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Posted by on Jan 2, 2010 in Politics, Society, War | 8 comments

The Politics of Foreknowing the Past

In a column on New Year’s Eve in the NYT, David Brooks wrote:

Various experts have gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

This passage came to mind upon reading some of the responses to the following Newsweek report:   EXCLUSIVE: Obama Got Pre-Christmas Intelligence Briefing About Terror Threats to "Homeland":

President Barack Obama received a high-level briefing only three days before Christmas about possible holiday-period terrorist threats against the US, Newsweek has learned. The briefing was centered on a written report, produced by US intelligence agencies, entitled "Key Homeland Threats", a senior US official said.

Several things come to mind:

1.  Presidents receive security briefings and threat assessments all the time.  The odds are therefore near 100% that after a given attack/attempted attack it will be possible to go back and find out that some vague (or even specific) warnings or concerns had been expressed to the President in some capacity not long before the attack/attempted attack.

2.  A corollary to the above is that one suspects that prior to a holiday, especially travel-intensive ones, that the probability of attacks goes up.

3.  The briefing reported upon in the Newsweek piece did not mention Yemen (Al Qaeda in Yemen has claimed responsibility for the attempted attack), but rather focused concerns on Pakistan (and yet we get responses like this, this and this).

4.  Also, in regards to the usage of such scenarios to score political points, I would point out that Bush was briefed on the possibility that bin Laden wanted to hijack planes prior to 9/11 (a far more specific piece of intel than that cited above).  I blogged on the Presidential Daily Briefing that contained that information here and noted that even with specific information (planes and bin Laden), it was impossible to take that data and translate it into actual policy.   How much moreso, then, was it impossible to act on the information discussed above?

In short:  it is a long way from a general warning that an attack might take place to being able to know what there is to be done about it.

Cross-posted from PoliBlog.

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