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Intelligence and Surprise Attack

Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond

Erik J. Dahl

Publication Year: 2013

How can the United States avoid a future surprise attack on the scale of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, in an era when such devastating attacks can come not only from nation states, but also from terrorist groups or cyber enemies?

Intelligence and Surprise Attack examines why surprise attacks often succeed even though, in most cases, warnings had been available beforehand. Erik J. Dahl challenges the conventional wisdom about intelligence failure, which holds that attacks succeed because important warnings get lost amid noise or because intelligence officials lack the imagination and collaboration to "connect the dots" of available information. Comparing cases of intelligence failure with intelligence success, Dahl finds that the key to success is not more imagination or better analysis, but better acquisition of precise, tactical-level intelligence combined with the presence of decision makers who are willing to listen to and act on the warnings they receive from their intelligence staff.

The book offers a new understanding of classic cases of conventional and terrorist attacks such as Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, and the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The book also presents a comprehensive analysis of the intelligence picture before the 9/11 attacks, making use of new information available since the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report and challenging some of that report's findings.

Published by: Georgetown University Press


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pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

List of Figures

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I FIRST BEGAN TO THINK about the subject of intelligence failure and surprise attack during my career as a naval intelligence officer. My greatest goal during that time was to avoid contributing to another failure on the scale of Pearl Harbor, while seeking to recreate the success experienced by an earlier generation of intelligence professionals at the Battle of Midway. In the end neither my failures nor my successes were quite so spectacular, although I had my share of both. But when I retired from active duty and began graduate studies at...

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Introduction: Breaking the First Law of Intelligence Failure

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pp. 1-5

WHY DO SURPRISE ATTACKS—whether from terrorists or from conventional military enemies—so often succeed, even though later investigations almost always show that intelligence warnings had been available beforehand? In her classic book about Pearl Harbor, Roberta Wohlstetter provided what is still today the most widely accepted answer to this puzzle.She argued that although there had been numerous warnings of a Japanese threat, the large ratio of extraneous noise to meaningful signals made analysis of...

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1 Why Does Intelligence Fail, and How Can It Succeed?

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pp. 6-26

AMONG INTELLIGENCE PROFESSIONALS, the concept of intelligence failure is a sore subject. This is not surprising, because many people assume that when intelligence fails, it is because an intelligence officer or analyst has done a poor job. But for many in the intelligence business and in the academic field of intelligence studies, this is not necessarily the case: Intelligence can fail for many reasons, often despite the best work of intelligence professionals. Former US Marine Corps intelligence director Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper...


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2 Pearl Harbor: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

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pp. 29-46

THIS CHAPTER EXAMINES what has been considered—at least until the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—to be the greatest intelligence failure in American history: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It challenges the conventional wisdom about this failure, and by extension it also challenges one of the most widely accepted understandings in the intelligence studies literature: that in cases of failure, sufficient intelligence is virtually always present, and the primary failure lies in improper analysis of that intelligence.1...

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3 The Battle of Midway: Explaining Intelligence Success

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pp. 47-67

ALTHOUGH THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY has not generated as much controversy and public fascination as Pearl Harbor, it remains today none-the-less the subject of a steady stream of books and articles. In part this interest stems from a desire on the part of naval personnel and veterans to remember a great victory and turning point in the war in the Pacific; the US Navy, for example, began several years ago to commemorate the battle each year with celebrations and speeches.1 But among historians and military analysts, a...

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4 Testing the Argument: Classic Cases of Surprise Attack

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pp. 68-84

THE PREVIOUS TWO CHAPTERS have examined the intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor and the success at Midway and developed a tentative hypothesis to explain the difference in outcomes between these two cases.My argument is that intelligence can lead to preventive action when a specific warning about an attack (typically found at the tactical level) is made available to policymakers who are receptive to that warning. In particular, these two cases strongly suggest that strategic intelligence and warning—the long-range, big-...


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5 The East Africa Embassy Bombings: Disaster Despite Warning

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pp. 87-109

INNOVEMBER 1997 an Egyptian man named Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmed walked into the US embassy in Nairobi and told the authorities a remarkable story. He said he was part of a group that was planning to blow up the embassy building by detonating a bomb-laden truck in the underground parking garage. The attack, he claimed, would involve several vehicles and the use of stun grenades, and he said he had already taken surveillance photos of the embassy.But when CIA officials interviewed him, they were skeptical about his claims....

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6 New York City: Preventing a Day of Terror

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pp. 110-127

ONE OF THE FIRST and most successful cases of terrorism prevention in American history is also one of the least known. In June 1993, only four months after the first World Trade Center bombing, a group of men was arrested while preparing to bomb a number of targets in the New York City area, including the UN Headquarters, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and the George Washington Bridge. The men had been organizing and training since1989 for what the US government later called a conspiracy ‘‘to levy a war of...

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7 The 9/11 Attacks: A New Explanation

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pp. 128-159

ONE OF THE MOST ENDURING QUESTIONS surrounding the 9/11 attacks is: Why, when American intelligence agencies and others had been warning for years about the threat from bin Laden and international terrorism, were the attacks not anticipated and prevented? James Wirtz puts the puzzle this way: ‘‘Even accounting for hindsight, it is difficult to understand how the government, the public, and the scholarly community all failed to respond to the threat posed by al-Qaeda, in a way that is eerily similar to the failures that...

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8 Testing the Argument: Why Do Terrorist Plots Fail?

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pp. 160-174

AS WE SAW IN THE FIRST PART of this book, much of the difficulty in learning how to prevent conventional surprise attacks lies in the fact that inmost of the cases we know about, the surprise attack was successful. Only in a very few cases, such as the Battle of Midway and the 1967 Six-Day War, is intelligence successful in both anticipating the coming attack and convincing policymakers to take action. Instead, the result is usually embarrassed intelligence agencies, surprised and angry decision makers, and a lack of lessons for...

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Conclusion: Preventing Surprise Attacks Today

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pp. 175-184

THIS BOOK CHALLENGES the conventional wisdom about why intelligence fails and how surprise attacks can be prevented. Studies dating back to Pearl Harbor have found that attacks happen because the important warning signals get lost amid the noise, and because intelligence analysts fail to connect the dots of widely scattered information in time to alert policy makers and foil a plot. But these studies have suffered from 20/20 hindsight, focusing only on cases in which intelligence fails and attacks succeed. They may help us...

Appendix: Unsuccessful Plots and Attacks against American Targets, 1987–2012

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pp. 185-192


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pp. 193-240


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pp. 241-266


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pp. 267-277

E-ISBN-13: 9781589016804
E-ISBN-10: 1589016807
Print-ISBN-13: 9781589019980

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 5 figures, 1 table
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 856935291
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Intelligence and Surprise Attack

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