Jan 26, 2024

The Costly Failures of Intelligence

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

– Yogi Berra

The investment in intelligence collection and analysis continues to grow, and the failures of intelligence grow as well.  In some of the most costly failures, the intelligence collection was adequate, occasionally spot on, but the analysis was inadequate.  For example, Pearl Harbor in 1941; the October War in 1973; the 9/11 attacks in 2001; and, most recently, the October 7th attack in 2023 could have been prevented.  In the 1973 and 2023 failures, the Israelis had authoritative knowledge far in advance of the attack.  In 1941 and 2001, the United States had sufficient information to prevent the attacks.

There are also examples of inadequate or flawed intelligence that led to unnecessary force that incurred great costs in terms of blood and treasure.  The Bush administration, including the Central Intelligence Agency, went to war against Iraq in 2003 on the basis of politicized intelligence.  The CIA director at the time was George Tenet, who left government the following year with the highest presidential award that can be given to a civilian—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Vice President Dick Cheney visited the CIA on at least eight occasions to tell the agency’s analysts what the White House wanted in the way of finished intelligence, and the CIA, for the most part, complied.

In addition to intelligence failures, there are costly political miscalculations that take place on a regular basis.  Russian President Vladimir Putin may or may not have had intelligence that supported his notion of a quick and decisive victory over Ukraine two years ago.  The result thus far has been a war of attrition without an end in sight.  Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, with or without intelligence, believes that overwhelming military force will lead Hamas to release the Israeli hostages, which demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the Hamas organization and its leaders.  In this case, the Israelis are resorting to a genocidal campaign that has become a war against Palestinian civilians (mostly children).  Like Ukraine, no end in sight.

Putin and Netanyahu are not the only major figures to have been so wrong.  George Washington expected a short revolutionary war, not one that lasted seven years.  On the eve of the start of World War I, the British ambassador to Germany cabled London that war was out of the question.  Vladimir Lenin told a group of young Socialists in 1917 that the decisive battles of the Russian Revolution would probably not come in his lifetime.  The failure regarding the revolution in Iran in 1979 was a corporate one that nearly everyone in the political and intelligence communities failed to foresee.

The failures due to politicized intelligence were the worst because it exposed the lack of a moral compass at the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA’s failure to track the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to outrageous increases in the Reagan administration’s defense budgets in the 1980s.  CIA director Bill Casey and CIA deputy director Bob Gates made sure that analysts gave the White House what it wanted in terms of a Russian threat to  justify unprecedented increases in defense spending during Reagan’s two terms.  Like Tenet, Gates was amply rewarded, becoming CIA director and then secretary of defense.  Like Tenet, Gates left Washington in 2011 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Political and cultural failures have played major roles in many of the classic failures that I have described thus far.  Intelligence analysts are often wrong because they typically require a precedent before making a prediction, and the event itself must appear to be rational or at least make sense.  There were no precedents for Pearl Harbor; the Cuban missile crisis; the October War; 9/11; or October 7th.  This factor should give us some pause in assuming that Russia, Iran or North Korea would not resort to use of sophisticated weaponry, even nuclear weaponry, against U.S. interests.

Preconceived notions and cultural failures contributed to the belief that Japan could not develop the technology to reach Pearl Harbor and to modify weapons for the shallow waters there.  In 1973, Israeli intelligence underestimated the Arabs, and refused to believe Egyptians and Syrians could cooperate at the highest level of war or that they would have the courage to challenge a much stronger Israeli force.  Regarding 9/11, too many political and intelligence officials were convinced that non-state actors required support from nation-states to conduct  sophisticated acts of terrorism.

Intelligence failures often have negative consequences for U.S. policy.  The strategic surprise of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 forced the Johnson administration to stop negotiations with the Soviet Union for starting strategic arms limitation talks (SALT).  President Jimmy Carter was a particular victim of bad intelligence on multiple occasions: the failure to provide warning of the fall of the Shah led to an international crisis; the false warning of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba led to a domestic crisis; and the failure to warn of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a serious setback in Soviet-American relations.  Failures, moreover, are costly, leading to demands for greater resources for clandestine collection or technical means of collection.

The significant number of intelligence failures points to the need for greater self-criticism within the intelligence community as well as greater review outside the community.  Devil’s advocates and “red teams” that stress alternative means of interpretation offer opportunities to avoid groupthink and to make sure that all sides of an issues get a hearing.  In placing such a high premium on accessibility to policymakers, the CIA has downgraded the importance of contrarians and mavericks for providing unconventional thinking.

So Yogi Berra was right.  It is tough to make predictions about the future, and that is probably not the main purpose of intelligence in any event.  The analytical purpose of intelligence is to describe international situations and possibilities for policymakers in order to make the best possible decisions.  Overall, intelligence collection has been excellent in this regard.  Intelligence analysis has been lacking.

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