Failure is an Option, Failing to Learn is Not

By Sherry Harowitz

Movie Director James Cameron noted recently that the mantra “failure is not an option” isn’t appropriate for creative endeavors. In fact, he says, failure is critical to the creative process. Mark Pincus and other business gurus have noted that businesses, too, must embrace the concept of failure so long as they know how to “fail fast,” by experimenting, learning, adapting, and moving forward.

Where security is concerned—especially in the fight against terrorism—it’s much harder to laud the benefits of failure, given that lives are on the line. That the concept is harder to accept for security does not, however, make it less true. Like it or not, false starts, missteps, and dead ends are an inevitable part of the journey when the path is uncharted. The need to let staff experiment and fail without having their heads handed to them was a strength of the early days of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA, said former OSS agent Elizabeth McIntosh in a recent interview with The Spy Museum.
For that reason, governments should not constantly be lambasted because new technologies or tactics in the war on terrorism miss the mark. It’s a learning process. At the same time, we must set a high standard with regard to how quickly we expect policy makers and those who implement those policies to learn from mistakes and adapt their approach.
For example, Saudi Arabia and Britain are among many countries that have tried to halt or reverse the radicalization process in innovative ways. That’s commendable. But “while these types of programs have had some measure of success, governments have often fallen short because they failed to rely adequately on empirical evidence to determine which approaches are likely to work,” writes terrorism expert Michael Jacobson in “Terrorist Dropouts: Learning from Those Who Have Left.”
We also need to differentiate between failures that arise because of the nature of the challenge and those that can be attributed to avoidable lapses. For example, while we can’t expect intelligence collection or analysis to be flawless, we should demand that the intelligence community at least work collaboratively in formulating and executing a national counterterrorism strategy. It’s a bit discouraging, therefore, that nearly nine years after 9-11, that still isn’t happening.
According to a new congressionally mandated study of the National Counterterrorism Center and its Directorate of Strategic Operational Planning (DSOP), “although DSOP was given a robust mandate to integrate counterterrorism activities...there is evidence that DSOP has been forced to develop national plans without the expertise of some of the most important players [such as the CIA and the State Department].” The problem is that each group remains concerned with its own departmental mission, and when “faced with competing priorities, there is currently little positive incentive to choose strategic operational planning responsibilities over daily departmental responsibilities.”
Translation: Turf wars still trump the real war. That’s not an excusable failure.




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