SSP Event: U.S. Intelligence Failures

On Tuesday, October 26th, the Georgetown Center for Security Studies (CSS) welcomed adjunct professor Rohin Sharma to host an event entitled “U.S. Intelligence Failures” as part of the CCS’s fall series, “Security Past and Present.” This event analyzed and connected historical intelligence failures, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11, with the recent Capitol Hill events.

Professor Sharma began by stating that the purpose of the event was to connect the past and the present when it comes to intelligence failures: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it definitely rhymes, and that is true for the intelligence failure literature that is out there. The same themes and the same causes seem to be coming over and over again.”

Sharma started with a discussion question to demonstrate the challenges of defining intelligence failures. He asked the room if the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the 9/11 attack, and the Capitol Hill events were the result of intelligence failures. Professor Sharma emphasized that there is not one right answer to these questions.

Sharma continued by providing a framework to measure and analyze intelligence failures. He explained that there are two main definitions of intelligence failure in the academic literature. Mark Lowenthal defines intelligence failure as a failure in one or more steps of the intelligence process (collection, evaluation/analysis, prediction, and dissemination.) Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmidt place the failure on misunderstandings between intelligence estimations and government actions. Then, Sharma provided his own definition that combines both approaches. He acknowledges the importance of both accuracy in the process and detailed and clear information for policymakers to mitigate risks. In his eyes, this can only be achieved if intelligence is integrated with policy, rather than having the two operate as two independent fields.

There are different ways to conceptualize the steps of the intelligence process. Sharma shared the way he understands a thorough intelligence process. This process starts by asking the right questions that feed the intelligence collection. Once the information is gathered, the appropriate organization will analyze and interpret it. Then, the analysis is provided to the policymakers. In this step, the analysis should be receptive, in a format that can be processed and implemented. Finally, policymakers make a decision.

Sharma continued by explaining how these frameworks and definitions for intelligence failures have led to five schools of thought in the academic literature. The “traditional school” predicts that intelligence failures are inevitable regarding the overwhelming amount of information available. Contrary to this view, the “reformist school” suggests that information is sufficient, but it is not efficiently shared. The intelligence community’s organization and bureaucracy do not promote information-sharing laterally or downward, only upward, which hampers crucial information sharing and leads to intelligence failures. The “contrarian school” argues that insufficient information collection causes intelligence failures. Contrary to this view, the “intelligence-policymaker relation school” defends the amount and quality of the information but blames the relationship between intelligence and policymakers. Sharma used Pearl Harbor as an example for this school of thought. In this case, military leaders did not make a decision because they did not receive enough tactical information as a result of the intelligence and policymakers’ independent relations. Finally, Sharma explained the last school and the one he adheres to — the “intelligence drives reasonable risks school.” The intelligence community should provide detailed enough information for policymakers to take reasonable actions to mitigate risk.

Then, Sharma emphasized the need to ask the right questions. What school of thought do we follow? Where does the cycle occur? What are reasonable risk mitigation measures policymakers should take? And finally, Sharma highlighted the importance of looking at intelligence failures in concentric circles, peeling back the different layers, and looking for the bigger questions that allowed an event to happen. He used the example of a plane crash due to a pilot error. Instead of staying on the surface, we should ask ourselves about the culture of the airline, the pilot training, the market forces that force airlines to cut budgets on pilot training, etc.

After providing the framework to evaluate intelligence failures, Sharma moved on to three case studies and started with Pearl Harbor. The debate, in this case, is whether the failure to prevent this tragedy was the on-the-ground commanders’  responsibility or that of the intelligence community at the higher level. It can be argued that the commanders had reasonable strategic warnings and sufficient assets to mitigate the attack. On the other hand, Sharma explained that there was information at the highest level warning about Japanese surveillance of the Pearl Harbor facility and their efforts to develop mute torpedo bombers in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. However, this information was not shared with the commanders on the ground. This case would fit on the “reformist school” as a failure to effectively share information. The “contrarian school of thought” would also help explain the failure to collect enough information about the six Japanese aircraft carriers that led the attack.

Sharma continued by posing the same question regarding the 9/11 attacks. Sharma believes this intelligence failure fits in the “reformist school.” The intelligence community had information that the hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar had ties to Al-Qaeda and had visas to travel to the United States. Allegedly, communications between them and Osama bin Laden had been intercepted when the hijackers were in San Diego. Sharma explained that, if all the pieces had been put together, there would have been enough information to arrest the hijackers. However, he explained that bureaucracy; NSA’s clearance issues that, for instance, prevented them from sharing this information with the San Diego Police Department; and a lack of communication with U.S. immigration services that knew about their visas hindered information-sharing. Finally, Sharma explained how some experts suggest that the intelligence community should have known that an aircraft could be used as a missile based on the attempt to do so by the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria against the Eiffel Tower in 1994. Sharma personally does not agree with this critique.

To conclude, Professor Sharma moved to the most recent case — the Capitol Hill assault on January 6th. Sharma shared the two arguments that can be made. On the one hand, it was known that there would be a rally. From this point of view, the Capitol Police should have been prepared for it. On the other hand, the Capitol Hill Police cannot respond to all the threats they receive on a daily basis. In addition, Sharma explained that they are not supposed to be a highly armed and aggressive force, but rather a force to protect the people. From this point of view, the Capitol Police succeeded in their duties — no congressmen nor senator was injured in the assault. However, Sharma concludes by saying that the Capitol Hill Police had the assets to do more to stop the assault than they did. The available 200 police officers on the ground, accompanied by a series of low-cost preventive measures could have mitigated the risk.

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