A call to action for the intelligence community after the Hamas terrorist attack

OPINION — The October 7 massacre of innocent Israelis, Americans and other foreign nationals by the terrorist group Hamas and enabled by its main sponsor, Iran, represents a failure for American intelligence.

It's not the first time the Intelligence Community (IC) has been surprised, and it won't be the last.

Due to the scale of the Hamas attacks and the regional and global ramifications, this failure has been compared to the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the US, as well as the Egyptian-Syrian attacks on Israel in October 1973.

In response to previous intelligence failures, detailed autopsies were conducted to understand what happened and recommend corrective actions. For example, most Americans are familiar with the report of the National Commission of Inquiry on the 9/11 attacks. Decades ago, then-Director of Central Intelligence William Colby commissioned a multi-agency assessment of IC performance prior to the October 1973 attacks on Israel.

This post-mortem, which was declassified in 2009, concluded that intelligence about Egypt's plans and capabilities was “abundant, ominous and often accurate”. While some analysts considered the idea that Egypt might attack, IC analysts ultimately concluded that no attack would occur. As noted in the assessment, the IC's conclusions “were – quite simply, patently and utterly – wrong”.

Now Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines is expected to lead two separate after-action reviews. One review should assess the performance of individual IC organizations. Here, each IC agency director should be tasked with reviewing their organization's performance by determining what relevant information was collected, the analytical perspective adopted and its basis, when and how this information was shared internally and externally, and what more could be done to sounded the alarm about impending attacks by Hamas.

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The second assessment should be carried out by knowledgeable outsiders with full access to all relevant data. This independent review team should examine the various agencies to assess the broader collection and analysis challenges across the IC that prevented early and effective warnings of Hamas attacks, as well as make practical recommendations.

The results of both reviews should be shared with DNI and its staff, as well as members of the National Security Council and the Congressional Intelligence and Defense Oversight Committees.

In addition to these reviews, the attacks should prompt DNI Haines to reverse two decisions made by her predecessors.

First, the National Warning Intelligence Officer position should be restored. The purpose of the position, first established by DCI Stansfield Turner, was to “avoid the surprise of the President, the National Security Council, and the armed forces of the United States by foreign events of great significance…The warning mission will give the highest priority to warning of an attack on the US or its allies”. It is clear that now is the time to resurrect the position of NIO for warning and the DNI should appoint a highly respected intelligence officer to this position with the resources to effectively carry out a rejuvenated warning function across the IC.

Second, the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee (FDDC) should be reinstated. The absence of a dedicated IC cadre focused on strategic and tactical adversary denial and deception (D&D) may have contributed to the lack of early and effective warning of Hamas plans and operations. A few hours of annual D&D training for select IC analysts is insufficient to instill a good understanding of an adversary's D&D tactics, techniques, and procedures or their impact on IC collection and analysis. Resurrecting a robust FDDC with a strong leader named DNI will bring benefits as the US faces increasingly sophisticated threats from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and their proxies, each well-trained in the art of deception.

Some will argue that now – with ongoing hostilities – is not the time to conduct detailed reviews of IC performance. We strongly disagree.

Similar reviews have been conducted in parallel with ongoing military operations following the Egypt-Syria attacks, the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks, and many other incidents. Simply put, the sooner we understand how and why the IC got it wrong, the sooner we can implement much-needed corrective action.

The actions recommended here may not eliminate the risk of strategic or tactical surprise in the future, but they will assist the IC in deciphering ongoing, sophisticated adversary efforts to deny the US and our friends and allies, information about their growing capabilities, and nefarious plots.

We must learn from our mistakes and better position America's absolutely vital intelligence services for future crises and conflicts.

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