Wednesday, August 28, 2002

9/11 and Investigation: The Proper Study of Hints of the Future

9/11 and Investigation: The Proper Study of Hints of the Future

In recent days and months there have been many reports of investigative blunders before 9/11. See, for example, the AP report carried by and the recent book THE CELL by John Miller & Michael Stone with Chris Mitchell. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that serious investigative blunders were committed. (Just why were those guys interested in learning how to fly large jet planes without being interested in learning how to get such planes on the ground safely?)

But any fair evaluation of the performance of the FBI, the CIA, and similar investigative and intelligence agencies must consider that the process of investigation is extraordinarily difficult, in many respects far more difficult than, say, the evaluation of evidence presented by lawyers in trials. The difficulty of investigation is related to the "hindsight effect," the tendency of people to say, after some unexpected event has happened, that any fool could and should have expected that the unforeseen event would happen.

One of the things that makes investigation extraordinarily difficult is that in many investigations the investigator does not know the questions, let alone the answers: the investigator does not know, for example, that an important question is whether or not someone will hijack a plane and crash it into a building rather than, say, whether or not someone will park a truck bomb in front of the American embassy in Turkmenistan. (Is there an American embassy in Turkmenistan?)

Test yourself. What question or questions should the FBI et al. be trying to answer now, today? Whether or not someone will commandeer a passenger jet and crash it into a building? Whether someone will commandeer a passenger ship and then park and explode it near mid-town Manhattan? Whether someone will carry a nuclear bomb in a suitcase across the U.S.-Canadian border by Minnesota? Whether someone will dump LSD (or worse) into the Concord, Massachusetts, reservoir? The range of possible threats -- and, thus, the range of possible questions -- is enormous.

But the 9/11 tragedy suggests that the investigator's dilemma is not always hopeless. Evidence has the important capacity to suggest pertinent possibilities; little bits of evidence have the ability to provoke the imagination in productive ways. Example of such a "provocative evidentiary trifle": students who wanted to learn to fly without wanting to learn how to survive flying. (There were in fact investigators -- e.g., FBI agents -- who drew the conclusions that were, in hindsight, right on the button. Taken as a whole, America's intelligence and investigative systems failed. But it should not be forgotten that in the midst of this massive intelligence failure, there were some remarkable individual victories, victories achieved by investigators who clearly had a remarkable degree of intelligence, diligence, and imagination.)

"Policy makers" -- I mean legislators and other such people -- have now jumped on the bandwagon: they now recognize the importance of intelligent intelligence. And they now realize what some people (e.g., David Schum) have been saying for quite some time: connecting dots is as important as collecting dots; i.e., analyzing evidence is as important as collecting it. But what remains unclear (to this writer) is whether these same policy makers appreciate the price that must be paid for intelligent intelligence analysis. By all accounts, the amount of evidence and data collected by intelligence agencies such as the FBI and the CIA is enormous. The problem investigators, investigators, and analysts face, therefore, is not so much a shortage of data as a surfeit of data, an abundance of data. The trouble is that someone must sit down and think about the masses evidence and data that our intelligence and investigative agencies manage to collect. (This means, at a minimum, that potentially important bits of information embedded in foreign languages must be translated into languages that intelligence analysts can understand. But such translation, of course, is not sufficient.)

Until the artificial intelligence people make more progress than they have so far, effective evaluation of masses of data and evidence is an extraordinarily time-consuming and labor-intensive process. If we in the U.S. are are seriously worried about terrorist threats, we must be prepared to foot the bill to pay for analysts whose job it is to look at masses of evidence and data in the hope of detecting therein signs and hints of terrorist activities and dangers.

So the bad news is that effective intelligence analysis is very expensive. But there is also good news: We may not have to surrender our rights and liberties to achieve effective investigation. The failures of American intelligence with regard to 9/11 were not due to the absence of pertinent evidence and data. There was, it now appears, an abundance of such evidence and data. Our system of intelligence and investigation failed us principally because the system did not make good use of the evidence and information that it already had in its hands.

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