In light of the devastating and deadly terrorist attack executed by Hamas against Israel on October 7, many are correctly calling the failure to intercept and prevent the assault an "intelligence failure." Many are especially surprised given the vaunted, basically legendary, status almost universally accorded Israel's national security apparatus.
This, however, is not the only recent intelligence failure, or failure by political leaders to anticipate emerging threats. According to a Brookings report examining the U.S. intelligence failure and reorganization following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against America:
"In the aftermath of 9/11 everyone, from elected officials and national security experts to ordinary citizens had one question: how could this happen to a nation with such an enormous and expensive military and intelligence architecture?"
Despite warnings from the U.S. Intelligence Community, the Biden administration failed to anticipate or plan for the dramatic and quick collapse of Afghanistan's government when U.S. troops were withdrawn. And while the Intelligence Community correctly and publicly warned of Russia's impending invasion of Ukraine, it failed to predict the tenacity of Ukrainian fighters defending their homeland and instead forecast an almost Afghanistan-style collapse in a matter of days. General Mark Milley, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even warned lawmakers that "a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could result in the fall of Kyiv within 72-hours and could come at a cost of 15,000 Ukrainian troop deaths and 4,000 Russian troop deaths," according to lawmakers he briefed behind closed-doors.
These misses once again have citizens asking if our intelligence agencies and political leaders are capable of keeping them safe. The short answer, unfortunately, is no. Terrorists and our enemies only have to be right once, while our intelligence services need to be correct 100% of the time. Just look at Pearl Harbor.
It is not unreasonable to expect that Israeli or US intelligence should have been able to detect the 10/7 attacks on Israel ahead of time, especially so close to the 50th anniversary of the surprise Yom Kippur War in 1973. What, then, led to the failure? While Israel will certainly review its intelligence posture to determine its shortcomings, we already know some of the challenges the Intelligence Community faces on the U.S. side.
The Middle East, Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are all high on the Intelligence Community's radar, given the volatility of the restive region. All the same, Washington's leadership also was not expecting the 10/7 attacks. A little more than a week prior, Biden's National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, was talking-up successes in the Middle East, allowing the U.S. to focus on other areas regions of the world. The bold conclusion made by Sullivan at the time was that "the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades."
He could not have been more wrong. Boiling just under the surface was a terrorist attack that would result in more than 1,200 Israelis killed, at least 31 Americans killed, atrocities against Israeli civilians that include beheaded babies and babies burned alive, as well as scores of Israeli and international hostages whom Hamas terrorists forcibly abducted from Israel to Gaza, presumably being held in tunnels.
The failure of the U.S. intelligence community has three components:
- It has become politically charged and lost focus on its mission protecting Americans, instead engaging in partisan politics.
- It continues to focus on technological intelligence collection rather than the difficult and risky world of human intelligence collection.
- It continues to suffer from a lack of creativity in anticipating and understanding the new threats being developed by our enemies.
There is little doubt that the Intelligence Community has become seriously politicized. In 2016-2017, its leaders and the FBI undermined the incoming President Donald Trump by raising the specter of Russian influence over Trump. The disproven Russia hoax would go on to shadow and undermine Trump's entire time in office.
When Hunter Biden's now infamous laptop was revealed, it was the FBI and former Intelligence Community leaders who actively tried to cover it up and pass it off as a Russian disinformation campaign.
The Intelligence Community also shifted some of its focus from international threats to domestic threats -- often spurious -- while ignoring the real ticking time bomb of 5.6 million migrants flooding onto the United States through the southern border, in addition to at least 1.5 million known "gotaways" and an unknown number of unknown "gotaways."
We have also witnessed information that was accurate but which the FBI worked with social media companies to suppress, and even outright fabrications about what they claimed was disinformation, such as the Russia hoax or the authenticity of Hunter Biden's laptop; that Catholics who attend mass in Latin are "extremists," and that parents questioning what their children learn in public schools are "domestic terrorists." What really happened on January 6, 2021 is still unknown.
