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Hamas attack and Israel’s agencies: Are intelligence failures inevitable?

As new information about Hamas’s devastating attack on Israel trickles in, the narrative of the “colossal intelligence failure” is getting amplified even more. Contrary to the earlier reports that Israel’s intelligence agencies failed to detect any activity by or warning from Hamas, new information reveals that Israeli intelligence did pick up a surge in activity on the Gazan militant networks it was monitoring. A New York Times report published last week revealed that an alert was also sent to soldiers guarding the borders, who “either did not act on the intelligence or ignored it”.

The report also reveals that just before the attack, Hamas militants disabled the Israeli surveillance cameras mounted on the border walls and destroyed their remote-controlled machine guns using drones before paragliding into Israeli territory. This operational failure to act on the intelligence inputs exacerbates the sense of “embarrassing intelligence failure” as Israel’s intelligence agencies are touted as one of the finest and probably the most ruthless.

In 2014, Richard Clarke, the National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism at the time of the 9/11 attacks, publicly apologised to the families of victims and said, “Your government failed you, those entrusted to protect you failed you, I failed you.” His public apology was a stark admission of the intelligence failure at every level — collection, analysis, and consumption. So why do even the best intelligence agencies fail? Are intelligence failures inevitable? Is it predominantly the failure at the collection and analysis level where agencies either fail to gather actionable intelligence or are unable to make sense of the information available, or are there other factors that lead to intelligence failures?

Intelligence Failures: Consumption Problem

Intelligence, in its basic sense, mitigates informational asymmetry as the adversary is always incentivised to hide or misrepresent its intentions and capabilities. Hamas successfully hid its intention to launch a large-scale attack in the run-up to and on the day of the attack.

Intelligence failures occur when one or more parts of the intelligence process consisting of collection, analysis, and consumption fail to produce accurate intelligence on an issue or event of national importance. Failures at the collection level can be either errors in the actual collection of intelligence or sometimes due to the requirements set upon the Intelligence Community (IC) by the policymakers. At times, policymakers set unachievable intelligence goals, or their demands for intelligence are unrealistic. The task given to the CIA in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war was to “confirm that Iraq possessed WMDs” rather than to find out if Iraq had WMDs.

Festive offer

Even when agencies are able to collect accurate information, failures still happen when the analysis produced is either incorrect, biassed, or incomplete. Governments spend billions in the form of satellites, drones, and surveillance equipment for intelligence collection, but all this can be rendered futile if the IC cannot connect the dots. Saddam’s refusal to allow independent UN inspectors into Iraq was interpreted as smoking gun evidence of possessing WMDs. The alternative explanations were neither sought nor found to be necessary.

Though the common perception about intelligence failures is that these happen mainly at the collection or analysis level, empirical evidence shows that most of the failures are at the consumption level, meaning it is the consumers of intelligence, the policymakers, who fail to interpret the intelligence accurately. Scholars have argued that the most crucial mistakes have seldom been made by collectors of raw information, occasionally by professionals who produce finished analyses, but most often by the decision-makers who consume the products of intelligence services. These consumption variations have huge implications for national security and security policy.

Individual decision-makers, like all human beings, come with their own experiences, beliefs, and biases, which are not necessarily drawbacks, but these do play a role in the way they consume information. Almost 50 years ago, General Zeira, the Director of the Israeli Directorate of Military Intelligence (AMAN), believed that an attack by Egypt and Syria was unlikely as he assumed that Egypt would not attack until they solved their air superiority problem and AMAN had logically reached a conclusion that Syria would not attack without Egypt. When in early October of 1973, Israel learnt of the evacuation of women and children from Egyptian cities, his preconceived notions prevented him from interpreting this as preparation for war till Israeli spy Ashraf Marwan informed Zeira that war was imminent in 12 hours.

Similarly, George Bush claimed to have seen Putin’s soul and found him trustworthy when he said, “ I looked the man in the eye…and I could see his soul.” Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of State, later admitted that they could never escape the perception that the president had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.

Are Intelligence Failures Inevitable?

Scholars like Richard Betts and Robert Jervis have long argued that intelligence failures are not only inevitable but even natural because the intelligence agencies, by their very organisational makeup, are set to fail. Besides, politics and psychology exacerbate the vulnerabilities at the organisational level. Parochialised interests and rivalries between competing intelligence organisations make it possible that the intelligence produced by one agency will conflict with or refute what the other produces.

Stove piping (transmitting strictly through hierarchy) is inherent to all intelligence agencies, and this may create situations in which information available to one organisation or part of the same organisation is not available to other relevant stakeholders in the analytical process. The 9/11 Commission Report highlighted these organisational asymmetries. The CIA had information about the presence of two of the hijackers — Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al Hazimi — on US soil, but they did not share this information with the FBI, which was investigating the presence of al Qaeda operatives.

Groups within organisations may have their own biases, and these biases can get injected into the decision-making process. Without a strong voice of dissent, a group’s bias toward certain interpretations of a given situation may outweigh the objective truth when dissent is habitually stifled. Secretary Rumsfeld and his team carried an anti-Saddam bias from the first Gulf War of 1991. Any contrarian view or assessment was not only rejected but also ignored.

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By favouring information relevant to their expertise, what is called the “organisational expertise hypothesis”, agencies are likely to miss or discount information that they should also consider. Organisations tend to rely more on the intelligence collected through their own channels. Intelligence provided by other sources and agencies is rarely looked at with the same seriousness. Days before the Yom Kippur War in 1973, King Hussien of Jordan apprised Israel of the impending attack by Egypt and Syria. Still, Israeli Intelligence ignored Hussein’s inputs as they did not match their reports or AMAN’s assessment of the war.

Though intelligence reforms focused on organisational refinements and bureaucratic amendments can potentially alleviate the shortcomings, individuals will still remain critical. Thus, as institutional and organisational reforms are possible, it may be almost impossible to reform personalities.

The writer is a senior IPS officer and a PhD scholar at Princeton University. Views expressed are his own

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