When it comes to the problems of the U.S. intelligence community before September 11, the problem was not decentralization, The problem was the kind of decentralization that the intelligence community was practicing. On the face of it, the division of labor between the different agencies makes a good deal of sense. Specialization allows for a more fine-grained appreciation of information and greater expertise in analysis. And everything we know about decision making suggests that the more diverse the available• perspectives on a problem, the more likely it is that the final decision will be smart. Acting Defense Intelligence Agency director Lowell Jacoby suggested precisely this in written testimony before Congress, writing, “Information considered irrelevant noise by one set of analysts may provide critical clues or reveal significant relationships when subjected to analytic scrutiny by another.”
What was missing in the intelligence community, though, was any real means of aggregating not just information but also judgments. In otherwords, there was no mechanism to tap into the collective wisdom of National Security Agency nerds, CIA spooks, and FBI agents. There was decentralization but no aggregation, and therefore no organization. Richard Shelby’s solution to the problem—creating a truly central intelligence agency—would solve the organization problem, and would make it easier for at least one agency to be in charge of all the information. But it would also forego all the benefits—diversity, local knowledge, independence—that decentralization brings. Shelby was right that information needed to be shared. But he assumed that someone—or a small group of sorneones—needed to be at the center, sifting through the information, figuring Out what was important and what was not. But everything we know about cognition suggests that a small group of people, no matter how intelligent, simply will not be smarter than the larger group. And the best tool for appreciating the collective significance of the information that the intelligence community had gathered was the collective wisdom of the intelligence community. Centralization is not the answer. But aggregation is.
There, were and are a number of paths the intelligence community could follow to aggregate information without adopting a traditional top-down organization. To begin with, simply linking the computer databases of the various agencies ould facilitate the flow of information while still allowing the agencies to retain their autonomy. Remarkably, two years after September 11, the government still did not have a single unified “watch list” that drew on data from all parts of the intelligence community. In some sense, quite simple, almost mechanical steps would have allowed the intelligence community to be significantly smarter.
Other, more far-reaching possibilities were available, too, and in fact some within the intelligence community tried to investigate them. The most important of these, arguably, was the FutureMAP program, an abortive plan to set up decision markets—much like thOse of the IEM—that would have, in theory, allowed analysts from different agencies and bureaucracies to buy and sell futures contracts based on their expectations of what might happen in the Middle East and elsewhere. FutureMAP, which got its funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), had two elements. The first was a set of internal markets, which would have been quite small (perhaps limited to twenty or thirty people), and open only to intelligence analysts and perhaps a small number of outside experts. These markets might actually have tried to predict the probability of specific events (like, presumably, terrorist attacks), since the traders in them would have been able to rely on, among other things, classified-information and hard intelligence data in reaching their conclusions, The hope was that an internal market would help circumvent the internal politics and bureaucratic wrangling that have indisputably had a negative effect on American intelligence gathering, in no small part by shaping the kinds of conclusions analysts feel comfortable reaching. In theory, at least, an internal market would have placed a premium not on keeping one’s boss or one’s agency happy (or on satisfying the White I-louse) but rather on offering the most accurate forecast. And since it would have been open to people from different agencies, it might have offered the kind of collective judgment that the intelligence community has found difficult to make in the past decade.
The second part of FutureMAP was the so-called Policy Analysis Market (PAM), which in the summer of 2003 became the object of a firestorm of criticism from appalled politicians. The idea behind PAM was a simple one (and similar to the idea behind the internal markets): just as the IEM does a good job of forecasting election results and other markets seem to do a good job of forecasting the future, a market centered on the Middle East might provide intelligence that otherwise would be missed.
What distinguished PAM from the internal market was that it was going to be open to the public, and that it seemed to offer the possibility of ordinary people profiting from terrible things happening. Senators Ron Wyden and Byron Dorgan, who were the leaders of the effort to kill PAM, denounced it as “harebrained,” “offensive,” and “useless.” The public, at least those who heard about PAM before it was unceremoniously killed, seemed equally appalled.
Given the thesis of this book, it will not surprise you to learn that I think PAM was potentially a very good idea. The fact that the market was going to be open to the public did not mean that its forecasts would be more inaccurate. On the contrary, we’ve seen that even when traders are not necessarily experts, their collective judgment is often remarkably good. More to the point, opening the market to the public was a way of getting people whom the American intelligence community might not normally hear from— whether because of patriotism, fear, or resentment—to offer up information they might have about conditions in the Middle East.
