Intelligence Failures Revisited


2015-05-07 By Stephen Blank

It is long since time to reopen the vexed question of continuing large-scale US intelligence failure.

The scope of our continuing failures in this area is too large to ignore and too dangerous to brush aside. Intelligence failures – and there have been many large-scale intelligence failures during the past generation – are only part of the melancholy litany of strategic failures since 1991.

But they are a major part of this record of futility.

We have repeatedly committed numerous unjustified and egregious strategic errors, displayed an astonishingly high level of strategic incompetence, ignorance or even insouciance, and responded anemically to Russian and other threats.

Statements that we could not have foreseen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea are utterly without basis as many specialists, including this author, have warned about this contingency for years.

While it is true that in the last decade we underwent bruising debates on intelligence reform; we did so because we were caught by surprise by the attacks of 9/11, lacked capability in regard to Islamic terrorism, corrupted the intelligence process in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and then failed to understand the nature of the crisis that we had generated.

But despite efforts to overcome these failings, e.g. the massive investment in intelligence capability pertaining to Islamic terrorism and successes like the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, it is excruciatingly apparent that we are still consistently reproducing large-scale intelligence failures.

These intelligence failures may well be in some cases the result of prior policy failures. That was almost certainly the case in regard to the surprise that engulfed the Bush Administration when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Bush administration was clearly taken by surprise and as a result had no effective response to an invasion that could and should have been predicted.

In Iraq too the corruption of intelligence and the pre-determination of the assessment that war was necessary and could be won without taking Iraq’s basic socio-political reality into account manifested itself in both intelligence and policy failures too numerous to list here.

But since then the results have been, if anything worse. Both Secretaries of Defense Gates and Panetta, former heads of major intelligence agencies, conceded that we had failed to grasp the magnitude and scope of China’s ongoing defense buildup or more recently Russia’s military buildup. US intelligence’s ability to detect and assess Russian capabilities and intentions is clearly far below what it should be.[i]

To be sure, the Obama Administration is by no means alone in its failure to grasp the profound strategic changes occurring around it.

A recent report by the House of Lords delivered a scathing critique of the UK’s evisceration of its capabilities to monitor Russian developments in general, not just military trends.

And on April 27 John Vinocur reported that French President Francois Hollande reported that the Minsk II agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany were holding. Hollande made this statement in spite of the fact that earlier that week his office received from Washington “the mother lode of declassified information” documenting the heavy redeployment of Russian troops into the Donbass.

Indeed, there are now 14 Russian battalions, or about $14,000 Russian forces at the border, the most since last summer.

Yet neither France nor Germany responded to this intelligence, thereby demonstrating how policy failure could undermine even diligent intelligence reporting and analysis.[ii]

Thus it is hardly surprising that Administration warnings that Russia is planning to launch a new offensive in Ukraine shortly are not being taken seriously abroad.

But this is just the top of the proverbial iceberg.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 29, General Phillip Breedlove, USAF, SACEUR told Congress that the intelligence caps confronting him regarding Russia are critical. Some Russian military exercises caught his command by surprise, “our textured feel for Russia’s involvement on the ground in Ukraine has been quite limited,” and his command learned about a Russian exercise in the Arctic – increasingly a major defense priority for Russia – through social media technology.

Breedlove further cited an insufficiency of Russia experts since virtually all intelligence assets were shifted to Iraq and Afghanistan or future threats.”[iii] Ironically these asses examining future threats missed the threat in the imminent future, a telling commentary on our blindness.

While Breedlove urged more ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) assets and improved intelligence sharing with allies, all of which are desirable, those steps will only partially ameliorate the overall failure.

The shortage of experts, and not only in regard to Russia must be overcome by a substantial long-term investment in human intelligence, i.e. experts just as we did in the 1950s-1970s.

Whatever the wonders of military technology might be there is no substitute for procuring expertly trained human beings to conduct analysis and intelligence.

This author has talked to intelligence analysts who maintain that because they saw no document from Moscow, Putin’s Crimean operation, a meticulously rehearsed operation that was planned from 2005-06 if not earlier and whose ongoing modification and refinement can be found and which in the assiduous study of open, i.e. unclassified sources, was improvised.

Unfortunately this amazing conclusion is also shared by the White House no doubt because it could not admit to being surprised when other analysts both in and out of the government, including this author, were warning by late 2013 that if Ukraine moved towards the West, either by signing a major agreement with the EU or by revolution, that Putin would invade.

Incredibly this assessment of the high likelihood of a Russian invasion was also the Ukrainian government’s assessment.

Therefore it is incomprehensible that we were caught by surprise.

Thus it appears that US intelligence’s ability to detect and assess Russian capabilities and intentions is far below what it should be.[iv] Blaming Edward Snowden’s defection to Russia or our lack of Russia specialists may be partly correct but these are also self-serving and insufficient responses.[v]   It also appears that we had warning of the Crimean operation that began in late February 2014 but could not assess it properly, another sign of a massive intelligence and policy failure.[vi] But this failure is not merely in regard to Russia.

As we have noted the intelligence community repeatedly failed to gauge the scope and extent of China’s military buildup. Similarly in Afghanistan numerous military and Administration briefings reported on the progress we were making. On the basis of these assessments the Administration formulated its policy to withdraw US troops by the end of 2014.

Yet not only was that withdrawal curtailed we have put troops back into Afghanistan and they have been recently involved in heavy fighting there. Moreover, multiplying reports suggest that terrorist forces there have now broken into parts of Central Asia, potentially widening this war.

In plain English this is an unacceptable record.

Despite our enormous tactical proficiency and technological lead cognitive failures have materially contributed to the melancholy record of lost opportunities and failed military campaigns if not failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While accurate intelligence that is then acted upon in timely fashion is no guarantee of success, intelligence failure and linked policy failures in advance of or during and after assessments and reconnaissance all but ensure protracted wars if not defeat and failure.

If there is to be a genuine rethinking of our strategy and defense policy, reform of our intelligence and the investment in new cadres of experts is essential.

Pulling people off to study future war and then being surprised by a resurgent Russia or China suggests a continuing inability to grasp the present let alone the future. Neither is more technology the exclusive answer.

If the US cannot understand what is happening in real or potential theaters of military operations we will continue to pay an excessive price in men and resources for our enduring cognitive failures and refusal or failure to learn from them. As contemporary historians have shown, one major reason for allied victory in World War II was allied superiority in intelligence.

Could it be that we have irrevocably lost our ability to recover that capability or worse, as this Administration and Congress seems to feel that we do not have the means or need to invest in it?

[i] Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. Scurries to Shore Up Spying on Russia,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2014,

[ii] John Vincour, “Europe Follows the Un-Leader on Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2015

[iii] Joe Gould, “Breedlove: Russia Intel gaps ‘Critical’,, April 30, 2015

[iv] Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. Scurries to Shore Up Spying on Russia,” Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2014,

[v] Ibid.; Jason Horowitz, “Russia Experts See Ranks Thin, And an Effect on U.S. Policy,” New York Times, March 7, 2014, p. A9,

[vi] Entous, Barnes, and Gorman

Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Blank has raised an important issue. 

But we suspect the challenge is even deeper, namely, the inability to have serious debates about events happening rapidly in a turbulent period of history and to determine what if any US interests are affected and what if any policy tools Washington really has available to deal with challenges.

It is far beyond just simply loading up on experts; it is about the quality of strategic debate in which expertise can inform but can neither determine outcomes nor strategic choices.

It is time to take a serious relook at the dulling of debate by politically correct expertise as well.

Outliers may be important to innovation but not to the hand holding “debates” so often held inside and outside of government Inside the Beltway.