Is it time for us to retire an overused expression?
Here's a phrase that some intelligence analysts would like to retire from the American vernacular: "connect the dots." I've gotten an earful about it during the past few months, mostly from counterterrorism professionals who say it oversimplifies what they do. "My kids connect the dots, usually in crayon," more than one offended analyst has told me.
The Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines connecting the dots as something "done or proceeding in a series of simple and usually predictable steps." This fails to capture what it's like to track terrorist networks and unravel plots. The process rarely is simple or predictable, nor is it orderly.
And yet the Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms suggests a meaning that works well: "to understand the relationship between different ideas or experiences." This gets closer to the fragmentary, nonlinear nature of an intelligence analyst's craft.
I'm not sure who first put this metaphor in our common phrase book. But if it's really inapt, we might consider replacing it. So, I asked some aggrieved parties for suggestions. Here are four.
Putting together a puzzle: This one works well since analysts may have the information they need within their grasp, but lack an understanding of how it all fits together. A variation says terrorism analysis is like trying to arrange the pieces without the benefit of the picture on the box. Of course, analysts usually don't have all the pieces, either.
Making a pearl: The idea here is that tiny bits of information accrete over time until the entire story forms. This does the job if you like to think of analysis as an iterative process, and an often lengthy one. But it doesn't apply to its fragmented, harried side.
Crystal balling: This connotes magic and sorcery, and that's the wrong way to think about a logical process like intelligence investigating. Analysts also don't predict the future, although they sometimes rate the likelihood of different plausible outcomes.
Discovering hidden connections: This isn't a metaphor, but I've heard it used favorably, in part because it makes analysis seem like detective work, which in turn makes it seem a lot sexier than it often is. But it strikes me as too literal. And it relies on that ugly word "connect."
Connect the dots endures in this case because it's simpler and easier to remember than any of these would-be usurpers. Yet that simplicity works against the analysts. Many people are outraged when they hear that the intelligence community failed to foresee a terrorist attack. "How hard can this be? After all, children can do it." The phrase lowers expectations and raises them at the same time.
I continue to look for a fit successor to a much-maligned expression. But I've yet to find it. Nothing quite seems to connect.
Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, and senior writer at The Washingtonian.