Oct 13, 2023

The 9/11 attack wasn’t an intelligence failure. The Hamas attack may be, CNN.com

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. He is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN. CNN — Comparisons are being made between 9/11 and Hamas’ attacks in Israel, and there are certainly parallels. In both cases, terrorist organizations killed large numbers of civilians in attacks that seemed to come out of the blue, shocking the two nations. Hamas’s attacks are also being ascribed to an intelligence failure, just as 9/11 was. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the 9/11 attacks, which were not so much an intelligence failure as a policy failure. First, let’s stipulate that intelligence agencies don’t make policy; they provide information — often imperfect and incomplete — so that policymakers can make better-informed decisions about what to do. Police officers evacuate a woman and a child from a site hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. The rockets were fired as Hamas announced a new operation against Israel. In the spring and summer of 2001, the CIA provided a slew of warnings that al-Qaeda was planning something big. Intelligence distributed to officials in the George W. Bush administration included warnings entitled, “Bin Ladin Planning High Profile Attacks,” “Bin Ladin Attacks May Be Imminent,” and “Planning for Bin Ladin Attacks Continues, Despite Delay.” (“Bin Ladin” was the spelling used by the US government at the time.) The most well-known of these warnings was briefed to Bush at his ranch in Texas on August 6, 2001, and was titled, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in United States.” The Bush administration didn’t do much of anything in the summer of 2001 in response to those warnings. The reason we now know this, is because of the excellent work of the 9/11 Commission; the Bush administration only reluctantly acceded to an investigative commission more than a year after the attacks, following intense public pressure from the 9/11 victims’ families. Certainly, the Hamas attacks in Israel were a surprise, just as 9/11 was, but it is premature to label it an intelligence failure. We don’t know yet what Israel’s intelligence agencies such as Shin Bet were saying about Hamas to Israeli policymakers, just as Americans had no idea what the CIA was saying to the Bush administration about al Qaeda’s intentions until at least a year after the 9/11 attacks had happened. Blaming a lack of intelligence for policy failures is an easy dodge for government officials because, typically, the spy agencies can’t publicly defend themselves on the facts, which are often classified, and, in any event, they work for the policymakers. After 9/11, Bush, who had anemic poll numbers before 9/11, suddenly had the highest polling numbers of any president in many decades, with a 90% favorable rating, benefiting from a “rally around the flag” effect in the wake of such a large-scale tragedy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely also benefit from this effect, at least in the short term. But as the initial shock of the Hamas attacks wears off, presumably, the Israeli public will demand an accounting of what went wrong. Right now, we have no idea if there were signals amid the “noise” coming into Israeli intelligence about a likely Hamas attack. In hindsight, such signals often look much clearer than they do in the present. In her 1962 study, “Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision,” Roberta Wohlstetter showed how when it came to the Japanese surprise attack on the US naval base on December 7, 1941, separating the “signals” from the “noise” was a lot easier after the fact, writing that, “After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has now occurred. But before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings. It comes to the observer embedded in an atmosphere of ‘noise’, i.e., in all sorts of information that is useless and irrelevant for predicting the disaster.” Indeed, a good example of this is the Yom Kippur War, which took place almost precisely half a century ago. It was also a surprise attack against Israel, in this case by the armies of Egypt and Syria and it was also described at the time as an intelligence failure because Egyptian and Syrian troop movements were interpreted by Israeli policymakers to be exercises rather than preparations for war. In addition, as the veteran former CIA official Bruce Riedel has written, Israeli officials couldn’t believe that Egypt and Syria would start a war they were likely to lose. That presumption was of course, wrong, and a declassified US government postmortem of the Yom Kippur War found that intelligence that the Egyptians and Syrians were likely planning an attack had, in fact, been “plentiful, ominous, and often accurate.” The mistake the Israelis made 50 years ago, and the Bush administration made before 9/11, despite intelligence warnings, was to underestimate the capabilities of their nations’ enemies. We don’t know yet what the Netanyahu government was told, if anything, about a possible attack from Gaza, but given the large-scale nature of the attacks, it seems conceivable that there were some indications that an attack was coming. Israelis will likely only find out if there is a real demand for timely accountability and if the Netanyahu government agrees to provide it. For now, understandably, the Israelis are focused on the ongoing conflict. “We were surprised this morning,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, the international spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, told CNN Saturday. “About failures, I prefer not to talk at this point right now. We’re in war. We’re fighting. I’m sure this will be a big question once this event is over.” “I assume the intelligence question will be talked about down the road and we’ll learn what happened there.” In so many “surprise” attacks, from Pearl Harbor to the Yom Kippur War to 9/11, it turns out that relevant intelligence generated by spy agencies was disseminated to policymakers, but it wasn’t heeded as it didn’t fit with the assumptions they had about the actual nature and scale of the threat.