The Winnowing of Truth

In our local intelligence operation, we are constantly flooded with raw information. And, the more successful our efforts become, the more sources we are able to recruit, including an increasing number of walk-ins, or volunteer sources. This is one reason we haven’t published much in the past month; sifting through this gigantic and growing pile of leads is a job in itself (1).

Some sources cite a triage process of separating the information into three groups: true, unknown and false. We like to use seven bins instead, which can help move information along, give better guidance to intelligence operations in the field, and assist in vetting sources (2). These seven categories are detailed below.

Unconfirmed Information

All information starts life as unconfirmed until it can be moved into one of the bins below. Sometimes this happens immediately, but some information wallows here for a while until other information comes in to help move it along. To avoid being misled or misleading yourself, it is essential to immediately tag each piece of new information with a question mark.

Possibly True

Information which appears to be true, possibly by nothing more than intuition or the collation of other information, is tagged as possibly true. Information in this bin is prioritized on the basis of future value if confirmed, with the highest priority elements assigned to other collection operations to obtain additional information to confirm, deny, or develop unexpected new paths of inquiry.

Possibly False

The flip side of possibly true is information which is possibly false. This information undergoes the same sorting, confirmation and operational targeting procedure as its mirror image. Often, information which is false can be more valuable than information which is true, and proving information false reveals a truth all by itself.

The importance of receiving and scheduling false information for appropriate action cannot be overstated. If a public official lies to you about something, there is a reason, and that lie is often the first clue you will get about that hidden reason (3). Some activists like to call officials on their lies early; we prefer to let them rush down that path for a while to see what else they will call our attention to along the way. Then, when it is time to snap the trap shut on a particular issue, listen for even more lies, or unexpected revelations and cross-blaming, when the squealing begins.

Presumed True

Information which is presumed true is that which any reasonable person, familiar with the available information and the circumstances, would regard as true. However, outside of a military or law enforcement context, this information is not yet publicly actionable. This information is sorted on the basis of the possibility of confirmation, and further collection operations assigned to definitively confirm.

Although we do not go public with information which is presumed true, this information can be used with great effect as a component in a psychological warfare operation. For example, a political humor piece may be laced with presumed true information, without identifying information attached, to ridicule or expose misbehavior. This kind of psychological warfare action will stab directly at the psyche of guilty parties, causing them to squeal louder, attempt to recruit support among their peers, and bringing more of them to your attention.

Presumed False

As with possibly true information, the mirror image of presumed true is information which is presumed false, or that which any reasonable and informed person would regard as false. As with any false information, this category is arguably more important than its counterpart, and is subjected to a similar confirmation and exploitation process. Psychological warfare applications of this information will take the form of “what kind of lies officials may tell” without any particular identifying information attached.

Provably True

This is the highest category of truth, in that it is substantiated by documentation, including audio or video recordings. For non-law-enforcement operations, witness statements are insufficient as these carry no legal weight (4). A signed official statement is the highest standard of truth, not so much in what the statement says, which is often a lie, but that the statement itself was made. Just below a paper document in value is the audio or video recording of something an official said, which is why they hate being recorded. Information at this level can be made public, including identifying information about the guilty parties if desired, with little risk of defamation (5). However, circumstances may dictate using it indirectly for psychological warfare purposes as if it were only presumed true.

Provably False

The mirror image of provably true is provably false, or in our context, an official lie captured for posterity either as a document or a recorded statement. Much of your intelligence operation will drive toward the capstone of a recorded public lie or admission of misbehavior made by an official, or a last-ditch desperate official lie on paper. A false official statement is, by itself, legally actionable as a crime, and often will substantiate violation of RICO laws. As such, a provably false piece of information is the most valuable product of this entire process. As with provably true information, provably false information can be made public with little risk of civil blowback (6). Again, however, your team may wish to use it for psychological warfare purposes in a more limited way in the short term to flush more guilty or colluding parties out of hiding, or to cause would-be supporters to withdraw from the guilty parties once they understand the consequences of supporting criminal behavior (7).

