Intelligence for the Uninitiated

Anyone who hopes this book will help him understand why the assessments of Israeli intelligence are repeatedly disproved, even now, will be disappointed.

Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur
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Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur

"Modi'in: Halakha lema'aseh" ("Intelligence in Practice") by Yaakov Amidror, Broadcast University, Ministry of Defense Publications, 164 pages, NIS 84

Yaakov Amidror's book, it seems, could not have appeared at a more appropriate time. Intelligence is emerging as an increasingly important factor in the second Lebanon War. More than once in the last weeks, as we have learned, the Israel Defense Forces has been caught by surprise, and its intelligence about the enemy proved faulty.

It began when Hamas militants surprised an Israeli tank unit in Gaza and kidnapped the soldier Gilad Shalit, and it continued on the northern front, when Hezbollah managed to surprise an IDF patrol and abduct two other soldiers. Since then we have learned that Israeli intelligence miscalculated the combat capabilities of Hezbollah, did not know there were tunnels near that organization's bases, made mistakes in gathering information about the deployment of Hezbollah fighters inside the village of Bint Jbail, and succumbed to numerous other intelligence failures. It has also been revealed that Israel's naval intelligence did not know of the Iranian missiles in Hezbollah's possession and that the IDF was surprised by the organization's ability to preserve its rocket-launching capabilities. And that is only a partial list.

However, the list of Israel's intelligence failures extends far beyond its mistakes regarding Lebanon at the present moment. One need only remember that the Israeli intelligence services did not foresee the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, had no idea what was going on with Libya's nuclear program, and - worse still - did not know that the United States and Britain were involved in negotiations that ultimately led Muammar Gadhafi to give up weapons of mass destruction. On the eve of America's war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, Israeli intelligence also estimated - wrongly, as it turned out - that Iraq possessed such weapons in large quantities.

In the days leading up to the elections in the Palestinian Authority, Israeli intelligence officials assured policy-makers in Jerusalem that Fatah would win. Since then, as we know, the PA has been led by a Hamas government that won the elections by a clear majority. It should be said that Israeli intelligence has had its share of impressive successes, but it has also, however, had too many failures recently, with strategic implications.

Anyone who hopes that reading this book by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amidror, former head of the IDF Intelligence Assessment Division, will help him understand why the assessments of Israeli intelligence are disproved time and again is in for a disappointment. The book is a basic guide for readers interested in the subject of intelligence. It lays out before the reader the main goals and procedures of the intelligence system, its relationship to policy-makers, the structure of the Israeli intelligence community and the impact of technological innovations on intelligence output. It might be described as a textbook on intelligence for non-specialists.

Serious breakdown

The book does offer examples of intelligence failures, but those pertaining to Israel are too few, and the analyses explaining their causes are not satisfactory. Amidror makes no mention of Israeli intelligence's failure in Libya and Iraq, and even the gravest intelligence debacle in the country's history - i.e., failure to sound the alarm before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 - is passed over briefly, without a detailed analysis. And Amidror's explanation is unsatisfactory: "The lessons of intelligence history clearly indicate that attempts to assess the enemy's goal and future actions ... have failed bitterly. The attempt to determine that Sadat's logic would cause him to avoid a war - that no leader would embark on a war he would end up losing - was one of the main factors in the failure of Israeli intelligence on the eve of the Yom Kippur War." Later he does note that dismissive Israeli attitudes toward the Egyptians contributed to the intelligence fiasco, but this is not enough, and the issue of the 1973 breakdown deserved a more comprehensive discussion as a "formative" event in the history of Israel's intelligence community.

In contrast to the few examples the author provides of Israel's many intelligence failures, there are numerous references to what Amidror perceives as the most serious breakdown of all: the failure to expose "the scheme of Yasser Arafat," who signed the Oslo Accords intending not to make peace, but rather to use them in order to persist in the path of violence. At least five times in the book, the Arafat case is invoked as a demonstration of intelligence failure and its causes. Beyond the fact that the theory of "Arafat's scheme" is a matter of controversy among experts on intelligence and the Middle East, it is hard to avoid the impression that Amidror's extensive reliance on this particular case is rooted in the author's political views.

