When Imagination Failed: Revisiting Intelligence Failures

Photograph Source: National Security Agency – Public Domain

Yogi Berra opined that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” but over the past 80 years there has been more than enough intelligence collected to prevent costly failures. From Pearl Harbor in 1941 to this year’s invasion of the Capitol, there were strong intelligence indicators of the tumultuous events that were to ensue. Currently, there is a dearth of information from congressional sources regarding the insurrection of January 6, and no indication of a comprehensive investigation to find reasons for the breakdown. The failure of our trillion-dollar national security community to provide warning of a violent threat to the seat of governance remains troubling.

The culprits in virtually every previous intelligence failure were wrong assumptions and the absence of applying imagination to the evidence at hand.  In addition to Pearl Harbor and the insurrection of January 6, we can cite the October War of 1973; the Khomeini Revolution of 1979; the Polish crackdown on the Solidarity labor movement in 1981; the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The key to flawed assumptions was often cultural superiority and outright racism.  The indicators of the Japanese attack in 1941 were based on deciphering Japanese diplomatic codes, but they were downplayed because U.S. intelligence officers strongly believed that Japan lacked the grit and the technological ability to attack U.S. forces.  Similarly, U.S. and Israeli intelligence dismissed ample evidence of a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack in 1973 despite a highly placed Egyptian source because U.S. and Israeli intelligence officers dismissed Arab ability to forge a coalition, mount a successful attack, and even consider taking on a “superior” Israeli force.

The Egyptian spy who could have saved Israel in 1973 was Ashraf Marwin, the son-in-law of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and a close adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat.  He was know to his Israeli handlers as “The Angel,” but the chief of Israeli military intelligence, General Eli Zeira, believed Marwin was a double agent trying to divert Israel’s attention.  Defense Minister Moshe Dayan believed Zeira, and Prime Minister Golda Meir relied on Dayan, so their political careers were thus ended.

The assumption that Polish and Chinese military forces would never turn their weapons on their own people drove the failures of Solidarity and Tiananmen, respectively, in the 1980s.  In addition to the certainty within the intelligence and policy communities, the expert “talking heads” from the academic and think tank communities were on cable news networks regularly with similar analysis.  Like the October War, the failure to predict the Polish tragedy should never have occurred because of a high-level Polish military source, Ryszard Kuklinski, who provided the Central Intelligence Agency with Warsaw’s plans for martial law.

Preconceived notions played a major role in failing to anticipate the Iranian revolution of 1979 that deposed the Shah.  The intelligence community missed the religious nature of the charismatic revolutionary, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and assumed the durability of an Iranian leader who was both anti-Soviet and anti-communist.  The increased participation of the urban working class in the protests should have caused a reassessment, and there should have been a recognition of the anti-Americanism stemming from the CIA-backed coup that installed the Shah in 1953.  I don’t recall pressure on the CIA from the White House regarding support for the Shah, but there was a “house line” favoring the Shah that was corrosive.  Israeli and French intelligence circles called attention to the Shah’s vulnerability, but the CIA was unmoved.

Intelligence analysts who held their inadequate and unexamined assumptions typically were unmoved by new information that should have been incorporated into the estimative process.  The failure to monitor the decline and dissolution of the Soviet Unions was due in part to the politicization of the intelligence product by CIA director William Casey and his loyal acolyte, Robert Gates, but there were too many military and civilian intelligence analysts who believed in the overall military prowess and political stability of the Soviet Union.  The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency was burdened by its worst-case views of the Soviets; the CIA’s military analysts depended on their bean-counting to substantiate overestimates of the Soviet military and the Warsaw Pact.

The 9/11 failure was particularly costly in view of the two decades of futile warfare that have ensued against Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attack, and Afghanistan, a country without national security concerns for the United States.  The CIA did not believe that al Qaeda would attack the United States at home, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not believe that al Qaeda had the organization in the United States to do so.  The 9/11 failure also involved an element of cultural bias, with too many policymaker and intelligence analysts convinced that non-state actors required support from nation states to conduct significant acts of terrorism.

There is still much to learn regarding the intelligence failure of January 6.  We still can’t explain the long delay in calling out the National Guard in response to the riots.  We are dealing with conflicting accounts of efforts to request assistance from the National Guard.  The lack of preparedness is particularly stunning in view of the information that was available.  It’s hard to believe that key civilian and military officials refused to act because they were worried about “optics” regarding the presence of the military. We need to hear from the Pentagon’s military and civilian leadership regarding the crucial delay in getting the National Guard to the Capitol.

There was significant evidence on social media, but the domestic intelligence agencies—the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security—failed to adequately alert key officials on the Hill.  Ten years ago, our key foreign intelligence agency—the CIA—ignored social media and failed to provide warning of the Arab Spring.  Excessive adherence to conventional thinking dominated the intelligence process on both occasions.

Intelligence analysts are typically vulnerable to “thinking in time” and apply past experience to future judgments.  Iran analysts at CIA were constantly beating back rumors of problems for the Shah so that it become almost reflexive to dismiss the ranting of an aging Ayatollah who was in Paris, not Tehran.  FBI and DHS analysts had experienced pro-Trump rallies in November and December 2020 so they saw no reason to expect anything different in January 2021.  No intelligence was forwarded with any urgency that would have required a reassessment of prior planning; an important FBI alert was routinely emailed to Washington.

In every case cited thus far, from Pearl Harbor to January 6, the excellent collection of intelligence could have prevented failure.  Political and cultural bias played a major role in many of these failures, although there are too many examples of high-level intelligence officers who were willing to meet the demands of policymakers for politicizing intelligence.  In my 24 years as a CIA analyst, I had to contend with far too many senior intelligence officers who truckled to their political mentors on Vietnam; Afghanistan; arms control; the Middle East; the Soviet Union; and the Iraq War.  DHS analysts in the Trump administration covered up the serious problem of white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

In the wake of the October War failure, national security adviser Henry Kissinger argued that “anyone concerned with national policy must have a profound interest in making sure that intelligence guides and does not follow national policy.”  CIA’s intelligence in the Gorbachev era and the run-up to the Iraq War certainly followed the corrupt policies of the White House, representing the total failure of its moral compass.  In view of the numerous media accounts of Donald Trump’s efforts to “incite street protests” and the efforts of his supporters to smuggle guns into the capital and create “armed encampments” along the National Mall, we need to know why there was no warning, no urgency, from intelligence and law enforcement.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.