Face It: Intelligence Agencies Sometimes Fail

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Dr. Judith A. Klinghoffer is a senior research associate in the department of Political Science at Rutgers University, Camden. She is the co-author of International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences. Click here for her HNN blog.

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The Bush administration deserves the grief it has been getting over the inclusion of the 16 words concerning Iraq's search for Uranium in Africa. For it unnecessarily insulted the British intelligence. No, the American intelligence does not always know better. Indeed, if the information uncovered by debka.co.il is correct, though the documents on which the information was based were forged, Iraq was trying to buy uranium in Niger. An American president who relies exclusively on American intelligenceis not doing his country any favors. Unfortunately, instances in which the American intelligence are proven inferior are often shoved under the historical carpet. The story of the pre-Six Day War disagreement between the American and Israeli intelligence services is an excellent case in point.

The Mideast crisis which led to the eruption of the Six Day War began on May 15 when Egypt evicted the United Nation's Emergency Force from its country and then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The Johnson administration demanded that Israel consult with Washington before moving to reopen the Straits. On May 25 Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban came to consult. Upon arrival in the U.S. he found an urgent telegram warning that according to Israeli intelligence the Egyptians were set to launch a preemptive strike on May 27. He immediately informed Secretary of State Rusk who hurried to check the information with the American intelligence. The American intelligence dismissed the information and reported that it had "no evidence" of such an impending attack. Consequently, when an anxious Eban met with President Johnson and his men, he found instead of understating allies, resentful ones.

In his book, The Peace Process, Bill Quandt writes:

American intelligence experts spent the night of May 25-26 analyzing the Israeli claim that an Egyptian attack was imminent. Several specific items had been presented by the Israelis in making their case, and by the morning of May 26 the intelligence community had analyzed each of these charges and concluded that the attack was not pending. The Israelis suffered a loss of credibility at an important moment, and Johnson seems to have become suspicious that he was being pressured to make commitments that he either could not make, such as a statement that he would view an attack on Israel as an attack on the United States, or did not want to make yet. Such as a precise plan on the multinational fleet. According to those who worked with him during this period, Johnson did not want to be crowded, he disliked ultimatums and deadlines, and he resented the mounting pressure on him to adopt Israel's definition of the situation.

In the subsequent paragraphs Quandt goes on to detail the discussions on the subject Eban had with Secretary of Defense McNamara, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs Earle Wheeler, and CIA Director Richard Helms. They all informed Eban that "no evidence could be found that Egypt was planning to attack. Anyone reading the text is left with the clear impression that the American intelligence was right and Israel's wrong and that manipulative Israelis were trying to trick the poor American president. It is, therefore, so jarring to discover the following footnote: "WE NOW KNOW that the Egyptian military, in particular, AL-Hakim Amr, had issued orders for the Egyptian air force to carry out air strikes on the morning of May 27. The Israelis must have gotten wind of this."

In other words, Israel was right, the CIA wrong and the historian who tried to cover up the evidence is justifying putting this crucial information in the notes by implying that this was a rogue operation undertaken by Vice President Amr and canceled just in time by President Nasser. A similar line of argument was followed by Richard Parker who, too, confined the information concerning the accuracy of the Israeli intelligence to his notes. Nice try, but no cigar. As I explain in my book and as Michael Oren details in his Six Days of War, Nasser did cancel the attack but not because it was a rogue operation but because the Soviets told him that Israeli intelligence had uncovered his plan. For not wishing to put all his eggs in the CIA basket, Johnson notified the Soviets of the Israeli suspicions and the Soviets passed the information to Nasser along with a demand to cancel it.

Had Johnson not bothered notifying the Soviets, Egypt would have attacked and not only Israel, but a United States mired in Vietnam would have found themselves in terrible straits. The fact that Israeli intelligence was right in this instance should not cloud the fact that it was wrong in its prewar assumptions. Thus, during a February 1967 meeting the same Israeli intelligence service told Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that an Arab Israeli war was unlikely as long as the superpowers were set against it, and Egyptian troops were stuck in Yemen. Luckily, Eshkol begged to disagree. He had "a strong feeling" that American policy was "shifting" away from Israel, a situation which might tempt her enemies to go too far. He warned of an imminent war and demanded an updating of the war plans.

When I asked the late Chief of Israeli military intelligence Aharon Yariv how he missed the signs of the upcoming war, he did try to equivocate: "We, like all bureaucracies, are enmeshed in the day to day. So, we often miss the big picture." Indeed, keeping the big picture in mind and connecting the dots is the duty of the elected leadership. Intelligence analysts should keep that in mind and the media and historians should not rush to judgment about whose intelligence information is the correct one.

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aj mahon - 8/6/2003

korea the fall of the soviet union vietnam maybe its planned failure?

Stephen Kriz - 8/5/2003

Thank you, Dr. Klinghoffer for the insightful history of failures of American intelligence. However, the recent preemptive war against Iraq is quite a different case. Many in the intelligence community are outraged at the blatant misuse, misinterpretation and outright lies spread by Bush/Cheney and their minions, to convince Americans Iraq posed a clear and present danger to the U.S. Any honest study of George W. Bush's personal history reveals he is spiteful, vengeful, intellectually lazy and is unable to take personal responsibility. His life is one string of failures, followed by someone else taking the blame or cleaning up for him.

No, Ms. Klinghoffer, American intelligence did not fail in the current instance. George W. Bush did - as he has done so often in his miserable life.