ON OCT. 6, 1973, Israel was surprised by attacks on two fronts: For five days its military was pushed back in the Sinai by Egyptian forces and on the Golan Heights by the Syrians. That Israel then turned this initial defeat into a significant military victory is important to Israelis, but not as much as the continuing sense of pain and loss over the great human and national cost of the war. It was a watershed: the point at which collective innocence and idealism were lost, the military shown to be less than invincible, and political leaders and intelligence analysts unable to gauge the seriousness of threats.
These sentiments have curious and uncomfortable echoes in many parts of the Western world today over Syria. The core issue at stake is the quality and veracity of the intelligence assessment as to whether and what kind of chemical attacks were launched, and by which side. And the background to the debate is the US-led coalition invasion of Iraq 10 years ago, which was initiated upon intelligence reports that proved unfounded.
Understanding an intelligence product is not easy, nor is striking a balance between military and security assessments on the one hand and political considerations on the other. An intelligence assessment is often as much about the assumptions and the questions behind it, as the information and analysis within it. Moreover, within the intelligence community, the collectors are not always the assessors, meaning the collection may be guided by one set of assumptions while analysis may be guided by another set. The final assessment is then passed up the security and military chains, and presented at the political level. Such a brief may be comprehensive, but all the assumptions regarding the data may not be explained to the decision-makers.
The 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war has unsurprisingly evoked a round of memories and discussions in Israel — about the events themselves, and about the subsequent Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate the failings that led to the surprise outbreak of the war. These dwellings have been further fueled by the release for the first time of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir’s evidence to the commission.
Though much redacted, her testimony goes to the heart of the security-political conundrum on assessing intelligence. In effect, she presented herself as a passive consumer of the intelligence product, deeming herself not well-equipped to assess it since she was neither a part of the military nor a professional intelligence officer.
This is a somewhat studied posture, at best, since Golda Meir had been dealing with intelligence and security matters for several decades. Yet it was accepted by the commission — which is perceived by many in Israel to have exonerated the politicians involved at the expense of the military. Since a raft of senior officers, including the chief of staff, lost their jobs while not a single politician was discredited, there is much to say for this perception. However, the newly opened protocols also revealed intense debates within the commission: on the need to have more than one intelligence body within a state to ensure many sources and opinions; and also on the difficulty of finding the balance between the military and security services, and between them both and the political level.
In essence, this is a debate about the basis of decision-making, and it is relevant far beyond Israel: Was 9/11 an intelligence catastrophe or a political one? As in Israel, the US commission that investigated the attacks found the intelligence services lacking in comparison to the political level, but ultimately political decisions were both made — and avoided — in the run up to the event. And what of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, or Somalia in 1992? And in the current matter of Syria? President Obama recently told the United Nations it “is an insult to human reason . . . to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.” That is probably correct — but is it an intelligence assessment or a political one?
There are no good or even clear answers to these important questions, but they must be asked, for two main reasons. First, because the United States and the United Kingdom and many other states are collecting ever greater masses of data, as the recent revelations on the NSA PRISM program revealed. And while the media furor has rightly focused upon matters of privacy, the real question is how these data will be used for intelligence purposes (if at all). Once again, collecting is not the same as analysis.
The second reason is because security crises will not disappear simply because the West is not interested. Political decisions based on intelligence will need to be made — and it behooves us all to understand better how these levels interact.
Ilana Bet-El is a writer, historian, and political analyst.