Yom Kippur War Redux / How Israeli and U.S. Leaders Ignored the Arab Drums of War in 1973

Amir Oren explores how newly released documents reveal details of American and Israeli leaders' blindness to the warning signs.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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If only they had listened to Sharon, maybe the 1973 Yom Kippur War would have been averted.

Not the head of the Israel Defense Forces' Southern Command up to July 15, 1973, Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, who left the IDF just in time to be eligible to participate in the upcoming elections. The general, who would join the party born from the merger of the Liberal and Herut parties, was just as insouciant as his rivals on Israels political left and among military brass. He too believed that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would avoid conflict, and that if, despite this, war were to erupt, Egypt would be harshly beaten.

Golda Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.Credit: Reuters

But there was another Sharon, probably a first name of a woman that escaped censorship. Her full name is on file at the National Security Agency, an agency dealing with signal intelligence, called Unit 848 during the 1973 war. Only now, nearly four decades later, the NSA reveals that their Sharon warned about the events to come, but was ignored because of her lowly rank. In this she is like Lt. Benjamin Siman-Tov of Southern Command Intelligence, whose warnings went unheeded by his commanders.

The NSA is an intelligence gathering agency that had two major shortcomings in 1973: its attention was focused on intercepting information on Soviet attacks with only marginal attention going to secondary conflicts such as the Israeli-Arab conflict; its research facilities were not as developed as those at the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, at the time.

During the 60s it had satellites gathering electronic information, but had yet to accept that manned missions could be more of a liability than strength. So it was that within six months, during 1967-1968, two naval vessels under the command of the unit were involved in serious incidents – the USS Liberty was attacked by the IDF and the USS Pueblo was commandeered by North Korean forces.

The NSA was nearly always headed by a 3-star general or admiral, usually without any expertise in intelligence. To further their career and return from whence they came with a fourth star on their collar, these commanders did their best to avoid rocking the boat. During August 1973, after only a single year, the head of the NSA, an Air Force officer who had distinguished himself in the Apollo Project, was replaced by another Air Force officer. These men did not take their assignments in order to pick a fight with the CIA or the State Department.

According to a paper published by the NSA historian in the Agency journal, declassified this year, Sharon was a special research intern, assigned to the NSA Middle East and North Africa department, not an expert on the Middle East, but a highly qualified and convincing handler, backed by experts.

One of the agencies top officers was convinced that war was imminent, and as September progressed, more and more research officers became convinced that bloodshed was going to erupt, but had no official channel relay their concerns, because Intelligence Community Standing Order No. 6 specifically barred the NSA from generating final intelligence assessments, meaning reports analyzing raw intelligence.

Once Sharon was convinced of the need to issue a warning, her skill as a handler was seen as the way to disseminate the information, and she was assigned with the task of briefing the intelligence community. She faced a skeptical crowd on October 4. Egyptian and Syrian [activity] began concerning the CIA in mid-September.

Even though the Israelis tried to ease U.S. concerns, it was reported that the Israelis themselves were second guessing their assessments and had sent an intelligence gathering mission over the channel that morning. The deputy head of the CIA, General Daniel Graham, became worried and arranged for Sharon to brief Samuel Hoskinson, the CIAs Middle East expert.

Without a sound

The private briefing didnt help: Hoskinson was unconvinced. He maintained the political climate didnt suit an attack, arguing that all the evidence presented could also indicate increased activity due to the holding of military maneuvers, like those held by the Egyptian army in the previous two years (it would later turn out that these were drills in preparation for the crossing of the Suez Canal). An intelligence report, distributed on October 4, while it was still nighttime in Israel, stated that war was unlikely, a conclusion that will stick to the intelligence community like the failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor. On October 5, the U.S. military attaché in Tel Aviv reported that the Israelis were deliberating their actions and would like to receive instructions, which were not given.

Standing Order 6 was changed after the war. Ever since, providers of raw intelligence are allowed to evaluate the material and issue warnings. It is still unclear why Sharon was sent to brief the intelligence community without the backing of the NSA command, which would have increased her credibility in the eyes of the community elders. Could this have been an attempt to eat the cake and keep it too? If they become convinced the NSA gains prestige, if they dont, the blame doesnt make it to high ranking NSA officers, without support from upstairs, Sharon could later be disavowed.

Sharon of Port Mead and Lt. Siman-Tov of Beer Sheva were not alone in their failed attempts to warn of imminent war; Colonel Yoel Ben-Porat, commander of Unit 848, and Deputy Chief of Staff General Israel Tal faced similar fates. Ben-Porat and Tal would never forgive themselves, even decades later, for not raising hell at the time.

