Intelligence failures are often the result of hubris

By | October 9, 2023

David Ignatius writes:

Israel seemed to be coming apart in the months before Hamas fighters broke through the Gaza cage. Thousands of Israelis were marching in the streets of Tel Aviv to protest Netanyahu’s attempt to alter what they saw as the fundamental character of the state. Did that political chaos contribute to the Gaza attacks? I don’t know. But, surely, the domestic feuds of the past few months might have led Hamas and its backers in Tehran to believe that Israel was internally weak and, perhaps, vulnerable.

America before 9/11 knew something of that fragility. President George W. Bush came to office after a contested election that could only be resolved by the Supreme Court. Our divisions then seem like nothing compared with now. But the 9/11 Commission documented how the Bush team didn’t pay adequate attention to warnings from CIA Director George Tenet and his analysts of a possible al-Qaeda attack.

Intelligence failures involve a strange hubris. The tough guys get sucker punched. As journalists sometimes say, people start “reading their own clips” and believing their vaunted reputations. Mossad and its fellow agencies have lived off their mythic aura for generations; they’re celebrated as lions in novels and TV shows even as their American brethren are ridiculed as “clowns in action.” But sometimes tough guys don’t see the dangers that more cautious people might.

The Iranians and their Hamas allies play a more complicated game than some Israelis, in their justified hatred of the mullahs, might realize. Iran was genuinely threatened by Israel’s plan to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and, in the process, neuter the Palestinian issue as Tehran’s trump card. In its consternation, Iran was considering an opening to the United States, even as its allies were planning a vicious attack, Arab sources tell me.

Intelligence failures begin with overconfidence. People who are running scared sometimes look more closely in the shadows.

A final thought: When we say that the Gaza outrage was an Israeli version of 9/11, we should remember the other big lesson of that catastrophe, other than our failure to see it coming. The United States overreacted. It didn’t simply take revenge and destroy its enemies. It sought to remake the Middle East, with long, mostly fruitless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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