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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

On the 9/11 Commission

I have tried hard to ignore the commission but was drawn into the hearings after Richard Clarke's testimony made the rounds the other day. Given the uproar over Dr. Rice not testifying, which is a bit hypocritical of the Left, I felt compelled to throw in my dos pesos.

The events of 9/11 were tragic and while many might have imagined the events and might have even warned that they were going to occur, the President (whether Clinton or Bush) has to make a decision how to respond to such warnings. One response is to blow the hell out of the suspected terrorists by dropping cruise missles, smart bombs, or the 101st airborne. The other is to take a "wait and see attitude." The former is likely to be successful in a military sense but not in a political sense. The latter is really not a winner in either way, but in this situation Presidents are likely to be concerned with minimizing political loss.

The hijacking game played up to the morning of 9/11 was a sequential game. First period, hijackers take the plane. Second move, cooperate with hijackers and c) go to Havana for a few days before being released. The 9/11 hijackers counted on this being the way we would play the game in stages (a) and (b). Stage (c) is where things tragically changed - and there is really no way for any President to know that the rules are going to change ahead of time. However, it is important to recognize how quickly the new rules of the game were incorporated into individual behavior - witness those on UA98 over Pennsylvania.

Before 9/11, Presidents Clinton and Bush took Mr. Clarke's warnings and essentially did the following mental statistics. Assume Mr. Clarke is wrong (i.e., that is the null hypothesis), has Mr. Clarke presented enough information for me to refute that hypothesis. If the Presidents felt that he had not when in actuality he had, the President's committed a Type II error - falsely failing to reject a null hypothesis. On the other hand, if they had decided that he was right when he wasn't, responded with military action in a (truly) preemptive strike, the Presidents would have committed a Type I error - false rejecting a null hypothesis.

The reason that it is important to see the 9/11 Events as a Type II error is that it is consistent with our foreign and domestic policy. In our criminal cases, the null hypothesis is that the defendant is innocent and the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the null hypothesis should be rejected, i.e., a guilty virdict should be decided. Our "innocent until proven guilty" is different than other countries, e.g., Soviet Russia, in which the null hypothesis is "guilty until proven innocent," which is nearly impossible. Moreover, our system tries to minimize the Type I error - falsely convicting the innocent - at the expense of some Type II errors - letting the guilty criminal go free.

The 9/11 response by President Bush/Gore/Clinton/Kerry would have been the same - both ex post and ex ante. That is because our system is based upon the "innocent until proven guilty." The events of 9/11 definitely proved one group of people "guilty" or at least proving that their assumed innocence or lack of credible threats was a Type II error. This error was quickly reversed - the Taliban fell within months.

Mr. Clarke seems frustrated by his failed attempts to convince two different administrations that Al Qaeda was a serious threat, but it also seems that he fundamentally misunderstands geopolitics and the natural (thank goodness) assumption that most people do not deem us harm and that we cannot (as a country) impose harm unless acted upon first.

Some can still argue that Iraq was a preemptive war - others can argue that it is an extension of the 1990 conflict and was warranted by Hussein's continued flaunting of U.N. resolutions. The strategic impacts of Iraq will continue to be debated into the future.

However, to BLAME Bush for 9/11 is simply not a credible claim given the natural (and commendable) desire to minimize Type I errors - in this case dropping bombs on truly innocent people and sacrificing huge amounts of political capital at home and abroad - while accepting some amount of Type II error - in this case that something horrific might actually happen.

In statistics it is widely recognized that it is not practical to minimize either Type I or Type II errors, there is almost always some probabilty of one or both in every decision. This is also the case in the "War on Terror" - there is a Type II error and there most likely will be a future calamity on the U.S. mainland. There is not much Pres. Bush or a Pres. Kerry can do to drive the Type II error to zero without dramatically increasing the Type I error.

Mr. Clarke either realizes this and lies or he doesn't realize it and he is not as smart as he thinks he is.

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