Tal implored the Chief of Staff David Dado Elazar to plan for the worst. In a meeting held October 4, Tal demanded that the front lines be bolstered and reserves be drafted. If I am wrong and you are right, he said, we drafted them for nothing, inconvenienced them during the holidays and wasted money. That would be a shame, but not too bad. On the other hand if I am right and you are mistaken, we will face disaster.

The meeting broke up before the discussion was done, due to some constraints on the chief of staffs time. Still, Dado didnt give up and continued his attempts to convince his fellow officers; he proceeded to try persuading Intelligence Branch General Eli Zeira, but to no avail. On Yom Kippur, when his dark predictions materialized, Tals spirits also darkened. His rivals in the IDF attacked him, and, five years later, when Rafael Raful Eitan, a protégé of Tals, became IDF chief of staff, then Defense Minister Ezer Weizman took him out of the reserves and reassigned Tal to the regular army to plan a multi-corps command of ground forces. Raful and his predecessor, Motta Gur, were worried that Weizmans next step would be to appoint Tal as head of the IDF and thus block their preferred candidate General Yanush Ben-Gal. Gur went on a public all-out offensive on Tal, centered on his performance during the wars darkest hours. When he was made aware of the truth he apologized to Tal in a 1984 letter.

Secret group

The 2011 crop of declassified intelligence documents that shed light on the days leading up to the 1973 war includes a volume of U.S. State Department documents from the year in question. The volume and its documents feature President Richard Nixon, and his chief adviser Henry Kissinger. They describe the contact the U.S. government had with Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat, and Leonid Brezhnev. Receiving information from the Americans and analyzing it was not  responsibility of army intelligence or that of the Mossad, Israels intelligence agency, which were prohibited from spying on the U.S., but rather the responsibility of the countrys political leadership, headed by Prime Minister Golda Meir, who spoke with Nixon and Kissinger herself and via her ambassadors, Yitzhak Rabin and then Simcha Dinitz.

The Foreign Ministry, headed by Abba Eban, wasnt privy to the more classified intelligence; even diplomatic data was kept from him. Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were not fond of Eban, and his counterpart in Washington, William Rogers, was Secretary of State Henry Kissingers rival. Only a small group was let in on the full picture: Meir, Dayan, and minister Yisrael Galili, with Rabin and Dinitz functioning as messengers. They communicated with the White House, Kissinger, and the National Security Council. Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon filled in for Meir when she traveled to Austria during the ominous week that preceded the war, but Dayan and Mossad chief Zvi Zamir neglected to fully brief him. Kissinger actively kept information from Rogers, holding from him central details on his contact with Sadats emissary Hafez Ismail.

One of Rogers assets was Joseph Green of the State Department, who headed the U.S. Interests Office in Cairo (full diplomatic relations between the two countries had been severed during the Six-Day War six years earlier). Green had a source - the head of the Saudi intelligence agency, Kamal Ahadam. And Ahdam himself had a source - his close friend Ashraf Marwan, who was married to Nassers daughter. Marwan was the diamond in the crown of Israeli spies.

Some in the Mossad, notably Zamir, are satisfied with the agencys relationship with Marwan, while others disagree. Rechavia Vardi, who headed the agencys field intelligence command, Zomet, suspected Marwans loyalty. Vardi retired from the Mossad in 1972, and died in 2006 after telling his friend Asher Levi, a reserves brigadier general and a high-ranking officer in the Southern Command during the War of Attrition and the 1973 war, that Marwan was a double agent. Two of Vardis friends at the top of the Mossad hierarchy concurred.

Anyone claiming that Marwans name leaked out only in recent years is simply mistaken. Some Israeli journalists knew the identity of Nassers son-in-law as far back as 1974, and not through intelligence contacts, and had received samples of the information he had handed his operators.

Eliahu Zeira, who was named head of the IDF intelligence branch in October 1972, did not have a clue as to the identity of the Mossads star informant. He preferred not to take such sensitive material on his trips abroad to meetings with the heads of foreign intelligence agencies.

According to the American documents recently published, Meir told Kissinger that Israel had a high-ranking source in Cairo. This was an unusual step as, even with the relations between Israel and the U.S. as close as they were, the two sides were normally careful not to give away information about their assets. Upon receiving a report from Rabin on what had been said about the U.S. in a secret Soviet-Egyptian meeting, Kissinger asked whether Israel knew what the U.S. said about it to the Egyptians. Rabin did not answer.

A source of flesh and blood

A consultation between Dayan, Zeira, and others held on the morning of October 5, was interrupted by the disturbing news that IDF intelligence had intercepted information on the emergency evacuation of Soviet advisors and their families from Syria.

