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There needs to be accountability for the Hamas "surprise"
ON AN OVERCAST AND CHILLY LATE AFTERNOON last February, CIA Director William Burns went to Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service to receive an award. After a few brief and typically gracious remarks, he sat for a few questions, the first of which prompted him to launch into a virtual tour d’horizon on the world’s trouble spots and the role of U.S. diplomats and, of course, the CIA in advising U.S. policy makers.
“It’s an overused term, but it's extremely important, especially in my current role, to speak truth to power,” he said. “It's true for diplomats, it's certainly true for intelligence officers.”
“We are at CIA, an apolitical institution,” he went on. “What we owe the president—and he's been very clear with me—this is what he expects is our straight honest analysis and insights, without a whiff of politics or partisan agenda to it as well. And you know, we've learned over the years, not just at CIA, but at state, we get ourselves in a lot of trouble as agencies and as a country when we don't pay attention to that basic fact. So that's something we take very seriously as well…”
It’s a theme that apparently nags at Burns, a highly regarded former diplomat who has spent a lot of his career dealing with the Middle East. In an extraordinary 2019 memoir, he castigated himself for not speaking up forcefully to George W. Bush administration figures on the folly of invading Iraq in search of nonexistent WMD.
“It’s a story of my own failure to do more to prevent a war that we did not need to fight,” he wrote in The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal. “Years later, that remains my biggest professional regret.”
Such a mea culpa alone, unique in Washington on any issue but particularly among those who engineered the Iraq disaster, moved me to enthusiastically welcome his appointment as CIA director in 2021.
Telling truth to power—what a concept.
Now, two years later, we’re reeling from the shock of Hamas’s “surprise” rampage in Israel. The instant consensus was that the savage Hamas campaign, which saw the murder of some 1,400 Israeli civilians and the kidnapping of over 200 more, was not just a massive intelligence failure on Israel’s part, but also ours.
“U.S. intelligence agencies all but stopped spying on Hamas and other violent Palestinian groups in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., instead directing resources to the hunt for the leaders of al Qaeda and, later, Islamic State, according to U.S. officials familiar with the shift,” the Wall Street Journal’s Warren P. Strobel reported by way of explanation this past week.
Resources had been shifted to major targets of more direct interest to U.S. national security, sources told Strobel. “There’s a really hard prioritization exercise that has to go on,” a former counterterrorism official told him. “The reality is that you don’t have collection resources that you can exploit all over the world.”
U.S. intelligence had pretty much sublet spying on Palestinian terror groups to the Israelis, it seems—a “liaison” arrangement that has proven troublesome to the CIA elsewhere.
But wait, U.S. intelligence officials rushed to tell the New York Times last week. On Sept. 28 the CIA had issued a report that “described the possibility that Hamas would launch rockets into Israel over a period of several days,” it said. A second report on Oct. 5, which “built on the first but was more analytical…appeared in a daily CIA summary of intelligence that is distributed widely to policymakers and lawmakers, the officials said.”
Pretty weak sauce. Not only that, “intelligence officials did not brief either of the reports to President Biden or senior White House officials,” The Times added. “Nor did the CIA highlight the reports to White House policymakers as being of particular significance, officials said.”
All this took me back to Bill Burns and his account of how he and his fellow Iraq-invasion skeptics in the State Department essentially gave up on trying to stop the war machine.
“In the end, we pulled some punches, persuading ourselves that we’d never get a hearing for our concerns beyond the secretary if we simply threw ourselves on the track,” he’d written.
At the CIA, Director George Tenet did pretty much the same: The White House was intent on invading, so why commit career suicide? “Slam dunk,” he famously uttered. His 1960s-era predecessor Richard Helms did much the same, rolling over for the White House and Pentagon hawks on Vietnam, even as his own analysts told him the military’s war was a loser.
I’m wondering if, in recent months, much the same dynamic was at work in regard to the simmering Palestinians, whose dignity and lives prior to Oct. 7 were under escalating assault daily by the Israeli settlers and far-right regime of Benjamin Netanyahu. In his Georgetown remarks last February, Burns had “recalled his role as a senior diplomat two decades ago during the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada,” the Times reported last week. “What we’re seeing today has a very unhappy resemblance to some of those realities that we saw then too,” he said then.
Actually, what he added, according to the video anyone can see, was that “the conversations I had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders left me quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians as well.”
“Part of the responsibility of my agency at CIA is to work as closely as we can with both the Palestinian security services and the Israeli security services to prevent the kind of explosions of violence that, you know, we've seen in recent weeks as well,” he added. “That's gonna be a big challenge as well. So I'm concerned about that dimension of the landscape in the Middle East as well. “
No less than Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, however, the subject of countless fawning profiles, apparently dismissed such concerns out of hand. In a now notorious incident, a 7,000 word piece he wrote for Foreign Affairs last month appeared without paragraphs from his original saying, “Although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades” Not only that, he’d he claimed that “we have de-escalated crises in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence.”
Five days after the adulterated piece went to print on Oct. 2, Gaza launched its sophisticated, murderous campaign.
Evidently Sullivan had been lulled to complacence by the Abraham Accords, the much ballyhooed diplomatic initiative which fixed relations between Israel, Gulf Arab governments and others that utterly left the Palestinians in the dust. The general consensus among observers was that nobody really gave a shit about the Palestinians and it didn’t matter. Turns out the Palestinians had something to say after all. The accords are in shards now.
It’s not the first time the CIA has been surprised by an Arab underclass revolt. In an interview with me in May 2021, former CIA Director Leon Panetta told me the agency was surprised by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s.
“We really didn't have that much of a heads up in the intelligence community about the various factors that contributed to the Arab Spring, to really understand what was going on. And what ultimately took place,” he said. “I just don't think we had a good handle on all of the factors that were at play here, whether it was social media, whether it was the economic conditions that were impacting on young people, whether it was their sense of frustration with whatever government they were dealing with…”
It was, to me, a remarkably candid admission.
All to naught, maybe. Was it really that hard to predict a fuse had been lit among thousands of ordinary Palestinans, who could be excused for looking the other way when militants among them planned attacks on Israel? How could Sullivan miss it?
Burns, who had previously held the Near East portfolios at the State Department and White House National Security Council, as well as done a tour as the American ambassador to Jordan, obviously saw something like this was coming (although he may well have been blindsided by the timing and level of force Hamas unleashed on Oct. 7, thanks largely to misplaced trust in Netanyahu’s regime).
All of which suggests to me that one key element in the “intelligence failure” may well have been a failure of foot-stomping—of speaking truth to power, if you will. And, as with the postmortems on 9/11 and Iraq WMD, we’ll eventually learn that a number of people at CIA or State had their hair on fire about Hamas, but failed to get a respectful hearing and retreated to their cubicles.
Extra: NPR “All Things Considered” host Mary Louise Kelly’s Nov. 6 interview with former Mossad official Sima Shine sheds more light on Israel’s intelligence failure and task for the future.
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