Politics & Policy

Meteorology Meets Homeland Security

What Al Roker knows that Tom Ridge doesn't.

The series of flight cancellations during the last few months underscore the shortcomings of the post-9/11 homeland-security effort. Thankfully, no terrorist attacks occurred. But no terrorists were arrested, either.

As long as we continue to validate the original-threat information, we will continue to fall under the spell of terror. But, as more and more threat information is determined to be invalid, we must start questioning how intelligence is derived, how it is disseminated to the public, and how relevant it really is to our daily lives.

We would be much better off if policymakers started to question the basis for analysis and placed the predictive ability of intelligence analysis in the same category as weather forecasting.

Weather and intelligence are not too dissimilar. They both interpret data to give us daily forecasts and threat levels. Both are derived from complex phenomena. Weather predictions are based on atmospheric conditions, ocean currents, and seasonal patterns. Predictions of terrorism are based on the willingness, capability, and intent of individuals to commit harm. More importantly, both weather and intelligence forecasts are currently shared with the public, and both assume the public can “take measures” in preparation. Both are difficult to predict, and both rely on the art of interpretation, which leaves ample room for error.

And it is the error in forecasts that is alarming. Of course the public is quick to forgive an incorrect weather forecast or a terror alert, which, given “in an abundance of caution,” comes to nothing. If the big snowstorm doesn’t come, the extra bread we bought can go in the freezer. If a large terror event doesn’t occur, we are grateful for its absence. Certainly, when predictions of storms or attacks are wrong, we are relieved. However, as we are starting to see with our current terror alert system, repeated bad predictions undermine general public confidence and an individual’s sense of safety. A continually heightened terror alert rings hollow for many Americans, who, “armed” with duct tape and go bags, now have the sense the intelligence community is rather like Chicken Little.

What should we expect from the intelligence community? Perhaps we should not expect to know anything at all. Is it really necessary for us to know of every period of “increased chatter”? In the absence of context, chatter means nothing.

But, government does have a responsibility to keep citizens informed. As such, it should only give information that is accurate and actionable. This standard might seem high at first glance, but it is something that we expect even from our daily weather forecast.

Though classified, last year’s CIA budget was estimated at about $2 billion more than appropriated for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). With its budget, Congress expects NOAA to predict hurricanes to allow adequate time for evacuations, to provide farmers useful information to maximize crop yields, and to give each American the right information to know how to dress in the morning. If NOAA failed to predict severe weather, or forecast seasonal climates, it is unlikely Congress would continue to fund it.

Yet that’s exactly what Congress did with the U.S. intelligence community after 9/11. In spite of its failure, the intelligence community was given more money. While this extra funding can undoubtedly upgrade computer systems at the FBI or hire more clandestine officers for the CIA, it will do little to improve intelligence methodology.

While we might jest at the inability to predict the weather, meteorology does remarkably well predicting the weather with a high degree of accuracy for about ten days. Simple lessons derived from weather forecasting can improve intelligence analysis and restore confidence in intelligence undermined by successive failures.

1. Don’t rely on a single event or source of information to make predictions. Though you can look out your window to know what the weather is like, your observation will tell you nothing what the weather will be in three days or even in three hours. It wasn’t until weather observers started to communicate that forecasting improved. Today, the National Weather Service not only uses satellites, but also relies on more than 4,500 volunteers to record weather observations.

‐The intelligence community needs to vet its sources, validate information, and coordinate with international partners before issuing warnings.

2. Respect empirical evidence. Just as you should not rely on a single source to predict the weather, we must also respect past observations. We know that it is more likely to snow in the winter than in the summer.

‐The 9/11terror attack was an anomaly. There has never been an attack like it, and other than statements of bravado, there is no evidence to suggest there will be another one of its scale. The intelligence community must understand that before it continues to release unjustified threat information.

3. Weather is a local event. Unless we are traveling, we are really only concerned with the weather outside of our own doors.

‐Though the Bush administration declared a “global war on terror,” acts of terrorism by nature are isolated, local events. An increase in the national alert level only serves to sustain public hysteria; threat information must be localized.

4. Predictions should be relevant and suggest actions an individual can take; they should not render us impotent. If rain is forecast, we know to bring an umbrella.

‐More than two years later, the administration has not learned how to provide useful information and actionable advice to the public.

5. Hypotheticals can’t govern reality.

‐Hypothetical doomsday terrorist scenarios are not supposed to guide the nation’s activities. Just because someone can think it does not mean it will occur. Future terror attacks will be based on terrorists’ actual capabilities, not analysts’ obscene nightmares.

Given the media attention surrounding a heightened state of alert, airline cancellations, and F-16 escorts of suspicious planes, we cannot expect our individual lives to be unaffected by an elevated alert level. But the reality is that there is either an impending terrorist attack or there isn’t. Storms are coming or they’re not. Those that analyze intelligence should be able to tell the difference, but I’m afraid they cannot.

Derek Reveron is the editor of the forthcoming America’s Viceroys: the Military and U.S. Foreign Policy.

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