US intelligence agencies have been guilty of four general types of error — or more, depending on counting rules. The most costly type of error is a failure to recognize and pull together “actionable” intelligence in time to foil bad surprises. Type I errors are typically abetted by compartmentalization within the intelligence community. The failure “to connect the dots” prior to 9/11 wasn’t new; it used to be characterized as failing to detect signals in noise, as particularized in Roberta Wohlstetter’s masterful book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. A subset of this type of error is being unable to detect well-established, covert nuclear weapon programs, like Saddam Hussein’s prior to the first Gulf war.
Type II errors are the reluctance or inability to predict the possibility of pleasant surprises, which become possible when leaders change, when they realize dead-end policies, or when they mess up. It’s hard to predict good news. Leaders open to changing course remain surrounded by those who have survived by not taking risks or by engaging in bad behavior. Besides, strategic culture doesn’t change on a dime, so risk-takers have to send mixed messages, signaling new possibilities while protecting their flanks.
A subset of this type of error is assessing the existence of a well-established covert nuclear weapon program when it may have been halted by decision, incompetence, or dysfunction. Examples include Saddam Hussein’s Iraq prior to the second Gulf War and Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya.