Modern societies are obsessed with numbers. We generally believe that numbers are less subjective and more trustworthy. Statistics are everywhere, and ‘experts’ constantly quote them to support conflicting points of view. Numbers can be easily made to lie, or at least, twist the truth. Consider the following headlines:

  • Few Foreign Visitors to U.S. Overstay Visa, Federal Report Says – New York Times, January 20, 2016[i].
  • Visa overstays swell ranks of illegals as 500,000 broke law in 2015 – Washington Times, January 19, 2015[ii].
  • Nearly 500K foreigners overstayed visas in 2015, USA Today, January 20, 2015[iii].

These news stories frame the Department of Homeland Security’s recent report on foreign visitor overstays from different points of view.  The New York Time’s headline focuses on the program’s 99% effectiveness. It says less about the national security implications of the 1% or 450,000 visitors who overstayed their visit.  From a security perspective, it’s the absolute number that matters, not the percentage.  

The fog of numbers is a well known phenomenon. Numbers can be selected and presented to support various points of view, even contradictory ones.

I was also skeptical that a program involving millions of people could be 99% effective; it would be as miraculous as Moses parting the Red Sea. Training and experience tell me that large populations of human beings are rarely, if ever, 99% compliant with any set of rules. Then just a few days later we learned that DHS does not have a good system to track visitors leaving the country. It raised questions about the 99% effectiveness claim.

The Washington Times’ story framed the report from the perspective of illegal immigration. It pointed out that overstays are swelling the ranks of America’s illegal population. It also reported that a significant numbers of those who overstayed their visit had come from countries housing terrorist training camps. These included Afghanistan 11% (49,500), Iraq 7% (31,500), and Syria 6.5% (29,250). That’s a total of 110,250 per year, assuming that 2015 was typical. The report claimed that “agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement do try to monitor visa overstays to potential national security threats.” It implied that there are enough agents to monitor hundreds of thousands of overstayed visitors from countries of concern.

USA Today reported that US Customs and Border Protection does not have a biometric system in place to track foreigners leaving the country. It also pointed out that this is the first report of its kind, so there is no baseline or trends to compare it against. We don’t currently know if overstays and their security implications are getting better or worse.

Conclusion

These stories highlight the difficulties of reporting and interpreting numbers, even when the math is relatively simple. A large program with 99% effectiveness would be impossible to improve, yet from a security perspective still falls short because it involves 45 million visitors, leading to 450,000 overstays. The numbers, if accurate, prove that it is a great success as programs go, while still creating significant security risks.

Putting the numbers in context, there was a recent uproar when the President announced plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Congress, the FBI and a number of experts are concerned that ISIS members and sympathizers will use the program to sneak into the country. The DHS report points out, however, that almost three times as many Syrians are already overstaying their visits to the US. The refugees are a one-time issue while the overstays are a recurring problem, so – Which is the greater security risk?

I have analyzed information for many years as part of my professional work with information systems and decision-making.  I recognize that numbers can be made to tell many stories and that statistics can be tweaked to support almost any point of view. I have learned to look beyond the numbers to question bogus assertions and baseless claims. The good news is that, with a bit of practice, almost anyone can learn to do it too, while having a bit of fun in the process!

References


The DHS Report is available for download: Entry/Exit Overstay Report, Fiscal Year 2015, http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/FY%2015%20DHS%20Entry%20and%20Exit%20Overstay%20Report.pdf

[i] Ron Nixon, Few Foreign Visitors to U.S. Overstay Visa, Federal Report Says, New York Times, January 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/us/few-foreign-visitors-to-us-overstay-visa-federal-report-says.html?_r=0

[ii] Stephen Dinan, Visa overstays swell ranks of illegals as 500,00 broke law in 2015, Washington Times, January 19, 2016, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/jan/19/visa-overstays-swell-ranks-illegals-500000-broke-l/

[iii] Alan Gomez, Nearly 500K foreigners overstayed visas in 2015, USA Today, January 20, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/01/19/immigration-visa-overstays-department-of-homeland-security-report/79026708/

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The word on the street is that Amazon may lease twenty Boeing 767 cargo planes to speed up deliveries, particularly during heavy shipping periods like Christmas. The company continues to expand its ownership and control over the chain of services critical to its operations[i]. Historically it has also turned many of those services into profit making business units such as hosting services, robotics and automated warehousing. Jeff Besos has eagerly pushed Amazon’s boundaries well beyond its original footprint to many areas of the Internet economy[ii].