The Americans are unaware, said Zeira, expressing his concern that letting the Soviets know about the information gathered would gravely endanger our assets. If we hear they took off, we could make it look like we found out from the Damascus International Airport.

Dayan replied: Ignoring the problem of protecting our source, politically, is it in our best interests that the Americans ask the Russians why they were leaving?

Zeira: After they get home.

Dayan: Regarding the phrasing, I agree we shouldnt expose our asset.

Zeira and Dayan were, apparently, talking about information obtained by intercepting communications. The source Meir told Kissinger about on the afternoon of October 22, at the Mossad academy, was a flesh and blood source. She mentioned him in passing, in a discussion focused on the attempts to put out the fire at Suez, with Kissingers assistant taking notes. The conversation continued without drawing any special attention. Only later after the conversation was analyzed by intelligence officers, the meaning of Meirs slip was understood.

Sadat doesnt live in reality, Meir once complained. He thinks he will win. We have a source that told us that Sadat, when talking about returning lost land even at the price of one million casualties, actually means it.

Whether credible or not, Marwan wasnt the highest-ranking of Israeli sources. Even more prominent was King Hussein of Jordan. Yoav Gelber, the scientific adviser to the Agranat Commission, which investigated the IDFs failings leading up to the 1973 War, described Hussein as Meirs source in a letter he sent her family.

Exposing a source is the responsibility of the sources handler, Gelber wrote.

According to the American documents, this wasnt the first warning Hussein gave Israel that year. On May 3, Hussein warned that, A great international military fiasco in the region is imminent. Ground forces from Algeria and Sudan will soon be in Egypt. Morocco will send forces to Syria; Libyan Mirages are already in Egypt. Substantial Iraqi forces will be found by the Iraqi-Jordanian border, under a unified command."

Ambassador Dinitz commented on the information provided by the Jordanian monarch, that was verified by other Israeli sources of information. It was known that the Syrians had a central role in any military action and that they had begun preparing their forces.

What do you think? Kissinger asked.

We think the king is inclined to exaggeration. Hes an alarmist, replied Dinitz. We are more concerned by the fact that we have similar information from another source. Egypt is also involved. [The attack is supposed to take place] within a month.

Two to three months earlier, before Meirs visit to the White House, Nixon and Kissinger debated how to respond to her request to receive (and manufacture in Israel) hundreds of additional fighter jets. They adopted the CIAs position that the advantage the IDF had over the Arab militaries would be maintained even without the jet deal.

Richard Helms, who that same month finished his seven-year service as director of the CIA, told Nixon that the IDF will be able to beat each and every one of its enemies and all of them together, as long as the Soviets dont get involved in the next five years, without additional planes. Their advantage is colossal, even though they wont admit it, which proves how good they really are. Damn it, the Israelis are really so much better off with what they have than their pitiful and stupid neighbors, who cannot do a thing without the Russians.

A bluff

The Israel-friendly Helms was sent to Tehran, as U.S. ambassador to Iran. He was replaced as head of the CIA by James Schlesinger, who possessed a far cooler sentiment towards Israel, and who a few months later was once again promoted to Secretary of State. The mid-April Israeli warning to the U.S. over Sadats intentions to cross the Suez and attack Israel during mid-May, seemed to him suspiciously sudden. He didnt think it likely war would break out, and if one did, it surely would be Israel who started it.

On April 16, Schlesinger reported to Kissinger that the Israeli concerns over Egyptian actions against Israel contradicted the up-to-date intelligence assessments heard by the military attaché to Tel Aviv, during a conversation with the head of the IDF intelligence department, Brigadier General Aryeh Shalev, on April 12. At that point Shalev didnt believe Sadat had decided to resume war with Israel, nor that he was likely to do so soon. (He was right - the decision was made at the end of August). He remained steadfast in this position, in spite of the developments in the Egyptian army, including the arrival of Libyan Mirage fighter planes.

Schlesinger added that the actions being taken by the Egyptian army were not indicative of intentions to renew the fighting, but rather of an Egyptian bluff intended to put pressure on Israel and the U.S., and distract Egyptian public opinion from internal problems.

On May 5, two days after his conversation with Dinitz, Kissinger received an updated CIA assessment: The Arabs patterns of activity do not indicate that violence is likely to break out before the UN discussion on the Middle East at the end of May. We find it unlikely that Sadat will attempt any large-scale operations in the next six weeks. The Arabs want to apply maximum psychological pressure to us and the Israelis. There is a danger that these actions will gain momentum of their own in the future. The Israelis are following the situation closely, and are probably more concerned than their intelligence assessments show. These assessments still state Sadat will not go to war.

