What did you know? When did you know it?

December 3rd, 2011

Whenever something bad happens, these seem to be the questions asked? What did yo know? When did you know it? What these questions are really asking is, why didn’t you prevent it?  As is common with many Black Swans, it is always possible to Monday Morning Quarterback. THis is an example of “hindsight” bias.

One recent example of this is 9/11. Why wasn’ tit prevented? I quote from a great book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (much more from this book soon).

The worse the consequence, the greater the hindsight bias. In the case of a catastrophe, such as 9/11, we are especially ready to believe that the officials who failed to anticipate it were negligent or blind. On July 10, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency obtained information that al-Qaeda might be planning a major attack against the United States. George Tenet, director of the CIA, brought the information not to President George W. Bush but to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. When the facts later emerged, Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of The Washington Post, declared, “It seems to me elementary that if you’ve got the story that’s going to dominate history you might as well go right to the president.” But on July 10, no one knew—or could have known—that this tidbit of intelligence would turn out to dominate history.

Now a new book argues that FDR had evidence that the Japanese were planning on attacking Hawaii before Pearl Harbor.

Three days before the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was warned in a memo from naval intelligence that Tokyo’s military and spy network was focused on Hawaii, a new and eerie reminder of FDR’s failure to act on a basket load of tips that war was near.

In the newly revealed 20-page memo from FDR’s declassified FBI file, the Office of Naval Intelligence on December 4 warned, “In anticipation of open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal and the Territory of Hawaii.”

The memo, published in the new book December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World went on to say that the Japanese were collecting “detailed technical information” that would be specifically used by its navy. To collect and analyze information, they were building a network of spies through their U.S. embassies and consulates.

I’ve heard similar rumors in the past. This would seem to be another instance of hindsight bias. The article even makes analogies to 9/11

In fact, he compares the missed signals leading up to Japan’s attack to 9/11, which government investigations also show that the Clinton and Bush administrations missed clear signals that an attack was coming. [ Read: Mengele Nazi Diaries Could Fetch $1 million.]

“So many mistakes through so many levels of Washington,” said Shirley. “Some things never change.”