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
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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.

But this is an undisciplined independent review commission, one that's transformed itself, to all appearances, into an elaborate and divisive fault-finding exercise, and little more. Just within the past two weeks, the Commission has invited the entire world to watch, in real time, as senior officials from two successive presidential administrations were raked over the coals for errors of judgment and omission--in the wake of a horrific crime whose key perpetrator is still at large. What's the most important thing that happened on September 11, 2001, apart from that business about 3,000 Americans getting butchered in cold blood? Washington screwed up, that's what happened. Such, at least, is the unmistakable aftertaste left by this latest round of 9/11 Commission hearings.

Former senator and current Commission member Bob Kerrey published a New York Times op-ed a few weeks back in which he announced, with striking confidence, that "9/11 could have been prevented." This is hindsight bias in spades--an altogether unwarranted and unreasonable judgment. And there's something vaguely indecent about it, as well. There's not a speck of extant evidence that any particular federal employee's incompetence or stupidity made possible a disaster that could otherwise have been "prevented." Why, then, are we so obsessively looking for such a culprit among a group of federal employees who by all accounts have many of them devoted entire careers--and even risked their lives--to protect the rest of us from the likes of Osama bin Laden?

In any case, by so carelessly tarring these people, the 9/11 Commission is almost guaranteeing its own eventual failure. However many nifty ideas the Commission comes up with in its final report, if it has meantime helped spread the poisonous notion that our own government is meaningfully responsible for a cataclysmic breach of duty . . . well, then our government will not be so kindly disposed toward any of those nifty ideas, will it? This really is a foreseeable result. And it really will have been preventable. And we really will know exactly whom to blame.

--David Tell, for the Editors