Sara­jevo, black swans and to­day

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY MICHAEL HAY­DEN

Dur­ing a re­cent walk down Pic­cadilly in cen­tral Lon­don, I was struck by two things: that there still ex­ist mas­sive book­stores with paper books and, based on the books promi­nently dis­played in those stores, that this sum­mer marks the cen­te­nary of the start of WWI.

That Eng­land and the rest of Europe are fo­cused on the Great War is no sur­prise. Euro­peans tend to have a stronger his­tor­i­cal sense than Amer­i­cans, and that con­flict had a far greater im­pact there than in North Amer­ica.

Satur­day will mark the 100th an­niver­sary of Gavrilo Prin­cip, a Ser­bian na­tion­al­ist, fir­ing two shots into Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, heir to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian throne, and his wife Sophie.

The ac­tual as­sas­si­na­tion was al­most an ac­ci­dent, since the arch­duke’s car had taken a wrong turn dur­ing a tour of Sara­jevo. And yet, barely a month later, all Europe was at war.

It was the black swan of all black-swan events, a phe­nom­e­non that es­say­ist Nas­sim Ni­cholas Taleb de­scribes as an un­pre­dictable oc­cur­rence, but one with deeply pro­found ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

Mr. Taleb also adds that such events are of­ten seen as per­fectly pre­dictable af­ter they oc­cur. Gen­er­a­tions of schol­ars have laid out a tight and seem­ingly com­pelling nar­ra­tive that in July 1914 the Aus­troHun­gar­ian em­pire saw an op­por­tu­nity to crush Serb na­tion­al­ism, that the Rus­sians were deeply com­mit­ted to their Slavic Serb broth­ers and that Ger­many was well pre­pared to un­der­write its Aus­trian cousins.

War, which no one saw com­ing in mid-June 1914, has since been por­trayed as if it were in­evitable.

And all of this has lessons for Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence, which en­tered the 21st century with its own black swan: the hor­rific al Qaeda at­tacks on New York and Wash­ing­ton, which Con­gres­sional in­quiries and the 9/11 Com­mis­sion ret­ro­spec­tively la­beled as in­tel­li­gence fail­ures — and hence in­her­ently pre­dictable.

There were sim­i­lar charges when the “Arab Spring” un­folded. In March 2011 Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair Dianne Fe­in­stein, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, was telling CIA Di­rec­tor Leon Panetta, “Our in­tel­li­gence is way be­hind the times. It is in­ad­e­quate. And this is a very se­ri­ous prob­lem.”

That fol­lowed Tu­nisian fruit mer­chant Mo­hamed Bouaz­izi’s self-im­mo­la­tion in mid-De­cem­ber, which ul­ti­mately trig­gered the fall of gov­ern­ments in Tu­nisia, Egypt, Libya and Ye­men and a rag­ing civil war in Syria.

At the time I la­beled the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity’s per­for­mance the re­sult of the “tyranny of ex­per­tise.” Tu­nisia’s Ben Ali and other Arab au­to­crats had weath­ered protests in the past. Why wouldn’t they weather this one?

We saw some­thing of the same thing in the sum­mer of 2001. Even with the sys­tem (in Ge­orge Tenet’s fa­mous words) “blink­ing red” and an early Au­gust PDB item en­ti­tled “Bin Laden De­ter­mined to Strike in US,” ex­pec­ta­tions per­sisted that an at­tack would be — like all pre­vi­ous ones — against US in­ter­ests in Africa or the Mid­dle East.

There was a milder form of that in De­cem­ber 2009. Then there was ev­i­dence that the al Qaeda af­fil­i­ate in Ye­men was pre­par­ing an at­tack but, since no af­fil­i­ate had pre­vi­ously at­tacked the Amer­i­can home­land, fo­cus was on the re­gion, not on air­lin­ers out of Hol­land en route to Detroit.

Mr. Taleb talks of psy­cho­log­i­cal lim­its and bi­ases that pre­vent us from fore­see­ing cer­tain events, or blind spots cre­ated by our re­liance on in­duc­tive rea­son­ing — rea­son­ing based on ob­ser­va­tion and the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of spe­cific data — that leads to gen­er­al­ized con­clu­sions.

But this is also rea­son­ing that un­der­es­ti­mates ran­dom­ness and the non­lin­ear pat­tern of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

Euro­peans had only seen white swans through­out their his­tory and so con­cluded that all swans were white. That was log­i­cal enough un­til the late 17th century, when the sight­ing of black swans in Aus­tralia re­vealed the lim­its of em­piri­cism and the dan­gers of over­con­fi­dence in the pre­dictabil­ity of life.

Still, even with that re­al­iza­tion, it is very hard to ac­cu­rately pre­dict dra­matic dis­con­ti­nu­ities and, if one in­cludes false pos­i­tives in the cal­cu­la­tion, sa­vants and fools are likely to have sim­i­lar track records.

So the first les­son for pol­i­cy­mak­ers is to un­der­stand the lim­its of anal­y­sis, in­clud­ing that of the in­tel­li­gence briefer be­fore them.

Then we need to work to en­sure that our in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts know that, of course, there could be other than white swans.

That’s a big chal­lenge. In­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts share the broad hu­man con­di­tion that Mr. Taleb out­lines, and that ten­dency is pe­cu­liarly re­in­forced by a pro­fes­sional de­mand to be fact-based, in­duc­tive in ap­proach and rea­son­ing from the spe­cific to the gen­eral.

And Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence has a spe­cial prob­lem be­cause, above all oth­ers, it excels at the ul­ti­mate in­duc­tive ap­proach — the collection, ag­gre­ga­tion, anal­y­sis and pre­sen­ta­tion of big data — a re­liance about which Taleb has of­fered spe­cific cau­tions.

Given all that, this is clearly a con­di­tion to be man­aged rather than a prob­lem to be solved, and the best an­ti­dote would seem to be con­scious and sus­tained ex­po­sure of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to other views, other ap­proaches, other ideas — those of sa­vants and even some­times those of fools.

That may be es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult to­day when the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity finds it­self and its se­crets the rou­tine sub­ject of pub­lic dis­course, and its most pow­er­ful urge is to limit and con­trol con­tacts with other el­e­ments of so­ci­ety.

But that would not serve the in­ter­ests of in­tel­li­gence or of the Repub­lic.

And I’m judg­ing that Prime Min­is­ter Asquith, Pres­i­dent Poin­care, Kaiser Wil­helm, Czar Ni­cholas, Em­peror FranzJoseph and 16 mil­lion other Euro­peans would have ap­pre­ci­ated just such an ef­fort.

Gen. Michael Hay­den is the for­mer di­rec­tor of the CIA and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency. He can be reached at mhay­den@ wash­ing­ton­times.com.

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