The Phenomenon Of Intelligence Failure

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Intelligence failure can best be described as the inability to anticipate the move of the “opponent” or the “opposing figure” in any given situation. Intelligence failure is best understood in the context of intelligence success, because it allows us the opportunity to recognize where exactly in the intelligence cycle something went wrong. Therefore, intelligence failures are inevitable because the constant motion of the intelligence cycle provides so much room for error. In the context of major wars and attacks, Pearl Harbour stands as a stark example of what can happen as a result of an intelligence failure. In my discussion of the events leading up to Pearl Harbour, the aim of this essay is to analyze the ways in which intelligence failure led to the Pearl Harbour’s attack, through demonstrating that it was the United States’ misinterpretation of the intention of the Japanese’s strategies that led to its own failure on December 7 1941. The United States intelligence was surprised, to say the least, at the Pearl Harbour Attack because of the recognition that their intel lacked the “big picture” view. The failure of the intel they were receiving can be accounted for as a lack of human intelligence, but also because of the limits of the signal intelligence itself. PURPLE was never able to work in the capacity that it was set out to, and these failures also go hand in hand with the strength of the Japanese, and their own abilities to maintain their secrecies. Intelligence failure also presents itself in terms of analytical failure, because the Americans truly believed that Japan was incapable of attacks of this form because they were not able to carry out such large plans.

The historiography of Intelligence Failure is important in terms of the context of this paper because it demonstrates that Pearl Harbour is not the first instance of failure. Scholarship surrounding both Intelligence and Pearl Harbour is suggestive of the fact that the failure of the United States is only maximized when it is viewed in comparison to the relative success of the Japanese. The importance and relevancy of the Japanese security system highlight how they were able to limit any form of public knowledge about what they were doing. Essentially, they were always ahead of the United States, and it is their position as the “underdog” figure that led to their “victory”. Their deliberate efforts of creating “noise” amidst signals were effective because this is what misled the Americans. The history of intelligence failures is a topic that has not been ignored and is instead used as a means of trying to figure out where exactly they went wrong. The increase in works that reefer to intelligence began after Pearl Harbour, as this once “secret world” of espionage and code breakers and spies became integral to the real world. The culture of secrecy with the United States began to be reflected in popular media forms, and it is in this climate that we are able to understand exactly there seemed to be this confusion between what was real and what was fictional.

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In understanding the different stages of The Intelligence Cycle, we are able to better understand where exactly the United States went wrong in their assessment of Japan not being a threat or a liability. These steps, collection, analysis and dissemination, are all equally important in terms of intelligence. We see here that Pearl Harbour can be accounted for through the failure to analyze the information as collective. In essence, America did not see Japan as being militarily or technologically proficient enough to harm them. According to Gustavo Diaz’ article, it is only in the wake of 9/11 that has caused intelligence failure become a particular concern within the United States. As stated in the aforementioned paragraph, it is important to understand that failure within intelligence is inherent. Thus, the failures of intelligence are studied more rigorously in order to prevent them from reoccurring. Interestingly enough, it is only through major failures that nations are able to step back and try to assess exactly where in the intelligence cycle something went wrong. The intelligence cycle contains different processes (collection, evaluation, analysis, production and dissemination) and it is through these cycles that we may be able to pinpoint exactly where any given country’s intelligence failure took place. Small mistakes can essentially have catastrophic consequences, and these mistakes can occur in the most seemingly miniscule areas. Diaz goes on to address different figures who have talked about the origins and misconceptions of intelligence failure, and the most important point to this essay comes from Michael Handel. According to him, “intelligence failure is inevitable”, and we have to essentially live with this sense of ambiguity, because there is no sense of certainty within the intelligence realm. The association of the human mind within these contexts better our understanding, because we are forced to recognize that there is a human tendency to impose our own notions of what will happen due to past failures or successes. There is room for failure in the very first stage of the cycle, because there is an understanding that even the collection of data can be flawed, in that the information one aims to collect can be incorrect based on the sources. At every level of intelligence, whether tactical, operational or strategic, there is essentially room for failure.

