On 7th December 1941 the Japanese attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Americans were entirely unprepared for the assault and it resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and the sinking, or heavy damage, of all the American battleships in the pacific. But was it really a surprise? Conspiracy theories abound that the US and/or British governments were aware in advance of the attack and “chose” to let it happen.
for some examples.
Personally I’ve seen no credible evidence that the US government was aware of the attack in advance. What I have seen is that the US government had enough clues that it could have been possible to piece them together. But that’s not the same thing at all. After the event, and with the benefit of hindsight people have identified a number of clues. Put all the relevant clues together, separated from all the chaff, and a picture can be seen. But in advance that’s nowhere near as easy, there’s vast amounts of noise, red herrings and other junk which the relevant clues hide amongst. Separating the wheat from the chaff is the job of intelligence analysts and personally I’ve not seen any evidence that anyone did that in advance for Pearl Harbor.
Today the US and other countries are still at risk from attack. Today it’s mostly not from other nations but from terrorists, the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 cost many lives. Worldwide countries’ intelligence agencies work to defend their citizens against similar attacks. In a lot of ways the job for today’s intelligence analyst is vastly more difficult that it was 70 years ago. Today instead of only having to worry about a few countries the agencies have to worry about individuals. The 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were carried out by a few dozen people. In the same way as in 1941 after the attacks people separate out the clues that could have led to those attacks being prevented. But today the chaff vastly outweighs those clues. Separating out the clues is finding one or two messages in amongst millions.
Many people reading this will have had arguments with loved ones at some point during their lives. Those arguments often include shouted threats “I’ll kill you”, “I’ll never talk to you again”, etc. Those we love are those who inspire the most emotion within us and so such threats can occur. Often the argument will have been forgotten within 24 hours. But in some cases such arguments do lead to people breaking up, in extreme cases the threat of murder is actually carried out. So if someone makes that threat should we arrest them? At the point at which they say “I’ll kill you”, they haven’t actually done anything illegal. In fact the chances of them ever carrying out the threat is low. I’ve no statistics to back this up but I’d be amazed if even as many as 1 in a 1,000 times that threat was made someone actually attempted to follow through.
Consider the court system. What would happen if every time that threat was made the people ended up in court. Ignoring how that would swamp our court system what would happen during the trial? The defence would say it was an idle threat, the prosecution would claim the person really meant it.
The situation is the same for terrorists. I’ve no idea how many would be terrorists make or discuss idle threats in emails or telephone conversations with colleagues but common sense suggests that the numbers actually willing to follow through will be a small proportion of those making such claims. In our courts every time a someone is charged with attempting to carry out a terrorist attack having been caught before its carried out the claim is the same. The person wouldn’t actually have gone ahead it was idle talk.
So the problem for today’s intelligence analyst is not just separating idle talk from real threats but allowing the real threats to develop far enough that there will be enough evidence to act. Laws do not allow everyone to be arrested simply for making claims, if they did a lot of us would be in jail today for those idle threats to kill loved ones.
The analyst of today must draw in clues from a variety of sources to try to piece together pictures. MI6, the NSA and other organisations claim to have stopped dozens of threats from materialising. Then along come people like Edward Snowden, telling how those organisations are reading our emails and even those of friendly governments. Who are your friends, who are your enemies? Where will the clues come from.
Edward Snowden, who deliberately broke the law, claims he’s being persecuted by the US because he thought what they were doing was wrong. In 1931 Herbert Yardley similarly broke exactly the same story, the then US government was reading the messages of foreign governments. In 1931 the result was the same as it was today, foreign governments cried foul, and worked, as I’m sure they’re doing now, to improve their security. In 1941, ten years, after Herbert Yardley told the world the US was reading their secrets, the US was attacked with large loss of life. Edward Snowden may think repeating that exposure is an act of conscience, but I suspect the effects will be the same.