cognitive bias

Cognitive bias, intelligence, and Operation Iraqi Freedom

Eric Garland Intelligence Analysis

In my new training course How to Avoid Strategic Mind Traps, I examine the role of cognitive bias in distorting out view of the future. The course explores social biases, memory biases, decision-making biases, and probability biases and their effect on intuiting potential scenarios, the first step in properly planning for what’s next. For a case study, I have chosen the greatest failure of intelligence and decision making in American history – the decision to engage in a war of adventure with Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Cognitive bias starts at the top


What makes Operation Iraqi Freedom such an egregious failure of intelligence and leadership is that the cognitive bias affecting its decisions was not, as it is in many organizations, incidental, but in fact a deliberate construction by the architects of the war. Cognitive bias was not a bug – it was a feature, and a necessary characteristic of any official of the Bush Administration not seeking immediate defenestration from their career.

Here are the types of cognitive bias displayed throughout the operation, biases referenced in How to Avoid Strategic Mindtraps.


Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the well-known tendency to seek information that supports existing conclusions rather than to bring new insights. The invasion of Iraq, from the Pentagon to U.S. Embassies around the world, was treated as foregone conclusion from very soon after September 11, 2001. From that moment on, the Bush Administration went as far as to start its own ad hoc intelligence agency, the Office of Special Plans, to coordinate intelligence that supported the existing plan to invade rather than to approach intelligence skeptically and scientifically.

Authority Bias

Political support for an invasion of Iraq was only maintained by exploiting the cognitive bias toward crediting authority figures with more predictive capacity than they really possessed. This proved true in both the general public and the civil servants prosecuting the war. Popular news figures provided the cover of authority to the general public, and leaders well known for their integrity, such as Colin Powell, provided this to elites in the U.S. Government.

Irrational Escalation

Related to the Sunk Cost Fallacy, Irrational Escalation is the tendency to make irrational decisions as a way to make past, faltering decisions appear wiser. The decision to “surge” with troops in 2007 may have given extra oxygen to those who recommended the invasion in the first place, but the decision was irrational in terms of its return of the investment of blood and treasure.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias is the tendency to judge a decision its ultimate outcome, but not on the result of the decision itself. Operation Iraqi Freedom was repeatedly judged on a correlated event – the lack of additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil following 9/11. This provided decision makers cover from answering for the actual results of the decision to invade, which were catastrophic.

Framing Bias

Framing bias is the tendency to distort analysis because of a narrative offered by a powerful figure. This happened dozens of times during Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the Bush Administration continued to propose different rationales for the war as old ones failed to justify past decisions. One example of this was Condoleeza Rice’s framing that Operation Iraqi Freedom was about Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear technology capable of reaching U.S. soil, saying “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” There was no intelligence suggesting that the Iraqi regime was on the cusp of nuclear weaponry of that sort, but the framing made the American public believe that the war was a bulwark against nuclear armageddon.

Closure Bias

Closure bias is the need to reach a verdict quickly in important matters rather than endure intellectual discomfort and reach a superior conclusion through analysis. Because September 11 had been such a traumatic event, decision makers at every level of the government felt enormous pressure to express support for the invasion, because it was thought that a lack of forceful action could lead to an imminent terror attack.

Tragically, this is only an abbreviated list of all of the various cognitive biases that pertain to what was likely the most disastrous foreign policy in U.S. history. Still, it provides a rich illustration of how sophisticated, well-financed institutions full of smart, educated professionals can still produce a catastrophe if they proceed with decisions dependent on intelligence analysis without sufficient caution about these classic, predictable mind traps.

If you are in Europe, consider joining me at the Institute for Competitive Intelligence in Bad-Neuheim, Germany for a half-day workshop on this subject.

Post-script: These traits are why I believe that intelligence analysts will never be replaced by software.