The Ten Biggest American Intelligence Failures

The Ten Biggest American Intelligence Failures

In the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, former CIA official Paul Pillar takes down the conventional wisdom about the degree to which intelligence — both good and bad — can influence presidential decision-making, alter U.S. foreign policy, and prevent surprises. Whatever the limits of the U.S. intelligence community, it continues to face criticism for its perceived shortcomings, most recently for not predicting the Arab Spring and totally missing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death.

Indeed, while the intelligence community can claim several successes (Pillar, for example, points to the CIA nailing the Six-Day War in 1967), it has also endured a number of humiliating failures. As the ten examples below demonstrate, these intelligence breakdowns have been at the heart of pivotal events that refashioned the Middle East, altered the course of the Cold War, and thrust the United States into World War II, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq.

Pearl Harbor Attack

As dawn broke on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pushing a once-reluctant America headlong into World War II. The naval base was utterly unprepared for battle, even though the United States had managed to break Japanese diplomatic code in the lead-up to the assault and a military attaché in Java had warned Washington of a planned Japanese attack on Hawaii, the Philippines, and Thailand a week earlier. “Never before have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy,” Roberta Wholstetter wrote in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.

That picture, however, was not seen in full because of inadequate intelligence-sharing among government agencies, faulty U.S. assumptions about Japan’s appetite for carrying out such a brazen attack, and rivalries within the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA — established in 1947 as part of the National Security Act — later noted that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor highlighted the need to separate “signals” from “noise” and create a centralized intelligence organization.

Above, the USS Arizona burns during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

U.S. Navy/Newsmakers

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

In April 1961, a CIA-planned effort by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime and replace it with a non-communist, U.S.-friendly government went horribly awry when an aerial attack on Cuba’s air force flopped and the 1,400-strong “Assault Brigade 2506” came under heavy fire from the Cuban military after landing off the country’s southern coast. The botched invasion poisoned U.S.-Cuban relations.

CIA files later revealed that the agency, assuming President John F. Kennedy would commit American troops to the assault if all else failed, never showed the newly minted president an assessment expressing doubt about whether the brigade could succeed without open support from the U.S. military — support Kennedy never intended to provide. (The historian Piero Gleijeses has compared the CIA and Kennedy to ships passing in the night.) The CIA didn’t do itself any favors a year later by concluding that the Soviets were unlikely to establish offensive missiles in Cuba in a report issued a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, though the agency redeemed itself a bit by later snapping U-2 photographs of the missile sites.  

Above, guards keep a watchful eye on members of Assault Brigade 2506 after their capture in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

Miguel Vinas/AFP/Getty Images

The Tet Offensive

On Jan. 31, 1968, during the Tet holiday in Vietnam, North Vietnam’s communist forces stunned the United States by launching a massive, coordinated assault against South Vietnam. While the communist military gains proved fleeting, the Tet Offensive was arguably the most decisive battle of Vietnam. Americans grew disillusioned with the war, prompting U.S. policymakers to shift gears and focus on reducing America’s footprint in Vietnam.

A government inquiry shortly after the Tet Offensive concluded that U.S. and South Vietnamese military officers and intelligence analysts had failed to fully anticipate the “intensity, coordination, and timing of the enemy attack” — despite multiple warnings. Navy librarian Glenn E. Helm notes that disregard for intelligence collection, language barriers, and a misunderstanding of enemy strategy played particularly prominent roles in the intelligence debacle. Still, James J. Wirtz points out in The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War that the “Americans almost succeeded in anticipating their opponents’ moves in time to avoid the military consequences of surprise.”  

Above, Vietcong soldiers climb onto a U.S. tank abandoned on a road in Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968. 

AFP/Getty Images

The Yom Kippur War

While the CIA accurately analyzed the Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states in 1967, it was caught flat-footed only six years later when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched coordinated attacks on Israeli forces in the Sinai Desert and the Golan Heights during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The conflict, which ended with a ceasefire in October 1973, tested U.S.-Soviet relations and pushed the Arab-Israeli conflict to the top of Washington’s foreign-policy agenda.

Documents collected by George Washington University’s National Security Archive reveal that the Israeli intelligence community believed that the country’s superior military power would deter its Arab neighbors from initiating a war, and U.S. intelligence officials bought into this line of reasoning. On the day the war began, a National Security Council memo noted that Soviet advisers had been evacuated from Egypt and that Israel was anticipating an attack because of Egyptian and Syrian military movements, but added that U.S. intelligence services “continue to downplay the likelihood of an Arab attack on Israel” and “favor the alternative explanation of a crisis in Arab-Soviet relations.”

Above, a young Ariel Sharon (bandaged head) confers with fellow military leader Haim Bar Lev and then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (eye patch) in the Sinai on Oct. 17, 1973 during the Yom Kippur War.

Yossi Greenberg/GPO via Getty Images

The Iranian Revolution

In August 1978, six months before the U.S-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled Iran, the CIA infamously concluded that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” As we all now know, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, opening up a rift between Iran and the United States that persists to this day.

According to Gary Sick, a member of Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, the United Stated had scaled back its intelligence gathering inside Iran in the lead-up to the revolution in deference to the Shah, which helped contribute to U.S. officials overlooking widespread Iranian resentment against the Shah and the United States and underestimating the ability of the religious opposition to overthrow the Shah. Still, a 2004 Georgetown University report points out that the intelligence community did issue warnings about the Shah’s eroding power and the religious opposition’s growing clout, and that political infighting and the Carter administration’s preoccupation with Egyptian-Israeli peace talks contributed to American myopia on Iran.

