Does Intelligence Always Fail-Invariably?
Col Pradeep Jaidka (Retd.)

Since their inception, humans have been interested in knowing about the adversary. Examples abound in history. The blind king’s desire to know events in Kurukshetra; Moses tasking his 12 spies before sending them to Canaan; Trojan Horse; the first appearance of armoured tanks on battlefield; Pearl Harbour; U2 flights over erstwhile Soviet Union; 9/11 and 26/11.

Yet, the adversary has done something different and defeated such endeavours. The recent Hamas attack on Israel bears testimony to this. All such events draw the usual comment - “It is an intelligence failure”. These routine assertions have been made in the past too and become shriller when the party targeted possesses established intelligence acquisition credentials. The efficiency of Israeli intelligence is acknowledged globally. Such failure of a leading Intelligence set up naturally is unbelievable.

The following discusses reasons and methods of how Hamas managed to surprise Israel. Admittedly, though being triggered by the Hamas attack, it looks at the overall intelligence environment to seek reasons for “Intelligence Failures”.


Details about the Hamas attack are available aplenty and reproduction is avoided. Some salient details are however summarised.

Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. Yet, Israel continued controlling Gaza airspace, shoreline and six official crossing points (the 7th - Rafah being controlled by Egypt). Israel military patrols operate in the area relying heavily on technology and digitization.

The Gaza border – erected at a cost of $1bn – consists of a 37 km long mixture of a concrete wall in many places and a fence in others. This is fortified with a network of cameras, sensors and communication systems to prevent incursions. It was conceived to pick up any intrusion however small – ‘even if a mouse’. Supplemented with the famed ‘Iron Dome’, it was believed be impregnable. Some reports suggest that this ‘invulnerability’ led to redeploying Israel troops from Gaza to other areas.

The Hamas Attack on Israel

On Saturday, 07 October 2023, around 06:30 local time, when Israelis were celebrating the holy festival of Simchat Torah, Hamas had launched an attack unprecedented in its scale and coordination. The border from Kerem Shalom in the South to Erez in the North was breached.

Allegedly, a barrage of some 3-5000 rudimentary rockets were fired saturating and degrading Iron Dome missile defence system. This was followed by breaching the border at 22 points and assaulting 27 different locations. Motorcycle borne fighters drove through the gaps, which were then enlarged by bull dozers and tractors. Additionally, Hamas used motorised para-gliders and boats to enter Israel. Within hours, Hamas had reached the settlements of Sderot, Ashkelon, Be’ri, and Ofakim – some 20 km in depth. Civilians partying at Re’im were shot resulting in 270 dead. In addition, two military sites – Zikim and Re’im - were also attacked. Hamas reportedly jammed Israeli network and prevented them from informing their headquarters.

Analysing the Attacks

Hamas attacks were meticulously planned and executed bypassing actions anticipated by Israel or adhering to ‘Conformance protocols’. Consider the following:-

Hamas allegedly collected detailed information on Israeli homes, including the direction in which doors and windows opened using Palestinians holding Israeli work permits.

The presence of tunnels in Gaza was known. Most probably these were used to induct Hamas fighters. It was known that Hamas had been amassing and training its cadres in Gaza for almost two years. Yet, in absence of any hostile indications the possibility of an attack by Hamas was discounted.

All planning, issue of plans, coordination and execution was done in secrecy by discarding conventional means and using primitive modes of communications. ‘Radio Silence’ is generally adopted before an attack. Yet, Israel did not probe the reasonsof nil information and kept monitoring a COMINT and SIGINT vacuum.

Hamas took many Israeli hostages with the probable aim to use them as bargaining chips. It may be recalled that in 2011 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, including 280 serving life sentences, to get one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, back from Hamas in Gaza.

Israel Reaction

Many reasons can be postulated for Israel’s failure to anticipate Hamas attack. Some are - Placing over reliance on modern surveillance technology (which ab initio has limited use to detect underground movements); Providing large volume of work permits to Palestinians assuming this would improve their economic lot; Israel’s higher echelon’s belief (including PM Netanyahu) that Hamas would not jeopardize betterments in Gaza since 2005 and Misreading the large Hamas concentration.

Egypt reportedly warned Israel over violence erupting in Gaza. So, though intelligence was available, it was discounted. Intermediate echelons could not have ignored or suppressed this input. Obviously this happened at /by higher levels. Intelligence picture was almost complete. The ‘failure’ obviously lies outside the intelligence apparatus. Isn’t there a case that Israeli decision makers, and not its Intelligence, should bear responsibility for these failures?

