Creeping Determinism & 9/11

Connecting the Dots by Malcolm Gladwell : A thoughtful counter-point to the arguments posited after 9/11 that the CIA and FBI failed to accurately assess all of the intelligence pointing towards a major terrorist attack. Gladwell argues that the clarity presented in these arguments, such as the one in the book The Cell or the passionate and detailed report made by Senator Richard Shelby in December, are an example of 20/20 hindsight, or what he calls “creeping determinism”. A term coined thirty years ago by psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, creeping determinism refers to “the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that what has happened was actually inevitable”.

Its an obvious point, but it operates on several levels, and almost every major war provides us with an example. We look back on the Union’s victory in the Civil War or the Allies victory in WWII with a sense of inevitability; that those victories were a foregone conclusion. But such was not the case. We all know the Allies won WWII, but such a conclusion was unthinkable in 1940 London, and the Union didn’t exactly thrash the South in the early days of the war. Of course, the concept is much broader and includes other situations than war as well…

So was the “intelligence failure” of 9/11 really a case of ineffective intelligence analysis, or just another example of creeping determinism? Its easy, in retrospect, to look back on the evidence of a major terrorist attack and conclude that our intelligence agencies failed to “connect the dots”, but what we are seeing is really a distortion caused by the clarity of all that evidence. What we are seeing is what is called in information theory, signal, and what we are not seeing is noise. Sure, there was lots of evidence pointing towards a major terrorist attack, but what we “don’t hear about is all the other people whom American intelligence had under surveillance, how many other warnings they received, and how many other tips came in that seemed promising at the time but led nowhere.” When you get threats of bombings and attacks all the time, how do you distinguish between the signal and the noise? Which attack is the one that will actually happen? These aren’t limitations of our intelligence community, these are limitations on intelligence itself. “In the real world, intelligence is invariably ambiguous.”

As such, there is no such thing as a perfect intelligence community. Every choice you make involves tradeoffs, and its not exactly clear which choices are the right ones. For instance, Shelby talks about the relationship between the CIA and FBI disapprovingly, noting their failure to share information promptly and efficiently between (and within) organizations. But Gladwell points out that it is just as easy to make a case for the old system, where organizations competed with one another. ” Isn’t it an advantage that the F.B.I. doesn’t think like the C.I.A.?”

As you can see, going over the evidence and the arguments can be frustrating. On the one hand, when you can look back on events knowing the outcome, the evidence seems obvious, but was it so obvious at the time? And why aren’t we fixing it now?

Today, the F.B.I. gives us color-coded warnings and speaks of “increased chatter” among terrorist operatives, and the information is infuriating to us because it is so vague. What does “increased chatter” mean? We want a prediction. We want to believe that the intentions of our enemies are a puzzle that intelligence services can piece together, so that a clear story emerges. But there rarely is a clear story–at least, not until afterward, when some enterprising journalist or investigative committee decides to write one.

There’s no way to fix the limitations of intelligence itself. We can make changes to our intelligence systems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be making progress. We’re not so much solving a problem as we’re trading one set of disadvantages for another. The trick is figuring out which situation is beter than the other, which isn’t as easy as it sounds…