Above, Iranian protesters hold up a poster of Ayatollah Khomeini on Jan. 1, 1979, during a demonstration in Tehran against the Shah.

AFP/Getty Images

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

The Soviet Union’s military incursion into Afghanistan, which began in December 1979 and devolved into a bloody, nine-year occupation, took the Carter administration by surprise. The U.S. intelligence community had assumed that the specter of a costly quagmire would deter the Soviets from invading Afghanistan. Former CIA official Douglas MacEachin recalls that in the days after the invasion, a dark joke began circulating around the agency that “the analysts got it right, and it was the Soviets who got it wrong.”

It’s not entirely clear, however, whether intelligence or policy is primarily to blame for America’s lack of foresight about the invasion. In The CIA and the Culture of Failure, John Diamond concedes that the agency failed to predict the invasion until shortly before it happened. But he adds that the CIA’s warnings about Soviet military preparations and movements throughout 1979 gave the Carter administration “all the information it needed to issue a stern warning to Moscow,” and that the administration instead chose to “downplay its warnings.” A Georgetown study adds that the White House was distracted by the SALT II treaty negotiations and the Iranian hostage crisis. 

Above, Afghan children wave Afghan and Soviet flags near Kabul on May 15, 1988, as Russian troops begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Douglas E. Curran/AFP/Getty Images

The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. intelligence community failed to predict the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, presaged as it was by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, the deteriorating Soviet economy, the collapse of communism in east-central Europe, and the moves toward independence by several Soviet republics. As the BBC recently noted, “the Soviet example illustrates the problem that intelligence gatherers are great counters: they can look at missiles, estimate the output of weapons factories, and so on. But the underlying political and social dynamics in a society are much harder to read.”

Indeed, in Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1980-1990, David Arbel and Ran Edelist argue that the intelligence community often catered to the preconceived notions officials in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had of the Soviet threat, producing a “rigid conceptual conformity between the analysts and the decision-makers.” But former CIA official Douglas MacEachin adds that while the CIA did not forecast the breakup of the Soviet Union, it did “predict that the failing economy and stultifying societal conditions it had described in so many of its studies would ultimately provoke some kind of political confrontation within the USSR … What actually did happen depended on people and decisions that were not inevitable.”

Above, Gorbachev reads his resignation statement in Moscow on Dec. 25, 1991, before appearing on television to cede power to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and effectively dissolve the Soviet Union.

Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images

The Indian Nuclear Test

In May 1998, the CIA didn’t get wind of India’s intention to set off several underground nuclear blasts, in what Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called a “colossal failure of our nation’s intelligence gathering.” The intelligence agency saved some face a couple weeks later when it warned that Pakistan was preparing to conduct its own nuclear tests, which it did on May 28, 1998.

At the time, the Washington Post reported that a U.S. spy satellite had picked up clear evidence of India’s nuclear test preparations six hours before the blasts, but the U.S. intelligence analysts responsible for tracking India’s nuclear program hadn’t been on duty. Instead, they discovered the images when they arrived at work the next morning, after the tests had already taken place.

Above, Indian soldiers walk on shattered ground on May 20, 1998, as they patrol the Shakti-1 site near New Delhi, where the nuclear test had taken place nine days earlier.

John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

The 9/11 Attacks

In its report on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission noted that the intelligence community, assailed by “an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure, and bureaucratic rivalries,” had failed to pin down the big-picture threat posed by “transnational terrorism” throughout the 1990s and up to 9/11. In response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, Congress created a national intelligence director and the National Counterterrorism Center to pool intelligence.

As former CIA analyst Paul Pillar points out in his Foreign Policy piece, intelligence officials missed the 9/11 attacks but didn’t miss the threat posed by al Qaeda. The CIA created a unit focusing solely on Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s and President Bill Clinton launched covert operations against al Qaeda. The intelligence community’s February 2001 briefing on worldwide threats branded bin Laden’s terrorist network as “the most immediate and serious threat” to the United States, capable of “planning multiple attacks with little or no warning.”

Above, the Twin Towers burn after getting hit by planes on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Iraq War

In a February 2003 appearance before the U.N. Security Council to make the case for confronting Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that his accusations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were based on “solid intelligence.” Indeed, an October 2002 intelligence estimate had concluded that Iraq was continuing its WMD program and could make a nuclear weapon “within several months to a year” if it acquired sufficient fissile material. But the United States never found evidence for such programs after its invasion of Iraq — an intelligence failure that President George W. Bush called his “biggest regret.” 

Here too, however, it’s unclear how much of the failure should be blamed on intelligence as opposed to policymakers. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that President Bush and his top advisers “ignored many of the caveats and qualifiers” in the October 2002 intelligence report as they doggedly pressed ahead with the plans for war. Analysts, for example, estimated that Saddam wouldn’t use his WMD or give the weapons to terrorists unless Iraq was invaded. The New York Times also reported that senior Bush administration officials brandished tubes that they said were destined for Iraqi nuclear centrifuges despite the skepticism of nuclear experts.

Above, Powell holds a vial representing a teaspoon of anthrax during his Feb. 5, 2003, U.N. address. The secretary of state declared that Saddam Hussein might have enough dry anthrax to “fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons.” And, he added, “Saddam Hussein has not verifiably accounted for even one teaspoon-full of this deadly material.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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