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Why It’s Too Soon To Call the Boston Marathon Bombing an Intelligence Failure

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Monday, April 22, 2013 at 9:27 PM

Lawfare‘s crack team of contributors has been busy invading The Huffington Post. Hot on the heels of Susan and Ritika’s excellent backgrounder on Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan, I’ve posted an article arguing that it’s far too soon to call the Boston Marathon bombing an intelligence or counterterrorism failure. It opens:

Already the Boston Marathon bombing, like every previous terrorist incident, has been cited as a reason to change America’s approach to counterterrorism. Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Peter King (R-NY), both of the House Homeland Security Committee, derided the FBI’s initial investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect who was killed on Friday, as an “intelligence failure.” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t fault the government but argued that, in light of the violence, “our interpretation of the Constitution [will] have to change.” Still others, like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), saw the attacks as justifyingan increase in intelligence and law-enforcement funding. (Durbin’s argument bolstered a similar appeal by the Director of National Intelligence, who earlier sought to shield intelligence budgets from the sequestering and other spending cuts.)

These two arguments are the opposite sides of the same coin: the assumption that last week’s attack points to something wrong with our intelligence system, whether an isolated flub or a larger, structural problem. This may well prove to be true, but it’s far too early to draw this or any other conclusion. We lack sufficient information, and gathering it will require patience and time. There are, moreover, two common, easy-to-make reasoning errors that can skew national security decisions, and which we would do well to avoid.

First, there’s hindsight bias, otherwise known as the “knew it all along” phenomenon. When we know how an event turned out, we naturally overestimate how likely it was to turn out that way. For an example of just how easy it is to make this mistake, consider King. On Sunday, the Congressman said that he didn’t “want to run Monday morning quarterback,” and then proceeded in the very next sentence to criticize the FBI for “fail[ing] to stop someone who ultimately became a terrorist murderer.” In the grip of hindsight bias, King seemingly underestimates how much noise decisionmakers must filter when choosing where, and on whom, to train their attention. Of course, thanks to the Tsarnaev brothers, Central Asia is now the geopolitical region of the month. Thus, in the next few weeks, we’ll surely hear area experts asking why “no one saw this coming” (all the while emphasizing that, naturally, they did). But here’s the thing: before last week, the Tsarnaevs’ homelands were far from the public consciousness. As The Onion satirically points out, Americans likely don’t even know enough about Chechens to stereotype them. And The West Wing summed up what even most educated Americans know about Kyrgyzstan — that it’s “on the side of a hill near China and has mostly nomads and sheep.” Of course, we expect our intelligence and counterterrorism agencies to know more than we do. Still, their priorities are often dictated by political and public pressure, not to mention only those facts that are known to them. There are only so many parts of the world the government can simultaneously track.