9/11 Shows Need for More Social Intelligence

The success of the 9/11 attack was premised on our national security focus on the abstract threat of nations armed with ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. Our military might proved irrelevant to a small band of dedicated terrorists who inflicted a level of national trauma that matched the one inflicted by the imperial Japanese navy sixty years earlier.

It’s axiomatic that generals are always preparing to fight the last war. It’s time we rendered that axiom obsolete by putting enough focus on our global social intelligence capabilities.

To an extent we have begun the shift. Our national intelligence establishment has been restoring some of the human intelligence capabilities decimated during the late 1970s as President Carter sought to prevent administration officials from efforts to subvert foreign regimes they deemed hostile to our national interests.

Those efforts were directed at ferreting out intelligence about the rulers and would-be-rulers of nations that were deemed our enemies simply because their leaders espoused rhetoric hostile to our democratic capitalist system. Those clandestine operations sought to influence and even control the domestic politics of other nations — a paranoid corruption of our real national security mission that only served to antagonize equally paranoid nationalist groups overseas. We could probably trace at least some of the impetus behind the 9/11 attacks to our misguided efforts at interfering with the domestic politics of the middle east.

But in pruning the human intelligence assets who could be tasked to keep an eye on undercurrents that don’t make it into news feeds, we were left blind to groundswells of sentiments that often translate into support networks for terrorists seeking to strike at us overseas and on our own soil.

Our arsenal of hi-tech weaponry does deter other nations from shooting at us because nations are rational when it comes to launching major undertakings like wars. Such rational calculations rule out the likelihood of frontal attacks against us. But all our nuclear submarines and advanced fighter jets are merely antagonizing symbols to many small groups fed by collective anger — rational or not — against some aspect of our policies, international presence or even our popular culture.

Terrorist attacks against us always have a genesis in a groundswell of sentiment against some aspect of our national character and actions. Our best long-term defense against future terror attacks is to boost our social intelligence capabilities. That would entail not only monitoring internet discussions but employing enough human beings around the world with the cultural sophistication to detect and articulate deeply-felt sentiments that have the potential to grow into social movements that could lead to support for terrorist acts.

Such human assets — had they existed — could have provided the timely intelligence and context needed to foil the 9/11 attacks. A global awareness that the U.S. has deployed such assets around the world in itself may discourage the planning and execution of terror attacks. Such social intelligence agents could go beyond merely spotting the emergence of hostile movements and take active roles in defusing misguided hostility toward the U.S. and its interests. Unlike many other nations, our multi-cultural society provides a rich pool of talent from which to build such a social intelligence force.

A few thousand social intelligence agents around the world would be worth more and cost far less than hundreds of thousands of expensively-equipped troops burning up our national wealth on multi-year punitive expeditions.