Intelligence Failures: What are they and how do they happen?

intelligence failures

Intelligence failures that make the news are uncommon. But when they do, they’re usually the result of something severe.

What can cause a breakdown in intelligence so tremendous that it makes headlines the world over? It’s the direct result of an organization’s inability to perceive that something so calamitous could happen on their watch, and such shortsightedness always brings with it heavy consequences. A failure of intelligence is a failure of the imagination.

Contemporary Intelligence Failures

Modern history’s pages are marred by several, great intelligence failures from across the world. Each cost governments and their countries dearly, and in many cases, recharted the trajectory of current events from consistent and predictable to chaotic and uncertain. No events in recent memory stick out quite as much as those experienced by the U.S. in 2001, Russians in 2022, and in Israel in 2023.

United States: September 11, 2001

In the West, few tragedies stir emotion quite like the September 11 terrorist attacks. Nineteen al Qaeda conspirators hijacked four airplanes, crashing them into the Twin Towers in New York City, New York, and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth plane was downed over a field in Stony Creek, Pennsylvania, thanks to the brave actions of passengers aboard the aircraft.

Prior to September 11, it was hard to conceive that a small terrorist faction from the Middle East could wreak so much havoc on American soil. Even the country’s various intelligence agencies were unfazed by compelling information that clearly indicated an extremist cell was operating stateside with the intention of creating a mass casualty event. As a result, these agencies refrained from sharing information with one another that could have, in aggregation, successfully thwarted the attackers through pre-emptive arrests, enhanced screening and watch lists, along with other preventative mechanisms that have since become a mainstay in America’s post-2001 security framework.

Russian Federation: February 24, 2022

Across the globe and far to the east, on a chilly morning in late February, Russia began its now-infamous invasion of Ukraine. Military generals, the Federal Assembly, and even Vladimir Putin himself undoubtedly expected their operation would be a quick reclamation of a formerly annexed Soviet territory. The truth, as time would tell, was much different.

Many things went wrong in Russia’s Ukrainian siege, with poor intelligence at the top of the list. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) provided reports directly to Putin in the weeks leading up to their winter offensive. However, many experts and insiders agree that much of the information FSB agents delivered was nothing more than fodder to appease the President and confirm pre-existing biases. Overstating their military capabilities and understating the likelihood of a strong Ukrainian defense felt inconsequential at the time, given Russia’s seeming ability to overwhelm the small, European nation with unmatched resources and manpower.

However, as past conflicts like the Vietnam War demonstrate, guerilla warfare and a united front can provide a lethal resistance effort for country’s fighting far beyond their apparent weight class. The FSB and Putin’s unwillingness to accept that their might could be matched by a relatively small contingent of committed citizens led by a popular Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would ultimately drag them through a long, costly war that shows no signs of stopping in the present day. In fact, at the time of this article, Russia remains engaged in active combat, and many death toll estimates put the country’s losses just north of 150 thousand soldiers.

State of Israel: October 7, 2023

Israel and Palestine have a sordid history that many analysts have compared to a longstanding cold war; periods of peace are interrupted by sporadic, violent engagements, with most of the fighting taking place in or near the Gaza Strip. This longstanding tension finally boiled over on October 7, 2023, when Hamas – a Palestinian-backed terrorist organization – staged a massive and unexpected assault on the Gaza-Israel border, killing 1,139 Israeli soldiers, noncombatants, and foreign nationals in the process.

Hamas’s attack was significantly bloodier than other skirmishes in the region’s history. Unfortunately, Israel’s government has since admitted that the attack was largely in part due to an intelligence failure, with some reports suggesting the government had knowledge of Hamas’s plans as far back as 2022. What’s clear is that, even with advance knowledge of their plans, Israeli intelligence officials refused to believe Hamas could cobble together enough firepower and fortitude to mount such an aggressive onslaught. Inaction on this sound operational data that otherwise would have ensured Israel’s safety has led to several resignations, including Head of intelligence, Major General Aharon Haliva.

In addition, critics of the Israeli intelligence community point to an unwillingness to report Hamas’s plans as credible for fear of raising a false alarm. Washington Post journalist and former Head of Research for the Israeli Defense Force, Yossi Kuperwasser writes, “[Authorities] had doubts and said they would be blamed for crying wolf…The system needs a level of humility. If you don’t know for sure, cry wolf. Look what can happen when you don’t.”

Intelligence Requires an Open Mind

Gathering data is only one part of the intelligence process. One must also know what to do with that information, and how to act on it. Part of this requires creative thinking and a willingness to put oneself in the adversary’s shoes. Instead of thinking “outside of the box,” intelligence organizations must learn to think inside the enemy’s box – only then will they be able to conceive what those who wish to create harm are fully capable of doing.

Boost Your Intelligence

At Chameleon Associates, we specialize in teaching our clients how improve their security through intelligence. We offer a handful of trainings to do just that. Interested organizations who want to learn more about how to prevent intelligence failures and think like the adversary can sign up for one of our courses online, or reach out to our staff at for more specialized consultation.

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