Signal to noise

Why doesn’t early warning work?  While it’s a good idea in theory, in practice it seldom seems to have its intended effect.  In every major intelligence failure I’ve looked at, there were clear, credible early signals — and even explicit warnings—that tragically remained unheeded.  Why is this, and what can we do about it?

For example, in the recent meltdown of the US real estate market, and much of the world economy with it, there were lots of warning signs.  Some of these were very explicit and very public.  To name a couple:

  • The FBI’s 2006 published report warning of widespread fraud in the US residential mortgage market, which backed the mortgage-back securities market that subsequently collapsed
  • Yale economist Robert Shiller’s testimony before Congress in September 2007 that housing prices were dangerously overinflated, and that their imminent collapse would cause significant damage to the economy.
World Trade Center - September 11, 2001 9:45am

Downtown New York City - September 11, 2001 9:45am

In another example, leading up to the bombing of the World Trade Center towers in New York City in 2001, there were many events that could have been read as “feasibility tests” for 9/11.  There is a chapter (“Foresight — and Hindsight”) in the 9/11 Commission Report that catalogs the missed signals and other structural conditions that might have prevented the attack.  In retrospect, there seems to have been a straight-line connection between:

  • The February 1993 truck bombing of the WTC North Tower
  • The August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Tanzania
  • The October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

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