'Slam Dunks' Belong in Basketball, Not Intelligence-Gathering on Syria

Sometimes, sports metaphors have absolutely no use. Thanks to some ignoble history with Iraq, this is firmly the case with calling intelligence a "slam dunk."

There's a big story out from the Associated Press Thursday morning that cites multiple U.S. officials saying that the intelligence tying Bashar al-Assad's regime to the recent alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria is "not a slam dunk." The story refutes, through anonymous sources at least, President Obama's claim on PBS Wednesday night that his administration has "concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these [chemical attacks] out."

And there's more from the AP on just what the U.S. doesn't know:

Intelligence officials say they could not pinpoint the exact locations of Assad's supplies of chemical weapons, and Assad could have moved them in recent days as U.S. rhetoric builds. That lack of certainty means a possible series of U.S. cruise-missile strikes aimed at crippling Assad's military infrastructure could hit newly hidden supplies of chemical weapons, accidentally triggering a deadly chemical attack.

Which sounds like a delight. The AP also says that a "quest for added intelligence to bolster the White House's case for a strike" is the reason that an intelligence report has not yet been released publicly.

The thing is, though, no amount of intelligence is ever really a "slam dunk." That's because a "slam dunk" belongs in professional basketball, not in intelligence-gathering parlance. Because, sometimes, when it shows up there, very bad things happen.

Take former CIA Director George Tenet. In December 2002, as the administration of George W. Bush was looking into a possible attack on Iraq, Tenet told the president that "it's a slam dunk case" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Washington Post's Bob Woodward said that, in an interview with the president, Bush told him that " 'slam dunk' is, as I interpreted it, a sure thing, guaranteed." Tenet, while he admits to using the phrase, doesn't think it had—or deserved to have—much of an impact on the president's thinking.

In real-life sports, a slam dunk isn't even guaranteed. Just ask Michael Jordan. If you really need a basketball analogy for a fool-proof thing, maybe try a layup. But even that can go wrong. And the overuse of "slam dunks" in sports analogies is really rather lazy. Slam dunks may be the most obvious go-to, flashy component of basketball. But they're by no means the most beautiful or exciting part of the game.

But, really, if an intelligence "slam dunk" is what led the U.S. to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, wouldn't we all be better served by, you know, no more slam dunks? Based on recent history, you could really make the case that not having slam dunk intelligence in Syria is actually a good thing. Which is confusing! 

This needs to be stopped. But luckily, there's a pretty simple way of knowing when you've correctly slam-dunked.

If after dunking, you look like this ...


CIA Director George Tenet before the Sept. 11 Commission on Capitol Hill Wednesday, April 14, 2004. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

... then you've done something terribly wrong.

What you're looking for is something a bit more like this:


Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook after dunking the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of Game 6 in the NBA basketball Western Conference finals, Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)