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Strategy in Hindsight

April 23, 2013

One of my least favorite executive traits is their habit to look at the results and then complain that we should have seen it coming.  Well, whee.  I usually get happy if I can explain how things broke down and didn’t go the way we predicted.  But in reality, there’s another factor… one I’ll get to in a minute.

But when I hear recriminations about how much we missed in terms of figuring out that two brothers who are otherwise unremarkable ended up being terrible domestic terrorists… well, I don’t get how we were supposed to know.  From Hot Air:

It’s possible that Tsarnaev’s six-month trip to Dagestan didn’t produce any contacts with radicals in the area, and that Tamerlan’s decision to conduct terror attacks was entirely independent.  That would make the Dagestan adventure very coincidental, though, and it’s difficult to believe that his sudden fanaticism and identification with radical Islamists on his return less than a year ago had no roots at all in his geographic juxtaposition with radical Islamists in the Caucasus.  So far, it seems that the Russians consider that theory a little fantastical, too.

There are examples all over for the stuff that we should have seen an connected.  Here’s a problem.  Finding connections in unconnected data doesn’t work that well.  Sure, Russian Intelligence told us that the older brother might be a problem.  Sure, the guy spent six months visiting relatives in the Russian/Chechnyan region.  Sure, the guy seemed to get whacked more and more over time.  Whoop.

I’m not defending the agency, and I’m certainly not defending the perps.  What I’m saying is that it’s nearly impossible to predict the future.  And looking at the past and seeing all the stuff fall in place… well, that’s easy when you know the ending.  There are thousands of people going home for extended trips, or going abroad to dangerous countries.  Most of them are not John Walker Lindh, or Tamerlin Tsarnev.   Even with a few warnings, it’s difficult to pick out that someone is dangerous. Note that the FBI actually had this guy in their sights, and they couldn’t find enough on him to even think he was dangerous.  That’s not a failing, that’s just a fact.

Here’s the real secret here.  You can only do something today that affects today.  How that affects tomorrow is unknown, though you can build a strategy to do a series of actions and influence the future.  By keeping a diligent eye on the end goal, you can usually keep doing things every day to get closer.  In this case, the government is doing a lot of stuff every day to keep the country safe.  I’m not excited when the results turn out otherwise, but it’s pretty clear to me that we could be a lot worse off.

So I’m not into the recriminations on what we missed, or even what we should be doing to further intrude on people’s lives.  We have more data, and hopefully that helps build models that keep us safer.  But predicting the future?  I won’t guarantee that.  And seeing it in hindsight?  Well, you’re just one of those execs that bother me.

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