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CIAO DATE: 05/2010

A Failure of Intelligence

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Joshua Goodman


Full Text

The Duke of Marlborough once said, "No war can be conducted successfully without early and good intelligence, and that such advices [sic] can't be had but at a very great expense." While popular culture, and Hollywood in particular, has romanticized the role of intelligence in wars, the simple fact remains: one must know the enemy one is fighting for victory to be possible.

Over the last 50 years, Israel and America's intelligence sectors have often been heralded as the premier examples of intelligence agencies in the West (though they certainly have their detractors, particularly among former employees). However, if there is one area where both agencies have had few successes in recent years, it is regarding Iran. After years of high-level access under the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, both the Mossad and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were left in the dark following the Islamic Revolution in February 1979. In truth, the CIA's knowledge of the internal dynamics of Iran was already poor (and heavily reliant on the Shah's security apparatus, the SAVAK, for information). Indeed, just a few months prior to the Islamic Revolution, the CIA assessed that "Iran is not in a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation." And without any real "on the ground" presence since, intelligence gathering has only declined.

In his groundbreaking volume The Secret War with Iran, Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman paints a terrifying picture of the failure of intelligence in what he defines as the West's three-decade-old clandestine war with Iran. Using example after example, some never before documented publicly, he details the inability of Western intelligence agencies to effectively identify, track, and counter the Iranian threat.

Despite the general negative tone, Bergman's work seems genuine: it does not come across as a shocking "tell-all" seeking to embarrass government officials at the highest level, though it may indeed have that effect. Nor is it a malicious assault on either the intelligence operations of the United States or Israel, both of which are the focus of the book. In fact, Bergman asserts that it was not his "intention to depict this history as a series of failures-but that is largely the way it has turned out."

The countless examples of intelligence failures over the years substantiate Bergman's claim. From the failure of the CIA to foresee the overthrow of the Shah, to Israel's decision to sell Iran arms, only to see them used by Hezbollah in the July 12, 2006, assault on Israel's northern border, Bergman tells a story of poor strategic calculations and periodic incompetence.

For Bergman, the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, and the subsequent war that erupted between Israel and Hezbollah, is a definitive example of intelligence failure. Indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to it, in which he details how Hezbollah fighters spent two months building hideouts and stocking arms in numerous locations "that dominated the sole road on the Israeli side of the border," and how those preparations "had been entirely missed by Israeli intelligence." Israel's performance during the war itself was no better: after the initial wave of fighting, "the gaps in the information provided by Military Intelligence were huge."

Bergman argues that these shortcomings are not isolated to Iran, but "symptomatic of the decline of intelligence communities in both countries." Moreover, he notes, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah "are more sophisticated, effective, and determined adversaries" than any other threat facing Israel and the United States in the Middle East, confirming the need for good intelligence.

There may, however, be room for optimism. Bergman suggests that over the last few years, the West has scored a number of successes against Iran. Western intelligence agencies were able to sell faulty equipment to Iran's nuclear program through front companies, causing a number of technical setbacks. Ali Reza Asghari, a retired general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, defected to the United States in February 2007, bringing with him a trove of state secrets. Israel successfully destroyed Syria's Iranian-funded al-Kibar nuclear reactor on September 6, 2007. And Hezbollah's terrorist mastermind, Imad Mugniyah, was assassinated in Lebanon in February 2008. To Bergman, these events, and others, "all suggest we may be witnessing a change for the better in the functioning of the intelligence communities in the front line against Iran." Positive steps they are, but is it too little, too late? Bergman seems agnostic on that question.

It would seem reasonable that Bergman's negative depiction of the clandestine war with Iran might come under criticism for its overall tone and use of previously classified information, particularly from U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. Rather, much of the criticism of The Secret War with Iran focuses on questions surrounding Bergman's sources, many of which are based on both on- and off-the-record interviews with government and intelligence officials, and with analysts throughout the West. Oral history always poses a significant challenge to scholars as those retelling events often let ulterior motives and opinions cloud the facts, which Bergman readily admits.

Bergman, however, is well suited to the challenge. He is held in high regard for his reporting on intelligence issues, and earned a PhD from Cambridge University for his dissertation on the Mossad. And he is cautious. As he relates, some of the more compelling tales had to be cut from The Secret War with Iran because they could not be confirmed by other sources.

Nevertheless, Bergman has been criticized for some of his bolder and more controversial assertions. For example, a September 2008 review in The Economist challenged Bergman's assertion that Iran helped pay for Syria's al-Kibar nuclear reactor. But time has vindicated Bergman's assertion. In March of this year, a report by Hans Ruehle, the former chief of the planning staff of the German Defense Ministry, confirmed that Asghari told his Western interlocutors that Iran was indeed financing the project, and provided further details on Iran's role. Since many of the book's key assertions are based on what was previously classified information, time will have to be the final judge.

Questions of sources aside, The Secret War with Iran makes a vital contribution to our understanding of the role intelligence plays in the struggle against Iran-a fact that is often overshadowed by the public debate over diplomacy and economic sanctions. However, intelligence, though critical, is not enough. In his book Intelligence in War, military historian John Keegan documents the central role that intelligence has played in history's greatest wars from the conquests of Alexander the Great to the current fight against al-Qaeda; but he argues that "in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge." Drawing on Keegan's theory, Bergman concludes that in order to win this war with Iran, "Israel, the United States, and the world community must be vigilant." Good advice indeed.