See­ing im­pend­ing doom, and fol­low­ing up

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Joshua Si­nai Joshua Si­nai is a se­nior an­a­lyst at Kier­nan Group Hold­ings (KGH), in Alexan­dria, Va.

WARN­INGS: FIND­ING CASSANDRAS TO STOP CATAS­TRO­PHES By Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy Ecco, $29.99, 416 pages

This book is about the ca­pa­bil­ity to fore­cast fu­ture trends, par­tic­u­larly im­pend­ing dis­as­ters, in spite of con­ven­tional wis­dom’s usual dis­missal of such warn­ings, which is part of what is termed the Cas­san­dra com­plex. Cas­san­dra, the au­thors ex­plain, was a Greek princess who was en­dowed with “the abil­ity to see im­pend­ing doom, but the in­abil­ity to per­suade any­one to be­lieve in her.”

The au­thors are well qual­i­fied to write about de­ci­sions at the high­est level. Richard Clarke is a veteran na­tional se­cu­rity ex­pert in the U.S. gov­ern­ment and White House, with his co-au­thor, R.P. Eddy, the CEO of Ergo, a busi­ness in­tel­li­gence firm, based in New York.

To de­tect the pres­ence of “a real Cas­san­dra among the myr­iad of pun­dits” in today’s world, the au­thors present short case stud­ies of ex­perts who had ex­hib­ited a Cas­san­dra-like abil­ity con­cern­ing im­por­tant dis­as­ters in their re­spec­tive fields, but were ig­nored.

These case stud­ies in­clude the fail­ures to fol­low up by the first Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion on warn­ings by a CIA Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Of­fi­cer about Iraq’s im­pend­ing in­va­sion of Kuwait in early Au­gust 1991; the fail­ure by fed­eral emer­gency man­age­ment agen­cies to lis­ten to warn­ings by civil engi­neer­ing pro­fes­sors at Louisiana State Univer­sity’s Hur­ri­cane Cen­ter about the dev­as­tat­ing dam­age that could be caused by a mas­sive hur­ri­cane, which as was the case with Au­gust 2005’s Hur­ri­cane Katrina; the fail­ures by Ja­panese nu­clear au­thor­i­ties to heed the warn­ings of the direc­tor of Ja­pan’s Ac­tive Fault and Earth­quake Re­search Cen­ter that a Fukushima nu­clear dis­as­ter was pos­si­ble (with this nu­clear dis­as­ter oc­cur­ring in March 2011); and the fail­ures by Wall Street reg­u­la­tory bod­ies to act on the warn­ings by sev­eral Wall Street fi­nan­cial an­a­lysts that a fi­nan­cial melt­down was im­mi­nent (which came to fruition in Septem­ber 2008).

In an­other case study, on the rise of ISIS, the au­thors high­light the role of former U.S. am­bas­sador to Syria, Robert Ford, as the Cas­san­dra in late 2012 who ad­vo­cated Amer­i­can arm­ing of the non-ji­hadist Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) Syr­ian op­po­si­tion, which the au­thors claim would have pre­vented the tak­ing over of the anti-As­sad op­po­si­tion by ISIS. While one may not agree with this as­sess­ment be­cause the sit­u­a­tion in Syria was much more com­pli­cated than they por­tray — for in­stance, the FSA in­cluded sub­stan­tial el­e­ments of the Syr­ian Mus­lim Brother­hood, as op­posed to hoped-for more sec­u­lar and demo­cratic el­e­ments — this chap­ter is still worth read­ing for its dis­cus­sion of what Am­bas­sador Ford had rec­om­mended and how it was met with re­sis­tance by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

To rem­edy the ten­dency of “con­ven­tional wis­dom” to dis­miss the warn­ings by such Cassandras, the au­thors pro­pose to em­power oth­ers with the ca­pa­bil­ity to fore­cast im­pend­ing dis­as­ters through what they term the “Cas­san­dra Co­ef­fi­cient,” which con­sists of a se­ries of ques­tions de­rived from their ob­ser­va­tion of past Cas­san­dra events.

As they ex­plain, “It in­volves four com­po­nents: (1) the warn­ing, the threat, or risk in ques­tion, (2) the de­ci­sion-mak­ers or au­di­ence, who must re­act, (3) the pre­dic­tor or pos­si­ble Cas­san­dra, and (4) the crit­ics who dis­par­age or re­ject the warn­ing.” Each of these four com­po­nents is ac­com­pa­nied by sev­eral fac­tors that char­ac­ter­ize them, such as “er­ro­neous con­sen­sus” for the warn­ing, or “ide­o­log­i­cal re­sponse re­jec­tion” for the de­ci­sion-mak­ing, which add up to 24 fac­tors in total. These 24 fac­tors en­able the user to as­sign the four com­po­nents a score of high, medium, low or ab­sent in or­der to as­cer­tain the like­li­hood of a Cas­san­dra-type warn­ing to be ac­cepted or not.

Once a Cas­san­dra pre­dic­tion is pro­posed and, fol­low­ing ap­pro­pri­ate per­sua­sion — a nec­es­sary el­e­ment for a warn­ing to be ac­cepted by de­ci­sion-mak­ers — the au­thors turn their anal­y­sis to the re­sponse com­po­nent, which they ex­plain needs to in­volve an in­tel­li­gence type in­di­ca­tions and warn­ing sur­veil­lance strat­egy, hedg­ing, mit­i­ga­tion and pre­ven­tion.

This method­ol­ogy is then ap­plied to the book’s re­main­ing chap­ters, with case stud­ies on the po­ten­tial for ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence break­throughs, if not prop­erly con­trolled, in the words of Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla Motors), to pose hu­man­ity’s “big­gest ex­is­ten­tial threat,” and for the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of the “In­ter­net of Things” to be vul­ner­a­ble to what the au­thors term “uni­ver­sal hack­a­bil­ity.”

The au­thors con­clude that such an early warn­ing sys­tem, based on the “Cas­san­dra Co­ef­fi­cient” method­ol­ogy, needs to be in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in gov­ern­ment (such as at the White House and Cabi­net de­part­ments), the cor­po­rate world, and other sec­tors, to be pre-emp­tive in an­tic­i­pat­ing and pre­vent­ing fu­ture dis­as­ters from oc­cur­ring in cru­cial spheres af­fect­ing so­ci­ety. This is ur­gent, as they write that “we must sys­tem­at­i­cally iden­tify the peo­ple who see the risks first, test what these po­ten­tial Cassandras are say­ing, then make trans­par­ent and ex­plicit de­ci­sions about how to deal with the risk.” Oth­er­wise, they cau­tion, “Given the po­ten­tial risks we will be fac­ing in this cen­tury, the costs of not fac­ing them in time will be un­prece­dented. Thus, it is im­por­tant to take the time to lis­ten for Cas­san­dra. Can you hear her?”

The per­va­sive and con­tin­u­ous tur­bu­lence that are char­ac­ter­iz­ing our cur­rent geopo­lit­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal world make this book es­sen­tial read­ing for un­der­stand­ing how we can be­gin to take the steps nec­es­sary to pre­vent fur­ther tur­bu­lence and dis­as­ters.

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