One way to look at Amazon’s growing portfolio of businesses is as an emerging conglomerate focusing on modern tech. The company continues to spread horizontally into new market segments[iii], while expanding its own infrastructure with capabilities that its competitors usually outsource. This strategy allows Amazon to uniquely disrupt competitors and markets. There is a distinction to be made in this context because, while most enterprises look for advantage over direct competitors, Amazon has been disrupting wider markets by redefining consumer services and expectations.

Amazon is not unique in changing accepted paradigms and innovating to disrupt markets for advantage. Decades before the Internet, the founders of Spanish fashion retailer Zara, Amancio Ortega and Rosalia Mera, devised an innovative, difficult to copy, highly disruptive competitive strategy and business model. Their success led the upstart to extraordinary growth that turned it into the largest fashion designer, manufacturer and retailer in the world[iv]. In an industry where fashions were at best educated guesses of future consumer preferences, Zara designed, produced and quickly offered styles that customers currently wanted, i.e. before notoriously fickle fashion tastes changed. 

Amazon keeps expanding its control over core services thereby vertically integrating. Companies like Zara previously used vertical models to gain competitive advantage and leadership in their markets.

To carry out its competitive strategy Zara reduced design-to-store-shelf times from the one-year industry standard to forty-five days or less. It achieved this feat by centrally locating and vertically integrating functions that fashion houses generally outsourced to low cost foreign specialty manufacturers and suppliers, including fabric dying, cutting, stitching, warehousing and distribution. It also secured a prominent place for its designs by selling them exclusively at Zara branded stores[v]. The company virtually eliminated highly discounted, end of season clearance sales (which deeply cut into margins) through small batch manufacturing, intelligent marketing and high profile store locations. Its consistently higher margins more than offset modestly higher production costs[vi].

Amazon in its own distinct way has followed in Zara’s footsteps by vertically integrating key functions and focusing on end-to-end costs, capabilities and profitability. It philosophically moved away from cost accounting mindsets that narrowly target costs, to valuing functions by what they contribute to achieving the company’s operational-competitive strategy. Specifically, Zara and Amazon focus on the value, flexibility and innovation that core functions deliver, and are willing to trade higher localized costs at various points in their processes in return for greater flexibility and control. They understood from the start the importance of owning their systems and practices to prevent competitors from copying their innovations, means and methods.  

Zara and Amazon have been led by founders who brought distinct visions and strategies to life and then evolved them over time. These visionaries were not expendable and were not interested in leading established companies through a period in history – Besos, Ortega and Mera set out to make history. It’s difficult to imagine, however, how CEOs who are under pressure to produce short term results will choose business models as contrarian and innovative as those of Zara and Amazon. The potential risks and complications are great, while pleasing boards by taking “proven” short-term steps such as slashing costs are too enticing. Nevertheless, trading some costs for faster response and greater control offer opportunities to differentiate performance where it counts most, with customers. In this context, greater vertical integration offers attractive benefits to those willing to buck the outsourcing models prevalent today.

