Dec 8, 2023

Classic Intelligence Failure: The Impact Of Arrogance and Hubris

Image Source: Ecrusized, influenced by user Rr016 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Over the past 80 years, there have been costly intelligence failures in the United States and Israel despite sufficient intelligence collection and the presence of classic warning signals.  For the United States, the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 could have been prevented or ameliorated because we had deciphered Japanese diplomatic codes that revealed the Japanese instructions to their embassy in Washington to destroy coded materials and to break relations with the United States.  These are classic warning signals.

The failure to warn of the surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria in 1973 was particularly shocking because the Israelis had a high-level Egyptian spy who provided his Israeli handlers with detailed information on the attack.  The spy was the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser and one of President Anwar Sadat’s closest advisers. Moreover, the CIA learned on October 4, two days before the attack, that Antonov-22 aircraft had arrived in Cairo and Damascus to withdraw the families of Soviet advisor and technicians, an indicator of imminent hostilities.  This information was shared with Mossad.

In the case of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, there was sufficient information for several years on al Qaeda’s interest in attacking the United States but, with the single exception of an article in the President’s Daily Brief in August, there was no attempt to rigorously or systematically analyze this information.  President George W. Bush was right when he dismissed the August briefing as a “cover your ass” exercise.  When a female FBI agent, Colleen Rowley, provided warning to FBI headquarters of a possible al Qaeda attack, her supervisor respond with “Well, that ain’t going to happen, Honey.”

Israel had a 40-page Hamas attack plan for more than a year before the invasion, but Israeli military and intelligence officials dismissed it as aspirational and far too difficult for Hamas to employ.  The plan called for 60 openings in the Israeli wall, but senior Israeli officials said that only two were vulnerable.  The plan called for 2,000 invaders; senior Israeli officials said Hamas could deploy no more than 70.  When a female Israeli analyst referred to a Hamas “invasion,” she was told that it could be no more than a “raid,” and that it was aspirational and imaginative.  Egyptian intelligence provided additional strategic warning several months later.

In July 2023, Israeli intelligence analysts noted that a Hamas training exercise closely followed the invasion plan.  A high-level official in Israeli military intelligence dismissed the exercise as part of a “totally imaginative” scenario, not an indication that Hamas was actually planning to carry it off.  When the invasion took place in October, according to the New York Times, it “followed the blueprint with shocking precision.”  It is not known whether Prime Minister Netanyahu was aware of the plan, but for the past several years he had dismissed Hamas as a threat, stating that Hamas was comfortable with the status quo.  (It is also unknown whether Israel shared this intelligence information with the CIA, which was customary in the run-up to the October War.)

In every one of these examples, there was evidence of cultural bias, with too many U.S. and Israeli intelligence analysts and policymakers convinced that their powers were, if not invincible, much too superior for their adversaries to challenge.  The conventional wisdom was that these adversaries would not be able to strike the United States or Israel directly.  U.S. decision makers believed that the Japanese could not develop the necessary technology to reach Pearl Harbor let alone modify weapons for the shallow waters there.

In the October War in 1973, CIA  and Mossad intelligence analysts completely underestimated the Arabs, refusing to believe that Egyptians and Syrians could cooperate at the highest level to plan and conduct an attack or that they would have the courage to take on an overwhelmingly powerful Israeli state.  CIA and Mossad analysts were guilty of a cultural arrogance that refused to accept that Arab states had the courage and ability to conduct a joint operation against Israel’s superior military forces.

As a result, after the October War, the major Israeli intelligence agency–Mossad–was given greater responsibility for both political and military intelligence.  And Israeli military intelligence established a “devil’s advocate” department to challenge conventional wisdom inside the intelligence establishment.  The devil’s advocate over the past year was apparently AWOL.  In any event, civilians in the intelligence world are just as vulnerable to cultural bias and “group think” as their military counterparts. For example, both CIA and Mossad believed that Egyptian President Sadat’s ouster of Soviet military forces meant that he had taken the military option against Israel off the table.

The CIA’s failure to provide strategic warning to the Carter administration on the political and social upheaval in Iran in the late 1970s was an additional example of cultural bias.  The failure was a corporate one that contributed to Carter’s election defeat in 1980.  The CIA totally misunderstood the emergence of Islamic Fundamentalism in the 1970s, despite the presence of the movement in Iran, Egypt, and Turkey.  The situation at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research was no better; INR had no full-time analyst on the problem of Iran.

The 9/11 failure was waiting to happen because the best intelligence analysts were not interested in the issue of counterterrorism, and the best operational officers considered non-state terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda to be impenetrable.  The failure was particularly stunning because intelligence analysts had access to the infamous Bojinka plot, which pointed to aerial attacks against Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  Even when the Philippines intelligence service provided evidence linking Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and drafted the Bojinka plot, to a terrorist plot to hijack and destroy U.S. airliners in the Pacific, there was no reexamination of intelligence assumptions regarding terrorism.

Regarding the Hamas invasion, Israeli intelligence simply could not accept the notion that Hamas had the capability to attack, let alone the courage to do so.  The intelligence failure was a classic example of the failure of analysis and imagination.  Instead of using the invasion plan to inform or direct intelligence collection of Hamas’ capabilities and intentions, senior Israeli officials debated the reliability of the source and his seemingly incredible information.

Overall, preconceived notions based on cultural bias played a major role in the failures dealing with Pearl Harbor; the October War; 9/11; and the Hamas invasion.  Flawed assumptions played a primary role in all of these failures, and there was no mechanism for challenging conventional wisdom.  In each case, the intelligence collection was sufficient to prevent, or at least mitigate, the impending disaster, but the intelligence analysis was flawed and inadequate.  With the exception of Pearl Harbor, these intelligence failures took place in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, which points to serious problems of collection and analysis in a region that has become a briar patch for the United States and a war-torn hellscape for Israel.

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