Saturday, February 21, 2004

Type I vs. Type II errors

This Washington Post article is a good example of the Type I error that I wrote about earlier:
Between 1998 and 2000, the CIA and President Bill Clinton's national security team were caught up in paralyzing policy disputes as they secretly debated the legal permissions for covert operations against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
* * *
It was common in Clinton's cabinet and among his National Security Council aides to see the CIA as much too cautious, paralyzed by fears of legal and political risks. At Langley, this criticism rankled. The CIA's senior managers believed officials at the White House wanted to have it both ways: They liked to blame the agency for its supposed lack of aggression, yet they sent over classified legal memos full of wiggle words.
* * *
In fashioning this sensitive policy in the midst of an impeachment crisis that lasted into early 1999, Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, struggled to forge a consensus within the White House national security team. Among other things, he had to keep on board a skeptical Attorney General Janet Reno and her Justice Department colleagues, who were deeply invested in law enforcement approaches to terrorism, according to senior officials involved.
* * *
Imagine that instead of erring on the side of inaction, Clinton and his team had erred on the side of going after bin Laden gung-ho. No one can predict what would have happened, or how that policy would have been implemented. Indeed, even if they had killed bin Laden, that is no guarantee that al Qaeda wouldn't have been able to pull off the 9/11 attacks anyway. But I strongly suspect that it would have been more difficult for al Qaeda to succeed if the Clinton administration had erred on the side of action, rather than on the side of inaction.

Again, you can't have perfect information or perfect decision-making. The only way to avoid erring on the side of inaction, as the Clinton administration apparently did, is to err on the side of action, as the Bush administration may have done with Iraq. I'm worried about the ongoing demonization of Bush as a "liar" as to every instance where Saddam's dangerousness turned out to be overrated. This may have the effect of producing an intel process that again errs on the side of inaction, and that consistently underestimates our enemies.


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