From the perspective of Shelby’s attack on the intelligence community, PAM, like the internal markets, would have helped break down the institutional barriers that keep information from being aggregated in a single place. Again, since traders in a market have no incentive other than making the right prediction—that is, there are no bureaucratic or political factors influencing their decisions—and since they have that incentive to be right, they are more likely to offer honest evaluations instead of tailoring their opinions to fit the political climate or satisfy institutional demands.
Senator Wyden dismissed PAM as a “fairy tale” and suggested that DARPA would be better off putting its money into “real world” intelligence. But the dichotomy was a false one. No one suggested replacing traditional intelligence gathering with a market. PAI\’I was intended to be simply another way of collecting information. And in any case, if PAM had, in fact, been a “fairy tale,” we would have known it soon enough. Killing the project ensured only that we would have no idea whether decision markets might have something to add to our current intelligence efforts.
The hostility toward PAM, in any case, had little to do with how effective it would or would not be. The real problem with it, Wyden and Dorgan made clear, was that it was “offensive” and “morally wrong” to wager on potential catastrophes. Let’s admit there’s something viscerally ghoulish about betting on an assassination attempt. But let’s also admit that U.S. government analysts ask themselves every day the exact same questions that PAM traders would have been asking: How stable is the government of Jordan? How likely is it the House of Saud will fall? Who will be the head of the Palestinian Authority in 2OO? If it isn’t immoral for the U.S. government to ask these questions, it’s hard to see how it’s immoral for people outside the U.S. government to ask them.
Nor should we have shied from the prospect of people profiting from predicting catastrophe. CIA analysts, after all, don’t volunteer their services. We pay them to predict catastrophes, as we pay informants for valuable information. Or consider our regular economy. The entire business of a life-insurance company is based on betting on when people are going to die (with a traditional life- insurance policy, the company is betting you’ll die later than you think you will, while with an annuity it’s betting you’ll die sooner). There may be something viscerally unappealing about this, hut most of us understand that it’s necessary. This is, in some sense. what markets often do: harness amorality to improve the collective good. If the price of better intelligence was simply having our sensibilities bruised, that doesn’t seem like tOo high a price to have paid. And surely letting people wager on the future was less morally problematic than many of the things our intelligence agencies have done and continue to do to get information. If PAM would actually have made America’s national security strongel-, it would have been morally wrong not to use it.
There were serious problems that the market would have had to overcome. Most notably, if the market was accurate, and the Department of Defense acted on its predictions to stop, say, a coup in Jordan, that action would make the traders’ predictions false and thereby destroy the incentives to make good predictions. A well-designed market would probably have to account for such U.S. interventions, presumably by making the wagers conditional on U.S. action (or, alternatively, traders would start to factor the possibility of U.S. action into their prices). But this would be a problem only if the market was in fact making good predictions. Had PAM ever become a fully liquid market, it would probably also have had the same problems other markets sometimes have, like bubbles and gaming. But it is not necessary to believe that markets work perfectly to believe that they work well.
More important, although most of the attention paid to PAM focused on the prospect of people betting on things like the assassination of Arafat, the vast majority of the “wagers” that PAM traders would have been making would have been on more mundane questions, such as the future economic growth of Jordan or how strong Syria’s military was. At its core, PAM was not meant to tell us what Hamas was going to do next week or to stop the next September 11. Instead, it was meant to give us a better sense of the economic health, the civil stability, and the military readiness of Middle Eastern nations, with an eye on what that might mean for U.S. interests in the region. That seems like something about which the aggregated judgment of policy analysts, would-be Midllie Eastern experts, and businessmen and academics from the : Middle East itself (the kind of people who would likely have been trading on PAM) would have had something valuable to say.
We may yet find out if they do, because in the fall of 2003, NetExchange, the company that had been responsible for setting up PAM, announced that in 2004, a new, revised Policy Analysis Market (this one without government involvement of any sort) would be opened to the public. NetExchange was careful to make clear that the goal of the market would not be to predict terrorist incidents but rather to forecast broader economic, social, and military trends in the region. So perhaps the promise of PAM will actually get tested against reality, instead of being dismissed out of hand. It also seems plausible, and even likely, that the U.S. intelligence community will eventually return to the idea of using internal prediction markets—limited to analysts and experts—as a means of aggregating dispersed pieces of information and turning them into coherent forecasts and policy recommendations. Perhaps that would mean that the CIA would be running what Senators Wyden and Dorgan scornfully called “a betting parlor.” But we know one thing about betting markets: they’re very good at predicting the future.