Thursday, December 31, 2009

NCTC's Failure to Premediate Terrorism

This morning the Grey Lady featured two front-page stories on the failure of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to uncover and prevent the plot, sponsored by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The first, "Spy Agencies Failed to Collate Clues on Terror," detailed the failure of the NSA and other affiliated organizations to "connect the dots" about the plot. The second, "Shadow of 9/11 Is Cast Again," analyzed the way in which the NCTC, described as "the crown jewel of intelligence reform after the September 11, 2001, attacks," repeated the mistakes made before 9/11, mistakes which the NCTC had been established precisely to avoid.

The categories with which the Times analyzed this failure, which most likely mirror those with which the NSA approaches the problem of preventing terrorist attacks, were by now familiar and were focused predictably on treating the problem as one of data and information and detection: the NCTC didn't "connect the dots"; they hadn't "assembled the clues"; they failed in their "mission to unite every scrap of data"; they didn't "put the pieces of the puzzle together." Unfortunately, the problem with this approach, like the problem with pre-9/11 security, is that it focuses on the future in terms of probability not potentiality, as a problem of prediction rather than premediation. In other words the thinking of the NSA seems focused on identifying and disrupting plots that already exist rather than premediating potential plots that could, but might never, materialize. Sadly this posture bears a tragic similarity to the way in which the US military seems always to be fighting the last war against Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda has already moved on to the next one or the one after that.

In other words, the NSA and NCTC have failed to approach the problem of preventing terrorism as a problem of premediation. What this means on the one hand is that they continue to approach the problem as one of trying to identify connections that already exist among the terabytes of data they possess rather than trying to generate from that data as many possible future scenarios as they can. But what it means more sigificantly is that they continue to pursue the problem in terms of data or information rather than in terms of affectivity or structures of feeling. For what seems most telling about the report that the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused bomber, visited the US Embassy in Nigeria to express concerns about his son’s radicalization, is not that he came with specific data about a possible plot, but with an affectivity of concern over his son's recently radicalized affect. Taken as data or information, this report failed to trigger a security alert. Taken for what it was, an affective premediation, it might have.

Of course, as we now know so well, profiling of all sorts is a regular tool of governmental and private security organizations, which would seem to make this failure to premediate even more curious. After all, the aim of profiling (what Ryan Bingham jokingly trivializes as "stereotyping" in Up in the Air) is to predict future behavior on the basis of demographic and other personal characteristics. But like connecting the dots or assembling the clues, profiling relies largely on a model of data and information, which imagines the future as inevitably knowable and always on the verge of being fixed or determined. Such an approach is focused chiefly on using the past to predict the future. What premediation provides is an alternative model in which the potentiality of the future is used to impact the present. If the affective potentiality reported by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father had somehow been deployed to premediate potential futures, the NCTC and the NSA might have been in a much better position to have prevented his son from ever having boarded NWA flight 253.


Ian Smith said...

You seem to be suggesting (and I may misunderstand) that the folks at NSA are capable of imagining a future rather than predicting it--which is what they are attempting to do now. What would lead you to the conclusion that *any* large bureaucracy is capable of imagination? Bureaucracies are by their nature reactive--one might argue that this is good because their size and strength make them have large effects, something you don't want misdirected (e.g. Bush's Justice Department). I'm frightened by what the NSA might do should it take your advice and begin to act without the basis of the past--even though I feel your pain that this makes poor at anticipating and thus defeating the imagination of one or a few crazed individuals.

Richard Grusin said...

Thanks, Ian, for the response. My point was less about the distinction between predicting a future and imagining one than it was about predicting or imagining the future as singular and as determined by the past. In suggesting premediation as a security strategy (about which I have my own reservations) I was trying to challenge the idea that the best way to approach the problem was by analyzing data to predict future behavior rather than proliferating imagined futures. I meant, too, to suggest that the data model seemed unable to account for affect or feeling, which was what the suspect's father reported. Finally, I wondered (but did not suggest in the post) whether such premediation might be delegated to something like the wisdom of the crowd by finding a way to enlist the imagination and creativity of the online community, who generate so much free value and content on FB, Twitter, blogs, and countless other networked media.