Anomalous Mistake-driven Opportunity Creation (AMOC) occurs when a government official charged with a certain problem commits an extraordinary errorone so inconceivable that no one can imagine that he/she has perpetrated it. And therefore the official gets away with it.

As a consequence of the error, the problem takes on catastrophic dimensions. So the official becomes the recipient of a flood of publicity, sympathy, and resources to combat the newly overwhelming problem. An anomalous mistake creates a wonderful opportunity that can be exploited to the hilt for years to come: AMOC!

In recent American history, two examples stand out, though the degree of wittingness of the culprits sharply differs.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001al Qaeda’s crashing of hijacked airliners into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagonhave been ascribed to a massive intelligence failure, with FBI, CIA, and other intelligence community organizations sharing the blame. After initial White House stalling, the 9/11 Commission compiled a Report.

Much of that Report is of good quality; it provides detailed information and level-headed analysis.

But in the most important ways, the Report is a cover-up. What appears to have happened is that the Republicans and Democrats on the Committee staff tacitly conspired to suppress any really damaging information about the negligence of Presidents Bush and Clinton, respectively. While Bush’s negligence proved much more grievous because he was in office during the immediate run-up to the attacks, Clinton was evidently not without blame.

The identification in summer 2000 of Mohamed Atta and three other 9/11 terrorists by the Able Danger data mining team in the Department of Defense was conveyed to the Committee staff in several forms but did not show up in the report. The staff has changed its story regarding this failure several times and clearly has lost credibility. The simplest explanation is that this information was damning to Bush, so the staff suppressed it. One might well ask: who else knew of this information before 9/11? Did it find its way to the Secretary of Defense or the White House? Why did it take almost four years after 9/11 for such important information to become public?

The part of the Report referring to the nature of the knowledge available to the President and Vice President before the attacks, and their responses, was an even more critical cover-up.

In fact, although American intelligence agencies committed many errors in tracking the terrorists, at the end of the day there was no intelligence failure. In addition to the earlier DoD identification of Atta and his gang, CIA issued a report on August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US”. That was a general yet very pointed warning. It couldn’t be more clearly stated. And in the weeks before September 11, the President was given specific warning that terrorists were planning to hijack aircraft and crash them into buildings.

It was an Intelligence Success.

The report from the Minnesota office of the FBI regarding Zacarias Moussaoui, the flight school student and suspected terrorist, was sent about four weeks before September 11 to FBI headquarters, where incompetent handling and assessment permitted it to escape the attention it merited and to lead to the arrest of Moussaoui. However, as was routine in any issue regarding potential terrorist activity, a copy was also sent to CIA. CIA analysts and management were well aware of the mid-1990s Bojinka plot that al Qaeda had hatched in the Philippines and that had planned to crash hijacked aircraft into key buildings, including CIA headquarters. CIA, which had evidence regarding Moussaoui’s ties to al-Qaeda, worked diligently to have Moussaoui arrested; but FBI refused on legal grounds. The FBI report came to the attention of Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet in a briefing item entitled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly”, according to Tenet’s own congressional testimony.

Tenet or some other CIA briefer evidently reported it to the President and Vice President, but Bush took no action to disrupt the plot or protect key targets. The Moussaoui caseand very possibly other such intelligenceprovided the necessary and sufficient information for a reasonable person to take preventive measures. Bush’s failure to do so constituted a clear case of criminal negligence. Executives in the private sector guilty of such a colossal mistake leading to terrible losses of life and property would have been sent to prison.

This account explains:

  • why Tenet has vehemently denied that CIA was guilty of an intelligence failure;
  • why, instead of firing Tenet, an appropriate response to such a colossal apparent failure, the President visited CIA headquarters two weeks after the attack and thanked CIA employees for doing a fine job, at a time when CIA seemed to have disgraced itself;
  • why the President sought to avoid a thorough investigation of the purported intelligence failure; and
  • why the White House refused to provide to official inquiries into the purported intelligence failure full access to the intelligence he had received in the period preceding September 11.

