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Israeli Intelligence Misses Again

Emily Harding
Thursday, June 27, 2024, 1:49 PM
Revelations of Unit 8200’s failure to warn about the Oct. 7 attacks suggests that the Israeli intelligence apparatus is far weaker than its reputation.
Dr. Avishai Teicher (Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 , )

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Last week, Israeli news outlets reported shocking revelations that once again called into question the elite reputation of Israel’s intelligence services. According to the report, weeks before the Oct. 7 attacks, the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF’s) premier signals intelligence group, Unit 8200, collected detailed information about Hamas training to invade Israel and take up to 250 hostages. Yet they failed to warn Israeli officials effectively. This failure puts them in company with several other units who also collected indications of an impending attack and suggests the Israeli intelligence apparatus is far weaker than its reputation.

For an intelligence officer, providing strategic warning is the most important no-fail mission. It happens in two parts: First, a service must collect information that a plot is afoot. Second, analysts must recognize the “so what” of the information, interpret its severity correctly, and then package that information to adequately convey alarm. “Adequately” is a tricky word—analysts do not want to be hyperbolic, lest they become the intel service that cried wolf. Conversely, when the threat is real, analysts need to speak clearly, persistently, and bluntly—even when others disagree.

The Pieces

In this case, it seems Israeli intelligence had accomplished the first task: They had collected key pieces of information, and at least some analysts had identified the activity as a threat. Unit 8200 observed a Hamas training exercise that contained all the elements of Oct. 7. The unit’s report, titled “Detailed End-to-End Raid Training,” describes Hamas conducting drills simulating infiltration of a mock IDF outpost, including taking over on-base synagogues, communications headquarters, and soldiers’ quarters. The report contained warnings that Hamas was targeting kibbutzim and planned to take 200-250 hostages, alarmingly close to the 251 actually taken on Oct. 7.

The second piece—effectively communicating the threat—seems to be where things fell apart. Junior intelligence officials in Unit 8200 claim to have flagged the report for senior officers but say they were ignored.

Seniors not taking juniors seriously was far from an isolated issue. Several other stories have emerged of junior people flagging worrying occurrences but being largely ignored at higher levels. For example, Israeli surveillance soldiers serving on the Gaza border said they had raised concerns about suspicious activity but were ignored. In July 2023, a young, female noncommissioned officer “provided a warning to her commanders that Hamas intended to carry out a massacre in the Gaza border communities.” Over six months, she wrote three warnings to her superiors about Hamas training exercises simulating raids on civilians and military targets. Separately, over the course of the year before Oct. 7, a group of female observers reported suspicious activity to their superiors about Hamas activity near the fence—including efforts to knock out security cameras; use drones, vans, and motorcycles; as well as practice shelling tanks.

Sources within the IDF give a slightly different version of events that highlights a dark truth little discussed outside the world of intelligence: just how much responsibility rests with junior people. Kan News reported that Unit 8200 “failed to draw clear conclusions,” according to IDF sources, and did not distribute the document to “the highest-ranking officials.” On Oct. 1, a junior intelligence officer in the Gaza Division discovered the document and recognized its significance, but did not escalate it to seniors, discussing it with more junior people instead. It is the job of senior intelligence officials to mind the big picture and use their years of experience to put warnings in context. They are meant to know when a threat looks serious, or more serious than others that were safely ignored. But senior officials are human, busy and biased as all humans are. It often falls to junior officers to make them listen.

The Hubris

A thorough investigation is needed to determine what senior intelligence officials knew and when they knew it, but sufficient evidence suggests an anchoring bias led to the failure on Oct. 7. In other words, leaders did not take warnings seriously because they did not see the threat as real. Seniors interpreted signs of Hamas training as demonstrations of intent but not capability. As with so many intelligence failures, those to blame are fighting over the adequacy of warnings. Government and military leaders are contending that they did not receive warnings of an “imminent planned invasion.” This standard is impossibly high for any intelligence service, even one as determined as Israel’s.

Further, military officials in particular seem to have leaned heavily on technology and the strength of the border wall as both a protection and a warning mechanism. The cameras and high-tech sensors were meant to provide sufficient security and time to defend borders. But on Oct. 7, Hamas made quick work of the barrier with explosives and bulldozers, and they knocked out the surveillance with low-cost drones.

The Consequences

People have called drowning a silent tragedy—the victim does not scream, or yell for help, because they cannot. Intelligence work is much the same. The impending disaster whispers its warning. It does not announce its presence. People say the system is “blinking red,” but that is a poor metaphor. Rather, it is only one’s imagination that blinks. Even when intelligence officers believe something is truly amiss, it is tempting to believe that someone else will speak the uncomfortable truth. After the fact, the signs appear far clearer. Kan News, the Israeli public broadcaster that broke the story of Unit 8200’s report, also reported that “[o]ne of the soldiers involved in the report wrote after October 7, ‘I feel like crying, yelling and swearing.’”

Investigations are underway in Israel about what really happened in the run-up to Oct. 7. It is not yet clear whether these investigations will be public, but the reports will likely find that collection was stronger than initially expected. Unit 8200’s “Detailed End-to-End Raid Training Report” appears to be a fine example of tactical warning. The bigger gaps are far more likely to be analytical and structural.

On the analytical failure, investigators should ask what kinds of training the analysts had received in writing warning assessments: How were they evaluating what was and was not a serious threat? A former Unit 8200 official has suggested that the organization has strayed from analysis altogether. Instead, it has prioritized developing new technology and contributing information to a joint pool of intelligence information. The Washington Post reported that “other current and former officials echoed this critique, saying that Israel’s electronic spies forgot how to do basic intelligence functions.”

The structural challenge will be the most difficult to untangle and the hardest to fix. Entrenched mindsets are hard to untrain. The Post described the generally accepted view in Israeli intelligence that Hamas “was more interested in getting rich and ruling Gaza than attacking Israel.” This type of mindset, or “conceptzia,” hearkens back to the intelligence failure of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the security apparatus was similarly surprised by an opponent. As the Post’s Shane Harris notes, “Officials ignored what, in hindsight, seem like obvious warning signs[,] … dismissed because they didn’t comport to the overarching theory about the group’s intentions.”

Investigators have a hard and heartbreaking job ahead. Their days will be fraught with images of what might have been, had one or two things gone differently. If senior officers had listened to juniors’ concerns, if policymakers had taken warnings seriously, if reports had been worded more strongly—perhaps one of the worst tragedies the region has ever seen could have been averted.

Emily Harding is the director of the Intelligence, National Security, and Technology Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she served as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, director for Iran at the National Security Council, and deputy staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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