Spy Lessons From Israel

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 30/07/06):

Israel has been forced to improvise furiously on the battlefield after discovering how much it did not know about the fighters and the strategic arsenal that Hezbollah had amassed in southern Lebanon. Americans should watch closely what will happen in Israel once the smoke of this battle clears.

What will happen will be a thorough and bureaucratically impartial inquiry into the causes of this intelligence failure — an inquiry of the kind that the United States seems unable to produce even in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, or the calamitous failure of U.S. occupation troops and spies to secure Iraq in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

The prediction about Israel is not based on insider information. It is based on history and on culture. Searing investigations that fixed responsibility at the top and brought dismissals and resignations of politicians, generals and intelligence officials followed the surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria in 1973 and the debacle of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Israelis take intelligence deadly seriously. For them, it is a tool of survival. They cannot afford to be as forgiving, or as ambivalent, as Americans tend to be about espionage, a trade that in its very essence runs counter to American ideals of a fair and open society based on the rule of law.

While Americans debate whether CIA renditions and National Security Agency eavesdropping violate the law — a vital and necessary question to be asked in this country — Israelis demand to know why their spies have been ineffective and then relentlessly examine how to fix the problems. The U.S. system of checks and balances has created a misleading veneer of intelligence oversight by Congress and by the occasional, politically balanced blue-ribbon commission. That veneer serves to obscure rather than fix responsibility for ineffectiveness.

The intelligence failures by the Israelis in Lebanon and by the Americans in Iraq are separate but related. They stem from the incomplete transformation of espionage establishments originally shaped by the demands of large-unit conventional warfare. The loose-jointed networks of terrorist groups and insurgents who hide and fight and then hide again among civilian populations are much harder to find and destroy than were Soviet or Egyptian bombers parked on airstrips.

The appalling widespread collateral damage from Israeli air raids — including the killing of four U.N. observers — is one sign of the faulty “battlefield” intelligence. So is the Israeli shock at one of its warships being hit by an Iranian-supplied C802 radar-guided anti-ship missile that the Israelis did not suspect Hezbollah had.

The surprising extent and depth of the fortifications and of the long-range rocket force assembled by the Lebanese Shiite group just across Israel’s northern frontier have forced Israel to alter the scope and thrust of its original attack scenario. “What we found showed that the Lebanese government and army would never be able to handle this problem by themselves, as we hoped,” one Israeli official told me.

So Israel has committed ground troops, vowed to establish a one-mile-deep security strip inside Lebanon and endorsed an international military stabilization force to be created under a U.N. mandate. None of this was in the original attack plan to retaliate against Hezbollah’s killing and kidnapping of Israeli troops inside Israel.

American intelligence has done no better at predicting the course or strength of Iraq’s insurgency and the sectarian warfare that the insurgents have deliberately fanned between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis. Months of Bush administration happy talk about a government of national unity based on Sunni inclusion led not to a reduction of violence that was predicted but to a sharp spike in Iraqi deaths and destruction instead.

The Vietnamese adopted a strategy to “talk and fight” to wear down American resolve. Iraq’s Sunni extremists seem to have decided to “vote and fight.” The distrustful Shiite majority is striking back, even as both groups participate in the “unity” government and the parliament. American forces, given only spotty information by the CIA-run Iraqi intelligence service, remain largely clueless about identifying and separating good guys and bad guys on the ground, as Iraqi officials suggested in a meeting here last week with National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

Reforming intelligence operations to meet the new challenges of the “long war” on terrorism is a vast and difficult task that Negroponte has only recently begun. He and his congressional overseers must be ready to be brutally honest about intelligence failure and honestly brutal in correcting it. Israel’s history, and its future, speak to how that can be done.