Instead of admitting responsibility, the President (backed by the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense, who were responsible for the negligent positioning of USAF jets to protect New York City in Massachusetts and those to protect Washington, D.C. in Norfolk. Virginia) proceeded to

  • whip up patriotic sentiment;
  • bask in exceedingly high popularity ratings;
  • suggest that the Democrats were less than fully patriotic;
  • launch a War on Terrorism without limits in space, time, or budget and with incalculable long-term consequences; and then
  • launch a war on Iraq.

A second, ongoing case of AMOC involves the HIV epidemic that has caused many millions of death from AIDS and that currently infects about 35 million people worldwide.

When HIV was first identified in the early 1980s, the U.S. National Institutes of Health faced three options for finding a treatment for this high-priority, devastating viral disorder.

1. It could test existing drugs to see if any of them conveyed useful effects. NIH tested a goodly number of such drugs, though this testing was apparently not done in a systematic or exhaustive manner.

2. It could invest in research and development of novel compounds and vaccines. NIH invested billions of dollars in this effort, and has continued to invest in it. These investments were matched by investments by pharmaceutical companies, and the results were the protease inhibitors and various other drugs that managed to control the disease successfully in most patients, albeit with significant side effects and at a cost so high that HIV/AIDS patients in developing countries could not afford the drugs until finally some gained access to generic and subsidized drugs. In more recent years NIH has invested in research on vaccines against HIV.

3. It could test non-drug therapiesbasically, scores and scores of natural remedies and various newfangled device interventions. NIH looked into only a handful of such remedies, to some extent in the mode of disproving claims rather than of trying to identify mechanisms of action and optimal dosing regimes. Only in 2003 did NIH begin to fund testing of natural therapies of HIV, and then only with pathetically small funding and with the assumption that these would serve as adjuvant therapies, not as mainline treatments.  It is legitimate to voice skepticism about the claims of proponents of this or that natural therapy; but to assume, without testing, that every single one of these many, many therapies was ineffective constituted an enormous, unforgivable failure of  scientific judgment.  In fact, there are plenty of reasons to think that some of them are very effective treatments of HIV, roughly on the order of the protease inhibitors but with fewer side effects.

In other words, for twenty years of the most devastating epidemic in modern history, the world’s leading medical research institution, and the one to which all scientists and administrators in the field looked, neglected to investigate with the slightest degree of thoroughness or rigor a major category of possible solutions. This was a grievous, shocking erroryet such an anomalous one that few or none in the worlds of science, policy, or journalism suspected that NIH could have committed it. Nor did the public, though many HIV/AIDS patients swore by the CAM remedies they employed and various practitioners insisted that certain remedies were highly effective against HIV.

When researchers brought such therapies to the attention of NIH, they were rejected without serious consideration.

In contrast to the above case of presidential AMOC, however, AMOC associated with HIV involved scientists and managers at NIH and elsewhere who acted with presumed integrity, and there was no subterfuge involved. This medical AMOC was rather the result of inside-the-box thinking and the conservatism of the medical profession. Still, for both NIH and the research establishment that furnished its grantees, the consequent runaway HIV epidemic proved a bonanza of research funding and opportunities. Careers and reputations were made. Entire lines of scientific inquiry flourished. The initial and ongoing anomalous mistake created a splendid opportunity: AMOC!

Lessons Not Yet Learned

As these two instances make clear, it is essential to scrutinize the activities of those in authority to determine whether they are, wittingly or not, guilty of some error that might somehow escape general attention. People in authority can commit astounding errors when confronted with out-of-the-box situations. In fact, many of them are more prone to do so than ordinary people because the orthodox, fully socialized, and power-driven mentality that enabled them to rise through the System robs them of the imagination and flexibility needed to deal with anything really new and different. And many of them regard anything really new and different as a threat to their power.

The special aura surrounding presidents of the United States or the highly credentialed leaders of the medical research establishment should serve as a cause for even greater concern because it provides them unusual opportunities to hide their mistakes and be shielded from investigation of their actions.

Nor, sadly, can many journalists be entrusted with the duty of exercising proper scrutiny because they buy into the hierarchical system of authority and expertise. Besides, editors can be quick to censor a story by an insightful reporter because it might rock the boat.

Only active vigilance by ordinary citizens can protect the interests of the public.


Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history.  See the biosketch at About Us.


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