References


[i] Don Reisinger, Is Amazon planning an air war on FedEx?, December 15, 2015, Fortune, http://fortune.com/2015/12/18/amazon-shipping-planes/

[ii] Mark W. Johnson, Amazon’s smart innovation strategy, April 12, 2010, Business Week, http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/apr2010/id20100412_520351.htm

[iii] Erik Sherman, E-Conglomerates: Smart strategy or future problem?, August 5, 2008, Money Watch, CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/e-conglomerates-smart-strategy-or-future-problem/

[iv] Ozzie Paez, Zara: Challenging tradition – Part I, November 29, 2011, Ozzie Paez Decisions, http://ozziepaezdecisions.com/2011/11/29/zara-challenging-tradition-part-i/

[v] Ozzie Paez, Zara: Challenging tradition – Part II, December 14, 2011, Ozzie Paez Decisions, http://ozziepaezdecisions.com/2011/12/14/zara-challenging-tradition-part-2/

[vi] Ozzie Paez, Zara: Challenging tradition – Part III, December 14, 2011, Ozzie Paez Decisions, http://ozziepaezdecisions.com/2012/01/10/zara-challenging-tradition-part-3/

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Encryption and national security have been in the news since Apple and Google turned down government requests for a means to access encrypted information stored on their cell phones. Civil libertarians and national security commentators quickly squared off over the issue and related policy prescriptions. Unfortunately, that leaves everybody else to figure out what it all means and the implications of conflicting points of view. We need to better understand the technical issues and tradeoffs involved before we can judge the positives and negatives of various policies and industry positions. So let’s consider them from both sides of the argument and see where it leads us.

New cell phones from Apple and Google keep criminal hackers AND government legal hackers from reading private, encrypted information. Civil libertarians and industry have prevailed to date by denying government requests for backdoor access to encrypted data on cell phones.

National Security vs. Privacy

Law enforcement and intelligence services want the option of reading information stored on cell phones when investigating security threats and illegal activities. This is nothing new. In the past, Federal and State authorities could serve companies like Apple and Google with court orders granting them access to customer records, including encrypted information. The companies then provided authorities with the keys to decrypt files or an engineered access method (backdoor) to circumvent encryption. New phones make this impossible because customer encryption keys are no longer stored outside cell phones and there are no security backdoors[i]. This means that criminals, including terrorists, are free to transmit, receive and store information on their cell phones because, while law enforcement may get their files, they won’t be able to read them.

The desire to access encrypted information is a reasonable position for law enforcement and intelligence services[ii]. Apple’s and Google’s position that their users’ privacy would be put at greater risk by a security backdoor is reasonable and technically correct. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, pointed out that backdoors are not there just for law enforcement[iii]. Once installed they are there for everyone, including criminal hackers, who have a long history of cracking them. In this context, court orders are a mute point because criminals don’t use or care about them.

Inescapable tradeoffs

Tim Cook’s comments are on point. A security backdoor engineered to help the government would, by definition, make all affected cell phones less secure. This is an example of the tradeoffs we face as decision-makers, when two options produce conflicting effects. It also illustrates why we rarely get everything we want on most consequential issues, i.e. because in the process of getting it we bump into what other people want, or run into negative effects we didn’t foresee.

For years the government had been encouraging the private sector to do a better job securing private electronic information from hackers and in this case Apple and Google effectively did it. What the government didn’t recognize is that hacking is a function independent of who does it; and in this case the government wants an exclusive capability to hack encrypted cell phones. A court order makes government hacking legal, but technically it is still hacking and technology can’t distinguish intent or legality, just actions. So, when the industry engineered devices that are very difficult for criminals to hack, the same technology made it just as difficult for the government to do it – be careful what you ask for!

Implications

We now have a basis for understanding and judging industry positions, government wants and policy proposals on the subject of encryption and national security. Government and industry are both right and there is no known win-win option available. If the government gets what it wants, national security may benefit, but our cell phones will be at greater risk of getting criminally hacked. If industry refuses to provide a security backdoor, then our cell phones will be more secure, but national security may suffer. We can only have more of one type of security by getting less of the other – common tradeoffs in decision making and life.

