2003 February 07 Friday
Jeffrey Goldberg On Terrorism and Intelligence Work

Jeffrey Goldberg has written an excellent piece for The New Yorker on the nature of intelligence gathering and analysis. The focus is on Al Qaeda and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups and on Iraq. One challenge of intelligence is to avoid dismissing a possibility because by one's own view of the world it would not make sense for one's opponents to choose a particular course of action. It is difficult to appreciate just how differently one's enemies look at the world.

America's early assessment of bin Laden was similarly flawed. In the American mind, of course, the bin Laden of April, 1998, was not the bin Laden of September, 2001. But his intentions were no secret. Two months before the Richardson meeting, bin Laden had issued a fatwa, a religious ruling, in which he called on Muslims to kill Americans—civilians and military. Yet, among the group of Americans travelling with Richardson five years ago, the fatwa was a passing source of black humor; the threat seemed too outlandish to be taken seriously.

In the foreword to Roberta Wohlstetter's classic 1962 study, "Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision," the national-security expert Thomas Schelling wrote that America's ability to be surprised by the actions of its enemies is the result of a "poverty of expectations." He went on, "There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously."

Wohlstetter's work revealed that Pearl Harbor was not much of a surprise at all. It showed that the American government's fatal mistake was not a failure to pick up signals—overheard conversations, decoded cables, unusual ship movements—but a failure to separate out signals from noise, to understand which signals were meaningful, and to imagine that the Japanese might do something as irrational as attacking the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific fleet. In other words, the Americans heard the signals but didn't listen to them.

The difficulty in understanding the numerous differences in how others see things is not just a problem for the intelligence community. It is a problem for policy makers, opinion leaders, and the public at large. Many types of threats are discounted because too many people just can't imagine that terrorists would, for instance, smuggle a nuclear bomb into a city and detonate it. Similarly, the idea that a government would sell nuclear weapons on the open market is another possibility that some have a difficult time taking seriously. One's own revulsion at the idea of performing a particular act cause many to discount the idea that someone else has values and beliefs that are sufficiently different to cause them to perform that act.

It is difficult to tell from George Tenet's statements in the article whether the CIA really is improving on its ability to understand the perspectives of our enemies. Can this ability be trained for? Or does it require the recruitment of people with different mindsets?

Goldberg discusses the nature of the relations between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The interrogation of captured Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan has strengthened the argument of a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The nature and extent of the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda will be known in much greater detail within 2 months. The capture of a great many Iraqi intelligence agents as part of the capture of Iraq will provide a treasure trove of valuable intelligence information for the United States and its allies.

Update: Joe Katzman makes some of the same points that Goldberg discusses about the limits of our ability to understand the intentions of others and the importance of all the things about our adversaries that we do not know. Quite a few arguments about why we don't need to worry about Kim Jong-il or Saddam Hussein amount to an argument that they would never launch a particular kind of attack against us or assist terrorist groups which would do so. Such lines of argument rest too much on what the arguers personally consider to be reasonable choices.

Update II: Also be sure to read Joe Katzman's long response to one poster in the comments section of hs post. One excellent point he makes is that we need to make assessments of intentions with a margin of error. We know we will years later discover both capabilities and intentions that are hidden from us now. We do not have a complete picture. Our picture has distortions and misconceptions. It is prudent to assume that there are hostile intentions and capabilities whose existence in some cases we can't prove and in other cases which we do not even suspect.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 February 07 01:43 AM  Terrorists WMD

vinod said at February 7, 2003 8:53 AM:

Bravo. We're so pre-occupied with defining / defending our ideals in the abstract that we mistake the abstraction as resulting in universalism. And in our haste to treat others with dignity/respect (cuz it makes us feel smug), we too quickly project those ideals onto the other guy.

Saddam, Osama, Il Jong, etc. know this & take advantage of it every step of the way while pushing forth their own value systems.

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