04/22/2013 07:29 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

In Boston's Wake, Do Our Security Agencies Need Reform? Only Time, and Thorough Inquiry, Will Tell

Already the Boston Marathon bombing, like every previous terrorist incident, has been cited as a reason to change America's approach to counterterrorism. Reps. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Peter King (R-NY), both of the House Homeland Security Committee, derided the FBI's initial investigation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect who was killed on Friday, as an "intelligence failure." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't fault the government but argued that, in light of the violence, "our interpretation of the Constitution [will] have to change." Still others, like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), saw the attacks as justifying an increase in intelligence and law-enforcement funding. (Durbin's argument bolstered a similar appeal by the Director of National Intelligence, who earlier sought to shield intelligence budgets from the sequestering and other spending cuts.)

These two arguments are the opposite sides of the same coin: the assumption that last week's attack points to something wrong with our intelligence system, whether an isolated flub or a larger, structural problem. This may well prove to be true, but it's far too early to draw this or any other conclusion. We lack sufficient information, and gathering it will require patience and time. There are, moreover, two common, easy-to-make reasoning errors that can skew national security decisions, and which we would do well to avoid.

First, there's hindsight bias, otherwise known as the "knew it all along" phenomenon. When we know how an event turned out, we naturally overestimate how likely it was to turn out that way. For an example of just how easy it is to make this mistake, consider King. On Sunday, the Congressman said that he didn't "want to run Monday morning quarterback," and then proceeded in the very next sentence to criticize the FBI for "fail[ing] to stop someone who ultimately became a terrorist murderer." In the grip of hindsight bias, King seemingly underestimates how much noise decisionmakers must filter when choosing where, and on whom, to train their attention. Of course, thanks to the Tsarnaev brothers, Central Asia is now the geopolitical region of the month. Thus, in the next few weeks, we'll surely hear area experts asking why "no one saw this coming" (all the while emphasizing that, naturally, they did). But here's the thing: before last week, the Tsarnaevs' homelands were far from the public consciousness. As The Onion satirically points out, Americans likely don't even know enough about Chechens to stereotype them. And The West Wing summed up what even most educated Americans know about Kyrgyzstan -- that it's "on the side of a hill near China and has mostly nomads and sheep." Of course, we expect our intelligence and counterterrorism agencies to know more than we do. Still, their priorities are often dictated by political and public pressure, not to mention only those facts that are known to them. There are only so many parts of the world the government can simultaneously track.

Second, and closely related to hindsight bias, is what Cass Sunstein calls "probability neglect" -- the tendency to focus too much on outcomes rather than probabilities. This phenomenon is made worse by emotionally salient events like the Boston bombing: an attack that managed to put an entire metropolitan area into "lockdown" and that many people will view (even if inaccurately) as the first major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The problem, though, is that policymaking is always a choice between likely probabilities, and not between certain outcomes. By focusing on the latter, we prevent ourselves from accurately assessing costs and benefits. Consider two criticisms of U.S. intelligence in the wake of the bombing. From the right, there's the argument for more profiling, more FBI sting operations, and more surveillance. But these tactics have costs -- measured not only in time and money, but also in infringements on civil liberties. From the left we can expect criticisms of Washington's evident bargain with Russia to overlook that country's extensive human rights violations in Chechnya in return for Moscow's support in the war on terror. I yield to no one in my dislike of Vladimir Putin or of Russia's brutal repression of Chechnya, but until we know what the U.S. got for its support, we can't objectively evaluate the tradeoffs embodied in this and other counterterrorism policies. And decisionmaking in this domain is always a matter of tradeoffs. National security is a sequence of hard choices, not easy ones.

What America deserves is a thorough, retrospective analysis of intelligence and counterterrorism efforts at all levels -- local, state, and federal. Congress was once a plausible institution for this kind of investigation, but these days the American public can be forgiven for lacking faith in Capitol Hill. The Senate's recent performance has been particularly unimpressive. Its last national-security investigation -- into the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi -- quickly devolved into score-settling by leading Senate Republicans. These same senators have called for the military detention and trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, despite the fact that he is an American citizen, was captured on U.S. soil, and as yet has no identified ties to overseas terrorist groups. These demands, as Ben Wittes has explained, are unwise from a tactical perspective and likely unlawful. And the current Republican leadership of the House national-security committees is likely to spend as much time attacking the Obama administration as trying to get at the truth. This is not a partisan attack on congressional Republicans; some in the GOP have maintained cooler heads. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) defended the FBI, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) noted that no one knows yet whether there was, in fact, an intelligence failure. And we'd surely see the same levels of reflexive partisanship from a Democratic Congress if a Republican sat in the Oval Office.

If Congress isn't up to the job, who is? Our best bet is some combination of investigative journalism and executive branch accountability mechanisms. In particular, as Jack Goldsmith has argued, the work of the many independent, professional, and energetic inspectors general has led to fundamental and positive reform of our national-security institutions. But done correctly, these investigations take months. In the meantime, we just have to wait and reserve judgment.

Maybe intelligence failures did contribute to the Boston Marathon bombing. Maybe as the investigations go on we'll find that someone was asleep at the switch or, more generally, that the benefits of some policy not adopted (and as yet unspecified) outweighed its costs. I don't know. But neither does anyone else, including those politicians and pundits who jump, hastily, to unfounded conclusions. Instead, our job right now is to bury the dead, care for the wounded, and give Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a fair trial -- one marked by a vigorous prosecution and a zealous defense. (Getting educated about the Tsarnaev brothers' backgrounds -- instead of making assumptions -- would also be a good start.) In the meantime, politicians and the media owe it to the American public to wait for the facts to emerge and to not prematurely push for changes. To do otherwise could undermine the security of the American people, all in the name of protecting them.

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