Documented Failures in U.S. Intelligence History Along With U.S. Responses

The book is still out on the spot in history Joe Biden’s abysmal failure to follow through on the meticulous agreement negotiated during the Trump Administration for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. We’ll chat about those details at the end of today’s story. They are “developing” — to use the media’s constant excuse for not having full details on an important story when they first report it — and will continue to change going forward. That happens in part because no administration wants to be known as having poor intelligence results during their time in charge.

As bad as this one appears to be, there have been some whoppers before Joe Biden moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’ve been alive during several of these. Others I must refer to history books. The only problem with finding facts about such events is each story’s findings chronicled “historically” are directly relative to the opinions of those who wrote each account. I think you’ll agree that opinion is seldom “the whole truth and nothing BUT the truth.” So, we’ll do our best.

These are NOT in any special order.

Pearl Harbor

As dawn broke on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pushing a once-reluctant America headlong into World War II. The naval base was utterly unprepared for battle, even though the United States had managed to break Japanese diplomatic code in the lead-up to the assault and a military attaché in Java had warned Washington of a planned Japanese attack on Hawaii, the Philippines, and Thailand a week earlier. “Never before have we had so completely an intelligence picture of the enemy,” Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.

That picture, however, was not seen in full because of inadequate intelligence-sharing among government agencies, faulty U.S. assumptions about Japan’s appetite for carrying out such a brazen attack, and rivalries within the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA — established in 1947 as part of the National Security Act — later noted that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor highlighted the need to separate “signals” from “noise” and create a centralized intelligence organization.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

In April 1961, a CIA-planned effort by Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime and replace it with a non-communist, U.S.-friendly government went horribly awry when an aerial attack on Cuba’s air force flopped and the 1,400-strong “Assault Brigade 2506” came under heavy fire from the Cuban military after landing off the country’s southern coast. The botched invasion poisoned U.S.-Cuban relations.

CIA files later revealed that the agency, assuming President John F. Kennedy would commit American troops to the assault if all else failed, never showed the newly minted president an assessment expressing doubt about whether the brigade could succeed without open support from the U.S. military — support Kennedy never intended to provide. (The historian Piero Gleijeses has compared the CIA and Kennedy to ships passing in the night.) The CIA didn’t do itself any favors a year later by concluding that the Soviets were unlikely to establish offensive missiles in Cuba in a report issued a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, though the agency redeemed itself a bit by later snapping U-2 photographs of the missile sites.

The Tet Offensive

On Jan. 31, 1968, during the Tet holiday in Vietnam, North Vietnam’s communist forces stunned the United States by launching a massive, coordinated assault against South Vietnam. While the communist military gains proved fleeting, the Tet Offensive was arguably the most decisive battle of Vietnam. Americans grew disillusioned with the war, prompting U.S. policymakers to shift gears and focus on reducing America’s footprint in Vietnam.

A government inquiry shortly after the Tet Offensive concluded that U.S. and South Vietnamese military officers and intelligence analysts had failed to fully anticipate the “intensity, coordination, and timing of the enemy attack” — despite multiple warnings. Navy librarian Glenn E. Helm notes that disregard for intelligence collection, language barriers, and a misunderstanding of enemy strategy played particularly prominent roles in the intelligence debacle. Still, James J. Wirtz points out in The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War that the “Americans almost succeeded in anticipating their opponents’ moves in time to avoid the military consequences of surprise.”

The Yom Kippur War

While the CIA accurately analyzed the Six-Day War between Israel and neighboring Arab states in 1967, it was caught flat-footed only six years later when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched coordinated attacks on Israeli forces in the Sinai Desert and the Golan Heights during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The conflict, which ended with a ceasefire in October 1973, tested U.S.-Soviet relations and pushed the Arab-Israeli conflict to the top of Washington’s foreign-policy agenda.

Documents collected by George Washington University’s National Security Archive reveal that the Israeli intelligence community believed that the country’s superior military power would deter its Arab neighbors from initiating a war, and U.S. intelligence officials bought into this line of reasoning. On the day the war began, a National Security Council memo noted that Soviet advisers had been evacuated from Egypt and that Israel was anticipating an attack because of Egyptian and Syrian military movements, but added that U.S. intelligence services “continue to downplay the likelihood of an Arab attack on Israel” and “favor the alternative explanation of a crisis in Arab-Soviet relations.”

The Iranian Revolution

In August 1978, six months before the U.S-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled Iran, the CIA infamously concluded that “Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation.” As we all now know, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rose to power in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, opening up a rift between Iran and the United States that persists to this day.

According to Gary Sick, a member of Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, the United Stated had scaled back its intelligence-gathering inside Iran in the lead-up to the revolution in deference to the Shah, which helped contribute to U.S. officials overlooking widespread Iranian resentment against the Shah and the United States and underestimating the ability of the religious opposition to overthrow the Shah. Still, a 2004 Georgetown University report points out that the intelligence community did issue warnings about the Shah’s eroding power and the religious opposition’s growing clout, and that political infighting and the Carter administration’s preoccupation with Egyptian-Israeli peace talks contributed to American myopia on Iran.

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

The Soviet Union’s military incursion into Afghanistan, which began in December 1979 and devolved into a bloody, nine-year occupation, took the Carter administration by surprise. The U.S. intelligence community had assumed that the specter of a costly quagmire would deter the Soviets from invading Afghanistan. Former CIA official Douglas MacEachin recalls that in the days after the invasion, a dark joke began circulating around the agency that “the analysts got it right, and it was the Soviets who got it wrong.”

