I am repeatedly irritated by reports of “intelligence failures” as the cause of governmental flubs. Most recently, the press reports that the instant collapse of Afghanistan and its takeover by the Taliban was the result of intelligence agencies failures to foretell what would happen if the U.S. withdrew. The fall of Afghanistan was so similar to the defeat of Vietnam in 1975 that sometimes I knew what had happened even before I read about it. And the U.S. government claimed that the fall of Saigon, the last bastion in South Vietnam, came as a surprise. Nonsense.
As I have reported here before, I and other intelligence officers forewarned of the impending North Vietnamese attack on Saigon time after time during the last weeks before the city fell and I escaped under fire. But the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, refused to accept our warnings. He had been told by the Hungarian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS), a representative of a communist state allied to North Vietnam, that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon. Martin accepted this assurance in the face of overwhelming evidence from me and other intelligence sources that attack on the city was imminent. He assured Washington that no assault was in the offing. The White House and the Pentagon accepted Martin’s assessment and planned no evacuation. When the attack came, the government blamed its inaction on an intelligence failure.
I no longer have clearances and access to classified information, so I have no definite way of knowing what we knew in advance of the decision to withdraw our forces from Afghanistan. But I find it inconceivable that out intelligence failed to predict what would happen and how fast. I don’t know what intelligence resources were focused on Afghanistan, but I find it unbelievable that they all could have been misled. I know from many years of past experience that we keep track not only of our enemies but also of our friends and allies, so that we wouldn’t be taken by surprise at their actions.
Because we were engaged in a war in Afghanistan, I’m certain that we exploited all available means of gaining information on our adversaries. First, there’s human intelligence (HUMINT). That includes information from ordinary people observing what’s happening, spies working secretly inside enemy ranks, prisoners of war, and defectors. Then there’s photographic intelligence (PHOTINT), sometimes called imagery intelligence (IMINT), that results from people taking photographs and from airplane and satellite imagery. Next is signals intelligence (SIGINT) with its three subcategories, communications intelligence (COMINT), electronic intelligence (ELINT, the monitoring of non-communications signals such as radar), and telemetry intelligence (TELINT). Beyond these classic categories of intelligence, press reports, including newspapers, magazines, radio news, and television reporting, can be of great value in learning of another country’s status, actions, and plans.
More next time.