These efforts by the Intelligence Community all seem to target Republicans or to benefit Democrats politically -- a situation that has left many conservatives rightly worried about the political weaponization of the government.
Unfortunately, this political corruption shows no signs of abating, with the entire deep state apparently still determined to turn the Constitution on its head to "get Trump," and with former officials such as Michael Hayden, who was head of the National Security Agency and the CIA, suggesting that Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville should be removed from the human race.
A second major shortcoming, that was identified after 9/11 was, as mentioned, a U.S. over-reliance on the technological collection of information, such as satellites, cyber, and wiretapping. The Intelligence Community knew how to do these things and knew how to do them well. It was difficult and sophisticated work but carried far fewer risks than human espionage or developing spy networks.
While the intelligence may have been there, our ability to fully understand it, and our analyses, missed having insights into the humans, and their way of thinking, who were behind those "zeros and ones."
Hamas may have exploited the reliance Western security services have on technological collection. We already know that Osama bin Laden refused to use electronic communications and relied on human couriers to convey messages. They used our confidence in technological collection to their benefit. The after-action intelligence review to determine how Hamas hid its operation will undoubtedly look into this, but it appears that electronic communication on the plot was limited and coded, with the few people actually knowing the full details kept to a handful to further limit communications.
Just as the U.S. Intelligence Community did not imagine terrorists hijacking airplanes to use as missiles, it is likely the Israelis never contemplated Hamas pulling off a multipronged attack by sea, land, and air -- including the use of paragliders. But that is exactly what they did. They used low-tech bulldozers and explosives to breach Israel's border fence and then drive through the openings with trucks, motorcycles, and other equipment loaded with terrorists and weapons. Hamas fired thousands of rockets, in barrages of hundreds at a time, to overwhelm Israel's highly touted Iron Dome counter-rocket system and, having learned lessons about the effective use of drones from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, used drone-dropped munitions to take out guard towers and surveillance cameras.
While many of these tactics are not new -- Hamas had fired tens of thousands of missiles into Israel before, attacked civilians and soldiers on the streets, and crossed the border in multiple ways -- the novelty of this approach was to do all of these things at once and on a massive scale.
The biggest U.S. intelligence failure of all so far, unfortunately, has been strenuously pretending not to know that Iran, Qatar and Turkey are the kingpins behind the current attacks by Hamas on Israel. If Iran, Qatar and Turkey are to be discouraged from continuing their malign actions destabilizing the region, the price they pay needs to be steep. Hamas. Iran, Qatar and Turkey must not be let off the hook. In addition, the US must move its military assets from Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar to the United Arab Emirates as soon as it can.
The Qataris, instead of being grateful that a state-of-the-art airbase is on its soil protecting it, instead might think that they are doing the US a favor letting the airbase be there.
To go just after Hamas is like targeting crime syndicate, but ignoring Al Capone. Hamas needs to be dealt with first – along with the realization that any humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza supplies Hamas, not the people for whom it was well-meaningly intended. As the journalist Caroline Glick points out, the trucks are not inspected. They might be bringing in food and water – or weapons. Sadly, even if the contents are food and water, Hamas keeps them, then sparingly doles them out to whomever they want.
Moving forward, we once again need to examine how we do intelligence across the West. Perhaps Congress or a special commission can be established to identify the exact strengths and weaknesses of our intelligence community. It will have the old rallying cry of "never again," just as after Pearl Harbor, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, 9/11, and now the attacks of 10/7. The Intelligence Community needs to keep its eye on actual foreign threats, develop and use all forms of intelligence collection to build a robust intelligence capability, respect the ability and creativity of our adversaries, and to discard the biased and flawed analytical tradecraft standards that have led us to where we are today. Unless these changes take place, we will remain vulnerable, uncertain of our safety and security, and stuck with the knowledge the world is a much more dangerous place than we had thought.
Peter Hoekstra is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. He was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He also served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the Second District of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee.