Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 12, 2009

Nidal Hasan and the problem of connecting the dots

Filed under: Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Christopher Bellavita on November 12, 2009

Was Nidal Hasan’s atrocity at Fort Hood an act of domestic terrorism?

According to some news reports, he did yell the violent Islamic radical terrorist’s apparently obligatory Allahu Akbarbefore murdering and wounding almost 50 Americans.

Or did Nidal Hasan snap under what has been termed “emotional, ideological and religious pressures?”

Are there some other reason we don’t know yet?

Should the FBI be blamed for not investigating months ago the “… red flags, and … signs that should have raised alarms?” asked one of the many officials “speaking [to the media] on condition of anonymity.”

Or was it the military who “missed the danger signs?”

Or maybe the entire intelligence community?

Where have we heard this before?

The 9/11 Commission famously wrote:

The importance of integrated, all source analysis cannot be overstated.  Without it, it is not possible to “connect the dots.”

How come no one connected the dots before Hasan’s brutal act?  How many more dots are out there in the military and the civilian worlds that we should be connecting?

People are already asking those questions.   Google “Nidal Hasan” and “connect the dots” and you will find hundreds of hits.  Maybe thousands by the time you read this.


I value the 9/11 Commission Report.  I think it is the best government report I’ve ever read.  It is not perfect.  But it does set a standard for clarity and — in many sections — comprehensiveness.

I do fault the Report for starting – or at least fertilizing — homeland security’s “connect the dots” meme.

I think asking for dot connection confuses real life with what children do with pencils on the already-outlined images of windmills and teddy bears in their Toys R Us booklets.  I think it creates false expectations about what the nation can expect from its intelligence community. And in the process lets the rest of us off the hook when it comes to paying attention.

The newly rising echo about dots reminded me of the September 2004 essay that first caused me to doubt the appropriateness of the metaphor for homeland security.  The article, by Max Boisot, is titled “Connecting the Dots: from data processing to pattern processing.” It is from an electronic journal called Omnipedia that I don’t think is being published any more.  But its owners, The International Futures Forum, have kindly made the 14 issues they did publish available (here).   The “Connecting the Dots” article can be download in pdf format here. But since it is brief, I am taking the liberty of republishing a substantial part of it below.


“…we believe that pleading for more dots is to mistake the nature of the problem posed by international terrorism, and that even recognizing the significance of the information is a task that exceeds the capacity of a single organization such as the CIA.

Consider Figure 1 [below] where the relationship between dots, links and patterns is highlighted [dots on the left, links in the middle, patterns on the right]. An arithmetic increase in the number of dots  to play with  –  high quality or otherwise – leads to a geometric increase in the possible connections or links that one can establish between them and to an exponential increase in the number of patterns that can be generated from connected dots.


From this figure we can derive Table 1 below :


If 4 dots lead to 6 possible links – as indicated in Figure 1 – it also generates 64 possible patterns. Add 6 further dots and you get 10 dots generating 45 possible links and approximately 3.5 trillion possible patterns. Now add a further 2 dots and you are dealing with 66 possible links but with approximately 4,700 quadrillion possible patterns.

The implication of this table is that whatever we feel about the need for more high quality dots to connect – and we are not denying that the need is a real one – if we are not to drown in a sea of unprocessable data, we also need to find a way of identifying meaningful patterns among the much larger number of those that are meaningless.

Even if you don’t get the pattern, you get the picture.

This need for variety reduction brings us to an important if much misunderstood distinction between data, information, and knowledge. Simplifying somewhat, dots are environmental signals that register with an agent as data — things that attract our attention because they are anomalous. Links between dots constitute information that an agent extracts from the data, and the patterns that can be derived from such information when properly filtered can become actionable knowledge for the agent. The intelligence challenge is thus one of pattern processing rather than of simple data processing — i.e., processing dots. The two are really quite different. The latter might just be carried out by one organization, no matter how intelligent. The former needs to be distributed to those best placed to sift out significant from insignificant patterns: those closest to the action.

If pattern processing is so much more challenging than data processing, it cannot be done by the intelligence services alone. The only way to deal with the challenge is to apply the concept of neighbourhood watch to problems of terrorism and security and to do so on a global basis. It will pose in a novel way the question: who is my neighbour?

Hopefully it will be someone located in Peshawar who is as disgusted with the terrorist phenomenon as I am. But how, then, do I relocate my potential neighbour in Peshawar into a “love” loop and out of a “fear” loop? Clearly, we are dealing here with a hearts-and-minds issue, and unfortunately, not one that current institutional players have proved very attentive to or competent in dealing with.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

November 12, 2009 @ 8:55 am

Great post and will take some time for me to hopefully intelligently absorb.

The INTEL functions of collection, analysis, and dessimination are all part of the collect the dots syndrome. Raw intelligence may or may not be meaningful so that requires analysis. My belief is that the 9/11 Commission focus was not on collection or analysis but dessimination. The “need-to-know” doctrine resulted in thse needing to know to NOT know. That is where the system broke down.

Comment by Pat Longstaff

November 12, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

In a world where some people/organizations have access to a LOT of data, some would demand that those people/organizations have the responsibility to know what it all MEANS and to use it to make accurate predictions.
For the reasons set out by Chris above, and many others, can we PLEASE stop looking for someone to blame when one person or one agency (or one group of agencies) cannot predict very complex and evolving situations. Especially when they must ALSO accomplish other things – like respecting religious beliefs.

I regret that the media is facilitating this tragic game. This week agencies have arranged themselves in a circle and, sure enough, everyone has started to fire towards the middle. Interesting theater. Bad public administration.
We need a dialog about this now – before our enemies (or maybe a few unpredictable mentally ill people) cause us to do permanent damage to public confidence in government. Even a government with lots of data cannot predict the activities of every citizen, every soldier, or every person who boards an airplane. To get even close that predictive capacity would require such destruction of constitutional rights that every military death since the revolution would have been in vain.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 12, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

Pat! Am sympathetic with your argument but for roughly $75B per annum we should at least get the INTEL community to get some of the big ones right. I won’t laundry list the ones we know they got wrong and of course due to classification they indicate many successes. All I know is that I missed the totality of what the dynamics were of the Islamic World and apparently so did STATE and CIA and DIA and the Armed Forces. Additonally so did the Academic Community. Hey Pew Foundation says current numbers of people of Islamic Faith exceed 1.57 B! Russian numbers today are below 150M and admittedly they have strategic strike capability. But it seems with 6 B plus on the earth, 20% of the population deserves some coverage. Even now less than 10 FBI gold badge agents with level 3 (state FSO exam) middle easter languages, fewer than 30 at State Department, fewer than 30 CIA, fewer than 30 DIA, and the Armed Services do have almost 500 soldiers with some middle-easter or S. Asia language capability but I see repeated stories of company grade commanders begging for personnel that can talk to people. You only can go so far talking through others. Apparently over 1 million mainland Chinese not including Hong Kong are fully fluent in English. We have less than 5,000 fully fluent US citizens just in Mandarin. Much less other Chinese dialects. What I question is the basic competence and leadership of the INTEL community? Hoping I am very wrong. But competence is a building block approach to me and we produce more classics scholars in US than Asian or Islamic Scholars. I am glad of that and Phil Palin probably glad also, but hey last I heard Latin and Greek were not being used by many terrorists or enemies or potential enemies. Hoping some commenter shows my numbers way off. But don’t think so. By the way last I knew more contractor personnel had top CIA clearances than civil service personnel. Keep building those SKIfs (in corporate hqs)!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

November 13, 2009 @ 5:53 am

What I perceive, at least in the media reaction to the Ft. Hood shooting, is an immediate assumption that something has gone wrong, so someone is to blame. Further, that someone is an “official.”

This exposes another working assumption: It is the job of officialdom to preempt dangerous patterns through early intervention. Officials should monitor and control the environment.

What I understand from Bellavita’s and Boisot’s writing is that if such a role depends on pattern recognition, these assumptions are misplaced. (No matter how many billions we spend.) In fact, continuing to behave consistent with these assumptions is to perpetuate a dangerous illusion; an illusion being reinforced by most media reports.

While it may go beyond Bellavita and Boisot, the suggestion of a “neighborhood watch” would seem to point to a crucial role for many of us who are not official watchers. Don’t the rigors of pattern recognition also require going considerably beyond full implementation of Suspicious Activity Reporting? (http://www.ncirc.gov/sar/)

What a thoughtful piece of investigative journalism might give attention to is the role of teachers, co-workers, friends, and family in listening, counseling, and confronting Hasan. Monstrous behavior has predictable origins, but those origins usually require recognition and intervention much earlier and more nuanced than SAR or any intelligence program can offer.

To me and so far, the Hasan murders have much more in common with the Seung-Hui Cho murders than any other diagnostic category. In the case of Virginia Tech there were also plenty of missed opportunities by both officials and others to intervene. From the Tech tragedy lessons-learned have been implemented that we hope will enhance official behavior. But out of the Tech murders there also emerged a sense — a realistic sense it seems to me — that this was a profoundly troubled individual acting out in a way ill-suited to “official” engagement, and instead requiring a fully human embrace of the tragic.

Just as I could not resist commenting (much earlier than I ought, if I am to break the addiction), I cannot resist pointing out Boisot’s resonant question, “Who is my neighbor?” Just in case this sounds vaguely familiar:

He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

This immediately precedes the story of the good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

Comment by William R. Cumming

November 13, 2009 @ 10:38 am

Well Phil a helpful comment! Who is the “other” and how do the politicians treat or use the “other” to raise tensions and fear. Perhaps the best neighborhood watch ever was not under the GESTAPO during the Hitler years in Germany but under the German Democratic Republic (the former EAST GERMANY) and their STASI [Secret Police)!Opening of STASI files have shown two things. Up to 1/3 of all E. Germans were informers of or to the STASI (many paid). Also that the US had extensive dealings and deals with the STASI! Of course my favorite role-model of the STASI is their running of the Olympic Doping regime for the DRG! Many of those people are now assisting CHINA win gold medals. Hey be careful what you wish for? I do have a question? Workplace violence procedures and rules and related matters are now in place in many major corporations and government agencies! How about FT HOOD and the Army and other military installations?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

November 13, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

I think one part of this issue is that there were “dots” to connect pre-9/11. Reports (not concerns) of people learning to fly but not land a plane; hijackers stopped for traffic violations; CIA watch-listed terrorists entering the country without federal or local notification. This was likely a case where not only a pattern existed in the fire hydrant of possible dots, but a real string that could have been pulled that might have unraveled the plot.

Of course now every potential plot will be expected in hindsight to have similar points of disruption, when in fact the next successful large, complex terrorist attack within the US may evade all our current attempts at prevention.

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