by Shlomo Brom
TEL AVIV, Israel—Yesterday, Israel’s Winograd Committee officially began its investigation into civilian and military conduct of the war in Lebanon by hearing the testimony of the country’s military intelligence chief. But despite the widespread clamor in Israel over the country’s alleged intelligence failures in its recent conflict with Hizballah, there is no real evidence that such a deficit was a factor in the Israeli performance. The dust must settle before such critical conclusions can be reached.
The intelligence on Iraq, of course, is a very different story. Indeed, there are broader, more fundamental questions to ask regarding Israel’s intelligence apparatus that go beyond the questions surrounding Lebanon. The failure of the Western intelligence services in gauging correctly the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capabilities of Iraq before the Gulf War was a cause of some soul searching. And while some limited lessons were learned in Israel, where intelligence organs performed no better, this was limited in scope and consequences, mostly because of a weaker motivation.
Israel, after all, did not pay a substantial price for this failure. The intelligence error caused some unnecessary panic preceding the war in Iraq and some unnecessary expenditure on the distribution of protective gear. But Israel did not enter an unnecessary war. No blood has been spilled. The impetus for making necessary changes was not strong.
Such was not the case with the 1973 war. In that war, the intelligence failure denied Israel an early warning that could have saved many lives and could have avoided a widespread panic that Israel was on the brink of a military defeat in an existential war. In 1973, the intelligence failure prompted the government to commission a committee of inquiry that recommended intelligence reforms as well as accountability—leading to the end of careers.
The false alarm on Iraqi WMDs, though, led only to the implementation of some technical lessons pertaining mostly to improvement of data collection in distant arenas. No government body dealt with the issue until Dr. Steiniz, then the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, established an investigative parliamentary panel within the subcommittee for Intelligence and Secret Services.
The main findings of the committee were:
The intelligence services failed in presenting accurate information on the Iraqi programs mostly because of a collection failure, namely lack of sufficient data, and because they were overconfident in presenting their assessment as solid when it was based on very weak data.
The failure in tracing Libyan progress in its nuclear program was also a result of a collection failure.
In regards to intelligence on the Iranian programs, the performance of the Israeli intelligence community was reasonably good.
Based on these findings the panel recommended:
To transfer responsibility for the overall national intelligence assessment from military intelligence to a civilian national intelligence organization.
To expand the Mossad’s responsibility for national intelligence.
Recommending the Ministry of Foreign affairs’ intelligence body be disbanded or strengthened from its weak state.
To turn SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) collection unit into a civilian-run national agency.
To increase the political control over the intelligence community by establishing two bodies: an intelligence secretary to the Prime Minister and a ministerial intelligence committee.
To accelerate the development of spy satellites, improve the briefings by collection agencies, enhance the quality of intelligence personnel, and change presentation of intelligence assessments to include the basis of information on which these assessments are made.
The panel’s report was accepted in Israel with much criticism, due to a lack of tradition of parliamentary involvement in the inner workings of the intelligence services. Knesset committees are supposed to be informed regularly, but not poke their noses around too much. And the committee made the work of its critics easy because its report was shallow and non-professional. And the chairman of the committee decided to expand its agenda, folding in all the intelligence community’s malaises, leading to a loss of focus. Most of the report’s recommendations will not be adopted, especially since the panel’s main proponent, Dr. Steinitz, has since lost his post as chairman of the Knesset committee after the latest elections.
Common Sense is Real Intelligence
Even if the Israeli government and the intelligence community would have treated the report more seriously, it is hard to believe that it would make a significant change in the effectiveness of the Israeli intelligence services. The Israeli committee, like many other similar bodies, wrestled with the easy subjects: organization and collection—instead of broaching the real reasons for the intelligence failures.
It is always tempting to think that it is all a matter of organization, and that some changes in the structure of the intelligence community will ensure better functionality. This ignores the fact that most intelligence failures have nothing to do with organization and that a complicated hierarchical system does not guarantee better integration and coordination.
In many cases the opposite is true. In the U.S. case it seems that establishing the Department of Homeland Security has only created a bureaucratic monster and there is no evidence that combining all these separate entities under the common roof of this department improves their performance. By contrast, in the Israeli case good integration is achieved without a formal organizational framework.
The same is true about collection. It is always possible to say that collection of better data will produce better intelligence. Such a conclusion bypasses the real difficult questions regarding feasibility and cost. Moreover, it ignores the fact that in most intelligence failures there was no real shortage of data. Instead, failures were a result of misguided interpretation of existing data. Broadening the understanding of these influences are not a matter for investigative committees, but are rather an arduous task to be carried out by intelligence professionals and academia.
Iraq in Plain Sight
Finally, there is one commodity that seems to be in shortage in intelligence communities: common sense. Taking the Iraqi example, one did not have to understand quantum physics theory prior to the war on Iraq to know: A.) there was excellent intelligence indicating that, since the war in 1991, the Iraqi military carried out no training on the use of any WMDs or long-range ballistic missiles and B.) there were no military units tasked with maintaining, deploying or using these weapons. How could analysts with basic common sense reach the conclusion in 2002-2003 that Iraq posed any significant threat in these areas? It was reasonable to speculate that perhaps there were secret research and development efforts or that there were some rudimentary capabilities based on weapons that were produced before 1991 and concealed, but what would be the operational value of such weapons concealed for 12 years, not maintained and with nobody trained to use them for that long period?
Surely, the furor over Lebanon will continue to gain momentum, but Israel must first ask some more basic questions on intelligence associated with Iraq.