A Comedy of Bureaucratic Errors : Slow Horses is a spy thriller worthy of Gordon Tullock. (g. patrick lynch, 3/15/24, Law & Liberty)

Until the 1960s, scholars modeled individuals in the public sector as public-spirited in their motivations and work. One of the founding fathers of public choice, the irascible Gordon Tullock worked in the US foreign service in China after completing law school. That experience, and his general skepticism about—well—everything, prompted him to turn his attention to the administrative state. Tullock and his Nobel prize-winning co-author James Buchanan built a model of politics that posited politicians and bureaucrats as self-interested rather than public-spirited and rational rather than angelic. They also included the idea that politics is an exchange process, much like a market. Using those two assumptions, they turned the world of political analysis upside down.

Tullock’s career was illustrious and varied. His work on bureaucracies included two important books studying the administrative state that provided fresh ways to analyze the government agencies that all of us caricature from time to time. We know that the public sector can be inefficient and sclerotic. Bureaucrats avoid responsibility and try to claim credit, and without market signals, the quality of their work is difficult to judge. Taking those institutional constraints and assuming individuals are not angels once they are hired by the government, Tullock argued that bureaucrats work for the same reasons all of us do: to make a living, be happy with our work, and gain the esteem and approbation of others. Because metrics to measure “good” work are hard to find in large non-market organizations, promotion is often more about flattery, popularity, and serving your superior’s wishes, which can lead to consensus views and uniformity of opinion, even incorrect ones.

Faulty opinions and unconstrained loyalty loom large in Herron’s world, and he balances realism with a dark humor that’s smart and frequently disarming. I doubt he is familiar with Tullock’s work, but they are kindred spirits in their pursuit of a more realistic way of understanding modern life within large institutions. The premise of the show illustrates another key insight of Tullock: it’s almost impossible to fire incompetent bureaucrats. Slow Horses is based on a fictitious place where MI5 sends those agents who have messed up. Rather than trying to fire them, the flawed agents are sent to a building called “Slough House” run by the aforementioned Jackson Lamb. Lamb is something to behold. He hilariously curses, ridicules, and mocks. But he is also gifted and revered even among the leadership of MI5. Under all of his bluster and cynicism, he helps guide the group in each season through the dangers of spying to endings that might not be “happy” but avoid as much carnage and chaos as possible.


Piecing Together the Evidence: Open-Source Intelligence in Israel’s Gaza War: Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins breaks down his pioneering investigative toolkit (HENRY CARNELL, 11/24/23, MoJo)

What guidance would you give readers who are being flooded with this type of information? What does a well-investigated piece look like?

One issue over the last few weeks is, a lot of organizations that usually produce quite high-quality work on other issues have kind of tried to find answers where there may not be answers available. With the [Al-Ahli] hospital bombing, there are different versions of events, depending on which quite reputable organization you ask, and that’s a problem.

We’ve seen, for example, an analysis by one news organization that pointed towards the rocket being launched from Gaza. Another news organization analyzed the same videos and pointed to it being from Israel. Even good-quality news organizations are producing contradictory statements about the same footage. It’s not even an issue of disinformation around trolls and grifters. It’s a much bigger issue.

You’ve explained that it takes a while to get to the truth. What goes into a Bellingcat investigation?

If we’re talking about conflict incidents, like an airstrike that blows up a building, the first thing we’re trying to do is gather as much of the digital evidence that’s out there, like videos and photographs shared from the scene. Ideally, we try to find them from the original sources where they’re shared, but that’s sometimes not possible.

Once we have all that visual information, we do a process called geolocation, which confirms exactly where these images were taken. You can’t really trust an image from an incident unless you know exactly where it took place. Once you have that, you have a catalog of content of the incident. Then you put that into a timeline.

When you look at footage, you find other images of the same scene, and you start thinking, “What has changed?” You may start looking for munition debris, the shape of a crater, shrapnel spray, and other details like that. Establishing a link between that rocket fire and [an] explosion in the hospital is very important to do.

We also look at media reports and social media posts of witnesses talking about the incident—not to take them at face value, but to look at them and say, “What is consistent with what we’re seeing? What adds bits of information we can explore using visual evidence?” If someone says there was a rocket at the scene, or the remains of a rocket, then we’ll hunt for that through the imagery.

Using that process, [we’re] going back in time to the moment of the event to establish what happened—and, ideally, moments leading up to the event as well. And sometimes that’s possible. For example, we had one investigation into a supermarket hit by a missile in Ukraine. The actual missile in flight was caught by a CCTV camera just outside the building [in] two frames. From that, we’re able to identify the type of missile that was used. It’s piecing together all that evidence, understanding where it is in time and space, and using that nexus of information to start establishing facts and eliminating scenarios.

That’s not to say that if a claim is wrong, the opposite is true. That’s just to say that [the] scenario has been eliminated and we can move to looking at other potential scenarios, hoping that through that process of elimination, you come to one likely scenario—which isn’t always possible.

With the hospital bombing, there was a claim [that] it was a large Israeli bomb. The crater that was left was not from one of those kinds of bombs; it was from a different kind of smaller munition. I personally still don’t know if it was an Israeli missile or rocket or a misfired rocket from Gaza. But I can at least eliminate some of the scenarios. And as more information emerges, you can integrate that into your understanding of the events.