Israel Had Enough Info to Prepare for 1973 Yom Kippur War, Declassified Doc Shows

Head of elite 8200 intelligence unit - Israel's NSA - told Agranat Commission that he’d warned of unusual activity in Suez Bay, but was overruled.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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Haim Bar-Lev and Sharon, 1973
Haim Bar-Lev and Sharon, 1973Credit: GPO
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

The Israeli army was “almost completely surprised” by the Egyptian and Syrian attacks on Yom Kippur 1973, according to a newly declassified Israel Defense Forces Archive document.

The document, among those declassified to mark the 41st anniversary of the October 1973 war, contains the testimony of Col. Yoel Ben-Porat, head of Military Intelligence’s Signals Intelligence, to the official Agranat Commission that investigated the war.

Ben-Porat told the commission of inquiry that although there was information available, it “did not manifest itself, did not achieve its effect.” He added he believed there had been enough information, in quality and quantity, to give the IDF a warning in enough time. “In my opinion [there was] no justification for us to have been surprised,” he said.

Ben-Porat testified to the committee that reports of unusual military activity in Sinai – for example, a great deal of equipment on the Suez Canal – had raised his suspicions. “Did that raise doubts?” Agranat asked Ben-Porat. “Yes, the events in the Suez Bay in Egypt did not [seem to me] to be an exercise, because they had exceeded geographically the area in which it was held,” he answered.

Ben-Porat told the commission about a conversation he’d had with MI chief Eli Zeira, who told him MI research had concluded that the activities in the Suez Bay were an exercise. Ben-Porat said he told Zeira, “I accept the research evaluation regarding Egypt that this is an exercise, but as to the possibility that this is a mistake – since I feel all the responsibility is on me with regard to a warning – I ask you to draft 100 to 150 reservists, to improve deterrent cover” and to prove or disprove the idea that the activities were an exercise.

However, Zeira refused, telling him the task of intelligence was to “protect the nerves of the country, not shock society and the economy I do not permit you to draft even a quarter of a reservist.”

Ben-Porat said the differences between him and Zeira at this point were “polar.”

Some of Ben-Porat’s testimony to the committee regarding actions taken is still classified.

Another testimony was by Lt. Col. Yosef Zeira – Eli Zeira’s nephew – who was head of the unit responsible for filtering and processing intelligence. He said that on October 4, he called his uncle and reported, “‘Here and there a few signs that are very worrisome,’ and I asked him for authorization to put into operation another very, very classified measure.” (The identity of that measure is still classified.)

According to Zeira’s testimony – part of which is still censored – his uncle responded, “For our security we will not open it at the moment.” Eli Zeira then reiterated his belief that the Egyptians could not move an army and prepare it secretly for war.

Responding to accusations that the MI unit in charge of wiretapping did not present enough information mentioning a war, Ben-Porat presented information received on October 3, which was brought directly to him and that he translated himself. “It was clear to me, this [meant] war. I claimed with regard to this information that, to the best of my understanding, the IDF could be drafted an hour after this report.”

When asked what was so significant about the information, Ben-Porat said the explicit use of the term “war,” and the connection of the evacuation of the Russian advisers during the war.

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