The author's attempt to present Israeli intelligence assessments regarding Arafat as a grave failure is less than convincing because, among other things, he makes contradictory statements. First he claims the intelligence services did evaluate Arafat's intentions correctly ("The intelligence services understood [the situation] better than those involved in the negotiations"). A few pages later he writes, "It can be argued that had Israeli intelligence been more attuned to what Yasser Arafat was saying to his people and to the world, it would have been possible to detect, shortly after he signed the Oslo Accords, that he had chosen the path of war ... This is a classic example of overt information that the intelligence mechanisms for the most part chose to ignore."

It is unfortunate that Amidror needs Arafat to analyze the reasons for Israel's intelligence breakdowns: He had plenty of other failures at his disposal with which to support his largely accurate analysis of the reasons why intelligence organizations fail.

Missed opportunity

The book's sixth chapter, "Intelligence and the Leader," is, in my opinion, the most interesting. It also, however, represents the book's greatest missed opportunity. Amidror, who was privy to the relationship between intelligence officials and policymakers while serving as military secretary to the defense minister, points to one of the biggest dangers of this relationship: "There is a need to beware the strong convictions of intelligence officials, convictions that are rooted in their belief that they understand reality better than the policy-makers. Some intelligence officials can be heard claiming it is their job to 'educate' the leader, while others fear the leader will misuse the sensitive information conveyed to him, and therefore believe the information should be given in a limited way or even concealed altogether. In democratic countries, such an act borders on the criminal."

And then he writes: "In Israel, a former head of military intelligence revealed that he had concealed information from then-prime minister Menachem Begin." What a fumbled chance. If this is indeed what happened, then - as Amidror himself argues - it borders on the criminal. How, then, can Amidror leave this affair so vague and refrain from telling us who this official is and what he concealed from the prime minister? After all, as he himself rightly claims, "In democracies, the people, and not the intelligence mechanisms, choose who will make decisions on their behalf." How can the reader be sure that our intelligence services do not, in fact, make the decisions themselves, when Amidror does not reveal to us which official kept information from the prime minister?

In a chapter of great relevance for the present moment, focused on "intelligence for fighting terrorism," Amidror surveys methods of gathering intelligence about terrorist organizations, although in my opinion he does not provide enough examples from the experience of the Israeli intelligence community in the last two decades. In this area, too, he cannot avoid lacing the professional analysis with his political views. And so he determines, "It is impossible to fight terrorism without control of the territory, in both the operational and the intelligence sense, including by maintaining a physical presence of troops in the area from which the activity of the terrorist organization emerges and to which its operatives flee."

That is Amidror's worldview - the view he preaches whenever he speaks of the withdrawal from Gaza or of a possible future withdrawal from the West Bank. If this claim is true, then whenever a terrorist organization launches an attack against a certain country, that country has no choice but to occupy the territory on which it is based.

Amidror identifies certain basic flaws in the structure of Israel's intelligence community and points to the absence of a single body to coordinate between its different components.

"In Israel there is no body or official overseeing all intelligence organizations and the coordination between them," he notes. "The Israeli intelligence community lacks someone who can oversee its overall needs, roles and resources and, based on this overview, make decisions regarding priorities. In this the Israeli community is unlike its fellow organizations around the world ... In Israel the prime minister directly supervises the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, while the head of military intelligence is subordinate to the IDF chief of staff, who answers to the defense minister. Because of the prime minister's many responsibilities, it is clear the heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad enjoy a great deal of independence."

This analysis is correct, but it fails to address another issue that has broad implications for the relationship between the intelligence community and policy-makers. By this I am referring to the fact that the prime minister in this country does not have his own intelligence advisor. Although several commissions of inquiry (including the Yadin-Scharf Commission and the Agranat Commission) have recommended that such a position be established, the prime ministers have not appointed themselves intelligence advisers, except for very short periods of time. An analysis of the reasons for this would have shed much light on the attitude of local decision-makers toward intelligence.

It is still too early to tell whether a commission of inquiry will be established to investigate the failures of Israel's intelligence just before the second Lebanon War. If such a commission is assembled, however, it would be appropriate for its members to adopt as their motto, which might also serve as a starting point for explaining these failures, Amidror's words in summing up his own experience as an intelligence official: "Arrogance is a basis for mistakes, and it is hard to fight. For the intelligence official, it is a guarantee of failure."

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