After serving 21 years as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer, START Researcher Erik Dahl earned a doctorate and pursued a career in academia, where he has focused his research on intelligence, terrorism and international and homeland security. Dahl is an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he is on the faculty of both the National Security Affairs Department and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
This October, Georgetown University Press will publish his first book, "Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond," which is the basis of his ongoing research project with START. He is analyzing both successful and failed terrorist attacks on the United States and Europe since 2001.
How has your decision to join the Navy influenced your career and scholarly pursuits?
After college and a year in graduate school, I figured it was time to settle down, and I got my first job as a reporter for a small town newspaper. But I wasn't satisfied, and on a whim I walked into a Navy recruiter's office -- my best friend from childhood was a Navy officer, and I liked the idea of traveling and adventure. The recruiter asked me if I'd like to be an intelligence officer. That sounded exciting, so I signed up, and spent the next 21 years as a Navy officer.
I think it helped me prepare for my current academic career in several ways, such as giving me a lot of experience writing, briefing and public speaking. In addition, it has helped that I've either been to or worked with many of the places that become hot spots in the news every day. But it also meant that I was middle-aged by the time I retired from the Navy, and that made it a little tough to keep up with everybody else in graduate school.
After leaving the Navy, you pursued a doctorate in international relations from Tufts University. What drew you to study areas such as intelligence, terrorism, international and homeland security?
When I started out I didn't know exactly what I wanted to focus on or study for my dissertation. But I kept getting drawn back to the areas I had worked in, and in particular, I wanted to try to understand why intelligence failures keep happening. I had unfortunately been a part of several intelligence failures during my career -- such as when we failed to see the impending end of the Cold War until it was right on top of us -- and I wondered, "How can we do things better?"
Your first book debuts this fall. What are the challenges that come with writing a book as opposed to an academic study or journal article?
After spending years on my dissertation I would have told you that there couldn't be any larger academic project than researching and writing a doctoral dissertation. But I was dead wrong. When you write an academic book -- even when it is based on your dissertation -- you are adding a whole new layer of review and oversight from the publisher that you don't have when you write a thesis or an article.
You add new chapters, and you change the whole tone from "I'm a student and here's what I think," to "I'm an expert and here's what you should know." I found I was also much more worried about details -- making sure every "i" was dotted and every "t" was crossed. The final product reflects that additional work and I'm very excited for it to be published.
You make the case in your book that major surprise attacks frequently succeed even though subsequent investigations show that warnings were available but misunderstood or ignored. Are fixing these intelligence failures just a matter of "connecting the dots" better?
I actually believe that the conventional wisdom about intelligence failure -- that the necessary warnings were there, but were missed because we failed to connect the dots -- is wrong. In my book I compare cases of intelligence failure with intelligence success, to try to find out what makes the difference. And I find that when intelligence works to prevent a terrorist attack or even a conventional surprise attack, it's not because some analyst had a brilliant insight and connected the dots of widely scattered information.
Instead, it's usually because intelligence collection is much better, producing specific, tactical-level information on the attack being planned; and because decision makers have a good enough relationship with their intelligence staffs that they listen to the warnings they are given.
What beneficial lessons can the US learn from unsuccessful "failed plots?"
My START project -- which I'm working on together with Martha Crenshaw and Margaret Wilson -- is in some ways a further development of the work I did for my book. We argue that most of the research on terrorism focuses, not surprisingly, on attacks that succeed in killing people and creating destruction, such as the Boston Marathon bombings. But in order to learn how to prevent future attacks, we need to look more closely at attacks and plots that have been prevented in the past.
We are examining all attacks against the United States and its allies since 2001, and I expect we will find that the most effective counter-terrorism techniques are often the simplest and the closest to home, such as aggressive local law enforcement and tips from the public.
In light of the Boston Marathon bombings, describe the threat of terrorism in the US today? This attack was the first major one since 9/11 to take lives. Why were previous attempted attacks unsuccessful?
As other researchers with START have noted, successful terrorist attacks within the United States are extremely rare, even though when they do occur they can be devastating. My research shows that there have been more than 100 attempted attacks within the United States since 2001, and most of them have been prevented because they came to the attention of law enforcement through public tips or confidential informants. I don't actually think the Boston bombers were all that different from other would-be attackers in recent years -- they weren't terrorist masterminds. But they happened to stay under the radar, and for some reason they don't appear to have talked about their plans to anyone who was worried enough to contact the authorities.
What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing an academic career in terrorism studies?
Unfortunately, the problem of terrorism is likely to be with us for some time, so it is a worthy subject of study. But although it may sound contradictory, I would encourage young people interested in terrorism studies to not focus too much on terrorism, at least not at first. I think the best terrorism analyst or scholar -- whether working for a government agency, a think tank, or a university -- is someone who can think about the big picture, who is educated and hopefully has some experience in the broader areas of international relations, political science, and security studies. You don't have to do what I did and spend 21 years in the Navy, although that's not a bad way to go; but you do need to be interested in, and learn about, the world around you.