How Could Israeli Intelligence Miss the Hamas Invasion Plans? – CSIS | Center for Strategic and International Studies

Photo: Bumble Dee/Adobe Stock
Commentary by Emily Harding
Published October 11, 2023
An intelligence failure is like a plane crash: it is never just one thing that goes wrong, it is instead a series of things that add up to a disaster. Hamas pulled off a complex, multifront assault on October 7—the kind of coordinated attack that takes months to plan and execute. Moreover, tens if not hundreds of Hamas militants were involved in the combination air, land, sea, and rocket assault, suggesting that the circle of knowledge was extensive. Further, Tehran helped plan and fund the endeavor, according to the Wall Street Journal, with meetings taking place in Beirut, which means the circle of knowledge encompassed at least three locations. At first blush, the situation appears to be a massive intelligence failure.
So how could Israeli intelligence services—among the best in the world—be caught by surprise? It happens to the best of us, and the aftermath is both professionally and personally painful. Examining the root causes of the failure with clear eyes and an open mind is essential to avoiding the same mistakes in the future.
While we do not yet and may never know the complete story of this intelligence failure, there are some likely possibilities for the root cause. The first question investigators will ask is whether Shin Bet, Mossad, and the Israel Defense Forces issued warnings of an impending attack. Were warnings specific and actionable, or too general? One of the most infamous examples of general warning was the President’s Daily Brief written in August 2001, titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The 9/11 Commission Report indicated that “two CIA analysts involved in preparing this briefing article believed it represented an opportunity to communicate their view that the threat of a Bin Ladin attack in the United States remained both current and serious.” But the message intended was different than the message received: “President Bush said the article told him that al Qaeda was dangerous, which he had known since he had become President.”
The intelligence community knew plotting was ongoing, but the warning was too general to result in decisive, preventive action or improved defenses. Policymakers often expect precision: an attack by this entity will occur at this place at this time. Rarely—if ever—does a picture that clear come together. The Hamas assault on Israel may turn into a case of nonspecific warning: some reports indicate that U.S. and Israeli intelligence were watching for rising tensions, but there was no precise warning of an impending attack. The New York Times reported that Israeli intelligence issued a specific warning to border guards immediately before the attack, flagging a surge in activity, but those warnings went unheeded for unclear reasons.
Next, investigators will examine whether their services had collected information on the potential attack and were holding it in their systems. Investigators will scrub databases for indications that Hamas was planning a massive strike, including from established intelligence sources and from an array of less credible sources, from hearsay to walk-ins. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20, and this exercise always risks turning up information no analyst would have considered credible at the time but now seems prescient.
If that search turns up information pointing to an impending attack, the next question is why the information in question did not prompt a warning. Was it translated and disseminated? Did analysts read it? If not, why not? If they did read it, why did they discount its importance? Interviews with analysts will be important in this phase, and while those discussions could feel accusatory, investigators should approach these conversations with curiosity and a forward-looking approach. This is the same approach congressional committees should take when conducting their own investigations.
If information was there, and analysts missed it or dismissed it, the intelligence services face the most painful outcome: an analytical failure brought on by human error. These are often failures of imagination, where analysts know something is coming, but they neglect to think as big and as ruthlessly as their adversary. If this is the case, the organization needs to carefully consider retraining staff and initiating cultural or staffing changes. If it turns out the indications were there, but holiday leave got in the way of warning, the intelligence services are likely looking at hours at their desks over holiday weekends in the future. Commentators have speculated about whether extensive political protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu may have also been a distraction; while only time will tell if domestic turmoil played a role, it is unlikely. Intelligence professionals pride themselves on staying mission-focused, particularly with a mission as important as protecting Israel from terrorist attacks.
But assume for a moment that the search for information in the existing holdings comes up dry, or the results are quite thin—thin enough that no rational analyst could have connected the dots to warn of a massive Hamas attack, much less on a certain day. Then, the investigators need to explore whether this failure came from collection gaps.
First-class intelligence services like the Israelis have a list of priorities for collection. For Jerusalem, at the top of that list is always Palestinian terrorist groups and their Iranian supporters. Iran in particular poses a potentially existential threat to the state of Israel, and the rulers in Tehran have threatened Israel’s existence with every tool in their toolkit. Hamas, therefore, would be a perennial high-priority target for Israeli intelligence. Tehran would be too, along with Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon.
First-class intelligence services also hedge their bets. No intelligence officer wants a single thread of information on a top threat. Instead, officers plan for multiple routes of entry: SIGINT, phone and internet tapping to read the adversary’s communications; IMINT, overhead images of adversary activity; and HUMINT, human sources reporting on the inner workings of an adversary, for the secrets that cannot be stolen any other way. The Israeli services are best in class for computer network operations, like clandestine entry into adversary phones and computer systems—their capabilities so good and so sneaky they have caused more than a little controversy. Further, for each of these INTs, collectors will develop multiple streams of access, so if one is discovered or shut down, others are still reporting.
So where was the collection on the Hamas operation? Charitably, it is possible the Israeli services had few to no human sources. Gaza is a closed society, and Hamas is in charge of most things. Someone spying for Israel would risk both death and the safety of their entire family. It is possible that human sources were either not reporting or had been discovered.
SIGINT, then? Did Israeli operations to penetrate Hamas computer networks and communications fail to collect information? Those kinds of accesses can be fragile—an updated operating system or effective patching of vulnerabilities can kick spies out of long-held accesses. The role of Iran here needs to be examined. Much like Tehran provides rocket technology and financial aid to Hamas, they likely also provide assistance with cyber defense, having been the target of a great many cyber operations themselves. It is possible that in the run-up to such a large operation, Hamas, with Iran’s help, undertook an extensive cyber cleanup campaign. Further, Hamas engaged in a classic denial and deception scheme. On a line they knew was monitored by the Israeli services, they talked to each other about how they were not eager to renew hostilities and were still recovering from the two-week conflict in May 2021. The scheme worked: in a briefing for senior Israeli security officials last week, briefers assessed that Hamas had been effectively deterred.
Finally, good operational security can go a long way. Hamas might have kept the planning circle for the attack very small, and when it needed to expand to include all the players, they almost certainly compartmentalized the planning. The paragliders likely had no idea about the pending rocket attack; the amphibious operators likely were unaware of the effort to breach the border wall. Only a small number of people would have known the full extent of the plan, and they would have been careful to discuss it only in person, with cell phones outside the room.
Israeli leaders have publicly acknowledged that they were surprised by the attack, but they have also brushed away questions about intelligence failures. They rightly point out that they are at war, and that focus must remain on finding the perpetrators of the attack and the hostages they took. When the initial wave of responses abates, the hard work of taking apart the last few months and identifying what went wrong will begin, so this kind of intelligence failure does not happen again.
Emily Harding is the deputy director and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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