References


[i] Trevor Timm, The government wants tech companies to give them a backdoor to your electronic life, October 17, 2014, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/17/government-internet-backdoor-surveillance-fbi

[ii] Ozzie Paez, FBI Director Comey – Credible and Influential, December 16, 2015, LinkedIn Blog, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fbi-director-comey-credible-influential-ozzie-e-paez?trk=hp-feed-article-title-publish

[iii] Charlie Rose, What’s next for Apple, December 20, 2015, 60 Minutes, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-apple-tim-cook-charlie-rose/

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We recognize formally, informally and instinctively that we spend our lives in the presence of risks. We face risks while driving, flying, playing a sport or going for a walk. They give life its edge and prompt us to take action. Risks can be calculated, estimated and modeled, as insurance companies do before setting rates[i]. We can handle risks, or at least we usually think we can.

Then there is uncertainty, which sounds much like risk, but is an entirely different animal. Uncertainty is what gives us that bad feeling in the pit of our stomach, trigger bouts of anxiety and make us fearful. Uncertainties can affect us like sand in a gear train that slow everything to a crawl. Humans generally fear the unknown and uncertainty is like risks that can’t be calculated, estimated or modeled[ii]. Uncertainty is the boogeyman!

Risks and uncertainty are ever present when it comes to terrorism. In the aftermath of multiple terrorist attacks our perception of risks grow and uncertainty increases. Risks can transform into uncertainty when the people and institutions that we rely on for protection appear impotent or incompetent. If the authorities come through or time goes by without additional attacks then perceived risks and uncertainty are reduced. These are human responses that evolved over thousands of years and countless violent encounters with fellow humans, dangerous animals and an unpredictable environment.

FBI Director James Comey and AG Loretta Lynch hold press conference on San Bernardino terrorist attack that left 14 dead and 21 injured.

There are a few lessons we can take from our reaction to risks and uncertainty, particularly in the aftermath of events like 9/11, Paris and San Bernardino. The first is that we can use training to help us respond in spite of uncertainties and our personal fears. Preparation and training, in my experience, can take the edge off uncertainty and fear by pre-programming us to respond. That’s why developing and practicing emergency plans, evacuations and lockdowns can save lives.

The second is to avoid making irreversible long-term decisions until uncertainty is reduced and cooler heads can prevail. Laws, regulations and policies formulated in the midst of emergencies often prove counterproductive in the long run. It takes time to disentangle incidents and figure out the chain of events that led to tragedy. Looking for solutions before we know what we are up against is a recipe for symbolic action at the expense of thoughtful response. We should keep this in mind in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack as we balance our desire for safety with our commitment to civil liberties and constitutional rights.

References


[i]Risk, definition, Business Dictionary, accessed December 4, 2015, http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/risk.html  

[ii]Uncertainty, definition, Business Dictionary, accessed December 4, 2015, http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/uncertainty.html

 

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Our instinctive response after an unexpected incident is to ask – Now what? And we frequently feel compelled to ‘do something.’ Events such as the Paris terrorist attacks put pressure on leaders to respond decisively, which makes sense, but can also lead to a few short term gains and many long-term problems. This happens because in the midst and intensity of responding we forget to look ahead and ask – Then what?

In the aftermath of events we instinctively seek immediate help and move to respond without delay. Reasonable, but sometimes damaging in the long term.

Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that we are predisposed to focus on the recent, vivid and salient[i],[ii], which explains why our sensitivities to issues like terrorism tend to peak and fall over time unless another event reengages our attention. Right now our attention is focused on Paris, where over 300 people were killed or injured. But just a few weeks before 224 people were killed when a Russian passenger plane was brought down by a terrorist bomb. It hardly captured our attention. Over the last year, Boko Haram, which apparently is now an ISIS affiliate, was busy killing many more Africans than were lost in Paris or aboard the Russian passenger plane, but again we did not feel it with similar intensity. Yesterday, November 19, a terrorist blast in the Nigerian city of Yola killed 32 and injured 80[iii]. Most people in the US and Europe will mostly note it in passing, if at all.

