As regular readers of this blog know, I spent 35 years working in U.S. intelligence before I retired 30 years ago. Repeatedly during those years, and especially during the Vietnam war, U.S. government officials from the legislative and executive branches blamed “intelligence failure” for government and especially military fiascos. Because intelligence depends on secrecy for its success, we intelligence personnel never speak up in defense of our discipline. As a result, the public often believes that intelligence failures are the cause of international disasters.
While I can’t be specific because the facts are still classified, I can testify that intelligence failures are few and far between. The rare and real intelligence failures are not erroneous reports but a lack of information because intelligence sources were unable to obtain data on a subject of critical importance. Far more often, commanders flubbed and blamed inadequate or inaccurate intelligence for their errors.
One story illustrates this common occurrence. During the Vietnam war when I was operating in the central part of the country south of the DMZ (the demilitarized zone, that is, the border between north and south Vietnam), signals intelligence revealed the presence of a large and dangerous North Vietnamese force not far from our position. I warned the U.S. commanding officer who decided to attack the enemy. As he and his forces set out for target, he used plaintext (unenciphered) voice communications with his subordinate units. I warned him that the North Vietnamese were experts as signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of radio communications. He refused to change his mode of communications. “I want them to know we’re coming,” he said.
When we arrived at the target location, the enemy units were no longer there. Obviously, they had intercepted the commander’s communications, discovered that our forces were approaching, and escaped before we arrived. The U.S. commander concluded that the intelligence I had provided was erroneous and ever thereafter refused to exploit the information on the enemy I was able to give him.
So when you hear a government official or military commander blame intelligence for a mission failure, consider the far more likely alternative: that the intelligence was solid but the mission execution was flawed. Or maybe it was simply that the other side won the battle.