OPINION / EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Right from the moment Hamas launched its massive attack on Israel on October 7, everyone has been puzzling about how the vaunted, Israeli intelligence services, and those of the United States, could have missed signs of this. We will not have a definitive answer to this question for quite a while, but you can be certain that Israel will engage in a deep and agonizing study of this — as it did after the failure in 1973 to anticipate the attack by Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur war.
In the meantime, we can think about this in the context of history and of past intelligence failures.
When we look closely at them, intelligence failures are almost always more complicated than people expect. So, we should not be surprised to eventually discover that this one may have involved many of the things I mention below – not just a single cause.
A common cause is simply seeing the adversary as too weak to attack, or not bold enough to risk a loss against a stronger force. This was one factor at work when Israel in 1973 was surprised by the Syrian and Egyptian attacks. Israel had proven itself strong and dominant in the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel routed the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and crippled their air forces. Israelis assumed Syria and Egypt would know they were not strong enough to prevail, and therefore would not risk war. But through the eyes of Syria and Egypt, who led the 1973 attack, it was worth the risk just to show their publics and the broader Arab world that they were not permanently defeated or beaten down. They didn’t have to win; they just had to show they could still try, and not suffer catastrophic defeat, in order to improve their position and bring the Arab world more firmly behind them.
Some element of this was probably involved in the current situation. The Israelis no doubt understand the dangers Hamas presents but probably did not imagine that it could carry out the kind of multi-front attack Hamas just mounted, involving missiles, drones, raids on Israeli cities, paragliders, street fighting deep inside Israel, kidnapping, and maritime attack. It is always difficult to anticipate something that an adversary is doing for the very first time and that exceeds all the capabilities it has demonstrated in the past.
There are parallels here with the American failure to foresee the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, in which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did something they had never done before and which the U.S. military, convinced of enemy weakness, thought they were incapable of – – infiltrating without detection, invading into the hearts of cities nationwide, and attacking the American embassy – all in a carefully planned and highly coordinated way. And there is another aspect of Tet that Israel has to be mindful of, which is that the American and South Vietnamese militaries decisively defeated the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, but the enemy nevertheless came away with a decisive psychological victory that affected the outcome of the war — simply by surprising the world’s greatest military and intelligence power. Hamas has just brought off a Middle East version of that.
Another factor contributing to failure is that the victim’s attention is often focused elsewhere. Here there may be parallel to both Vietnam and the American failure to anticipate the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In both cases United States thought the enemy was focused elsewhere. In Vietnam, many thought, the North Vietnamese objective was to defeat the northern U.S. Marine combat base at Khe Sanh which was under a heavy siege, that in some respects appeared similar to the successful Vietnamese siege of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. And in 1941, the United States expected the Japanese to attack in Asia at locations such as the Philippines and assumed they were not strong enough or bold enough to attack the US directly.
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Some such attitudes may have been at play in Israel. Even though Israeli intelligence closely monitors Hamas, it appears recently to have been heavily focused on the West Bank. Another, perhaps critical, distraction has been that Israel’s attention has been riveted on an unprecedented domestic political conflict under the Netanyahu government’s policies. At least one military official has said it was negatively affecting military preparedness. This may have been a factor in what many civilians are lamenting was a slow response by Israeli Defense Forces.
Then there is always the role of deception. The United States failed to catch the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, partly because it interpreted Soviet movements as maneuvers rather than preparations to invade. This played a role also in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein told his FBI interrogator that of course he wanted the world to think he had WMD – as a deterrent to regional enemies such as Iran and global adversaries such as the United States and Europe. Chances are Israel saw Hamas movements that with hindsight will appear clearly as preparation for what occurred but which Tel Aviv interpreted in recent weeks as maneuver — especially if the Israeli mindset was that Hamas would never be able to carry out the combined arms attacks we’ve just witnessed.
Deception is especially powerful when combined with communications discipline by an adversary. Case in point: the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States did not detect the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba until U-2 reconnaissance flights in October 1962, in part because the Soviets did not discuss this in electronic communications, instead doing all of their planning on paper. Signals intelligence can be extraordinarily effective – unless an enemy simply goes silent. We may learn that Hamas did just that.
Sometimes intelligence services sense something terrible is about to happen but lack concrete hard evidence to make the case in a way that spurs policymakers to act – especially when the latter have other resource and political demands that may seem more compelling or actionable at that moment. This was to some degree a factor in the 9/11 surprise in the U.S.. The CIA in the summer of 2001 saw a huge spike in threat reporting, along with other worrisome indications, and was convinced a big attack was coming – the “lights were blinking red” in the words of then CIA Director George Tenet. But the Agency lacked hard data on the timing, method, and specific target of the attack. We may eventually learn that Israeli intelligence smelled danger but lacked the specific and compelling data often required to galvanize policy level action.
One of the most insidious causes of intelligence failure is what Roberta Wohlstetter, in her classic book on Pearl Harbor, called the “signals to noise” problem – meaning that sometimes the indications of attack may be small in number and hidden in a huge volume of reporting. This becomes more problematic if there are any database errors or mistakes in sharing information. Such issues have come to light in some U.S misses, such as the failure in 2009 to detect the nearly successful attempt of a Nigerian recruit to al-Qaeda to bring down an American aircraft over Detroit. An Israeli investigation may turn up some of these issues.
Finally, there is almost always someone in the system who will say afterward that they tried to warn but couldn’t get their message through. When I arrived as a junior US Army intelligence officer in Vietnam in early 1969, officers in my unit at Bien Hoa said they had warned U.S military HQs in Saigon that an offensive was coming but that this was unwelcome news to senior officers, who pushed lower-level warning aside because they were convinced the U.S. was winning and that the enemy was weak and off balance.
So, don’t be surprised if in some future review in Israel, someone comes forward to say “I told them so”.
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