Newly Released CIA Reports Detail How Agency Missed Portents of Yom Kippur War

The American intelligence's daily briefings to the presidents in the 1960s and '70s show how far the CIA was from predicting the developments in Israel — with one exception.

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Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon in 1970.
Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon in 1970. Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The CIA would be happy to bury the next lines forever. A surprise from an unexpected direction is one thing — it happens. But seeing the reality and denying the alternative that will soon take place is an embarrassment to the professionals who are supposed to serve the most important man in the world.

October 6, 1973: “Tension along Israel’s borders with Egypt and Syria has been heightened by a Soviet airlift that is in its second day. Neither the Israelis nor the Arabs seem bent on starting hostilities, but in this atmosphere the risk of clashes is greater than usual. Both the Israelis and the Arabs are becoming increasingly concerned about their adversaries’ military activities, but neither side seems bent on starting hostilities.”

This is what U.S. intelligence said a few hours, maybe minutes (considering the time gap between Washington and Jerusalem) before the opening of the combined Egyptian-Syrian attack on Sinai and the Golan Heights — two of the territories Israel had held since June 1967.

There are several mistakes in one paragraph: A causal link between the Soviet airlift and the increased tension (in fact, it was the other way around: due to the tension — that is, the Soviet knowledge that Syria and Egypt were about to act — Soviet staff families were being evacuated from Cairo and Damascus); stating that neither side seemed bent on starting hostilities (correct in the Israeli context, very wrong concerning the Arabs); and attributing the “risk of clashes” to the atmosphere rather than the covertly made plan that rolled toward implementation.

Perhaps the CIA assumed that Yom Kippur morning that the Soviets were afraid a war would break out. Alternatively, that their already bad relations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had worsened and the tension was actually a Soviet excuse to reduce their presence in Egypt, without overly upsetting Sadat.

The report continued: “A military initiative at this time would make little sense for either Cairo or Damascus. Another round of hostilities would destroy Sadat’s painstaking efforts to invigorate Egypt’s economy and run counter to his attempts to bring the less militant, oil-rich states into a united Arab front. Syria’s cautious President [Hafez] Assad appears braced for a possible second blow from Israel rather than seeking revenge for his recent loss of 13 MIGs to Israeli fighters. Damascus radio broadcasts reflect Syrian fears.”

The intelligence failure of the Nixon administration prior to the Yom Kippur War is legendary — it provided work for commissions of inquiry and produced thousands of documents four decades after the war. But an important chapter was added Thursday from the eight-year collection of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) during the terms of presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, from January 1969 to January 1977.

The CIA and Nixon Library have released versions, albeit censored, of all the CIA’s daily briefs to the presidents. Israel doesn’t play the lead role, what with Vietnam, China, the Soviets and NATO, Cuba and others also on the scene. But it’s important enough to occupy Nixon and Ford and their respective intelligence chiefs — Richard Helms and James R. Schlesinger, William Colby and George H.W. Bush.

The PDB was intended to refine the millions of items swept into the huge vacuum cleaner of America’s intelligence agencies — spies, satellites, phone tapping, decoding — and processed by researchers and evaluators. The summary was given to the ultimate decision maker, who didn’t always have time to read the raw material. So in the final account, what’s important is mainly what boiled to the surface.

The CIA’s big secret was that it didn’t have a secret. It knew very little from covert sources. Many of the clauses that appeared in the PDB were taken from ambassadors’ telegrams, leaders’ speeches and newspaper articles. Many in Israel were seduced by the CIA legend of an octopus whose arms reached everywhere. At the time, the Israelis believed a top U.S. spy was working in Israel. According to the tales told to the president — and if he isn’t told, what’s the point in intelligence? — there was no such source here, in contrast to gossip that was passed on without verification and refuted the following day.

CIA chief William Colby in 1975.Credit: AP

The PDB of October 6, which cited “Damascus radio broadcasts,” in the absence of a source with free access to Assad, was preceded by that week’s briefings. On October 1, the entire brief was censored, but its headline — Israel/Syria/Jordan — discloses its content: The warning of Jordan’s King Hussein and his intelligence chiefs (who had good Syrian sources) that the Syrian army was about to make its move. This is the warning that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir heard from King Hussein at their September 25 meeting in Glilot, and which made U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger jump and demand that Colby get more details from the Mossad and Israel’s Military Intelligence.

With all due respect to the CIA, Colby — like Military Intelligence chief Eli Ze’ira — was a senior officer but junior compared to Nixon, Kissinger and Schlesinger. Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan knew more than Ze’ira, certainly regarding policy and politics. And Nixon and Kissinger, who held secret talks, knew more than Colby. They expected him to give them an unequivocal warning about the crisis, rather than a basic evaluation.

After the PDB of October 1 and a similar one the following day, the CIA’s attentiveness decreased — only to awaken again at the end of the week. On Friday October 5, the main item dealt with Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi, who had resigned (the Americans believed he was serious this time).