It’s not entirely clear, however, whether intelligence or policy is primarily to blame for America’s lack of foresight about the invasion. In The CIA and the Culture of Failure, John Diamond concedes that the agency failed to predict the invasion until shortly before it happened. But he adds that the CIA’s warnings about Soviet military preparations and movements throughout 1979 gave the Carter administration “all the information it needed to issue a stern warning to Moscow,” and that the administration instead chose to “downplay its warnings.” A Georgetown study adds that the White House was distracted by the SALT II treaty negotiations and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. intelligence community failed to predict the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, presaged as it was by President Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, the deteriorating Soviet economy, the collapse of communism in east-central Europe, and the moves toward independence by several Soviet republics. As the BBC recently noted, “the Soviet example illustrates the problem that intelligence gatherers are great counters: they can look at missiles, estimate the output of weapons factories, and so on. But the underlying political and social dynamics in society are much harder to read.”

Indeed, in Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1980-1990, David Arbel and Ran Edelist argue that the intelligence community often catered to the preconceived notions officials in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had of the Soviet threat, producing a “rigid conceptual conformity between the analysts and the decision-makers.” But former CIA official Douglas MacEachin adds that while the CIA did not forecast the breakup of the Soviet Union, it did “predict that the failing economy and stultifying societal conditions it had described in so many of its studies would ultimately provoke some kind of political confrontation within the USSR … What actually did happen depended on people and decisions that were not inevitable.”

The Indian Nuclear Test

You probably don’t remember this one.

In May 1998, the CIA didn’t get wind of India’s intention to set off several underground nuclear blasts, in what Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called a “colossal failure of our nation’s intelligence gathering.” The intelligence agency saved some face a couple of weeks later when it warned that Pakistan was preparing to conduct its own nuclear tests, which it did on May 28, 1998.

At the time, the Washington Post reported that a U.S. spy satellite had picked up clear evidence of India’s nuclear test preparations six hours before the blasts, but the U.S. intelligence analysts responsible for tracking India’s nuclear program hadn’t been on duty. Instead, they discovered the images when they arrived at work the next morning after the tests had already taken place.

The 9/11 Attacks

In its report on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 9/11 Commission noted that the intelligence community, assailed by “an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure, and bureaucratic rivalries,” had failed to pin down the big-picture threat posed by “transnational terrorism” throughout the 1990s and up to 9/11. In response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, Congress created a national intelligence director and the National Counterterrorism Center to pool intelligence.

As former CIA analyst Paul Pillar points out in his Foreign Policy piece, intelligence officials missed the 9/11 attacks but didn’t miss the threat posed by al Qaeda. The CIA created a unit focusing solely on Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s and President Bill Clinton launched covert operations against al Qaeda. The intelligence community’s February 2001 briefing on worldwide threats branded bin Laden’s terrorist network as “the most immediate and serious threat” to the United States, capable of “planning multiple attacks with little or no warning.”

The Iraq War

In a February 2003 appearance before the U.N. Security Council to make the case for confronting Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that his accusations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were based on “solid intelligence.” Indeed, an October 2002 intelligence estimate had concluded that Iraq was continuing its WMD program and could make a nuclear weapon “within several months to a year” if it acquired sufficient fissile material. But the United States never found evidence for such programs after its invasion of Iraq — an intelligence failure that President George W. Bush called his “biggest regret.”

Here too, however, it’s unclear how much of the failure should be blamed on intelligence as opposed to policymakers. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that President Bush and his top advisers “ignored many of the caveats and qualifiers” in the October 2002 intelligence report as they doggedly pressed ahead with the plans for war. Analysts, for example, estimated that Saddam wouldn’t use his WMD or give weapons to terrorists unless Iraq was invaded. The New York Times also reported that senior Bush administration officials brandished tubes that they said were destined for Iraqi nuclear centrifuges despite the skepticism of nuclear experts.


Many reading this will wonder why I did not include the “Biden Afghanistan Intelligence Failure” in this list. The answer is simple: we don’t know yet just how big a failure it is! But it’s fair to say it’s monstrous. Just look at the handful of things we’ve already heard from the mouths of some of our top leaders. Let’s look at a few:

  • Biden told the nation that the Afghan military was 300,000 strong. If one assumes our Intelligence agencies provided that number to Biden, he either misquoted it, or the intelligence was wrong — by 50%!
  • The U.S. Department of State has NO knowledge of the private information of each American located anywhere in Afghanistan. Knowing that those people getting to Afghanistan in the first place requires visas with exhaustive information included before they even arrive. That information includes why they’re going, where they are located, and how long they’ll stay.
  • When Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked Wednesday if the U.S. military would remain in Afghanistan until every American is safely removed, his response was “We simply don’t know if that’s possible. We will stay assisting with evacuation until we run out of resources.”
  • The Taliban obviously had exhaustive and comprehensive data on the U.S. military size and capabilities on short notice and were intensely prepared to swoop into Kabul and those provincial capitols on their way while our government did NOT have a clue about what was happening until after it all happened.

Each of these four (and I’m certain there are numerous others that we may never know) are obvious pieces that any nation’s intelligence agencies MUST know for any such military action to even have a chance of success.

My gut tells me we haven’t scratched the surface of the ineptness of the U.S. Intelligence when it comes to “all-things Afghani” necessary to complete this operation as it was supposed to occur. We also have NO idea of how many Americans are in-country, where they are, and how to reach them and effectively and safely remove them from Afghanistan.

Americans will die because of this. Some probably have already and we just haven’t been told. Remember: there are thousands of Afghanistan citizens who are promised safe passage to the U.S. in exchange for the intelligence services they have provided to our military over the past two decades. We don’t even know who they are, where they are, and how to get them out!

Yep, there have been some really stupid intelligence agency slipups throughout history. After reading all these and knowing several of them from personal experience, I must say that if the “Biden Afghanistan Intelligence Failure” is not the worst one of these failures and is not in a class by itself, it certainly won’t take long to call the roll in that class!

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