Being the powerhouse figure that they were, and still continue to be, it should come as no surprise that the United States underestimated, or misinterpreted Japan’s aim to attack them because they were not seen as being a big threat. The first form of failure that this essay will address is operational and strategic, on the part of the United States. Codebreaking was a necessity for the United States, and it easily became the “nation’s premier source of secret intelligence”. Subsequently, codebreaking surpassed espionage in terms of the ability to better assist the States in matters of intelligence because of how quickly they were able to gather information. There were numerous analysts being hired during this time period, as there was fascination with figuring out what the “enemy” was doing. The machine that was used to decrypt messages was recreated by the Americans through intuition, as they could not envision what the Japanese machine would look like. Basically, they had nothing to work with in terms of visuals – it was almost like a guessing game to figure out what Japan would use. The excitement during this period of codebreaking and secrecy during this time period was unmatched, as it was basically having the ability to detect what the enemy was doing with no form on human deception. There was no longer a necessity for spies, because codebreaking took away the opportunity for human misconceptions or deceptions. However, as much as there were pros to this, there were cons that levelled the playing field. They could not “break codes” unless the enemy was willingly putting these codes out. Therefore, the question would always be present was whether or not the information being retrieved was genuinely the plan. It is in these terms that we must understand the importance, and the success of the United States ability to “crack” the code PURPLE. This is the context in which Frank Rowlett becomes incredibly important, as he was a part of a team that able to crack a code through using Japanese phonetics. PURPLE was not an encryption of military messages, but instead was Japan’s diplomatic messages. However, cracking this code allowed the United States to gain a vast amount of knowledge about the economics within Japan. It is through this information that the code breakers were able to deduce that Japan was basically in crises mode. As Wholstetter puts it, “never before had [ the United States] had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy”. Though they had so much information, the picture itself could never be seen in full. I think the failure, on the part of the Americans, here was that they were not able to collect more accurate and necessary information. This further demonstrates my thesis because it reiterates the point that Pearl Harbour did not happen as a result of lack of information, but instead it was because there was too much.

This overwhelming amount information being received played a huge role in intelligence failure, because it was become increasingly harder to figure out exactly what messages and encryptions were more important than others. Since PURPLE was not aimed at military operations, these analysts and code breakers were essentially playing a guessing game in terms of deciding which information could be used for military purposes. Part of Japan’s success was that they were able to seal any forms of leaks, and there was not even coded reference to Pearl Harbour that went on air. It is the evaluation of the importance of intelligence that the Americans failed to do. They had successfully gathered a plethora of information about Japanese economics, and the mechanics behind their country, but they were unable to figure out exactly what all this information meant. Strategically, we see this as being intelligence failure because as outsiders to the situation we recognize the strength that America had at the time. The success of the Japanese demonstrates their own ability to be prepared, while subsequently highlight America’s lack of. The report of the Pearl Harbor Attack/Report of the Joint Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack which dates back to July 16 1946 states that the Intelligence and War Plans Divisions failed to

To give careful and thoughtful consideration to the intercepted messages from Tokyo to Honolulu of September 24, November 15, and November 20 (the harbour berthing plan and related dispatches) and to raise a question as to their significance. Since they indicated a particular interest in the Pacific Fleet’s base this intelligence should have been appreciated and supplied the Hawaiian commanders for their assistance, along with other information available to them, in making their estimate of the situation.

I think this highlights the in inability of the United States to act on this information because they did not see it necessary to make any final military decisions. Consequently, the technological advancements of the Japanese were growing, and it is because of tis why there seen as the greatest threat to the United States Navy. The office of Naval intelligence that was intercepting and decrypting the Japanese radios had no actual human spies, but even the involvement of human interaction would have made no difference in information being gathered. As mentioned before, the Japanese had completely gone silent over the radio, and it is even documented that their silence was maintained from the minute they left their own country until they arrived in Hawaii. It is here that we can once again address the fact that intelligence failure is highlighted when it is compared to relative successes. When we assess the ways in which the Japanese were successful, we are able to see the effective tactics that they used to undermine the Americans.

