(CNN) -- We recently learned that U.S. intelligence agencies had at least three days' warning that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was preparing to launch a chemical attack on his own people, but wasn't able to stop it. At least that's what an intelligence briefing from the White House reveals. With the combined abilities of our national intelligence apparatus -- the CIA, National Security Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and all the rest -- it's not surprising that we had advance notice. It's not known whether the U.S. shared what it knew.
More interestingly, the U.S. government did not choose to act on that knowledge (for example, launch a pre-emptive strike), which left some wondering why.
There are several possible explanations, all of which point to a fundamental problem with intelligence information and our national intelligence apparatuses.
The first possibility is that we may have had the data, but didn't fully understand what it meant. This is the proverbial connect-the-dots problem. As we've learned again and again, connecting the dots is hard. Our intelligence services collect billions of individual pieces of data every day. After the fact, it's easy to walk backward through the data and notice all the individual pieces that point to what actually happened. Before the fact, though, it's much more difficult. The overwhelming majority of those bits of data point in random directions, or nowhere at all. Almost all the dots don't connect to anything.