Warning of Terror: Explaining the Failure of Intelligence Against Terrorism
Dahl, Erik J.
- Submitted in partial fulfillment of the degree Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Abstract: Many scholars have studied intelligence failure and developed theories to explain disasters such as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Others have examined the rising threat of terrorism, and see it as posing a particularly difficult challenge for the intelligence comm... read moreunity. But little work has been done to integrate the earlier literature on intelligence failure with the newer threat of terrorist attack. This thesis attempts to answer the question: How well do traditional theories of intelligence failure and strategic surprise account for the inability of the intelligence community to warn of terrorist attacks? Three schools of thought can be found in the literatures on intelligence and on terrorism, and for each school several hypotheses will be developed and tested against a particular case study: the bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Lebanon in 1983. While the Beirut bombing does appear to confirm several of these hypotheses, none of these schools of thought will be shown to satisfactorily explain the limitations of the intelligence community in the fight against terrorism. While the factors that produce surprise in terrorist attacks are familiar, the nature of that surprise, and the effects created, can be very different. Instead, an alternative approach toward the study of intelligence failure will be briefly introduced. This is what sociologist Charles Perrow has called normal accident theory. Accident theory suggests that while traditional theories of intelligence may be sufficient to explain the causes of intelligence failure, the inevitability of that failure may arise from the complex nature of the intelligence system. In addition, normal accident theory suggests that much of the literature on intelligence failure, which focuses on the problems caused by human perception and cognition, may be misguided and even counterproductive.read less