There’s nobody like the British. The things they get excited about!
A terrible thing has happened. Their Prime Minister lied to them! The whole country is in an uproar.
And–how awful!–the intelligence services have trimmed their findings to suit their political boss. Astounding!
In Israel, the United States and most other places around the world, this would hardly rate a paragraph on an inside page. The Prime Minister lied? So what else is new?
On the contrary, if the Prime Minister had been caught telling the truth, now that would have been a sensation. What, he spoke the truth? The Prime Minister? What’s going on? What is he up to?
And the intelligence services? In children’s tales, spies risk their lives to uncover secrets and save their country.
How wonderful! And what a pity that it has so little to do with reality.
The intelligence services do indeed look for facts, but mostly for the facts that suit their political bosses. They submit reports to governments, but woe betide the service chief whose report does not suit their agenda. In short, there is hardly an intelligence report that is not trimmed to suit the powers that be, that does not twist the facts or is not an outright lie.
That explains the successive failures of the intelligence agencies in almost all countries and in almost all emergencies.
A few notorious examples should suffice:
A German communist named Victor Sorge, who was spying in Japan, provided Soviet intelligence in 1941 with a detailed report on the imminent German attack on the Soviet Union, with the exact time to the minute. Stalin refused to accept this report and threatened to send to Siberia any intelligence officer reporting such nonsense. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers were killed or captured when the German attack (“Operation Barbarossa’) materialized exactly on time. This was so incredible, that a modern Russian historian has invented an original explanation: Stalin was just about to attack Hitler when he was forestalled at the last moment.
Or the case of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 1941. American intelligence had many indications that the Japanese were intending to destroy the US Pacific Fleet. But when the attack actually came, the American navy was totally unprepared. That was so strange, that another conspiracy theory gained credibility: President Roosevelt practically invited the Japanese attack, so as to be able to drag his unwilling country into the war.
Before the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, there were several warnings, but all of them got stuck in the intelligence pipelines. This has lent credibility to another conspiracy theory: that it was all organized by the Mossad, who had even warned the Jews working in the Towers no to report to work on that particular day.
The failures of Israeli intelligence make an impressive list. On the eve of the establishment of the state, the intelligence services (or their forerunners) did not foresee the attack of the Arab armies that almost destroyed the new state in its infancy. In May 1967, the intelligence services were flabbergasted when Gamal Abd-al-Nasser sent an army into Sinai (and started the chain of events that led to the June 1967 war). The Egyptian revolution of 1952 caught Israeli intelligence unawares, as did the Iraqi revolution of 1958, as did the Khomeini revolution in Iran, in spite of the fact that the Israeli intelligence services practically had the run of the country in the Shah’s Iran.
The most notorious example was, of course, the eve of the October 1973 war. Israeli army intelligence knew everything: the Egyptian war plan and the assembly positions of all Egyptian units. It saw them taking up these positions. It overheard dozens of messages that should have left no doubt whatsoever that the attack was imminent. A day before the war, a highly placed Egyptian who was spying for Israel confirmed the reports about the coming attack. And yet, the Israeli army was taken by surprise when the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal without effective opposition.
The official investigation into this intelligence failure gave birth to the Hebrew expression “conceptsia”–meaning that army intelligence ignored all the obvious facts because it was trapped in its own “concept” that the Egyptians were quite unable to attack.
This is a natural phenomenon. According to “Gestalt” psychology, a person tends to absorb information in line with the existing pattern in his mind and tends to ignore information that contradicts it.
Like other people, intelligence operatives have preconceived ideas and prejudices. Bits of information that do not fit in just do not pass through the pipelines. They are denied and disappear.
But there is another, much simpler explanation. Every intelligence chief has a political boss–a President, Prime Minister, Secretary of Defense, Home Secretary. His career depends on the boss, and so do the chances of advancement of his underlings. When the boss appoints the service chiefs, he chooses people who are close to his political agenda. In time, the whole intelligence service becomes an apparatus for supplying the boss with the information he wants to hear and suppressing less agreeable information. That is true not only in dictatorships like those of Stalin, Hitler and Saddam, but also in most democratic regimes. The successful intelligence chief is an acrobat who walks between the raindrops and knows how to adapt the intelligence data to the interests of the political leadership.
For example: during most of the years between the Six-day and the Yom-Kippur wars, Israel was ruled by Golda Meir, a tough and not-very-wise person. She never dreamt of returning the territories that had just been conquered. Her Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, the idol of the masses at the time, declared that Sharm-al-Sheikh (in South Sinai) was more important than peace. In order to sell these goods to the Israeli public, it was necessary to present the Arab armies as a negligible force, bands of nincompoops who would throw away their boots and run the moment they saw an Israeli mess sergeant. Army intelligence officially decided that an Egyptian attack had only “low probability”. Two thousand Israeli soldiers–and who knows how many Egyptians and Syrians–paid for this with their lives.
From Golda to George, quite a short jump. Bush wanted a war in Iraq. He could not disclose the real aim to the public: to get his hands on the fabulous oil riches of that country, to dominate the world’s oil supplies and acquire a stranglehold on the economies of Europe, Japan and any other potential competitor. He needed a much more simple and compelling reason: Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, he is in cahoots with Bin-Laden, he is about to attack the United States.
To be convincing, authoritative-sounding intelligence data were required. So the CIA produced documents, already known to be false, showing Saddam trying to acquire uranium in Niger. Put this into the President’s State of the Union Address and hop! there’s your war.
Did the Americans get upset when the lie was discovered? Not at all. So the President lied. Big deal. And the CIA helped him to lie. Big deal again. The important thing is that the sons of Saddam have been killed in a “targeted elimination”, Israeli-style. How wonderful!
But in the UK, things work differently. There you have a political class and clear standards of what’s “done” and what’s “not done”. The intelligence service tailored its reports to the requirements of Tony Blair. He did not have to ask. As always, the intelligence people knew what he needed and supplied the stories that could be “sexed up” to taste. One of the experts informed the BBC, and sometimes later his body was found. Maybe he really committed suicide. Maybe.
England is in an uproar, and perhaps Blair and his henchmen will suffer for it. In Israel, thank God, there is no such problem. Our intelligence chiefs blabber, blabber and blabber, and their prattle always suits the needs of the Prime Minister. When Prime Ministers change, the prattle of the intelligence chiefs changes accordingly.
Their masters’ voice.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. One of his essays is also included in Cockburn and St. Clair’s forthcoming book: The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at: email@example.com.