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Terrorism: Intelligence not the solution

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COMMENTS

21 July 2010 14:20

The ABC's Mark Colvin today adds his voice to that of Michael Fullilove in calling for an Australian equivalent to the Washington Post's investigation into America's intelligence bureaucracy.

Colvin and Fullilove are absolutely right to demand more public and media scrutiny of our intelligence agencies, and Colvin lists some good reasons why it might be overdue. Australia's intelligence community has seen spectacular growth since the 9/11 attacks, and there are legitimate questions about how well that growth has been managed. Can agencies talk to one another or are they 'stove-piped'? Has strategic direction of the overall intelligence community been maintained amid all this growth? Is there too much intelligence being produced for the 'customers' to digest? 

But Colvin also implies that the intelligence community is deserving of scrutiny because of its past failures of prediction; he lists some familiar cases of US intelligence bungling:

It failed to predict the fall of the Shah of Iran and the ascension of the Ayatollah Khomeini, it didn’t see the collapse of Soviet-bloc Communism coming in the late 1980s, it missed the warning signs that Saddam Hussein was about to invade Kuwait...

When Age journalist Jason Koutsoukis came up with a similar list in 2007, I criticised his article for being too focused on prediction, and I think the same argument still holds true. If intelligence agencies are getting their predictions wrong, then the proper line of criticism is not, 'they need to make better predictions'. Rather, it is that they need to get out of the prediction business altogether. Good intelligence is not about giving decision-makers a sense of certainty about the future; it is about giving decision-makers the tools to cope with uncertainty.

Which brings me to Colvin's closing comment about the need for a 'strong and effective counter-terrorism apparatus'. If predicting the behaviour of states is difficult, then it is as nothing compared with trying to understand terrorists.*  

And for every terrorist attack where we discover, after the fact, that we failed to join the intelligence dots, there are others with no dots to join — the 2002 Bali bombing comes to mind (this report from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security found there was no intelligence warning of the attack).

Now, you could use this as an argument to expand the intelligence apparatus still further (if we had no intelligence about the Bali attack, maybe it's because we weren't looking hard enough). But alternatively, you could admit the inherent limitations of intelligence as a counter-terrorism tool, and acknowledge that, no matter how much money you spend or how effective your reforms, it is going to be impossible to know the source, target and timing of every future attack.

So why not move from an overwhelming focus on prevention of terrorist attacks toward a greater balance with recovery? As Thomas Barnett says in response to the Washington Post series, 'The investment should be in resilience in the face of bad things happening in this complex world, not intelligence fantastically tasked with preventing bad things from happening in the first place.'

Photo by Flickr user meeni2010, used under a Creative Commons license.

* I left out the word 'compared' in the original. Thanks to Carl for the correction.

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