OPINION — The October 7 massacre perpetrated against innocent Israelis, Americans and other foreign nationals by the terrorist group Hamas and enabled by its primary patron Iran represents a failure for U.S. intelligence. 

This is not the first time the Intelligence Community (IC) has been surprised, nor will it be the last. 

Given the scope of the Hamas attacks and the regional and global implications, this failure has been compared with al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, as well as the Egyptian-Syrian attacks on Israel in October 1973.

In response to previous intelligence shortcomings, detailed post-mortem assessments were conducted to understand what happened and recommend remedial actions. For example, most Americans are familiar with the report of the national commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks.  Decades earlier, then-Director of Central Intelligence William Colby commissioned a multi-agency assessment of the performance of the IC before the October 1973 attacks on Israel. 

Declassified in 2009, that post-mortem concluded that intelligence on Egypt’s plans and capabilities had been “plentiful, ominous, and often accurate.”  While some analysts considered the idea that Egypt might attack, IC analysts ultimately judged there would be no attack.  As the assessment stated, the IC’s conclusions “were – quite simply, obviously, and starkly – wrong.”

Now, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines should direct two separate after-action reviews. One review should assess the performance of individual IC organizations. Here, each IC agency director should be tasked to review their organization’s performance by determining what relevant information was collected, the analytic perspective(s) adopted and their basis, when and how that information was shared internally and externally, and what else might have been done to sound the alarm of the impending Hamas attacks.

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A second assessment should be conducted by knowledgeable outsiders with full access to all relevant data. That independent review team should look across the various agencies to assess broader IC-wide collection and analytic challenges that precluded timely and effective warning of the Hamas attacks and also make actionable recommendations. 

The results of both reviews should be shared with the DNI and her staff as well as with members of the National Security Council and the Congressional intelligence and defense oversight committees.

In addition to these reviews, the attacks should spur DNI Haines to reverse two decisions made by her predecessors. 

First, the National Intelligence Officer for Warning position should be reestablished. The purpose of this position, first established by DCI Stansfield Turner, was “to avoid surprise to the President, the National Security Council, and the Armed Forces of the United States by foreign events of major importance… The warning mission will give highest priority to warning of an attack on the U.S. or its allies”.  Clearly, now is the time to resurrect the NIO for Warning position and the DNI should appoint a highly respected intelligence official in this position with the resources to effectively carry out a rejuvenated IC-wide warning function.

Second, the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee (FDDC) should be reconstituted. The absence of a dedicated IC cadre focused on adversary strategic and tactical denial and deception (D&D) may have contributed to the lack of timely and effective warning of Hamas’ plans and operations.  A few hours of annual D&D training for select IC analysts is insufficient to inculcate a keen understanding of adversary D&D tactics, techniques and procedures or their impact on IC collection and analysis. Resurrection of a robust FDDC with a strong leader appointed by the DNI will yield benefits as the U.S. faces increasingly sophisticated threats from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and their proxies, each of which is well practiced in the art of deception.

Some will argue that now – with ongoing hostilities – is not the time to conduct detailed reviews of the IC’s performance.  We strongly disagree. 

Similar reviews were conducted in parallel with on-going military operations following the Egyptian-Syrian attacks, al Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11, and numerous other incidents. Stated simply, the sooner we understand how and why the IC got it wrong, the sooner we can implement much-needed remedial measures.

The actions recommended herein may not eliminate the risk of strategic or tactical surprise in the future, but they will assist the IC in deciphering adversaries’ on-going, sophisticated efforts to deny the US and our friends and allies, information about their growing capabilities and nefarious plots.

We must learn from our mistakes and better position America’s absolutely vital intelligence services for future crises and conflicts.

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals. 

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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Author: Suzanne Kelly