Intelligence and Surprise Attack
Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond
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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Title Page, Copyright Page
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List of Figures
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IFIRST BEGAN TO THINK about the subject of intelligence failure and surpriseattack during my career as a naval intelligence officer. My greatest goal dur-ing that time was to avoid contributing to another failure on the scale ofPearl Harbor, while seeking to recreate the success experienced by an earliergeneration of intelligence professionals at the Battle of Midway. In the end nei-ther my failures nor my successes were quite so spectacular, although I had myshare of both. But when I retired from active duty and began graduate studies at...
Introduction: Breaking the First Law of Intelligence Failure
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WHY DO SURPRISE ATTACKS—whether from terrorists or from conven-tional military enemies—so often succeed, even though later investi-gations almost always show that intelligence warnings had beenavailable beforehand? In her classic book about Pearl Harbor, Roberta Wohlstet-ter provided what is still today the most widely accepted answer to this puzzle.She argued that although there had been numerous warnings of a Japanesethreat, the large ratio of extraneous noise to meaningful signals made analysis of...
1 Why Does Intelligence Fail, and How Can It Succeed?
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AMONG INTELLIGENCE PROFESSIONALS, the concept of intelligence failureis a sore subject. This is not surprising, because many people assume thatwhen intelligence fails, it is because an intelligence officer or analyst hasdone a poor job. But for many in the intelligence business and in the academicfield of intelligence studies, this is not necessarily the case: Intelligence can failfor many reasons, often despite the best work of intelligence professionals. For-mer US Marine Corps intelligence director Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper...
PART I: THE PROBLEM OF CONVENTIONAL SURPRISE ATTACK
2 Pearl Harbor: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom
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THIS CHAPTER EXAMINES what has been considered—at least until the Sep-tember 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—to be the greatest intelligence failurein American history: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It challengesthe conventional wisdom about this failure, and by extension it also challengesone of the most widely accepted understandings in the intelligence studies litera-ture: that in cases of failure, sufficient intelligence is virtually always present, andthe primary failure lies in improper analysis of that intelligence.1...
3 The Battle of Midway: Explaining Intelligence Success
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ALTHOUGH THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY has not generated as much contro-versy and public fascination as Pearl Harbor, it remains today nonethe-less the subject of a steady stream of books and articles. In part thisinterest stems from a desire on the part of naval personnel and veterans toremember a great victory and turning point in the war in the Pacific; the USNavy, for example, began several years ago to commemorate the battle each yearwith celebrations and speeches.1 But among historians and military analysts, a...
4 Testing the Argument: Classic Cases of Surprise Attack
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THE PREVIOUS TWO CHAPTERS have examined the intelligence failure atPearl Harbor and the success at Midway and developed a tentativehypothesis to explain the difference in outcomes between these two cases.My argument is that intelligence can lead to preventive action when a specificwarning about an attack (typically found at the tactical level) is made availableto policymakers who are receptive to that warning. In particular, these two casesstrongly suggest that strategic intelligence and warning—the long-range, big-...
PART II: THE PROBLEM OF TERRORIST SURPRISE ATTACK
5 The East Africa Embassy Bombings: Disaster Despite Warning
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INNOVEMBER1997an Egyptian man named Mustafa Mahmoud Said Ahmedwalked into the US embassy in Nairobi and told the authorities a remarkablestory. He said he was part of a group that was planning to blow up theembassy building by detonating a bomb-laden truck in the underground parkinggarage. The attack, he claimed, would involve several vehicles and the use of stungrenades, and he said he had already taken surveillance photos of the embassy.But when CIA officials interviewed him, they were skeptical about his claims....
6 New York City: Preventing a Day of Terror
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ONE OF THE FIRST and most successful cases of terrorism prevention inAmerican history is also one of the least known. In June 1993, only fourmonths after the first World Trade Center bombing, a group of menwas arrested while preparing to bomb a number of targets in the New York Cityarea, including the UN Headquarters, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, and theGeorge Washington Bridge. The men had been organizing and training since1989 for what the US government later called a conspiracy ‘‘to levy a war of...
7 The 9/11 Attacks: A New Explanation
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ONE OF THE MOST ENDURING QUESTIONS surrounding the 9/11 attacksis: Why, when American intelligence agencies and others had beenwarning for years about the threat from bin Laden and internationalterrorism, were the attacks not anticipated and prevented? James Wirtz puts thepuzzle this way: ‘‘Even accounting for hindsight, it is difficult to understand howthe government, the public, and the scholarly community all failed to respondto the threat posed by al-Qaeda, in a way that is eerily similar to the failures that...
8 Testing the Argument: Why Do Terrorist Plots Fail?
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ASWESAWINTHEFIRSTPARTof this book, much of the difficulty in learn-ing how to prevent conventional surprise attacks lies in the fact that inmost of the cases we know about, the surprise attack was successful. Onlyin a very few cases, such as the Battle of Midway and the 1967 Six-Day War, isintelligence successful in both anticipating the coming attack and convincingpolicymakers to take action. Instead, the result is usually embarrassed intelli-gence agencies, surprised and angry decision makers, and a lack of lessons for...
Conclusion: Preventing Surprise Attacks Today
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THISBOOKCHALLENGESthe conventional wisdom about why intelligencefails and how surprise attacks can be prevented. Studies dating back toPearl Harbor have found that attacks happen because the importantwarning signals get lost amid the noise, and because intelligence analysts fail toconnect the dots of widely scattered information in time to alert policymakersand foil a plot. But these studies have suffered from 20/20 hindsight, focusingonly 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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Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 5 figures, 1 table
Publication Year: 2013