The Dark Side of Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda


What We Can't Expect from Intelligence Activities

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Oct 2010


Consider the following scene:

A man has his car stopped in the parking lot in front of a bank.

The engine is running, he is swarthy, looking around, wearing sunglasses and talking on a cell phone.


Consider the following consequences of this scene:

o If there is a bank robbery, this man will be remembered by dozens of people walking by.

o If there is no bank robbery, this man is just someone who's wife went to pick up something in the supermarket that houses the bank.

And this is the Dark Side of Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: For each suspicious act that is the prelude for an actual crime, there are a million equally suspicious acts that are the prelude for... life as we normally live it!

This insight was brought to mind by a series of media revelations that a 2008 Mumbai Taj Mahal Hotel terrorist plotter, David Healey, had a long history in the files of the FBI. Here are two articles about these revelations: A 16 Oct 10 Washington Post article, U.S. was told of American's ties to Pakistani militants by Sebastian Rotella, and a 16 Oct 10 New York Times article, U.S. Had Warnings on Plotter of Mumbai Attack by Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt and Ginger Thompson.

The implication of these articles is that the FBI or some other counter-terrorist group should have been able to "connect the dots" and hauled this guy in before the Mumbai act was committed.

Looking at this guy's history as revealed in the articles, he does look like a pretty slippery character who has been playing many sides for many years. He's been an informant to the DEA, chummy with the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists supported by Pakistani intelligence service, and "building a network of connections that extended from Chicago to Pakistan’s lawless northwestern frontier."

And, in addition to all of the above, he managed to piss off two of his three wives so badly that they ratted him out to US federal investigators in both New York and Pakistan. Umm... this guy gets around! ...In the worst sort of way, it seems!

But, do these characteristics separate him from a million other people who are unhappy with the system? Who play both sides of a situation? Who move around? Who live unconventional lives? And, most important for our country's growth, people who innovate? What's the intelligence-noticeable difference between Healey and thousands of aspiring-but-not-media-memorable entrepreneurs who are trying to get... say... a lithium mining business started in Afghanistan?


The Limits of Intelligence Gathering

Contrary to the Hollywood spy/thriller movie portrayals, there are harsh limits on the effectiveness of intelligence gathering. It is important that we as citizens recognize these limits. If we don't we are needlessly sacrificing liberty, lifestyle, and economic growth for a feeling of increased security that bears no relation to reality. This wouldn't be anywhere near the first time a community made this needless and expensive sacrifice, so we must be vigilant.

Let's look at the limits:

o The first characteristic that deeply limits the effectiveness of any intelligence gathering activity: There are always a million people willing to talk trash and do suspicious things for every one that will actually put actions to words and deliberately do something terrible. How can you find that one just before he or she acts? This is a harsh manifestation of the needle-in-a-haystack problem. The false sense of security comes from feeling that if we trash the haystack -- stop all suspicious activities or watch everyone carefully enough -- we will always find the needle.

o The second characteristic is that when an agency does take action against a person, those around the one whom action is taken against can quickly figure out who took action and how they got the information they needed to take action. Once that happens, the information source is trashed -- figuratively at least, and perhaps physically as well. So there is always a strong instinct among those gathering intelligence to watch more instead of act. (This characteristic, by the way, goes both ways -- terrorists are as afflicted with this as counter-terrorists.)

Sadly, another circumstance that motivates intelligence-based action, a large percentage of high-profile action, is internal organization politics -- if an agency needs to look good by taking action, it will, even if the action taken seems quite bizarre by the standards of achieving effective intelligence activity. An example of this would be making a high-profile bust of some harmless but outspoken idiot.

o The third characteristic is the people who have to act on intelligence information want information on specific acts that are just about to happen -- just like what we see in the movies. They are not interested in trends or opinions. An example from industrial intelligence: A construction company is really excited to find out what what a rival will bid on a contract coming up next week. They are not nearly as excited to find out what equipment the rival is planning on buying next year.

o The fourth characteristic is that intelligence people are always deeply suspicious people. The intelligence business is the business of betrayal. Practitioners are constantly thinking about betrayal, working it as part of their job, and aware of how easy it is to perform and how hard it is to detect until damage is done.

For this reason experienced intelligence people are suspicious of everyone... everyone! This is why "connecting the dots" between agencies is never easy, and when it does happen it will always be a short-lived state. In in the intelligence business it's just too productive to be suspicious of... everyone!


The Folly of Asking for Security Against "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda"

There is a deep and productive human instinct to learn from our mistakes. It has served us well for millions of years. But, like any powerful tool, it can be abused. One of those abuses is trading liberty for false security.

This abuse happens in contemporary times when a media person sticks a microphone in front of a government official during the media circus surrounding a high-profile disaster and asks, "Why didn't you stop this disaster before it happened?" That's usually not productive. It's just asking for the official to grandstand, and it's asking for a Blunder response to the problem.

This is triply true in the case of counter-terrorism intelligence because of all the characteristics cited above.

Instead of finding out about a cure for a problem, what the media person is de facto asking is, "Why haven't you curtailed our personal liberties even more?" And it's very expensive for our communities when we do trade security for liberty.

The security-for-liberty expense takes on many forms:

o It can be a prosaic and widespread sacrifice such as not allowing that man in the parking lot to stop his car there. That costs him and his wife time and effort and adds to the carbon footprint because of the extra idling time for the car.

o It can be as small business quenching as the added cost Sarbanes-Oxley puts on an IPO (Initial Public Offering). This discourages low-cost/small scale experimenting in business to find better ways of doing things. We don't improve our productivity as much as we could and we lose out on discovering surprise uses of existing technologies.

o It can be as time wasting as oddball security procedures at airports. These rituals add cost and uncertainty to flying, and diminish the role that flying could play in our lifestyles.

o It can be as mind-bending as not letting a child experience outdoor life after school or dealing with strangers. Children learn, but what they learn is based on what they experience. If they don't experience one kind of situation, they will experience a different kind, and learn about the different kind, and when they become adults they will made decisions based on their childhood experiences.


In sum, there are a whole lot of costs that come from asking too much of authorities in "Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda" circumstances.

Stuff happens in life, and when it does we learn. We rarely need to make a federal case of it, and we rarely need more rules, regulations or government agencies to keep a bad situation from happening again.

We've learned.

When we do ask for more government rules, we are asking for our liberties to be curtailed and our prosperity to be spent on costly rituals that have little cost/benefit other than making people feel good in the same way that scapegoating used to.

This is the dark side of trying to abolish Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda.


-- The End --