Expectedly, Israeli retaliation was swift and severe. It started with attacks on over 200 precise locations inside Gaza that were suspected of being Hamas strongholds. Some senior Hamas functionaries were eliminated. The moot point here is when was the Intelligence on these locations collected? Obviously it existed before hand albeit unutilized.

Israel warned Palestinians to evacuate to Southern Gaza but the Rafa check point was not opened by Egypt. After almost a fortnight 20 relief trucks were allowed inside from Rafa.

Structure and Nature of Intelligence

A digression from the ground situation is essential to evaluate various nuances of intelligence, its structure, the agency – user relationship and few invisibles that effect all the environment before pronouncing the ‘award for failure’.

‘Intelligence’ is often referred to in singular or combined terms. Singularly, it denotes either the Method, Organization or Input produced. Collectively it is a combination of two or more of the preceding interpretations. Intelligence thus, per se, has two basic components - “Provider” and “Consumer”. The term Provider covers all resources (human and technological), the organisations involved in monitoring the environment and continuously producing inputs for the consumers. “Consumer” includes decision makers and people or organisations that are required to take intended actions.

Intelligence apparatus (agencies) are built at enormous cost. Their budgetary allocations depend on and are controlled by their political masters whose preference for a particular set up dominates their decisions over allocations and utilisation of inputs. Intelligence systems continually collect information and produce their inputs irrespective of any change in environment or personalities.

Various satellites, multiple surveillance systems, cyber intrusions, aerial reconnaissance, underwater and infrared sensors et al acquire Intelligence on a 24/7 basis or deny it to the adversary using a plethora of sensors, platforms and methodologies to collect Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), Communications intelligence (COMINT), Radar Intelligence (RADINT), Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). For obvious reasons, presently technical intelligence collection has become the favoured tool relegating the human channels.

The apparent deluge of data is centrally collated, sifted, synthesised and evaluated by intelligence apparatus of all nations. They harness banks of computers to crunch and produce meaningful intelligence analysis and estimates ranging from National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) to routine tactical intelligence analysis. All these aim at keeping decision makers and / or consumers aware of emerging scenarios and changes therein.

The functioning and tasking of the ‘Providers’ commences from the time their consumers spell out their requirements. It concludes when both Provider and Consumer have individually and collectively performed their roles - responsibly. Hereinafter the role of the Provider gets confined to producing supplementary intelligence as may come to his notice or as required by the Consumer. In nutshell, Providers cannot grossly violate their assigned charter or underperform on their expectations.

By design, Providers also cannot acknowledge or reveal their modus operandi and resources even under criticism. The rationale being that such admissions lead to adversary developing counter measures. Neither can they refute any negative performance vis a vis their Consumers. In that way the Provider becomes the proverbial sacrificial animal.

In many cases, the inherent capabilities of a particular provider may be glossed over by the ‘Consumer’ in favour of another provider based on their preferences and perceptions. Some quarters hold the view (and suggest) that the Provider offers only that Intelligence which is acceptable to the Consumer. The major lacuna here ignores that Intelligence is not a commercial marketing product to please the consumer. Environmental dynamics dictate that Consumers of Intelligence, in order to make correct decisions, must receive unpalatable or negative inputs.

Occasionally, intelligence does flow from unexpected sources (e.g. Egyptian warnings about likely attacks).

Empirical data also shows Intelligence is never complete. Further, all Intelligence has a finite ‘shelf life’. Environmental dynamics, availability and deployment of resources and adversary behaviour mandate continuous scanning of the environment by Providers. Concurrently, the Consumer has to be agile and base their decisions and actions on inputs from Providers (partially insufficient and valid for that particular time only). Axiomatically, the Consumer who waits for all pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place faces paralysis of decisions and actions. Slightest prevarication on part of the Consumer or change in adversary stance should absolve the Provider of to the accusation ‘Intelligence has failed’.

Intelligence Failure and Surprise

Given the above, interestingly, so far, no agency has provided such inputs that are 100 % validated by events. The reason is that the adversary neither shares his plans nor is he bound to act in conformity to the estimates produced by our Providers for their Consumers. Yet any departure on part of the adversary (Deception) is termed Intelligence Failure instead of Surprise.