Taking time to envision the potential aftermath of a policy or course of action helps prevent long-term damage in the pursuit of short-term objectives. After asking “Now what?” in the aftermath of events, it’s important to ask “Then what?” before committing ourselves, organization or country to a potentially costly course of action.

This is not a sign that we only care about some and not others. It is instead a reflection that we feel psychologically closer to a place like Paris, a uniquely inspiring and cultural gem in the crown of western civilization, than a backwater place few of us have visited, will ever visit or will consider visiting. The reason we are so close to the Syrian refugees as opposed to African refugees is that they are visually fleeting and pouring into Europe, which we feel close to. But so are Africans and objectively there is no particular reason why one group is morally more important or deserving than another.

Each refugee crisis will share much with previous ones, and each will be unique in its own way. In our current environment, some refugee populations raise more security concerns than others, that’s just a fact of life. In this context, if we allow one group to enter the country in good faith, but with poor security protocols, and some of them engage in terrorism, the nuances between groups will evaporate in an instant. In other words, all refugees will be affected. Those are potential long-term risks of trying to do something now in response to an unexpected crisis.

Leaders who want to respond in the moment and politicians who want to bask in the fleeting light of international approval are behaving rationally, but the wiser ones will know to look beyond the moment and ask “Then what?” Asking it will not lead to a singular policy or preclude a preferred one, but will instead cause those involved to pause, envision and consider the potential long-term consequences of their proposals before committing the nation to an “un-vetted” course of action.

References


[i][i] Richard Nisbett, Lee Ross, Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment, 1980, Prentice Hall.

[ii] Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, Amos Tversky, Judgement under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.

[iii] Melanie Eversley, 32 dead in Nigeria blast blamed on Boko Haram, November 19, 2015, USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/11/17/nigeria-bombing/75960116/

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The Obama administration’s proposal to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees came into question following the attacks in Paris that left hundreds dead and wounded. The President later claimed at a news conference that Syrian refugees can be vetted to prevent ISIS sympathizers from sneaking into the country, while opponents asserted that the policy will increase the risks of a terrorist attack. Opposition to the President’s plans will likely increase now that Russia has acknowledged that an ISIS bomb brought down its civilian airliner in Egypt on October 31st killing all 224 people on board.[1]

The White House is under pressure from Congress and many governors to put on hold plans to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to the United States.

The White house is fighting back by touting a vetting process that Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes claimed will prevent ISIS infiltrators and sympathizers from sneaking into the US by posing as political refugees.[2] Members of Congress like Peter King, R-NY, insist that the US has no useful data on these refugees and therefore cannot effectively vet them.[3] GOP Senator Marco Rubio, who is running for president, also raised concerns that Islamic State terrorists may be planted among the refugees.[4] Who and what should we believe?

Vetting for radicals

We need to consider the vetting process before we can understand the potential security risks of the President’s policy. Vetting is similar to background investigations where one or more investigators use available information, interviews and other means to gauge the likelihood that an individual may pose a criminal or security threat. Vetting is contextual in that it must be tailored to each group, and this group is of particular concern because of the risks of infiltration by ISIS members and sympathizers.

French police carried out multiple operations to track down suspects and prevent further attacks. Gunfire was exchanged at several locations and one woman reportedly set off a suicide vest. These events have raised fears in the United States that ISIS may infiltrate fighters among refugees entering the country.

There are two concerns about the vetting process that the White House has not fully addressed. The first is the lack of available information on these refugees, which raises questions about the effectiveness of the vetting process. How can ISIS infiltrators and sympathizers be identified if we know very little or nothing about the Syrians trying to enter the US? Where would we get the information we need to vet them? The second concern is the possibility that some of the refugees will be recruited by ISIS or another radical Islamist group after entering the country, so the vetting process needs to screen for that susceptibility as well. Screening for susceptibility to recruitment is fundamentally a forecasting function, which is unfortunate because forecasting in general does not produce consistently good results. This part of the vetting process hasn’t been publicly addressed by the White House.

