Homeland Security – A Guide to Deciphering Guts

On July 11, 2007, in Security, by Administrator

dhs_threat_dogs-tbn.jpgIt seems the folks at Wired Magazine have developed the homeland security gut guide based on the reporting that Secretary Chertoff has a “gut feeling” about a period of increased risk to the homeland.

All joking aside, from an analyst’s perspective, we shouldn’t diminish the role that the “gut” or “intuition” plays in the predictive analysis process. Intuitively, our gut feelings are drawn from experiential patterns that our brains use to try and predict the next sequence of events. If I type “Mary had a little ______”, you are inclined to predict “lamb” as the next word in the sequence even though “problem” or “nose” are also valid options. Secretary Chertoff is exposed to one of the most massive data sets relating to domestic homeland security threats and threats and attacks that have manifested themselves overseas. If he has a “gut feeling” that something is coming, it means that there is some sensory input that is leading him to predict an attack in the near-term sequence of forthcoming events. While I enjoy the lambasting as much as the next person, I am not as quick to dismiss it as others have been.

Of course, there is always a catch. In this instance, I would attract your attention to three catches. First, I don’t think the experiential data sets are significant enough to distinguish meaningful patterns at the level Chertoff is analyzing them. Second, we are dealing with inherently unpredictable adversaries displaying at least an notional capability to adapt and surprise. Lastly, some experiential patterns are known well enough by the terrorist adversary to allow them to engage in deception (for example the heavily discussed concept of “increased chatter”). As an essay on the CIA’s own site points out:

To the extent that perception is influenced by expectations, analysts may have missed or discounted the contrary instances. People also have a better memory for recent events, events in which they were personally involved, events that had important consequences, and so forth. These factors have a significant influence on perceptions of correlation when analysts make a gut judgment without consciously trying to think of all four cells of the table. Many erroneous theories are perpetuated because they seem plausible and because people record their experience in a way that supports rather than refutes them. Link —>

Think of the “terrorist problem” in the context of that last paragraph. Many have also been skeptical that Chertoff was simply engaging in the “politics of fear” and that using a fuzzy metric such as a “gut feeling” is a low risk way to increase the perception of threat. Given the White House backtracking on the statement, I don’t think the comment was anything but a genuine informal assessment. I know I’ve shared “gut feelings” with my colleagues on several occasions and a few times in the international media. Speaking to these “gut feelings” only provides another metric for the budding analysts to put in their own experiential data sets that they’ll draw on for future gut feelings of their own.


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