Why did Israeli intelligence fail? History suggests many causes.

OPINION / VIEW OF AN EXPERT – Ever since Hamas launched its massive attack on Israel on October 7, everyone has been puzzling over how the vaunted Israeli and United States intelligence agencies could have missed the signs of this. We won't have a definitive answer to this question for some time, but you can be sure that Israel will engage in a deep and painful examination of the question – just as it did after the failure in 1973 to predict the attack of Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War.

In the meantime, we can think about it in the context of history and past intelligence failures.

When we look closely at them, intelligence failures are almost always more complex than people expect. So we shouldn't be surprised to find out eventually that it could have involved many of the things I mention below – not just a single cause.

A common cause is simply seeing the opponent as too weak to attack or not brave enough to risk losing against a stronger force. This was one of the factors when Israel was surprised by Syrian and Egyptian attacks in 1973. Israel proved strong and dominant in the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and crippled their air forces. The Israelis assumed that Syria and Egypt would know that they were not strong enough to win and therefore would not risk war. But in the eyes of Syria and Egypt, which led the offensive in 1973, it was worth the risk just to show the public and the wider Arab world that they had not been defeated or defeated permanently. They didn't have to win; they just had to show that they could still try and not suffer a catastrophic defeat in order to improve their standing and the Arab world more firmly behind them.

Some element of this was probably part of the current situation. The Israelis undoubtedly understand the danger that Hamas poses, but they probably did not imagine that it could carry out the kind of multi-front attack that Hamas has just launched, involving rockets, drones, airstrikes on Israeli cities, paragliders, street fighting deep inside Israel, kidnappings, and naval attack. It's always hard to predict something an opponent is doing the very first time and this is beyond any ability she has demonstrated in the past.

There are parallels here with the Americans' failure to foresee the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did something. they they had never done before and which the US military, convinced of the enemy's weakness, thought it was incapable of — infiltrating undetected, invading the heart of cities across the country, and attacking the American embassy—all in a carefully planned and highly coordinated manner. And there is another aspect of Tet that Israel must remember, which is that the American and South Vietnamese armies decisively defeated the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, but the enemy still came away with a decisive psychological victory that affected the outcome of the war. of war—simply by taking the world's greatest military and intelligence power by surprise. Hamas just brought the Middle East version of it.

Another factor contributing to failure is that the victim's attention is often diverted. There may be a parallel here with both Vietnam and the American failure to foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In both cases, the United States thought the enemy was concentrated elsewhere. In Vietnam, many thought that North Vietnam's objective was to defeat the US Marines' northern combat base at Khe Sanh, which was under a heavy siege that in some ways resembled the successful Vietnamese siege of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. And in 1941 The US expected the Japanese to attack in Asia in places like the Philippines and assumed they were not strong or brave enough to attack the US directly.


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Some such attitudes may have been at play in Israel. While Israeli intelligence keeps a close eye on Hamas, it appears to have focused heavily on the West Bank of late. Another, perhaps critical, distraction was that Israel's attention was focused on an unprecedented internal political conflict within the policies of the Netanyahu government. At least one military official said so adversely affecting military readiness. This may have been a factor in many civilians complaining about the slow response of the Israel Defense Forces.

Then there is always the role of deception. The United States failed to intercept the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, in part because it interpreted Soviet movements as maneuvers rather than preparations for invasion. This also played a role in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein told his FBI interrogator that of course he wanted the world to think he had weapons of mass destruction—as a deterrent to regional enemies like Iran and global adversaries like the United States and Europe. It is likely that Israel saw a move by Hamas that in hindsight will appear clearly in preparation for what happened, but which Tel Aviv has interpreted in recent weeks as a maneuver—especially if the Israeli mindset was that Hamas would never be able to carry out a combined the weapon attacks we made. just a witness.

Deception is especially powerful when coupled with an adversary's communication discipline. Example: The Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States did not discover the Soviet missile placement in Cuba until U-2 reconnaissance flights in October 1962, in part because the Soviets did not discuss it in electronic communications, instead doing all their planning on paper. Signals intelligence can be exceptionally effective—if the enemy simply doesn't shut up. We may learn that Hamas did just that.

Intelligence agencies sometimes sense that something terrible is about to happen, but lack the concrete hard evidence to make the case in a way that prompts policymakers to act—especially when they have other resources and political demands that may seem more compelling at the time or more feasible. This was to some extent the surprise factor of 9/11 in the US. In the summer of 2001, the CIA saw a huge increase in threat reports, along with other troubling indications, and was convinced that a major attack was imminent—”the lights were flashing red,” in the words of then-CIA Director George Tenet. However, the agency lacked hard data on the timing, method and specific target of the attack. We may eventually learn that Israeli intelligence sensed the danger but lacked the concrete and conclusive data that is often needed to spur action at the political level.

One of the most insidious causes of intelligence failure is that of Roberta Wohlstetter the classic Pearl Harbor book, called the “signal-to-noise” problem – meaning that sometimes the number of indications of an attack can be small and hidden in the vast amount of reports. This becomes more problematic if there are any database errors or information sharing errors. Such problems have come to light in some US missions, such as the 2009 failure to detect an almost successful attempt a Nigerian al-Qaeda recruit to shoot down an American airliner over Detroit. The Israeli investigation may reveal some of these problems.

Finally, there will almost always be someone in the system who will later say they tried to warn but couldn't get their message out. When I arrived in Vietnam as a junior US Army intelligence officer in early 1969, officers in my unit at Bien Hoa said they had warned US Army headquarters in Saigon that an offensive was coming, but that it was unwelcome news to the senior officers pushing below. -level warning aside because they were convinced that the US was winning and that the enemy was weak and unbalanced.

So don't be surprised if someone says “I told them so” in some future review in Israel.

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