Cyclical Errors in Intelligence Assessment: A Comparative Analysis
Col Pradeep Jaidka (Retd.)

A study of history would reveal that nations and their leaders become victims of surprise as they either chose to remain ignorant of events or unwilling to accept new (or good) inputs in a timely manner. Some significant historical examples are listed in order to benchmark them and identify the periodicity of common mistakes made in analyzing emerging scenarios primarily to draw relevant conclusions – more so in case of Israel’s recent experience and to evaluate changes - or their lack - in the 50 years separating the Yom Kippur war of October 1973 and attack on 07 October 2023.

Historical Examples

Hindsight provides fairly accurate lessons which can be related to the Israel experiences that are discussed briefly to highlight few important tenets for intelligence communities and leaders alike.

Blitzkrieg evolved from Germany replicating the novel idea of pressing combined forces into battle first used at Amiens by British to defeat the former. ‘Operation Barbarossa’ completely surprised the Soviet Union. Stalin had signed the Nazi – Soviet Pact and believed that this would compensate the deficiencies of the Red Army caused by his recent purges. He distrusted opinions at variance with his own and erroneously believed that any crisis would start with a Germen ultimatum.

At the outset of WWII, US Army and Navy SIGINT units worked in silos neither sharing nor coordinating their code breaking, technical breakthroughs and intelligence acquired. Although three different persons had independently identified attack on Pearl Harbour, their inputs did not receive due attention. A classic national intelligence failure happened, when the Japanese embassies in London, Hong Kong, Batavia, Manila and Singapore destroyed their codes, ciphers and classified records. That such a step is taken only when embassy is to be withdrawn and diplomatic relations are to be broken, was overlooked.

‘Need to Know’ Principle. In simple terms, this implies exercising a tight control on delicate information in order to prevent its percolation to unconcerned quarters. However, two main risks are associated with excessive secrecy– (1) Those who can possibly contribute to or validate the information become late receivers or are left ‘dry’; (2) sometimes, it is used to cover up errors or embarrassing gaps (even the enquiry omitted reference to signalman Briggs inputs); (3) prevents intelligence users from getting an honest and independent evaluation of the contents (Captain Ranneft had been questioning the two naval carriers heading towards Alaska) and lastly, (4) While contextual information may be available, its implications may not be understood or wholly known (Japanese code destruction). Resultantly, the recipient does not know what he doesn’t know.

Victor Rejoices, Vanquished Learns. Any operational success is often attributed to brilliant planning, great leadership, superb tactics, superior weapons and courage of troops. Euphoria and hubris set in, creating complacency. The fact that no side wants to lose a war is forgotten. The defeated side broods over their mistakes, analyzing how and why the adversary won and resolves to turn the tide in their favour in the next round. The Amiens instance amply highlights this.

Underestimating the Adversary: Unless consciously checked, the false ‘superiority bias’ following a victory results in unconsciously lowering the guard (acquisition efforts); complacency, mistakenly exaggerating own capabilities and invincibility. This leads to wrong estimation of adversary actual potential; Non timely assessment of critical data and consequently wrong decisions by own side.

Brief History of Israel and Comparison of 1973 and 2023 Experiences

The small nation of Israel was created on 14 May 1948. The infant nation was baptized by fire at birth and transformed into a warrior nation as it repulsed the joint attack launched on 15 May 1948 by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Since then it has engaged in many wars with its neighbours.

State of Israel had the usual intelligence components – Shin Bet (domestic security), Foreign Ministry intelligence (researches and analyses diplomatic traffic) and Mossad (External Intelligence operations). Considering that the very existence of Israel mandated treating every crisis as a military crisis, the Israeli Military Intelligence (AMAN) has had a prominent role. It is charged with producing comprehensive national intelligence estimates for the prime minister and cabinet, daily intelligence reports, risk of war estimates, target studies on neighbours and communications intercepts.

In 1967, Israeli air force successfully destroyed Syrian and Egyptian air forces on ground and captured Golan Heights from Syria, seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. This boosted Israel’s confidence stretched its area upto Suez and the Bar Lev Line of fortifications was established along the Suez at a cost of $1/2 billion - at 1970 prices. Egypt turned to Soviet Russia for acquiring technical weaponry and augmenting its air defence systems. By early 1972, Soviets were providing technical and military advice, positioning 200 Soviet fighters, Soviet air and ground crews and an air defence umbrella with 12000 soviet experts in Egypt.

By 1972, a unique situation had developed in Israel. Excessive secrecy, personal relationships, party loyalties dominated Israel’s security environment. Golda Meir gave credence mostly to a selected few. Israel Intelligence had ears of its leaders but could not always speak painful truths. This effected national security policy making. Israel reduced its budget by $68 million. Lt Gen Chaim Herzog, Chief of Staff Israel army made a sardonic observation “Eyes they have, but they do not see”, describing the failure of Israeli system in the period preceding Yom Kippur war.

Comparing 1973 and 2023 Attacks

The 50 year gap between both events, surprisingly, demonstrates same influences and similarities. On both occasions the attackers rightly identified these advantages to Israel - Assured US support, Western training and tactics, Preponderance of technological superiority, air superiority, short lines of communication for logistics and reduced mobilization times. It was also known that Israel can ill afford a prolonged war due to population constraints (this is the prime reason for Israel unhesitatingly launching full-fledged offensives to defend its civilians). The Arabs also identified that Israel had become complacent and overconfident due to series of its past victories and present technical superiority. The Bar Lev line and Gaza wall can be cited as examples. These factors prevailed unchanged for 50 years.