Many jihadists lived peaceful lives in the West before being recruited. There are Americans and Europeans fighting with ISIS, who now threaten their communities in the US and Europe. The Administration has not addressed the risks of some refugees being recruited after entering the US.

To gauge the security risks of refugee recruitment we need to estimate the percentage of jihadists and radical Islamists that historically have been recruited into terrorist organizations and how long that recruitment typically takes. If the vast majority of jihadists and radicals were essentially born into the life, then recruitment is less of an issue, provided that likely jihadists and radicals can be identified and rejected by the vetting process. If a large percentage of radicals and jihadists are recruited from non-radical populations, then recruitment is an important security concern for this program. Fortunately, we have data that suggest answers to these questions.

I’ve been involved in a number of homeland security research projects and led one focusing on the decision making of radical Islamists and jihadists who actively promoted, sponsored and engaged in terrorism. We researched over 300 known radicals and jihadists dating back to the founding of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Detailed profiles were developed for over 100 individuals, outlining factors such as the period of time over which they were recruited and whether they had ever resided in the US or another Western country. The results are shown below.

Recruitment Period and Lived in a Western Country

Years to Recruit

Percent

Lived in the West (U.S. or Europe)

. Up to 4 years

47%

49%

. More than 4 and less than 8 years

33%

30%

. 8 years or more

20%

21%


Our data shows that for the study population, 80 percent had been recruited, while 20 percent came from radical families or communities. Of those recruited, nearly 50 percent had joined a radical Islamist or jihadist organization in four years or less from the point where recruitment began and almost half had lived in the West. An additional 33 percent had been recruited over a period of four to eight years and, of those, 30 percent had lived in the West. Exposure to the West was not an effective barrier to recruitment.

Implications

The Obama administration has yet to demonstrate that the vetting process will be effective in the absence of information about the refugee population. Without that supporting evidence, the vetting process as described by the White House will likely lack credibility with Congress and with many Americans who would otherwise support the refugee program.

The data of our study suggest that even if the problems with the proposed vetting process can be resolved, there will remain a separate threat from the risks of refugee recruitment after immigration. The administration has not explained how it expects to address the risk of recruitment post-entry, which raises concerns that its security protocols are inadequate. Taken together, these issues call into question the administration’s position that the refugee program will not increase the risks of terrorism or represent a security threat to the nation.

Conclusion

The Administration is facing a number of difficult choices in the face of challenges to its vetting process and the threat of ISIS inspired terrorism. It can cancel the program; or proceed as planned with limited political support and in the hope that Congress won’t be able to interfere. Alternatively, it could acknowledge the security risks and explain to the American people why the program, in spite of the risks, is in the interests of the United States. It could also beef up the security protocols surrounding the program to correct known weaknesses. Ultimately, the program may depend on whether the American people and their representatives in Congress trust the Administration’s position that its benefits to America’s leadership are worth taking what it sees as reasonable risks to help thousands of refugees fleeting a brutal civil war.

References


[1] Gwyn Topham, Matthew Weaver, Alec Luhn; “Egypt plane crash: Russia says jet was bombed in terror attack,” The Guardian, November 17, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/17/egypt-plane-crash-bomb-jet-russia-security-service

[2] Geoff Earl, “Obama Administration still plans to accept Syrian refugees,” New York Post, November 15, 2015, http://nypost.com/2015/11/15/obama-administration-still-plans-to-accept-syrian-refugees/

[3] Dan Friedman, “If US admits more Syrian refugees, terrorists could come with them,” New York Daily News, September 5, 2015, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/terrorists-refugees-u-s-rep-peter-king-article-1.2349906

[4] ”Paris attacks deepen Republican opposition to Syrian refugee influx, Democrats still on board,” U.S. News & World Report, November 16, 2015, http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2015/11/16/paris-attacks-deepen-gop-opposition-to-syrian-refugee-influx

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Using data to powerfully convey the essence of war and its human toll is not as simple as the “stats” may imply. Large numbers about the dead, injured, costs and refugees distill human tragedy down to simple facts. Interesting, the same effects apply to technical and business presentations, so it’s not just about conflicts. This is the 1st subject of my new author’s web site blog. I was fortunate to find a great example in a Vimeo video by Neil Halloran: The fallen of World War II. This one will captivate your attention.

