Intelligence failure is political and psychological organisation

‘Intelligence failure is political and psychological more often than organisational’. Discuss in relation to at least two examples of intelligence failure. In this essay I will illustrate, through specific examples, the human condition and the psychological roots of surprise, the actions of policy-makers and an examination of organisational defects of agencies, and how they contribute to intelligence failures. However in order to understand what constitutes ‘intelligence failure, some contextual definition must be provided.

The phrase ‘intelligence failure’ often has highly negative connotations in terms of national security. Although it is also been used to describe situations such as the 1998 Indian nuclear weapons tests whereby U.S and Western policy-makers were surprised by the international incident that took place, even when that surprise caused minimal impact to their national security. Using the word ‘failure’ to describe situations where negative consequences for national security are minimal may seem unusual however it highlights the imprecise meaning of the word. The amassing of, interpretation and eventual distribution of information to those in power is an ongoing process that can occasionally fail to depict events on the international scene accurately or adequately in-depth to provide them with either infallible information or total certainty.As a result, when surprises like Pearl Harbour and the 9/11 attacks occur, intelligence agencies bear the brunt of the scrutiny. It is interesting to note that in a study conducted by Dr. Robert Johnston within the U.S. Intelligence Community in 2005 he interviewed several CIA officials and requested a definition of the term ‘intelligence failure’ from several of the interviewees. Some of the responses disavowed the existence of ‘intelligence failure’ while others placed the terms in the broader context of policy and decision making.

It is apparent that one of the most difficult elements in intelligence analysis rests in measuring up enemy intention and removing the element of surprise. Surprise is essentially a psychological phenomenon that has its roots in human nature.This process is not made any easier if the intelligence gathered is unreliable, incomplete or just plain absent. Furthermore, knowledge about capability does not supply a perfect clue to intentionas will be demonstrated below. A common failing is to create an interpretation of the enemy’s intentions yet base it on the ideology or belief of the analyst and his home nation. Hindsight reveals that the element of surprise in the majority of large-scale wars fought since 1939 was unwarranted and a considerable amount of evidence of an imminent assault was available to the victims before the fact.

In 1941 a number of high ranking administration officials expressed the belief that as long as the U.S maintained overall military advantage over Japan, war was unlikely to break out. All the evidence… indicates that they are more afraid of war with the U.S. than anything else. U.S policy-makers remained firm in their belief that Japan would base its decision to wage war on military considerations. It has been argued that, as Japanese/U.S. relations were on a steady decline and with a large number of reports being received regarding possible Japanese aggression and aggressive intentions, U.S. officials had almost certain knowledge that war was at hand. Roberta Wohlstetter attributes the failure to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbour on the massive number of irrelevant material being accumulated regarding Japanese intentions, euphemistically termed ‘noise’. In addition, not all intercepts were decoded and the intercepts that were, did not all travel along the same communication routes and so ended up not rising the chain of command; no single person or agency ever had at any given moment all the signals existing in this vast information network. Wohlstetter also believes that intelligence officers could perhaps have foreseen the attack years before, if the U.S. had concealed spies within Japanese military circles and expanded its code-breaking capabilities. Of course, it can be further argued that success in warning can be indistinguishable from failure. If, for example, the defender acknowledges a warning and responds in time with defensive preparations then the attacker may cancel the operation. Thus the original prediction would be rendered invalid. The Japanese task force en route to Pearl Harbour had orders to abort if the element of surprise was lost.

Read also  Bribery in international

During the week preceding the Yom Kippur war, Israeli intelligence officers accumulated a substantial amount of credible information indicating unusual Egyptian activities along the Suez Canal. A memorandum was circulated to Intelligence Command which concluded that there was a high probability that Egyptian manoeuvres were only cover for an impending attack. The intelligence indicated a readiness for an offensive however on the eve of war; the intelligence material did not affect the strategic thinking of Israeli’s decision makers. They attributed their own line of reasoning to the adversary. Overlooking the possibility that the enemy might not follow the same line of thought the Israeli leaders displayed a fatal lack of imagination that separated them from their opponent and in this case, aided by hindsight, it is clear that when tactical facts differ from that of strategic possibilities, the former should be given increased weight in the decision making process.

