- - Wednesday, June 25, 2014


During a recent walk down Piccadilly in central London, I was struck by two things: that there still exist massive bookstores with paper books and, based on the books prominently displayed in those stores, that this summer marks the centenary of the start of WWI.

That England and the rest of Europe are focused on the Great War is no surprise. Europeans tend to have a stronger historical sense than Americans, and that conflict had a far greater impact there than in North America.

Saturday will mark the 100th anniversary of Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, firing two shots into Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie.

The actual assassination was almost an accident, since the archduke’s car had taken a wrong turn during a tour of Sarajevo. And yet, barely a month later, all Europe was at war.

It was the black swan of all black-swan events, a phenomenon that essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as an unpredictable occurrence, but one with deeply profound ramifications.

Mr. Taleb also adds that such events are often seen as perfectly predictable after they occur. Generations of scholars have laid out a tight and seemingly compelling narrative that in July 1914 the Austro-Hungarian empire saw an opportunity to crush Serb nationalism, that the Russians were deeply committed to their Slavic Serb brothers and that Germany was well prepared to underwrite its Austrian cousins.

War, which no one saw coming in mid-June 1914, has since been portrayed as if it were inevitable.

And all of this has lessons for American intelligence, which entered the 21st century with its own black swan: the horrific al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, which Congressional inquiries and the 9/11 Commission retrospectively labeled as intelligence failures — and hence inherently predictable.

There were similar charges when the “Arab Spring” unfolded. In March 2011 Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, was telling CIA Director Leon Panetta, “Our intelligence is way behind the times. It is inadequate. And this is a very serious problem.”

That followed Tunisian fruit merchant Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in mid-December, which ultimately triggered the fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and a raging civil war in Syria.

At the time I labeled the intelligence community’s performance the result of the “tyranny of expertise.” Tunisia’s Ben Ali and other Arab autocrats had weathered protests in the past. Why wouldn’t they weather this one?

We saw something of the same thing in the summer of 2001. Even with the system (in George Tenet’s famous words) “blinking red” and an early August PDB item entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US,” expectations persisted that an attack would be — like all previous ones — against US interests in Africa or the Middle East.

There was a milder form of that in December 2009. Then there was evidence that the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen was preparing an attack but, since no affiliate had previously attacked the American homeland, focus was on the region, not on airliners out of Holland en route to Detroit.

Mr. Taleb talks of psychological limits and biases that prevent us from foreseeing certain events, or blind spots created by our reliance on inductive reasoning — reasoning based on observation and the accumulation of specific data — that leads to generalized conclusions.

Story Continues →