Intelligence Failures: Causes and Contemporary Case Studies

By Kruys, G. P. H. | Strategic Review for Southern Africa, May 2006 | Go to article overview
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Intelligence Failures: Causes and Contemporary Case Studies

Kruys, G. P. H., Strategic Review for Southern Africa


Intelligence, like warfare, is not a science but an art. If a science at all, it is certainly far from an exact science. It is an intellectual endeavour which requires much training, common sense, experience, team work, technological expertise and the ability to communicate the product to the user, to name but a few of the basic requirements. It also requires intellectual bravery to give the result of the intelligence assessments to the user, without the tendency to be vague, so as to excuse faulty intelligence predictions in the future. It remains a human endeavour prone to mistakes. Intelligence failures are thus to be expected, but good tradecraft, and above all sound analysis, can lead to success. In this article, the concept of intelligence and the underlying reasons for intelligence failures are discussed, and subsequently applied to a number of case studies involving some apparent intelligence failures.


The 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the terrorist attack on the Madrid railway system, the London bombings in 2005 and the war in Iraq, have given the success or failure of intelligence communities (ICs) tremendous prominence in the international news media. Public consciousness of intelligence efficiency, or the lack thereof, and its influence on government and security service decision-making, regarding public safety, is on a previously unknown level.

A number of United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) intelligence commissions have specifically investigated the functioning, efficiency and reasons for intelligence failures of their respective ICs as well as the effectiveness of the co-ordination between Western allied ICs. They were also required to report on the alleged tendencies of the US and UK governments respectively, to place political pressure on their ICs to produce intelligence reports supporting decisions which policy-makers required for political purposes.


Referring to the report of 31 March 2005 of the Presidential Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, a Cable News Network (CNN) publication was headed "Report: Iraq intelligence 'dead wrong"'. (1)) The Commission had in its letter to the US President pointed out that it had concluded that the IC had been 'dead wrong' in virtually all its pre-war judgements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (2)) In the body of its report it concluded that no political pressure had been put on intelligence analysts to skew or alter their judgements. At the same time the analysts had not worked in an atmosphere that encouraged scepticism about widely held beliefs. (3))

The former US Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, made a presentation to the United Nations (UN) Security Council in February 2003 offering proof that Iraq had WMD, so making the case for the Coalition's invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In September 2005, however, he was quoted as saying that he was the person who made the presentation, "that it would always be part of his record", and that he regretted ever having made the case for war based on the intelligence provided. He pointed out that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director had not aimed to mislead and that the director had believed the intelligence to be accurate. (4)) This was confirmed by the US Commission's letter to the president regarding intelligence pertaining to WMD, where it is stated that the intelligence presented to the president was what the intelligence professionals had believed, but they were simply wrong. (5))

The US intelligence effort is massive by any standards. It has had numerous successes most of which will be unknown, since they will not draw media attention like failures do, and the IC will tend to keep successful operations and methods classified. For example, the US IC correctly assessed the state of Libya's nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.

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