I seem to be on a bit of a roll talking about threat in intelligence analysis. Please bear with me.
Radiolab had yet another great example to demonstrate this point in their piece called ‘Grumpy Old Terrorists‘. It discusses the arrest last year of four senior citizens from Georgia who were talking about blowing up a federal building and killing a number of government employees.
The story takes you down through the discussion of the question of what is a threat by looking at both capabilities and intent (although they never use those terms). Is it enough that some people say they want to kill a bunch of people? Does it matter than one guy can’t function without being attached to an oxygen tank?
More importantly, does it matter that they aren’t able to get explosives or weapons without the assistance of an FBI informant. Does intent change when, all of a sudden, you’re handed capability? Does it mean anything if the chances of getting that capability without the assistance of the very people who are investigating you are virtually nil?
Well, to some people yes and to some people no. It all depends on your initial disposition. Some people will take the position that any threat, no matter how small or unlikely to manifest into real damage, must be considered very serious. This is a version of the ‘one percent doctrine‘ which essentially says that if there’s a possibility of an attack, no matter how small, it must be treated as a certainty.
Now that was used when discussing the possibility of Pakistan assisting al-Qaida in getting nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that thinking has percolated down to include virtually any threat. Might Occupy Wall St. protesters go on a psychopathic rampage killing stockbrokers and eating their wallets? Well…I suppose it’s possible…but I wouldn’t want to create a law enforcement/counter terrorism/intelligence response based on that possibility.*
Who’s right in that dispute? Well, there’s no way to really ‘know’ since it’s all wrapped up in how much you might want to trade off security, safety, government power and risk tolerance with each other.
The podcast does a nice job of presenting these myriad views all as rationale and intelligent…and confusing. Like a Kirkegaardian choice: Either/Or. No criteria. No real way to evaluate the choice. But, you still must choose.**
I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both.
And when you make that choice, how to you articulate it or try to convince others of its soundness without presupposing the outcome?
Good luck with that.
*Which is probably why I’ll never be asked to.
**And not choosing is, of course, a choice so you aren’t wiggling out of it that easy.