The problem with hindsight - it's perfect!

A lot has been said the last few days about fixing intelligence analysis, in view of the "Jockey Bomber". I'm afraid most of it is simplistic and does not take into account that there is bound to be intelligence failures, because that is the way it is.. We're living in an imperfect world where, when our technological tools fails, it still boils down to a mere human (analyst) who has to make decisions on whether this needle in this haystack is as relevant and important as the other one in the next haystack. Yes, analysts will miss weak and strong signals and misinterpret strong signals - because we're human and our brains are wired that way. We have to learn from this intelligence failure and introduce do-able reforms -the most important is that we should be more mindful of what we do and how we do it...
Read here on what Mark Lowenthal says intelligence can and cannot do ..."The importance of hindsight cannot be overstated. Every investigation or commission into any lapse or failure is based to a large degree on hindsight. Hindsight not only lends false clarity to errors after the fact, it has a compelling and lingering after-effect. ...We have to accept, as Richard Betts wrote years ago, the inevitability of surprise. We ask intelligence analysts to describe the actions of people who are geographically distant and culturally remote. Worse yet, they are people. They react to emotions, to stress, to miscalculation and they sometimes make profoundly bad decisions. ...we need to differentiate between strategic surprise and tactical surprise. When surprise happens, we have to approach the necessary post-mortem with reasonable standards as to whether it was ‘knowable’ or not. "we need to remember that intelligence analysis is an intellectual process. It needs standards and guidelines but these alone will not ensure. What I am suggesting, is a recalibrating of expectations or, if you will, a lowering of expectations of what intelligence analysis can do. No one has yet come up with any methodologies, machines or thought processes that will appreciably raise the intelligence community’s batting average. But we are not going to breed more confident analysts or analytical managers by creating or holding intelligence to standards that are unrealistic. Part of the problem that intelligence now faces is symptomatic of a wider problem: the no fault standard that seems to pervade so much of our public discourse. No matter how dangerous or difficult the activity – from space exploration to estimate intelligence – the given expectation is that everything will go right all the time and that if it does not then the likely cause is misfeasance or malfeasance. we will suffer losses on occasion not because intelligence is flawed but because it is human and it is difficult. To do anything less than this is to condemn intelligence to more unnecessary pillorying because of unreasonable expectations. At that point, intelligence is not a vital part of the policy formation process, it is just a fall guy. And the only reason a fall guy exists is to take the fall."


Anonymous said…
Great post.

We've gotten to the point where any failure is regarded as a strategic one which puts our entire system at risk.

Part of this problem is that many elected officials don't understand intelligence and the other part is that we continue to have an adult conversation with the public about the abilities and limitations of intelligence.

Instead we (well, they) keep blathering on about zero tolerance and 1% solutions. Setting up unachievable standards will only make things worse when the unexpected does happen.

Oh, and glad to see you're back to posting!