As established above, the cause of intelligence failure can be a result of an analysts own psychological condition influencing data, reports or opinions of others, likewise policymakers can be guilty of the same. In this next example I will demonstrate how not only the psychological condition can result in an intelligence failure.

Since the 9/11 disaster public discussion has been focused strongly on the human causes of the tragedy and asking the question ‘What went wrong?’ And one of the failures of the intelligence community that had been overlooked in the beginning was the organisational structure of both the FBI and CIA. On closer examination, it is evident that the Bureau and CIA suffered from a litany of organisational weaknesses that can be attributed to being a major component of the 9/11 disaster.

The structural problems the FBI faced were exacerbated by the fact the bureau was part of an Intelligence Community that had been be in opposition to information sharing, the CIA and FBI having a long history of poor communication added to divided responsibility geographically which invariably led to vast gaps in coverage of territory. Whilst the CIA was among the agencies charged with tracking terrorists abroad, the FBI had responsibility for monitoring terrorist suspects within U.S borders. There was however no clear distinction of responsibility for monitoring movement of terrorist suspects between the U.S and foreign countries. The bureau was considered so peripheral that previous to 9/11 the CIA neglected to put the Attorney General on its distribution list for the President’s Daily Brief, the most important Community-wide current intelligence report. Consequently, terrorists could operate freely across borders but the U.S Intelligence Community could not.

What’s more, J. Edgar Hoover had created a specific picture of FBI agents in a large publicity campaign that soon agents themselves began believing; they were glorified agents, in everything from movies to play cards – with the ultimate goal for a striving ambitious agent was to work criminal cases and not sit behind a desk, and so this had an unfortunate side effect – an aversion to technology and analysis. As one agents describes the ‘old-school’ mentality after the 9/11 attacks, ‘real men don’t type. The only thing a real agent needs is a notebook, a pen and a gun, and with those three things you can conquer the world’. With that perspective in mind, greater emphasis was placed on the more tangible criminal conviction, as opposed to a very absent terrorist attack. To further the argument, organisational incentives supplemented this way of thinking with opportunities for analysts’ promotion to senior positions highly restricted if permitted at all. Moreover, in terms of technology, the FBI computer system was so outmoded that it took up to 12 commands to store a single document, this coupled with an almost pathological distain for counterintelligence operations meant that billions of records were simply kept in paper files in shoe boxes and if reports did come in, they were not assigned a high priority level.

Read also  Globalization and International Security

The CIA also suffered from similar failings in its internal structure. When the organisation was created, it was charged with conducting missions to collect covert intelligence, engage in covert action and it also publishes National Intelligence Estimates (NIE). Thus in similar fashion to the FBI ‘bi-polarity’ of having duel missions – law enforcement and intelligence- these tasks cannot be suitably carried out and the intelligence analysis can end up politicised. The CIA had not been particularly strong on terrorism since the late 1980’s. William Casey and Robert Gates – Director and deputy director respectively – falsely believed that the Soviet Union was responsible for every act of international terrorism and formed the Counter-terrorism Centre (CTC). Even after the failed plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in December 1999, the agencies did not heighten concerns over the ability of Al-Qaeda to strike inside the U.S.

Everyone has someone they want to hold responsible for 9/11 and although different people have found different culprits, their point is the same: that individual leaders are to blame for the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks. It is however, dangerous to place the entire burden of responsibility on single individuals, though it may be understandable, as it is a natural human response after a great tragedy. It does however suggest the wrong causes of failure and thus the wrong remedies in tackling them. For instance, well-meaning ‘intelligence reform’ advocates including members of Congress and families, of 9/11 victims mistakenly fixed their sights on measure recommended by the 9/11 Commission, most notably the creation of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). It would be ridiculous to say that individual leadership is irrelevant; it would merely be more prudent to examine the less noticeable aspects of organisational life. If it was the case that leadership determined counterterrorism success and failure, then resolution to the problems encountered by the intelligence agencies would be easy.

To conclude, it seems that the enduring defects in the FBI and CIA organisational structure, culture, and incentive systems proved to be a major debilitating factor once the Cold War was over and the terrorist threat emerged. These weaknesses ultimately prevented the agencies from exploiting 12 separate opportunities that might have disrupted the 9/11 plot. These agencies may be charged with preventing surprise but not all surprises can be prevented, such as the abrupt end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union.

