"Good Intelligence Can Save Us From Bad Surprises."
We wish. Early last February, barely a week before the Arab Spring ended the three-decade presidency of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, grilled a CIA official in a Capitol Hill hearing room. "The president, the secretary of state, and the Congress are making policy decisions on Egypt, and those policymakers deserve timely intelligence analysis," Feinstein told Stephanie O'Sullivan, then the CIA's associate deputy director. "I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area."
Feinstein was hardly the only one to criticize U.S. intelligence agencies' inability to predict the speed at which the fire lit by Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself on Dec. 17, 2010, would spread throughout the Arab world. But all the bureaucratic overhauls and investigative commissions in the world can't change one incontrovertible fact: Many things we would like our intelligence services to know are too complex to model or predict. What the community should be expected to provide -- and, based on the limited publicly available evidence, apparently did provide -- is a strategic understanding of conditions and attitudes that, given the right spark, could ignite into a full-blown revolution.
The most recent recriminations and inquiries are only the latest in a long line dating back to the 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The resources devoted to intelligence have increased substantially over the past seven decades, and intelligence agencies are continually looking for ways to improve how they do their business. But no amount of moving around boxes on a flowchart can eliminate unpleasant surprises, and there will always be new challenges -- especially in an age of endlessly proliferating information.
Intelligence can help manage uncertainty, defining its scope and specifying what is known and what is likely to stay unknown. It can distinguish true uncertainty from simple ignorance by systematically assembling all available information, but it cannot eliminate uncertainty and it cannot prevent all surprises, including some big ones. Leaders must accept this reality; they must expect -- and prepare -- to be surprised.
With due acknowledgment to Donald Rumsfeld, it also means expecting unknown unknowns. Not only will we not know all the right answers -- we will not even be asking all the right questions.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call