The second item concerned Israel’s relations with Austria, following the terror attack on a train full of Soviet Jews and the threat to the Schoenau transit camp. (At her meeting with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee a day earlier, Meir treated this event as more concerning than facing Egypt and Syria.)

Only the third item on the CIA’s briefing said: “Military drills now going on in Egypt are larger and more realistic than the previous ones, but the Israelis are not nervous.”

The tendency to trust the complacency of those who were supposed to be most concerned was also clear in the Yom Kippur briefing itself: “The Israelis’ attitude apparently has changed considerably since Monday when they, too, viewed the activity in Egypt as normal and that in Syria as defensive. Nevertheless, the Syrians’ fears could lead to a mobilization of their defenses, which in turn could alarm and galvanize the Israelis. Such a cycle of action and reaction would increase the risk of military clashes which neither side originally intended.”

According to the PDB, during the war itself the CIA reports did not excel in their analysis and understanding. If it weren’t for Kissinger’s sources, including Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Simcha Dinitz, the administration would have been operating in a dense fog of information available to any reader and viewer.

The CIA assessors were out of sync and missed important moves on both sides. Among these (although on October 8 they reported that the mood among Israeli leaders was somber), there is no mention of the panic in the Israeli leadership, Moshe Dayan and certain army officers before dawn on October 9, to the point of wanting to make preparations to take extreme action. Neither is there any mention of Meir’s decision to accept Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff David Elazar’s recommendation to seek a cease-fire with the Egyptians on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal — in fact, surrender to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

On one issue that was a matter of controversy between Military Intelligence (and the Mossad and Israel Air Force intelligence) and the CIA, the Americans had to concede later that the Israelis were right: the ground-to-ground Scud missiles that the Soviets had deployed in Egypt. On August 31, 1973, it was explained to Nixon that the Scud was “roughly comparable to the Jericho missile the Israelis are developing,” but the evidence that it had arrived in Egypt was weak. All the intelligence “collection systems” were on alert, but “attempts to photograph Nikolayev [the Russian port that shipped military goods to the Middle East] in early August to ascertain whether the equipment was still there were balked by clouds,” Nixon was told. Before the cease-fire, the Soviet operators fired those weak Scuds at the IDF bridgehead.

Among the thousands of editions of the PDB, one can discover how rarely the CIA predicted domestic developments in Israel. Two days after Nixon was sworn in on January 20, 1969, he was shown an intelligence assessment about an Israeli politician — Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (“We expect Eshkol to stay in power through 1970, at least”) — and that Yigal Allon feared closer ties between Eshkol and Dayan, the latter being much more hard-line regarding the Arabs. Eshkol, who was sick, died from a heart attack a month later, and the assessors reset the counter to zero.

On February 27, 1969: “Gen. Allon’s selection as Acting Prime Minister is clearly a stop-gap measure. In the past few months he has not been in the good graces of the Labor Party old guard.” (In an earlier report, it was stated that Eshkol was angry over a meeting Allon arranged with President Lyndon B. Johnson after Allon became deputy prime minister.)

“The old guard may find itself compelled to turn to a younger, more popular man to lead the party and it would more likely be Dayan, who is unquestionably the most popular man in Israel today. He is probably the only figure who could lead Israel into a compromise settlement without a major political upheaval.” Not a word about Golda Meir.

On August 18, 1973, the PDB said the Israeli Labor Party was trying to “satisfy Defense Minister Dayan’s demands for a more activist Israeli development program in the occupied territories” and that he was in favor of providing government incentives for Israeli businessmen in the territories, due to the lack of prospects for peace. Dayan, the assessment said, was threatening to bolt the party if Golda Meir, Pinchas Sapir and Abba Eban didn’t meet his demands, but he would apparently be made to compromise.

A more up-to-date assessment then came in for Nixon: “A more active program in the occupied territories will also please the Labor Party’s traditional coalition partner, the National Religious Party, and will undercut the out-and-out annexationist policy of the right-wing opposition Gahal bloc.”

After the October war, while the CIA was copying a cable from Beirut about the willingness of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to make peace with Israel, the U.S. military attaché in Tel Aviv erred in his assessment that “the leaders of the IDF do not want a resumption of the war” (Dayan and Elazar did indeed want war; they were held back by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Israel Tal).

The CIA’s most accurate report in the collection of presidential briefings, under the heading “Israel-Uganda,” was completely censored, leaving only the map of the flight path from Tel Aviv to Entebbe airport and the words “2,200 statute miles/3,500 kilometers.” It was given to President Ford on July 3, 1976, a few hours before the Israeli rescue aircraft landed in Uganda. Something of the preparations — in the IDF and perhaps also in Kenya — reached American intelligence. If only it had been so efficient regarding Egypt and Syria in October 1973.

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