Read also  Czech Republic EU

Furthermore it seems the danger of defining ‘intelligence failure’ by example resembling those above is that each case is contextually unique and can be argued with no end in sight. The important recurring element through the examples illustrated is the significance of surprise, regardless of if it is intelligence surprise, military surprise in the case of Pearl Harbour and the Yom Kippur war, or political surprise. Even if the intelligence community itself was not surprised by them, it was unable to convince the military and political consumers of intelligence, these events might occur; in which case it suggests the failure is one of organisational and specifically of communication and persuasion.


  1. Marrin, S., ‘Preventing Intelligence Failure by Learning from the Past’ International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 17/4 (2004) p. 657
  2. Marrin, S., ‘Preventing…’ p.656
  3. Johnson, R. Analytic Culture in the US Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study (Centre for the Study of Intelligence 2005) ch. 1- https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/analytic-culture-in-the-u-s-intelligence-community/full_title_page.htm (accessed 18th March 2010).
  4. Harkabi, Y., Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace (Jerusalem: Israel Program for Scientific Translations, 1966) p. 51
  5. Kennan, G. F., Russia, The Atom and the West (New York 1957) p. 21
  6. Betts, R. K., ‘Surprise Despite Warning: Why Sudden Attacks Succeed’ Political Science Quarterly 95/4 (1980) p. 551
  7. Letter sent by Stimson to the New York Times February 11th 1940
  8. Ben-Zvi, A, ‘Hindsight and Foresight: A Conceptual Framework for the Analysis of Surprise Attacks’ World Politics 28/3 (April 1976) p. 389
  9. Wohlstetter, R., Pearl Harbour: Warning and Decision (Stanford University Press 1962) p. 385
  10. Wohlstetter, R., Pearl Harbour p. 193
  11. Shlaim, A., ‘Failures in National Intelligence Estimates: The Case of the Yom Kippur War’ World Politics 28/3 (April 1976) p. 378
  12. Betts, R.K., ‘Surprise Despite Warning’ p. 557
  13. Ben-Zvi, A, ‘Hindsight and Foresight’ p. 393
  14. Schiff, Z., October Earthquake – Yom Kippur 1973 (Tel-Aviv: University Publishing Projects 1974) p. 27
  15. Shlaim, A., ‘Failures in National Intelligence Estimates’ p. 363
  16. Shlaim, A., ‘Failures in National Intelligence Estimates’ p. 395
  17. Goodman, M.A., ‘9/11: The Failure of Strategic Intelligence’ Intelligence and National Security 18/4 (2003) p. 64
  18. ‘Threats and Responses in 2001′ 9/11 Commission Staff Statement Number 10 (13th April 2004) p. 5
  19. Zegart, A. ‘9/11 and the FBI: The Organisational Roots of Failure’ Intelligence and National Security 22/2 (April 2007) p. 167
  20. Lichtblau, E. & Piller, C. ‘Without a Clue: How the FBI Lost Its Way’, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, (11th August 2002) p. 1
  21. Cumming, A. & Masse, T. ‘FBI Intelligence Reform Since September 11 2001: Issues and Options for Congress’ Congressional Research Service Report No. RL32336 (6th April 2004) http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RL32336.html (accessed 17th March 2010) p. 13
  22. Federal Bureau of Investigation, ‘The FBI’s Counterterrorism Program Since September 2001′ Report to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US (14 April 2004) p.51
  23. Goodman, M.A., ‘9/11: The Failure of Strategic Intelligence’ p. 62
  24. TRACES OF TERROR: THE INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES; C.I.A.’s Inquiry On Qaeda Aide Seen as Flawed New York Times 23rd September 1998 p. 11
  25. Russell, R.L., ‘A Weak Pillar for American National Security: The CIA’s Dismal Performance against WMD Threats’, Intelligence and National Security 23/3 (September 2005) p. 478
  26. Zegart, A. ‘9/11 and the FBI p. 179
  27. Zegart, A. ‘9/11 and the FBI p. 165
  28. Treverton, G. J., Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information (New York & Cambridge University Press 2003) p. 32
Order Now

Order Now

Type of Paper
Subject
Deadline
Number of Pages
(275 words)