January 8, 2010, Tom Davenport (the most authoratitive author about “Competing on analytics”)
Everybody, including President Obama, is criticizing the U.S. intelligence agencies for not keeping accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Why didn’t they “connect the dots” or “put the pieces together”? This is the same problem the intelligence agencies encountered with 9/11 — lots of clues that were not integrated in time.
But is this really a fair criticism? Just how easy is it to connect the dots? Granted, there were numerous indications of Abdulmutallab’s evil intent. But it would have been difficult to put them together before the flight. Combining disparate pieces of information about people — whether they are customers or terrorists — is akin to solving a complex jigsaw puzzle. And in defense of the intelligence agencies, hardly anybody — in either the public or private sectors — does it well.
What are some of these so-called dots? Here’s what various parties knew about Abdulmutallab:
- He was President of University College London’s Islamic society.
- His father had warned the CIA that he might be radical and might have traveled to Yemen.
- He had a two-year, multiple-entry visa to the United States.
- The U.K. government denied renewal of his student visa because the degree program he used to justify his application was fake.
- He paid cash for a round-trip ticket from Nigeria to the U.S.
This is not a large number of dots, and several of them are not in themselves very notable. (The father’s warning and the cash ticket seem like the obvious exceptions.)
But even with a few notable dots, connecting them is extremely difficult. David Brooks, in a New York Times column, has even suggested that it’s an unreasonable expectation.
My friend Kevin DeSouza, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied the management of information in the intelligence community, also comments in an International Journal of Public Administration article on the general difficulty of such connections:
The very nature of USIC [U.S. intelligence community] activities is often confounding because individuals are compelled to manage information that is incomplete, always time-sensitive, and often lacking, at least to some degree, credibility. In addition to gathering and sharing information, the USIC must coordinate how various packets of information and knowledge are managed across, between, or within other intelligence agencies and outside groups, many of which lack the sense and appreciation of how intelligence is to be used.
Specifically, here are some reasons why connecting the dots was so hard in this case:
- The information from the underwear bomber’s father was given to the CIA, while I presume it was the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that received the information about the cash ticket purchase. The Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly known as the INS) had the visa information. While we may have gotten better at inter-agency information transfer, it’s still very tough — particularly for unstructured information.
- Some of the information would have come from British intelligence sources, and cross-border information flows are even more difficult.
- Undoubtedly there are different ways of spelling and representing Abdulmutallab’s long and complex name.
- People with the intent to do evil may purposely hide some aspects of their activities or identities.
If you doubt that this is hard and you come from a corporate setting, ask yourself how often some of your best customers have slipped through the cracks of your information and knowledge systems. Or if you’re a consumer, how often do companies connect the dots on your own relationship with them? And I’m guessing you don’t even have evil intent toward those companies!
There are, of course, some remedies to this problem. One would be a really nasty police state, with a lot of false positive detentions. Another would be an international data management agency. A third would be lots more money and intrusiveness spent on airport searches, behavioral screening, etc., a la Israel and El Al. All seem somewhat unlikely.
Perhaps the only palatable remedy would be an intelligence community that views high-quality information and knowledge management as its primary job. If I were Barack Obama, that’s the approach I would be viewing as the real solution to the “connect the dots” problem.