A time for war

In a diplomatic-defense discussion held May 15, Schlesinger reported on an intelligence gathering mission held over Egypt between a week and ten days ago. No equipment was transported to the canal, he said. This indicated that Egypt only had air raids as a viable means of attacking Israel, air raids that would be highly unintelligent on their part.

Kissinger also remembered seeing plans to land paratroopers in the Sinai, but Schlesinger insisted that if Egypt were to start something, it would be a part of a diplomatic ploy to gather sympathy after being beaten by Israel, and even if they are talking about getting a foothold in the Sinai, we believe they will not be able to hold it for more than a week, which will not be enough to allow them to kick-start negotiations.

These discussions included all the basic parts of Sadats plan: crossing the Suez, establishing a foothold east of the canal, the renewal of negotiations, and the assessment that the plan would fail. On May 17, the CIA assessment stated that Sadat believed the situation was unbearable for himself and for Egypt, and that therefore he was issuing threats in the hope that this would entice the U.S. to put pressure on Israel.

Hostilities between Egypt and Israel seem unlikely in the next few weeks. The danger may arise if Sadat feels the discussions at the UN during early June, and the Nixon-Brezhnev summit at the end of June will not bring his country favorable results. Hostilities between Israel and the Arab world in 1973 will not include extensive land combat like in 1967, or a lengthy war of attrition such as that fought in 1969-1970. Small and limited commando operations or artillery barrages from Egypt followed by massive Israeli retaliation are possible though. An Israeli preemptive airstrike will be launched if Israel gets the impression that Egypt is on the verge of an air raid on Israeli civilian targets.

On the day Hussein gave Kissinger an additional warning, all Syrian forces were given the order to concentrate on night combat. A top secret operational plan was produced for a three-division night attack on the Golan Heights – clearing the Israeli front lines, followed by an armored divisions thrust the next day to capture the rest of the Golan. Iraq was a possible source of strategic reinforcements, and large quantities of Soviet military equipment - including anti-aircraft missiles - had arrived in Syria during the previous few months (the CIA has approved most of the information provided by Hussein until the arrival of equipment from Syria).

It was possible that the Egyptians were soon to begin some kind of action against Israel, but it was also possible that the Syrians would be the first to attack, followed by an Egyptian assault at the Suez Canal.

Two weeks afterward, the head of the State Departments Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Ray Klein, sent Secretary of State Rogers a more dire assessment regarding the possibility of war. If the deadlock between Israel and Egypt was not broken in UN discussions, we estimate there is a higher than 50 percent chance that war will erupt by autumn. Sadat has no illusions that Egypt will be able to beat Israel militarily, but he is on the verge of deciding that only limited hostilities hold a real possibility of breaking the deadlock in negotiations, by forcing the world powers to get involved and force a settlement. If he stops debating the necessity of military action to bring a change in the American position, he will only need to decide on the timing and scope of the attack.

On the eve of the war, Klein predicted that despite the information received about Syrian intentions to attack Israel, the political climate was not ripe for such an attack, and Israel had not yet expressed its concern. Our ability to obtain evidence of the preparations of land forces for war in Syria is very limited, Klein explained.

After the war, new CIA chief William Colby dismantled and reassembled the agencys body responsible for issuing intelligence assessments. The CIA had not only failed to predict the war but also, once it began, initially failed to determine which side started the war – Israel or its enemies. The NSA wasnt fast enough to provide Colby with quality wiretaps, and only intercepted Damascus Radio, which reported the war was started by Israel.

The mutual eavesdropping between Tel Aviv and Washington, and between IDF intelligence units and the CIA, also contributed to the failure. The glass separating the two intelligence agencies was a mirror not a window. But the final word, with full logic, was given by Golda Meir in a farewell meeting with new IDF chief Motta Gur, after she announced her decision to step down as prime minister in 1974.

Meir reminded the major generals that the raw intelligence does not speak for itself. It needs a spokesperson, an interpreter. I am afraid that the shock that struck the intelligence corps might cause people to be discouraged from interpreting pieces of news, Golda told the new chief of intelligence, Shlomo Gazit.

Do you believe we must strengthen them? And while I do agree that this is the best intelligence in the world, they say that if you get burned, you become afraid, and its only human if humans say that it is best not to take chances, to remain neutral, and not say what we think. I believe that this could also be disastrous.

I gave the order to bring back the term low probability to the lexicon, dared Gazit. But only if it is used properly, agreed Meir.

The government commands the military and the intelligence services. It also evaluates state and military intelligence. If responsibility is passed down from the prime minister and the defense minister to the chief of Military Intelligence, to the head of the research officers - and if we believe in the holiness of our sources - we arrive at the absurdity of Ashraf Marwan as the prime minister of Israel.