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Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond

Intelligence and Surprise Attack: Failure and Success from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and Beyond by Erik J. Dahl. Georgetown University Press, 2013, 288 pp.

In Intelligence and Surprise Attack, Erik J. Dahl, a retired Navy intelligence officer, examines how and why major surprise attacks—whether by conventional military forces or terrorists—succeed and fail based on intelligence specialists’ and policy makers’ understanding of strategic and tactical intelligence. He challenges the commonly held belief that intelligence analysis alone can prevent such attacks, asking specifically about the degree of tactical intelligence necessary to do so and the level at which policy makers must be receptive to warnings from intelligence analysts. As he explores these questions, the author compares well-known intelligence failures with well-known successes to determine how and why surprise attacks fail and succeed. Dahl’s core thesis is that these strikes are prevented by a combination of precise tactical warning from the American intelligence community and the receptivity of decision makers to the data provided. He argues convincingly that the intelligence community should develop tactical-level capabilities while simultaneously cultivating relationships between intelligence professionals and decision makers who can respond appropriately to specific threats.

Dahl examines several case studies that support his thesis. In chapter 2, he concludes that a lack of tactical intelligence and decision makers’ poor reaction toward intelligence allowed the Japanese to carry out the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus, he takes issue with the conventional notion that sufficient intelligence was available but simply misunderstood or ignored. That said, the author allows both the intelligence community and decision makers to share responsibility for the Pearl Harbor debacle.

Dahl then compares the failures of Pearl Harbor with later American intelligence successes, finding that—in stark contrast to Pearl Harbor—the Battle of Midway benefited from specific tactical-level information on Japanese plans supplied by the American intelligence community and from decisions makers’ acceptance of such information following Pearl Harbor. This comparison of the two attacks offers the most convincing evidence of Dahl’s primary thesis. The following chapter tests his argument on nine case studies of surprise attacks, ranging from the outbreak of the Korean War to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Dahl’s examination of these cases suffers from cursory analysis that fails to contribute significantly to his overall argument. Additionally, he limits his case studies to an American analyst’s point of view. Although the brief treatment of the 1973 Yom Kippur War recognizes the failure of both Israeli and American intelligence, the analysis examines only the Americans’ inability to foresee the attack on Israel. At least some consideration of Israeli decision makers’ receptivity to the intelligence available to them could have provided additional evidence strengthening Dahl’s overall contention.

Although the case studies of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, as well as Korea and Vietnam, lend support to the author’s position, the other studies pertaining to conflicts that did not involve direct US military involvement could have been set aside in favor of more relevant ones (e.g., the Cuban missile crisis). Furthermore, even though Dahl’s objective is to analyze the use of tactical-level intelligence to prevent surprise attack, he doesn’t explain what US policy makers could or should have done to prevent the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan even had they been more willing to consider intelligence indicating imminent invasions. Given the United States’ issues in Vietnam in 1968, it is unclear what steps America might have taken to prevent the invasion of Czechoslovakia had President Lyndon Johnson’s administration been more attune to intelligence warnings. Consequently, Dahl’s core argument is most convincing when he addresses attacks on American interests in the second half of the book.

Part 2 examines surprise attacks by terrorists, including the East Africa embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, a failed 1993 strike on New York City, and the 9/11 attacks. The author’s analysis of these events offers convincing support for his chief argument by finding that unsuccessful terrorist attacks are not foiled by a sharp intelligence analyst who pieces clues together for a decision maker who in turn reacts promptly to avert the catastrophe. Instead, such attempts fail because government officials pay attention to specific tactical-level intelligence of an attack provided by intelligence professionals. Dahl asserts that although an enemy’s hostile intent is often well known and understood by intelligence officials—as it was at the time of the embassy bombings—prevention depends upon whether or not the intelligence community and law enforcement give decision makers sufficiently specific warnings that convince them to take action. His case study of the 1993 attack on New York demonstrates that the attempt failed thanks to specific actionable intelligence and policy makers’ acknowledgment of the threat following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Dahl’s rather limited selection of choices and his US-centric analysis leave much room for further investigation, a point he himself admits (p. 175). Further, the two chapters in which he tests his argument against a broader range of cases would benefit from more thorough examination and additional case studies. However, this criticism is relatively minor considering the strength of the author’s more extensive case studies.

Ultimately, by challenging conventional notions and stressing the importance of relationships between intelligence professionals and decision makers, Dahl sets the stage for further discussion and debate on how the two communities should work together to prevent future surprise attacks. Both military intelligence professionals and individuals involved in policy making would do well to consider his arguments.

1st Lt Herman B. Reinhold, USAF
Department of History
United States Air Force Academy, Colorado


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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