How government officials get scared by unlikely threats

(Patrick Semansky/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/AP)

An article in today’s New York Times discusses how candidate Obama (who was publicly skeptical of the growth of the national security state) became President Obama (who is giving a speech today that is likely to announce only modest reforms to the NSA). It suggests that one key turning point involved an unfounded threat.

Mr. Obama was told before his inauguration of a supposed plot by Somali extremists to attack the ceremony, what David Axelrod, his adviser, called a “welcome-to-the-N.B.A. moment before the first game.” Although the report proved unfounded, it reinforced to Mr. Obama the need to detect threats before they materialized. “The whole Somali threat injected their team into the realities of national security in a tangible and complicated way,” recalled Juan C. Zarate, the departing counterterrorism adviser to Mr. Bush who worked with the Obama team on the threat.

A forthcoming article in I/S by John Mueller at Ohio State University and Mark G. Stewart at the University of Newcastle suggests that such unfounded reports are not isolated, but instead examples of a more general institutional problem. The U.S. threat reporting system has strong tendencies to over-report threats.

In the process, [US government] information has been folded into a “Threat Matrix,” an itemized catalogue of all the “threats” — or more accurately “leads” — needing to be followed up. As Garrett Graff explains, the government pursues “upwards of 5,000 threats per day.” Impelled by what some have called “The 9/11 Commission Syndrome” — an obsession with the career dangers in failing “to connect the dots” — it is in no one’s interest to cull the threats “because it was possible you’d cull the wrong threat and end up, after the next attack, at the green felt witness table before the next congressional inquiry.” Consequently, the Threat Matrix “tracks all the unfolding terrorist plots and intelligence rumors” and is “filled to the brim with whispers, rumors, and vacuous, unconfirmed information.” In result, “claims that ordinarily wouldn’t have made it past the intake agent, claims that wouldn’t even be written down weeks earlier, suddenly became the subject of briefs to the President in the Oval Office.” Graff supplies an example. One entry in the Threat Matrix is crisply cited as “a threat from the Philippines to attack the United States unless blackmail money was paid.” It turns out that this entry was based on an e-mail that said, “Dear America. I will attack you if you don’t pay me 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 dollars. MUHAHAHA.”

Mueller and Stewart argue that this induces a kind of cognitive overload, induced by repeated exposure to dubious information about low-likelihood threats, in high government officials.

… living with the Threat Matrix seems to take a psychological toll on its daily readers. As Graff vividly describes the process, the Threat Matrix comes off as “a catalogue of horrors,” as the “daily looming prognoses of Armageddon,” and as “a seeming tidal wave of Islamic extremist anger that threatened to unhinge American society,” and it could become “all-consuming and paralyzing” — as one reader puts it, “Your mind comes to be dominated by the horrific consequences of low-probability events.” In essence, it is like being barricaded in an apartment and listening only to the police radio. Or one reader offers another comparison: “Reading the Threat Matrix every day is like being stuck in a room listening to loud Led Zeppelin music,” and, after a while, you begin to suffer from “sensory overload” and become “paranoid” about the threat.” Recalls former CIA Director George Tenet, “You could drive yourself crazy believing all or even half of what was in it.”

As Jack Goldsmith, another reader, stresses, “It is hard to overstate the impact that the incessant waves of threat reports have on the judgment of people inside the executive branch who are responsible for protecting American lives.” He quotes Tenet, “You simply could not sit where I did and read what passed across by desk on a daily basis and be anything other than scared to death about what it portended.” This, writes Goldsmith, captures “the attitude of every person I knew who regularly read the threat matrix.” Every person. Goldsmith’s account suggests that the sheer number of “threats,” combined with the fact that these scarcely ever lead to anything, never inspired analysts and policymakers to consider the rather plausible, if arguable, conclusion that there was little or nothing out there to fear. Rather, it caused them — exclusively it seems — to embrace the dead opposite: “The want of actionable intelligence combined with a knowledge of what might happen produced an aggressive, panicked attitude that assumed the worst about threats.”

To be clear, Mueller and Stewart’s jaundiced view of the Threat Matrix goes hand-in-hand with their highly skeptical view of the U.S. security state (the main part of the academic paper argues that NSA domestic surveillance has no empirical justification). Since neither the actual threat level nor the U.S. government’s Threat Matrix can be studied, there is no way of independently evaluating the extent to which the Threat Matrix reflects real fears. However, they do at least offer prima facie evidence that government decisionmaking about national security is affected by a kind of cognitive overload which may, very possibly, lead officials to (in Tenet’s description) to drive themselves crazy thinking about all the bad things that could happen.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.

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Henry Farrell · January 16, 2014