The similarities between 1973 and 2023 are – the Israeli internal politics stood fragmented; the attacks coincided with religious observances, sizeable forces attacked Israel on wide fronts achieving surprise and curbing chances of immediate local counter attacks, Israeli intelligence capabilities were diluted due to own intransigence and it suffered heavy casualties. Overall, the invincibility of Israel and omniscience of its intelligence were challenged and dented.

Calculated Desensitization: Since beginning of 1973, the Egyptians, aided and armed by Soviets, carried out as many as 20 mobilizations which did not culminate in an attack. An impression was generated that abnormal activity was normal to deceive Israeli intelligence. By 08 October, Egyptian forces had advanced 10 km deep into Sinai.

In 2023 too, Hamas led Israel into believing that it did not intend attacking even though amassing of its cadre in Gaza was known. Hamas resorted to absolutely primitive communication, weaponry and absolute radio silence to breach the Gaza line. Hamas fighters captured Israeli settlements 20 km in depth.

In both cases, deception measures concealed the offensives and no traditional indicators became available.

Timing: 06 October 1973 was the tenth day of Ramadan - Prophet’s victory at Badr. It was a moon lit night; the currents in Suez were slow thereby facilitating assembly and anchoring of inflatables. Israelis were celebrating Sinchet Torah on 07 October 2023 being last day of annual reading of the Torah. The attack came at daybreak; Alert levels are usually lowered around dates coinciding with religious observances. Heightening of the alert levels results in alert- fatigue.

HUMINT Warnings: The Pearl Harbour case listed above is relevant here. In 1973, Israel failed to notice the sudden absence of usual crowd of cheerful civilians and troops along the Bar Lev Line. Though Israel had good HUMINT network, it did not ascribe due value to its sources including the information passed by Ashraf Marwan.

In 2023, Israel lacked HUMINT sources, and relied more on its sophisticated TechInt resources which failed to provide necessary warnings.

Bias: In both cases, Israel became complacent and confident that its adversaries were not contemplating disturbing the prevailing environment, ‘being scared of Israel’. In 2023 Netanyahu government believed that Israeli work permits provide essential buoyancy to Palestine economy and any offensive action would jeopardize it. Parallel can be drawn to Stalin’s belief before Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia and Pearl Harbour attack.

Retaliation: Since 1948 Israel rebound has been legendary. On these occasions too its retaliation was swift and severe.

Closer home, recall of these instances of self-delusion may be instructive: Decision to downsize armed forces soon after independence, Refusal and ignoring the warnings of China invading Tibet in 1959, Slogans like Hindi – Chini Bhai Bhai’ leading to 1962 and current situation, Shimla Agreement leading to repatriation of thousands of prisoners of war, Sadbhavna Bus Yatra and Jhoola diplomacy; Rushing headlong into Sri Lanka, Maldives et al. Some contrary examples are - Operation Polo, liberation of Goa and Bangladesh, Curbing of Punjab and J & K militancy.

National & present military leaders of security organizations need to learn from past to prepare for future.


Discounting the abilities of an ‘inferior’ adversary carries high costs. While the weaker party cannot match the stronger party, he continuously devises strategies to convert his shortcomings into strengths thereby seeking to convert his limitations into advantages. A simple ruse is to reinforce the stronger party’s bias by not initiating any measurable, overt actions. Egypt, using high performance pumps and using water from Suez breached it. Hamas used civilian transport to punch the Gaza fence at multiple places. The 9/11 attack on WTC is another example.

Israel was surprised as it discounted the possibility of Arabs using sophisticated weaponry in 1973 (“too technical for them to handle”) or Hamas firing a barrage of rockets to degrade the Iron Dome. Embarrassment is the natural consequence of this mindset.

Intelligence should draw correct lessons from seemingly innocuous events like the absence of civilians and soldiers on Suez in Oct 1973, simultaneous build ups (Syria & Egypt in 1973 and Hamas in 2023), sudden ceasing of activity or total lack of radio communication. Here the Japanese embassy destroying its codes and ciphers before Pearl Harbour is relevant. Such events carry important indications and should not be ignored.

It is often said that military historians study past battles to prepare for future. Detailed lists of strategic, tactical and technical indicators exist. However these are mostly drawn from era of kinetic battles. The shift to electronic, cyber, informatized, remotely controlled and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) warfare mandates that these lists are updated to stay current.

Today, information is mostly conveyed through electronic means. Cyber and digital intrusions are generally unobtrusive. More embarrassing is to acknowledge them. Unless physical briefings are held to transmit information, security concepts of excessive secrecy and ‘Need to Know’ need revisiting as they may already have become partially redundant.

Intelligence generators, its users - especially decision makers - should avoid displaying preference for a ‘most favoured channel’. This introduces a step motherly impression and promotes inter agency rivalry. On a positive note, rivals begin competing to gain proximity to decision makers. On the flipside, it can also lead to an unwelcome situation wherein important inputs are not shared with decision makers when the favoured agency is found wanting to have produced a desired input.

The leaders and intelligence organizations should shed self-imposed, deliberate mis-(or pre-) conceptions, and steer clear of their ‘biases’ hindering acceptance of contradictory or new inputs. It has been proven that these alone may carry critical indicators of emerging scenarios. Any inputs at variance with their previously held data (mind) sets should be critically evaluated before being promptly discarded as being ‘pebble in the shoe’. Else, Chaim Herzog’s observation ‘Eyes they have, but see they not’ will gain permanence.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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