You can access the post and video through my author’s web site, learn about my books and upcoming research and writing projects.

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September 26, 1983, was a dry, warm day in Denver. The temperature hovered around 83°F at just after three in the afternoon as kids got out of school and life went on as usual for millions of Coloradans enjoying a few more weeks of summer. Unbeknownst to them, events were unfolding miles above the earth that would soon put their lives and millions of others in terrible peril.

It was just after midnight in Moscow, on the other side of the world, where Colonel Stanislav Petrov was settling down to another shift as the command officer of a secret early warning system bunker. It was designed to receive alerts from a new family of satellites looking for signs of a US missile launch against the Soviet Union.[1]

These were difficult times for the Soviet leadership and people. The economy was stagnant, and the country was embroiled in a costly, difficult war in Afghanistan. Leonid Brezhnev, the long-serving leader of the Communist Party, had died the previous year, leaving former KGB chief Yuri Andropov in charge. He had been unsettled even before becoming First Secretary by secret studies and models indicating that the Soviet Union was falling behind the United States economically, technically and militarily. Now his country was facing a new US President, Ronald Reagan, who had promised to further increase military spending and, most concerning to the Soviets, launched an initiative to deploy technically advanced systems to protect the US from missile attacks. These and other events had left the Soviets deeply concerned that the US might launch a nuclear first strike.[2]

Soviet fears of America’s intentions, which were later dubbed the 1983 Soviet War Scare, had been conveyed to all military personnel, particularly those working in the early warning systems.  Petrov had been told on multiple occasions that the Americans would launch a preemptive attack. But all had been quiet in the bunker that night, as usual, until shortly after midnight when the Colonel and his crew were startled by alarms and a flashing indicator that read “launch.” The fate of millions would rest in his hands over the next five minutes as he considered the warnings and pondered his options. In an interview with the BBC thirty years after that fateful night, he described the series of events:

“I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it… The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it… A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’…” [3]

Petrov took a few minutes to consider the situation before concluding that it was a false alarm, in part because “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles… You can do little damage with just five missiles.”[4] He had to wait about twenty-two minutes before he could be completely sure that it was a false alarm. That’s how long it would have taken US missiles to reach the Soviet Union. It had come down to a judgment call, with the fate of his country and the world in the balance. What caused the false alarm? The new Soviet early detection satellites were spoofed by the position of the sun, reflections off American missile fields and cloud cover. The system was new and may not have been tested under those conditions.[5]  

Colonel Petrov receiving the Dresden prize in 2013. He later told the BBC, ”I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one.”

Had Colonel Petrov sent the alert up the chain of command, the Soviet leadership would have had less than twenty minutes in the middle of the night, under fear and uncertainty, to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike. We will never know what they would have done, of course, but our odds of surviving September 26, 1983, were significantly improved by Petrov’s good judgement and courageous decision making.

Why was he able to rely on his judgment instead of strictly following protocol? He credits his civilian education, which set him apart from others in the bunker that night: “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders… they were lucky it was me on shift that night.” And so were we—thank you, Colonel!

Note

This story is included in my upcoming book, Decision Making in a Nuclear Middle East: Lessons from the Cold War.

 

 References


[1] Geoffrey Forden, “Reducing a Common Danger: Improving Russia’s Early-Warning System,” Cato Institute, Policy Analysis 399 (2001): 5, http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa399.pdf.

