More on “A Critical Mistake”

April 18, 2004

In response to the one and only CSTAR — I call him the “one and only” since he seems to be the one and only person who regularly reads any of the stuff I write on this site… sniff, sniff, sob, sob 😦 — I feel I must clarify my thoughts. CSTAR seems to think the line of thinking I espoused my last post “A Critical Mistake” would lead one to undertake some pretty hopeless endeavors. As much as I like the romantic notion of “marching into Hell for a Heavenly cause,” I by no means meant to give the impression that this makes a good maxim for planning purposes. Indeed, I was hoping to impress upon readers the importance of a highly restrictive realism.

Specifically, the main moral I hoped to convey in my last post was that in risky situations, when one is faced with the choice of going after a big reward now or holding off and going for what one expects is a bigger reward later, one should take care to be realistic in one’s expectations. I feel many people follow the first and most obvious corollary to this premise: one needs accurate estimates of what the rewards are now versus what they will be later. However, I feel far fewer people follow the second and arguably most important corollary to this premise: one needs accurate estimates of how much work will be needed to get the reward that is available now versus how much work will be needed to get that bigger reward that is hopefully available later.

It was in regard to this second corollary that I made the argument in my last post that the CIA’s handling of that fateful planning meeting of Al Qaeda militants in January 2000 was critically mistaken from the outset. In deciding merely to surveil such a meeting, rather than arrest the participants (especially if it was clear a priori that audio surveillance would be impossible… though I imagine that wasn’t clear a priori), the CIA was not only betting that by following the militants at this meeting they’d be led to the very top of Al Qaeda’s chain of command, but also they were intrinsically betting on their ability to follow these militants, period. As the ensuing, almost comical series of fumbles by the CIA and FBI shows (cf. the PBS Frontline report), this latter bet was an extremely bad bet in retrospect. I believe it would have also been possible to realize this in prospect as well if one were being sufficiently cautious (i.e., making plans that would tolerate mistakes, especially ones that aren’t quickly detectable). Indeed, I strongly suspect that, at the very least, a significant minority of the CIA officers acting as liaisons in the January 2000 surveillance operation in Kuala Lumpur felt the same way, but there was insufficient political will to conduct a covert arrest in Malaysia or ask (or more likely, pay) the Malaysian government to do it for us.

So, in short, my indignation in regard to how this fateful meeting was handled was not a call to preemptively kill, maim, and destroy since tomorrow we may be attacked (or whatever the heck’s the covert action equivalent to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die”), but rather a call for long-term planning that takes an appropriately pessimistic view of one’s own abilities.

One Response to “More on “A Critical Mistake””

  1. CSTAR Says:

    Hey it’s me again. Actually, my comment on strategy wasn’t directed so much at your application of it in the context of pre 9-11 tracking etc. Rather, I made an essentially OT comment on uses of phrases such as “resolve” to formulate a strategy despite a collapsing military situation. (More on that on some later comment)

    BTW you should post on dailykos to get more visibility. It’s anarchical and maybe not as brainy as DeLong, but you’re likely to generate interest particularly if you put a link on comments.

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