we’ll be more prone to ask if and when there are lives on the line too.
Have a kick-ass ₢eative day!