Mel Gurtov
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Portland State University

Israel’s Intelligence Failure: Worse Than We Thought

Turns out that over a year before the Hamas attack, Israeli intelligence secured multiple documentation that gave a detailed account on what Hamas would do Oct. 7. But the Israelis discounted the plan as being unrealistic and therefore not worth planning to counteract. What accounts for that reaction?

Intelligence failures are usually of three types: missed signals, mishandled signals, and discounted signals. Most common are the first type: failures to detect the signs of major changes, such as a regime’s imminent demise (the USSR, 1989), a sudden transfer of power (Iran, 1978), or a military plan gone awry (the Bay of Pigs invasion, 1960). Next are failures due to bureaucratic malfunction, such as the multiple agency missteps in the leadup to the 9/11 attacks. Last, and worst of all, are failures to heed multiple warning signs even though recognized as such. The surprise attacks on Pearl Harbor and on Israel by Egypt and Syria in October 1973 are examples.

When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, many analysts saw the intelligence failure as a Type 1 matter: Israel’s intelligence community just didn’t see it coming and so didn’t prepare for it. But now we have documentation that in fact the failure was Type 3: The intelligence community had the data but chose to ignore it: a complete roadmap of Hamas’ attack plans over a year before October 7. It knew exactly what Hamas would do, and while it did not know when, it knew where and how—in other words, Pearl Harbor and Egypt-Syria times ten. When a colonel in the IDF’s Gaza division said Hamas had conducted exercises based on the roadmap, she was brushed off.

From the New York Times report of this documentation, it seems that the basic reason for this intelligence failure was the analysts’ hubris: the belief Hamas was incapable of pulling off such a detailed and imaginative attack. This conclusion should be particularly anguishing to Israelis because in 1973, as a CIA review determined, Israeli (and US) intelligence had “plentiful, ominous, and often accurate” information suggesting an attack.(

Yet the information was not taken seriously, the warnings were not heeded, and the thinking of Israel’s enemies was misinterpreted. “They would not dare” seemed to be behind Israel’s and the US’s assessment—hence a surprise attack that, as on October 7, should not have been.

It might be argued on behalf of these very costly intelligence failures that the abundance of warning signs was obscured by other information that did not suggest an attack. This is the phenomenon of noise, spelled out in Roberta Wohlstetter’s classic study, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. But as her study found, flawed thinking about Japan’s willingness to go to war with the US was a key error that undercut intelligence officers’ ability to separate noise from warning signs. They thought Japan knew it could not win such a war and therefore would not attack US forces. Israeli thinking about Hamas seems to have followed the same track, with disastrous consequences.

About the Author
Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Senior Editor of ASIAN PERSPECTIVE. He has published over 30 books and numerous articles on US foreign policy, Chinese politics, and international affairs from a human-interest perspective. He previously served with the RAND Corporation, during which he co-authored the Pentagon Papers. He blogs "In the Human Interest," has a podcast on Substack, and does weekly, five-minute radio commentaries on two stations in Oregon.
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