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Three myths from the leak fallout

We should watch out for pesky urban legends as the country reconsiders its intelligence strategy after the Snowden leaks. Here are some myths I see brewing:

1. Experts know best >> As surprising as it is, research by psychologist Philip Tetlock shows that experts don't do a very good job of predicting outcomes. That's a good argument for debating the nation’s broad intelligence strategies in open forums. By broad strategies, I mean things like interrogation techniques and domestic surveillance.

Ben Iannotta is editor of Deep Dive Intelligence

In Tetlock’s parlance, there are two kinds of people involved in decision making. Hedgehogs are people with specific knowledge, and foxes are those with knowledge of many things. The debate over the country’s surveillance strategy was run by hedgehogs in each branch of government. We shouldn’t assume that these people accurately assessed the outcomes of collecting massive amounts of data. Did anyone compare the security benefits of a dollar spent storing telephone metadata versus a dollar spent sweeping up weapons of mass destruction around the world through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency? Or a dollar spent on more analysts and better software for them? Or a dollar spent on human intelligence? I fear not.

2. More surveillance would have prevented the 9/11 attacks >> Lots of things could have prevented the attacks. The FBI could have shared its suspicions about Zacarias Moussaoui and his flight training in Minnesota. The Bush administration could have acted on the activities “consistent with preparations for hijackings” recounted in the Aug. 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief. It could have acted on the CIA's reference to a possible attack in New York. Someone could have blown the whistle to the intelligence committees or the media. More surveillance would have idiot proofed the pre-9/11 intelligence, but we shouldn’t need idiot proofing. We were left vulnerable by a failure to share information more than anything else.

3. Using contractors invites leaks >> Bradley Manning, the suspected source of the Wikileaks documents, was a soldier not a contractor. Contractors have “the same level of security clearance and the same process for securing them,” NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander told lawmakers at a June 18 hearing. That said, there are reasons other than leaks to take a fresh look at the scale of our reliance on contractors. See, for example, “Put the Spies Back Under One Roof" in the New York Times. A big problem is that contractors don’t always have the same skills and training as their government counterparts. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the DIA director, is trying to synchronize training for all analysts at his agency under a new course called PACE for Professional Analyst Career Education.

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