Dept Of Secrets

A Clear View from Foggy Bottom

How State Department analysts  -- and no one else -- foresaw the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Ministry of Defense via Getty Images
Ministry of Defense via Getty Images

A fabled but previously secret State Department intelligence memorandum that predicted, five months in advance, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, has now emerged from classified vaults so obscure that even State Department historians and CIA officers responsible for Freedom of Information Act requests could not penetrate them.

When the war broke out on October 6, it surprised high-level officials in the Nixon administration. Yet, in a paper written the previous May, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had estimated that there was a "better than even bet" that war would occur "by autumn." Not one other office in the U.S. government had made such an estimate, and the Israelis themselves had dismissed the possibility of war. Although this example of INR’s acuity has been known about for years, the document itself was surprisingly elusive and is being published for the first time here and on the National Security Archive website.

According to INR, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would start a war with Israel not to achieve specific military objectives but to spur "big power" diplomatic intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The authors of the INR paper anticipated that as war unfolded, a variety of U.S. "interests" in the region could come under attack, with possible nationalizations of petroleum facilities, "efforts to displace US oil companies with those from Europe and Japan," and "prolonged oil embargoes." Despite the far-sighted INR analysis, senior officials in the Nixon administration saw war as unlikely.

A discussion of the INR report was a highlight of a remarkable conference held at Washington’s Cosmos Club in October 1998, the war’s 25th anniversary. Organized by the late ambassador Richard Parker, it included senior and mid-level former officials from Egypt, Syria, Israel, the United States, and the former Soviet Union — including a secretary of defense, ambassadors, generals, and a KGB station chief — all of whom played important roles at the time. The October 1973 intelligence failure was an important element of the discussion, and a memorable moment was when INR’s former desk officer for Egypt, Roger Merrick, spoke about how he developed the estimate with input from INR colleagues David Mark and Phillip Stoddard.

For Merrick, the possibility of conflict was inherent in the dynamics of the situation. Egyptian leaders had tried to use diplomacy to recover territory in the Sinai Peninsula lost to Israeli forces during the Six-Day War in June 1967. But the Israelis were unresponsive, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had nothing to offer his Egyptian counterparts. By the spring of 1973, according to Merrick, Sadat had "established himself as a strong player, serious;" yet despite his push for a diplomatic resolution of the Sinai problem, he was "neglected, and in an intolerable position with his political alternatives exhausted." On the other hand, his "forces were in place to launch hostilities and had not raised any significant alarm; thus the estimate that there was a better than even chance of major hostilities within six months."

Analysts at the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) rejected the INR view, and senior officials like Kissinger and Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco felt no alarm because the Israelis, underestimating Arab capabilities, kept assuring them that there was no danger. Kissinger did not tell any of the players that Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had warned of war in the region during his visit to the United States in June 1973. The dispute between INR and NEA over the possibility of war, Merrick recounted, "continued throughout the summer and fall until hostilities erupted," and INR’s estimate was vindicated.

INR’s analysts have often been on the money. In 1964, Allen Whiting predicted the strong likelihood of a Chinese atomic test, which Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced to the world two weeks before the event. During the Vietnam War, INR analysts starting with Lewis Sarris critically assessed the Pentagon’s evaluation of "progress" in South Vietnam. In the run-up to the Iraq War, INR did share in the consensus that Saddam had been trying seriously to establish a biological and chemical warfare capability, but the bureau was spectacularly right in its doubt about the most important claim in the Bush White House’s case for war: that Saddam was "reconstituting" a nuclear weapons capability. INR disputed the claims that Iraq’s aluminum tubes were for gas centrifuges and that the country had recently sought uranium yellow-cake from Niger.

Some of the key instances of INR’s astuteness are well documented, but the estimate on the possibility of war in 1973 proved hard to locate. During the 1998 conference, I asked Merrick whether he had a copy of his INR paper or knew where it could be found. He assumed it would be in the bureau’s retired files at the State Department. This conversation set off a 15-year on-again, off-again quest through archival research and FOIA requests to the State Department and then the CIA, all of which proved in vain. Even a skilled State Department historian, Craig Daigle (now at City College of New York), then working to complete the Foreign Relations of the United States compilation on the war, could not find it despite having clearance to review classified government files.

One trace of the document was found, however, in the intelligence community’s post-mortem of the October war intelligence failure, which the National Security Archive obtained in 2009. That document’s discussion of intelligence sources and methods was heavily redacted, but it included a detailed account of the INR report, quoting it at length and characterizing it as a "remarkable memorandum" and a "case of wisdom lost." Daigle included this account in his compilation.

Then, for a conference on the October war this January at the Nixon Presidential Library, staffers in the CIA’s Historical Collections Division compiled a large number of documents, some of which they described in a booklet. I was surprised to see, on page 42, a capsule summary of the INR memorandum. At my request, the CIA provided a copy of the document, which is slated to appear in an online compilation at the CIA’s website.

How and where the CIA editors found the INR memo remains a mystery. Its first page shows that the State Department reviewed it for declassification in 2002 and that the CIA refused to authorize declassification, which seems absurd. For some 10 years it sat in an obscure paper or electronic file where State Department historians could not find it and where even the CIA’s FOIA researchers could not locate it. A perfect example of one hand not knowing what the other one was doing.

Somewhat shamelessly, the CIA officials who reviewed this "case of wisdom lost" censored the names of its authors (see bottom of page 4). This is standard practice when CIA declassification reviewers scrutinize Agency intelligence reports — the names of analysts are almost never made public. But this is a State Department document, and the names of the authors of INR reports are invariably disclosed in records at the National Archives and in State Department FOIA releases. They are not like CIA officials whose names are often kept secret. But at least now we can be sure that Roger Merrick and his colleagues get full credit for their insight.

William Burr is the director of the Nuclear Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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