[2]  Benjamin B. Fischer, “A Cold Ware Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet Ware Scare,” Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, July 7, 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/a-cold-war-conundrum/source.htm.

[3] ”Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World,” BBC, September 26, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24280831.

[4] Ibid, Forden, p. 5

[5] Ibid, Forden, p. 6


Image Source: By Petrow_semperoper2.JPG: Z thomas derivative work: Hic et nunc (This file was derived from: Petrow semperoper2.JPG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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I’ve always been blessed by the better company I’ve kept. Many of the people who influenced me along the way have been outstanding by every measure. Sadly, many of them are gone; thankfully, they left valuable legacies for us and future generations.  One person who impressed me with his intelligence, wit and wide-ranging experience was Dr. William “Bill” Ratliff, who was the curator of the Latin American archives at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Bill, as he asked to be called, traveled constantly throughout Latin America. His tales of trips taken with his daughter to Argentina and other countries were full of fun and fascination. I feel privileged that he shared some of them with me over lunch and coffee.  He was accessible and friendly, which contrasted with the seriousness of his research and writings, particularly on issues of political freedom and democratic elections in Latin America, and on US policy towards Communist Cuba. He later traveled throughout China and Asia, sharing his insights in various books, articles and interviews. I always benefited from our conversations, and he was always encouraging of my efforts.

Bill opened doors for me as a young engineer feeling like a duck out of water during visits to the Hoover Institution. He introduced me to numerous scholars, including historian Robert Conquest and philosopher Sidney Hook. In retrospect, I owe him much for seeing beyond my narrow views and limited awareness of history. He never made me feel anything but worthy of his company and his friendship.  I recently learned of his passing in April 2014. Our country lost a valuable intellect and wonderful man, and we are diminished by the loss. RIP Bill.

REFERENCES

See Hoover’s short bio of this talented scholar at http://www.hoover.org/profiles/william-ratliff

Robert Conquest: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Conquest

Sidney Hook: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Hook

 

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Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons has been a source of frustration for the US and its Western allies for years. The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Great Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) have been complicated by rifts among the negotiating countries. In particular, Moscow and Beijing seem much less concerned than their Western counterparts over the potential for Iran to become a nuclear power and for a nuclear arms race to develop in the Middle East and North Africa. Why? That is the subject of my new book, Going Nuclear: The influence of history and hindsight on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, which will be available in early May.

Going Nuclear: The influence of history and hindsight on the Iranian nuclear negotiations

My new book will soon be available for the Nook, the Kindle and iBooks.

We like to think that people, organizations and governments make decisions based on an objective analysis of information and the compelling power of a rational argument. Research and experience say otherwise. In this book, I focus on one of our most pervasive, unavoidable cognitive potholes, hindsight bias, and its apparent influence on Russia, China, Iran and other concerned parties in the region, including Israel and Sunni Arab countries. To shed light on current mindsets, we’ll look at the start of the nuclear age from another viewpoint and consider US actions as the Soviet Union and China became nuclear powers. During that time, those nations benefited from nuclear proliferation in ways that continue to influence Russia, China, Iran and the other countries in the region. These nations’ views and emerging policies are anchored to different realities and biased by their own historical memories, and this divergence is adding to already high tensions and uncertainties across the region.  

As decision makers, we can learn a great deal by analyzing the behaviors and positions of the players in this saga, and those lessons can help us improve our own decision making in other contexts, such as business, work and family. Among other things, we can see how strong-minded adversaries may gain determination and an unwillingness to compromise when they see their own history through the distorting lens of hindsight. 

The story of these negotiations is continually changing, along with the risks and uncertainties of nuclear proliferation in a historically violent and unstable region. Recent events forced me to make last-minute changes to include emerging facts and developments unknown just a few weeks ago. Much depends on the outcomes of the negotiations and on the response of affected parties in the months ahead. I hope you’ll give Going Nuclear a read and join the conversation. I’ll announce the publication date soon.

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