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What Israel Can Learn from U.S. Intelligence Failures

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The U.S. experience after 9/11 and the 2003 Iraq War can shed light on how to improve and alleviate coordination problems and intel politicization in Israeli intelligence.

New details of Israel’s massive intelligence failure preceding Hamas’s surprise terrorist attack on October 7 continue to come to light. It was recently reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Military Intelligence chief, Major General Ahoran Haliva, who previously acknowledged that the directorate under his command had failed to warn of Hamas’s impending attack, will resign.

Though there is still much to learn about the 10/7 intelligence failure, as information trickles out, it seems clear that Israel possessed enough timely intelligence to assess that Hamas was planning to execute a large-scale attack. For example, the New York Times recently reported that Israel obtained a detailed forty-page blueprint for a Hamas attack, code-named “Jericho Wall,” by Israeli officials at least a year in advance. Moreover, the October 7 attacks closely adhered to the Jericho Wall operational outline. The main problem, in short, does not appear to be Israeli intelligence’s failure to collect actionable intelligence but rather how that intelligence was analyzed and handled and how the security apparatus received the intelligence.

Since 10/7, many comparisons have been made to Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Aside from the scale and audacity of both terrorist attacks, the most compelling parallel is the failure of each security apparatus to detect and preempt the attack. Similar to the American intelligence community after 9/11, the Israeli security apparatus will need to conduct a thorough forensic investigation into the 10/7 intelligence failure and learn from its mistakes. Israel will, in all likelihood, need to consider restructuring its system for intelligence analysis in the wake of 10/7. In that effort, Israel can fruitfully look to the U.S. experience regarding lessons learned from and reforms following the intelligence failures of the early 2000s.

The U.S. intelligence community (IC) “endured a thorough wire-brushing” and underwent “dramatic changes” following two major documented intelligence failures in the early 2000s:

9/11 intelligence failures. Just a month prior to the 9/11 attacks, the Central Intelligence Agency published an article in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US.” Though it did not lay out details or warn of the 9/11 attacks specifically, the PDB did provide disquieting details of Al Qaeda members living in the United States with the potential to support an attack and expanded on prior analysis that Osama bin Laden wanted to bring the fight to America. Problematically, intelligence sharing between organizations faced massive stove-piping issues, contributing to a failure to warn.

Iraq War intelligence failures. A key mistake was the inclusion of flawed conclusions about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program in a2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). These conclusions were highly politicized by the George W. Bush administration to justify the decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. These mistakes were partly due to analytic failures that did not make rigorous analytic judgments—leading analysts to make “relatively authoritative” assessments of the WMD program despite stating that they were missing critical pieces of the puzzle.

Creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) 

Israel does have a Ministry of Intelligence, partially modeled on ODNI. But unlike its U.S. counterpart, the ministry doesn’t oversee analysis production for the prime minister or drive national intelligence estimates. In light of the findings of the 9/11 Commission Report, which, among other failures, identified a lack of coordination among siloed intelligence agencies, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) was passed in 2004 to create the DNI position to “alleviate the coordination problem among intelligence agencies.”

ODNI is charged with leading and overseeing the U.S. intelligence community, and the director of national intelligence serves as the president’s principal intelligence advisor. The purpose of this governing intelligence agency is to streamline intelligence analysis and collection and prevent stove piping—in part through the creation of four integration centers, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Counterproliferation and Biosecurity Center, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, and the Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center. ODNI enables multiple agencies to collaborate in sharing and piecing together intelligence (over 40 percent of the ODNI is on rotation from another intelligence agency), aiming to prevent failures like 9/11 in which agencies did not connect intelligence.

ODNI also seeks to guard against politicization of intelligence analysis, and its National Intelligence Council (something Israel does not have) manages IC products like the NIE, ensuring that tradecraft and ambiguity in assessments are accurately conveyed to policymakers—aiming to prevent mistakes like those made in the 2002 Iraq NIE on WMDs.

