Intelligence Gathering and September 11 - What the Lessons of History Show

Article excerpt

Phillip G. Henderson is associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Managing the Presidency: The Eisenhower Legacy and editor of The Presidency Then and Now. He has written extensively on national security organization and decision making.

The continuing frenzy over intelligence lapses regarding the devastating September 11 attacks reminds us that hindsight is always twenty-twenty. Events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis provide relevant parallels with recent revelations concerning pre--September 11 intelligence reporting and analysis. Taken together, these three cases offer compelling insights into how easily intelligence signals can be ignored or misinterpreted to reinforce the predispositions of policymakers. Moreover, Pearl Harbor and the Cuban crisis suggest that September 11 does not stand alone in showing us how enormously difficult it can be to synthesize intelligence findings and to overcome vagueness, ambiguity, misperception, and bureaucratic infighting in the decision- making process.


The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, offers a cogent reminder of the types of problems that can arise in the gathering and assessment of national security intelligence. In 1940, American cryptographers had broken most of Japan's codes and were intercepting an enormous amount of information. This information, psychologist Irving Janis has observed, sent clear warning signals that Japan was getting ready for massive military operations. Only the target of these operations remained unclear.

On November 24, 1941, just two weeks before the attack, Adm. Harold Stark, chief of Navy operations, sent Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, an unambiguous warning that war with Japan was imminent: "Statements of the Japanese government and movements of their naval and military forces indicate in our opinion that a surprise aggressive movement in any direction including attack on Philippines or Guam is a possibility."

The fact that Pearl Harbor was not specifically mentioned in Stark's warning reinforced the thinking of Kimmel and most of the Navy's top officers in Hawaii that there was no chance of a surprise attack at that particular time. This conclusion was adhered to, despite the fact that Admiral Stark and his staff issued a second, more alarming warning on November 27, 1941, stating: "This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking toward stabilization of conditions in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.... Execute appropriate defense deployment."

Just two days before the attack, Admiral Kimmel and his staff were informed that the Japanese consulate in Hawaii was burning its papers. Although Kimmel expressed some concern about the safety of the fleet at this point, he was reassured by his fellow officers that the Japanese could not possibly proceed in force against Pearl Harbor when they had so much strength concentrated in their Asian operations. The Navy also believed that an air-launched torpedo attack was impossible to orchestrate because of the shallow water in Pearl Harbor. Since the United States had not developed torpedoes capable of this type of mission, it was erroneously assumed that the Japanese could not have developed such weapons. In fact, the Japanese had already overcome this obstacle by using wooden fins. On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sinking or damaging all eight battleships in the harbor and killing more than two thousand American servicemen.

Why were these ominous signals ignored? According to Janis, a mind-set had formed so strongly among the ranking Navy officers in Hawaii that Pearl Harbor was invulnerable to attack that intelligence reports were being filtered as much for what they did not say as for what they did. …