Thursday, January 7, 2010

Increase in Terrorist Plots or Decrease in US Intelligence Effectiveness?

I always envied those that seemed completely up to date with current affairs and in addition had a good grasp of historical events which they could use to better analyze and interpret current affairs and future implications. It has only been a few years since I have been reading the New York Times on a daily basis, supplemented by other news publications, essays, blogs, and even press releases. It may be because of this delayed start that I cannot answer my own question, or it may be that the answer is currently unknown or is classified information. In any case, it seems to me that many are blaming US intelligence and government for "failing" to prevent terrorist acts either due to failure to share information (such as the 9/11 attacks) or failure to accurately analyze the available information (such as the recent, thankfully failed, Northwest Airlines plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab).

Even in this New York Times article, Obama and his officials are reported to have (and even quoted in some situations) said the government failed to see Abdulmutallab's plot despite having the information right in front of them. I am not arguing that they failed; that may or may not be true, but if they said they did, who am I to argue. My question, however, is for this one failure, how many successes do they have? The CIA reports on their website that terrorist tactics will only continue to become more refined and will be targeted towards larger and larger masses of casualties. It seems from this report (and from logic) that the quality of terrorist attacks will increase with time, but what about the quantity? Have the terrorist plots increased? Will they increase in the future?

For the sake of discussion, let's say that the total number of terrorist plots have increased in the recent past. The US could either be doing better, worse, or the same percentage wise in identifying terrorist plots. From the existing criticisms, it seems to me that the implication is that the US is doing worse now than in the recent past. For example, if we were identifying 70% of terrorist plots in 1990, we could be identifying around 60% now, thus increasing criticism. I should also insert a caveat here that perhaps criticism has not increased, perhaps it has decreased or stayed the same. The implication, however, seems to be that we are not as successful as we were before.

Again for the sake of discussion, let's assume that the total number of terrorist plots have increased and the US is not as successful now at identifying terrorist plots as before. Given these assumptions, there seem to be three possible explanations: (1) the US has decreased in their effectiveness, (2) maintained their previous effectiveness, or (3) increased their effectiveness to preidentify terrorist plots. If the former is true, that is no doubt a point for criticism. If the second point is true, you could argue that we should always improve so we have failed. If, however, the latter is true, then the criticisms seem less justified. I understand that nothing can really justify life and death. If we aren't preventing terrorist acts, then we are failing to a certain extent. Is it, however, possible to prevent all terrorist acts? Given the unpredictability of human nature, limitations to large organizations such as the U.S. government and even our intelligence agencies, and increasing globalization of knowledge and technology, can all terrorist acts be prevented?

It seems most logical to assume that not all terrorist acts can be prevented. Once we have accepted that, it is time to set a realistic goal of what we can prevent. An idealist may argue (and I might agree) that even if you have an unrealistic goal, you should set it there and get as close as possible. Even in this situation, however, the smartest decision seems to be to set more realistic, intermediary goals. Perhaps the first course of action for our government should be to analyze the trends in terrorist acts over time and our effectiveness (and inadequacies) in predicting the different types of attacks. I find it hard to believe this hasn't already been done, and perhaps it is even publically available information (please do let me know if you have a reference to the publically available information!), but if it is, it seems that these analyses should be included in articles such as the New York Times articles above. What do you think?


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