In terms of intelligence failures, America also believed that it made no sense for Japan to attack them. According to David Khan’s article, “the rationalism presented itself in terms of racism” and this was what led the Americans to undermine Japanese abilities. Prior to Pearl Harbour, the intelligence community in America was best described as one that was stern on avoiding any type of associations with foreign powers. The military was not ready to defend itself against any type of threat because of how isolated it believed its stance to be. The climate of Hawaii in 1941 was one that was filled with leaders who knew that an attack on the United States was probable. There was an awareness that war with Japan was highly likely because of the patterns that Japan was demonstrating. According to Frederic Borch’s article, when the Admiral and General assumed their duties within Hawaii the summer before, their primary mission was to prepare for war with Japan. If Japan is to be assessed properly in terms of its strength, we must view it during the time period in which they defeated Russia. Shortly after this they were able to both invade and capture areas of China. The Americans were aware of all the actions of the Japanese thus far and had even come head to head with them when Japan limited the oil stocks. The ultimatum for the United States became very clear – either they were going to life it or the Japanese would use force to break it. This just goes back to my point that it was not as if the United States was oblivious of the capabilities of Japan. They were very aware of the fact that Japan regarded their failure to act on the embargo as an ultimatum and would effectively engage in war once the given time limit was expired. Although we cannot put the entirety of the attack on Kimmel and Short, their inactive responses to Japan is basically an example of what an enable looks like – doing nothing to prevent it, but also trying not to add fuel to the fire.

The essential takeaway that must be addressed in terms of recognizing Pearl Harbour as an intelligence failure is to ask whether or not the outcome would change if the information that was collected would have been assessed properly. If the answer is yes, then the answer to my thesis, and the subject of this paper remains the same. If the organization itself had been better structured, the assessment of the information gathered would have been different. However, it is my belief that the outcome would not have changed – the level of preparedness that Japan demonstrated during Pearl Harbour was unmatched. I think that even if Kimmel and Short had been reactive, in terms of being prepared, they would have only been able to lessen the amount of losses that they endured. It is the underestimating of Japan as an actual powerhouse country that led to the ultimate defeat. If we are to reference intelligence failures as being as issue of power, then we are missing the point. As Richard K. Betts’ puts it in his article, “intelligence failure is political and psychological more often that organizational”. What this speaks to is the fact that even military powerhouses are not immune to mistakes or tragedies. There are numerous reasons as to why the event was so catastrophic, and Betts also adds to this conversation of lack of communication, because e reiterates that that evidence of the attack was available, but this did not mean it was efficiently carried up the chain of command. Intelligence failure is further highlighted because of the relative success that the Japanese were able to demonstrate. Consequently, Pearl Harbour is a representation of a base being caught by surprise. If we categorize Pearl Harbour as being an instance of intelligence failure, on the part of the Americans, then we are forced to address why we must. In short, Pearl Harbour continues to be classified as such because it is evident that the Americans did not learn from their own shortcomings during the war. John Gentry classifies this as an example of intelligence failure, because of the “failure to produce and use intelligence information that identifies threats and opportunities to exploit”.

Pearl Harbour represents the first instance of an enemy attack on American soil since the war of 1812, and it forced America to basically come out of the shadows. It could no longer occupy a neutral position – and does away with the “traditional isolationism mentality of America being a fortress” forever. essentially, the important question that we must ask in terms of intelligence failure, is if there were any lessons learned. If we deduce that both the Americans and the Japanese suffer, we must then ask if they learned anything from pearl Harbour. According to Seth Feldman, both countries essentially profited off of the others demise, because they were able to capitalize and gather support for themselves. Many modern perspectives have arisen since the attack in 1941, and the conclusion is that the unpreparedness of the United States caused its own failure. Rhetoric and conversations surrounding Pearl Harbour often include that of the September 11 attack, because it reiterated the point that they were also unprepared. Strategically, it was also a failure for the Japanese. Their essential goal was to overturn this American stereotype of them as being incapable of doing this because they were not smart enough. According to Seth Feldman’s article in the Queens Quarterly, their goal was to embarrass the Americans with their visions of burning ships and aeroplanes. They wanted to create a scene which could demoralize the Americans. If we address the “outcomes” of Pearl Harbour, the establishment of the CIA is important in terms of how the United States sought to deal with their failure. The creation of the CIA is important in this context, because it shows that there was a recognition that strategic intelligence was necessary for warning, and could possible help minimize the risk of future failures. The recognition of their own failure to distinguish what were key signals and background noises also emerges in the post Pearl Harbour state. This emerges as the final point of reasoning as to why the United States differed as it did because they had all the signals available, but they became lost amidst the “noise” of all the extra information that they were received. 


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