American Intelligence Blunders Over The Years

By Christiaan van Huyssteen (@cvh23)


The US intelligence authorities are now officially blaming the Ukranian rebels for the downing of MH17.

But before we conclude that this intelligence is accurate, let’s take a look at some of the things US intelligence didn’t do so well over the past century:




Pearl Harbor Attack

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 hadwarned Washington of a planned Japanese attack on Hawaii, the Philippines, and Thailand a week earlier. “Never before have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy,” Roberta Wholstetter wrote in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.


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.


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.


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 BBCrecently 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 a society are much harder to read.”


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.


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 declaredthat 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.”


It seems the US intelligence community are hardly infallible when it comes to predicting, gathering or reacting to information.


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