In this article, we’ve laid the foundation for how to classify information and take it along a chain of steps leading to provably true or provably false information (8). In upcoming articles we’ll show some real-world examples of how we’ve used this process to develop raw information into actionable intelligence.


(1) Then there is actual work-work. Also, a new sheriff has taken office and we’re still dialing in our resources for this development to see which path he chooses. Finally, our attorney is knee-deep in some filings he is working on, so we’ve been putting a lot of brain energy into supporting that. Plus, hey, with the three back-to-back holidays behind us and the big Inaugural bash tomorrow, the local crime and corruption syndicate has caught a breather, too. Sometimes you just have to take time to bask.

(2) Military and law enforcement operations can get by with fewer categories than our local operation can afford. Military operations, especially those in-extremis, can simply shoot or not shoot based on relatively flimsy information. Law enforcement operations, although presumably held to a higher standard of evidence, can lie to witnesses and suspects with impunity, and are often encouraged to do so; most crimes are “solved” by wrangling confessions or coercing plea-bargains, even from the innocent. In a local intelligence operation such as what we are running, you are further constrained by the necessity to avoid both defamation and extortion, which requires operating to a higher standard of truth when going public with information, as well as limits on what you can do with the information you have.

(3) Similarly, having a hidden meeting in violation of open meetings laws, failing to completely and promptly respond to open records requests, or refusing to answer questions during public meetings carries the same weight, in local intelligence terms, as a lie. Any of these should cause the issue at hand to receive a bump in priority.

(4) For our purposes, witness statements fall into the presumed true/presumed false categories, and inform, but do not replace, other collection operations. Witness statements may be handed over to appropriate law enforcement officials when a local intelligence operation reaches that point with a particular target. Law enforcement officials may then use those statements as leads in their own investigation.

(5) Some information, if released immediately, may reveal sources you may wish to protect. As a result, even provable information may need to be approached from a different angle, proving it a second time independently, to protect your sources and methods. This second path can then be safely revealed.

(6) Although the temptation is great to immediately expose lies to the public, sometimes a fruitful approach is to develop the situation around the lie a little more. Or, one may wish to pepper the target with additional confirmation requests to remove the possibility of a later claim of inattention or ignorance. This is what separates a watchdog operation from a local intelligence operation. A watchdog operation simply wants to expose lies as they are found, and like the name implies, results in little more than a nuisance. A local intelligence operation, on the other hand, drives for larger goals, including unraveling entire corruption networks and leading to evidence suitable for prosecution.

(7) Although nothing on this site is to be considered legal advice, an unacceptable strategy is to offer to withhold evidence, or threaten to expose evidence, as a quid pro quo for some action or inaction by the target official. Although law enforcement investigators and prosecutors do this all the time to members of the public, use of information in such a way by your team could be construed as extortion or blackmail. Instead, let your target officials make their own decisions and take their own actions; your team’s role is to sweep up the information leakage from their actions and prepare to nail them into the ground with it. Behavior modification comes into play when officials become afraid to speak or act contrary to the public interest because they know they will inevitably be exposed and ridiculed, and prosecuted for crimes where appropriate. Strict accountability for their actions is not extortion. More on this topic in a future article.

(8) How this information is sorted and handled is a whole article by itself, including the use of off-site electronic storage to prevent it from being lost in criminal or false official raids.

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5 Comments on "The Winnowing of Truth"

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[…] Facts, speculation, untruths. […]

John Pate

It’s worth using a binary classification that has an assessment of reliability of the source and reliability of the information. True information from an unreliable source is of less value than true information from a reliable source. I leave it to reader to deduce why.

(ed. Nice add, John, thanks!)


[…] that others missed. For briefings and debriefings, we recommend the categories described in our truth winnowing post as a format for background, targets and […]


[…] is a partial list of our information set prior to the interrogation, classified as given in our Winnowing of Truth post, with the additional category of Unknown. Those readers who have conducted military JAG […]