The Magazine

The 9/11 Commission Looks Backward

The 9/11 Commission has hindsight bias out the wazoo, and we should not be all that surprised.

Apr 26, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 31 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

TO SOME EXTENT it was probably inevitable that the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States--the "9/11 Commission" lately so much in the news--would deal unfairly with those individuals and agencies who were "supposed to" defend us against the attacks in question. Modern behavioral science teaches us to expect as much.

Roughly 30 years ago, a researcher named Baruch Fischoff conducted a psychology experiment that's since become famous--as psychology experiments go--for its lessons about the risks and limitations of postmortem analysis. Fischoff divided his subjects into five groups. All were given a thumbnail history of a 1914 armed conflict between British imperial forces and Gurkha irregulars in India, along with a multiple-choice list of possible outcomes. Four of the groups were told which answer was "true," though each was assigned a different "true" answer. The fifth, a control group of volunteers, was told nothing at all about how the fighting ended. And then all five were asked to estimate how likely each suggested result had been while the fighting was still going on, the idea being to measure what Fischoff called "hindsight bias." If his subjects were told that "the British ultimately won," for instance, would that information alone make British victory seem to have been a surer thing all along?

The answer was yes. Hindsight bias, it turned out, was a big deal--and a big obstacle to impartial and accurate reconstruction of other people's decisions and performance. In fact, from Baruch Fischoff's Gurkha study and similar research, psychologists have since determined that impartial, and accurate, reconstruction of other people's decisions and performance is just short of impossible: Generally speaking, a "foreseeable" event is going to look twice as foreseeable once it's actually occurred. And there is little that even the most scrupulous after-the-fact investigator can do to immunize himself against this prejudice: Our tendency to think that what's obvious now ought also to have been obvious beforehand appears to be innate. If something bad has happened, for example, we're instinctively inclined to the view that someone--who "should have seen it coming"--failed to do his job.

So the 9/11 Commission has hindsight bias out the wazoo, and we should not be all that surprised.

But the tone and general conduct of the Commission's proceedings--setting aside the project's substantive direction for the moment--cannot be excused so easily. The Commission's public hearings--especially since former National Security Council counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke showed up to "apologize" to the nation, Kobe Bryant-style--have dissolved into protracted witness-grilling sessions. Each hearing begins with the reading of an extensive "staff statement" containing "preliminary" conclusions on the topic of the day. And then, when the network television cameras start burning, the commissioners ask their questions--of witnesses who've already been interviewed at length in private. More and more, the public questions don't even pretend to be judicious. The CIA made a terrible mistake there, didn't it, Mr. Tenet? Or: What did the president know and when did he know it, Ms. Rice?--this, about a purportedly revelatory pre-World Trade Center urgent "warning" Bush received concerning aircraft hijackings by al Qaeda.

The document at issue, incidentally, an August 6, 2001, "presidential daily briefing," has now been declassified and released. It is not revelatory; it was front-page news two years ago. And it is not an urgent warning, either, not about hijackings anyway. If anything, the memo rather minimizes the possibility: "We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting" about al Qaeda, it advises--clearly implying that this "more sensational threat reporting," hijacking being the only mentioned example, was exaggerated.

You'd like the CIA to have known better, of course. And, yes, the fact that they didn't--and that various other agencies and individuals didn't know or do what only now it becomes plain they could have--suggests the need for significant reform and improvement. We have previously said as much on these very pages. And while we suspect that the federal government has already begun to rearrange itself accordingly, on its own, we also suspect that many valuable policy and procedural changes remain to be made, or even so much as conceived. The government hasn't got a monopoly on wisdom where prosecuting the War on Terror is concerned; we have said that, too. Intelligent outside counsel ought never be refused. And a properly disciplined independent review commission might in certain respects have proved ideally situated to provide it.