Four vectors constitute Adversary Threat Potential i.e. Strength, Capabilities, Intention and Timing (of application). The first two are obvious. But the combination of more requires deliberation. Simplistically speaking, intention is a derivative of tangibles like strength and capability. Many intangibles also define intention. Generally, a relatively weak player is expected to develop a defensive stance. However, given certain conditions even the weaker player can develop offensive intentions. These are achieved through negotiations, alliances, Deception, Subversion and Sabotage. Israel, created in 1948, is a prime example of developing offensive capabilities despite its size and status.

Assuming that Strength, Capability and even Intention have been correctly estimated, the last element – Timing – assumes criticality. The perpetrator always chooses the place, time and method to initiate his actions against his target. Further assuming even if this were to happen, the target can make changes to his options and stance. Timing cannot be assessed in advance. The timing of 07 October attack is relevant here.

Surprise and Blind Spots

Any change or departure from anticipated course of events can betermed Surprise. History abundantly proves that surprise is inevitable despite all attempts to avoid, contain, or mitigate it. Otherwise, cumulative efforts over the millennia should have eliminated surprise absolutely. Inevitability of surprise rests on two factors – Novel thinking by perpetrators and naivety / rigidity in thinking of the target.

Few historical examples; Alexander crossed a swollen Indus, upstream, at night. During the Cold War, when USSR claimed it could under 90 seconds, detect, identify and neutralize any unidentified aerial object approaching USSR from anywhere in the world, an East German - in a small plane, landed with his girlfriend in the Red Square! Suez Canal was breached employing high pressure water pumps making use of water from the canal itself. Earlier, Iraq had hidden their missile launchers in garbage dumps thereby defeating US satellite surveillance while the satellites kept searching other areas. Hamas too did something similar before its attack.

Blind spots, more common in driving, are unacknowledged phenomena that prevent seeing things that exist in plain sight. Both Provider and Consumer develop “blind spots” which influence their respective choices and performances. The Provider’s Blind spots can be seen in his choice in not optimally using available resources. Equally, blind spots prevent Consumers from making rational and effective decisions as seen in the excessive dependence on technical surveillance by Israel. Another is the denial of relief inside Gaza for a fortnight. The impact of this action on its population who experienced extreme retaliatory Israeli actions and subsequent limited contestation is yet to surface. This is a catch 22 situation. Will the effected people pardon Israel or will their reaction fuel dissent obtaining in Gaza and reinforce loyalty towards Hamas?

Providers and Consumers alike should accept that the best systems will fail to visualize the shape of future wars. There is a need to consciously review their blind spots and biases, revise their options on seeing the approaching Tsunami rather than stroll unperturbed on the ocean front in their favourite bikini. Till this is done, Blind spots (and Biases) will result in Surprise.


Enough data is presently unavailable to facilitate analysis of what exactly caused surprise to Israel. However, the available inputs suggest that though Intelligence was available to the Israeli Consumers, their Biases, Blind spots, Resource availability and preoccupation prevented them from exploiting it.

The present scenario of high tech dominated surveillance had brought in a mind-set in Israel placing excessive dependence on Tech Int over Humint. In the foreseeable future, HUMINT will likely regain some of its earlier importance to become–sometimes the only – source to read adversary threat and intentions. As technology advances simple measures e.g. reversal to primitive ‘cabalistic’ ways of planning; enforcing ‘silent’ communication modes can be expected to, partially neutralize these advances. The possibility of increasingly defeating sophisticated surveillance by resorting to ‘primitive’ measures should not be entirely discounted.

More often than not, the role of Consumer is glossed over while assessing causes of “Intelligence Failures”. Not enough studies exist to document his Biases, Blind spots, Prevarications and Failure of Imagination. This data should be cultivated in order to determine and pinpoint the point of failure. While operational planning considers various scenarios, some outcomes may not receive due attention. Surely, Israeli plans would have anticipated activation of Lebanon front. If the unfolding events eclipse the assessments made for this front then the saying that ‘There are always intelligence failures and Operational Successes” gains permanence.

The top level Consumers should consider scenarios like taking of civilian hostages in their future planning and adopt a more open mind-set with willingness to accept Intelligence not aligned or augmenting its own thinking. If not, the risk of surprise (and NOT Intelligence Failure) will continue. It would recast the old adage to “Bolting the stable after the horse trots away, does not bring the horse into the stable'. Surely, this should be avoided.

(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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