Like the United States, Israel has multiple intelligence agencies, including a domestic security service (Shin Bet), a foreign intelligence service (Mossad, equivalent to the CIA), and a Military Intelligence Directorate, a distinct armed service within the IDF that houses research and collections arms, including Unit 8200, which collects signals intelligence. The Israeli security apparatus also includes smaller security forces with some surveillance responsibilities, such as the Border Defense Corps.

In theory, Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, founded in 2009, is meant to oversee and manage various intelligence agencies—but the Military Intelligence Directorate falls under the Ministry of Defense—and there are clear indications of stove piping and problems with communication. According to Jonathan Panikoff, even though the Ministry of Intelligence, in theory, could mediate between organizations, this rarely occurs. Despite the warning signs in the days and hours before October 7, IDF troops were actually redeployed from Gaza to the West Bank on October 5. Even last-minute discussions on the night of October 6-7 over unusual Hamas mobilization did not lead to the necessary action; those involved in the talks assumed it was just more Hamas drilling, though notably, the Military Intelligence chief was absent from the call.

In 2015, a study concluded that Israel should implement ideas from both the United States and the United Kingdom’s approach to intelligence analysis, “such as the need for the existence of an organizing axis for presenting the estimates and clarifying disagreements before debate in the government.” Had this process been in place ahead of the events of October 7, it seems plausible that the security apparatus and policymakers may have been compelled to increase the Israeli security posture around Gaza. The study stopped short of recommending Israel establish a central “body to stand above intelligence organizations” out of fear that the model could lead to weaker assessments as agencies struggle to meet consensus—giving too much authority to the overseeing body. However, at minimum, an overseeing organization synthesizing mechanisms for coordinating and collaborating on analytic judgments in conjunction with improved analytical rigor (discussed below) would reduce the risk of flattened assessments.

Clearly, the current ministry structure and intelligence integration policies must do better to prevent this kind of intelligence failure moving forward. Structures and procedures are needed to ensure intelligence reporting and analysis reach appropriate leadership and that the Israeli intelligence apparatus coordinates and collaborates on related warnings and analysis.

Implementing Higher Standards

Given faulty threat assessments and handling of intelligence on Hamas, Israeli intelligence analysis may also need to evaluate its process for intelligence analysis and the need for increased analytic rigor—similar to the U.S. experience. Ultimately, ODNI was tasked with revamping how intelligence analysis is conducted and produced—leading to the implementation of Intelligence Community Directive (ICD) 203 in 2015. In part, ICD 203 compels intelligence analysts to abide by five specific analytic standards and nine analytic tradecraft standards that are designed to increase the rigor of intelligence assessments. This rigor was born of lessons learned from the American IC’s failures in the early 2000s.

Among the analytic standards is objectivity, designed to mitigate the impact of analytic bias, which includes confirmation bias—something we previously identified as playing a role in Israel’s failure to detect and deter this attack. One relevant analytic tradecraft standard includes alternative analysis, which ICD 203 notes may help “imagine possible futures to mitigate surprise and risk.” More systematic analysis of alternatives would have created the opportunity to challenge dominant perspectives and narratives—such as the notion that Hamas could not and, therefore, would not deploy Jericho Wall.

Rebuilding Jericho

Without being on the inside of the Israeli intelligence apparatus, it is impossible to know exactly what the Israelis need to change to ensure that a failure of this scale doesn’t occur again. Only the Israeli intelligence apparatus—or an overseeing 10/7 commission of inquiry—can truly determine what kind of overhauls need to be made within the intelligence agencies. However, the U.S. experience after 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq can shed light on how to improve and alleviate coordination problems and lapses in analytic (tradecraft) standards in Israeli intelligence.

Haleigh Bartos is an associate professor of the practice in CMIST at Carnegie Mellon University. She has fifteen years of experience working to support policy and studying national security. She teaches courses on policy writing and national security at CMU, including Writing for Political Science and Policy, Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa, and In the News: Analysis of Current National Security Priorities.