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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 Press7, 2013, 288 pp.

There’s an old chestnut within the intelligence community that goes, “Every event is an operational success or an intelligence failure.” This observation is particularly true in the case of surprise attacks, which usually generate a rich vein of studies, committee reports, and historical research attempting to discern what information was known and where the system failed to interpret this information correctly to prevent surprise. Erik Dahl, a former naval intelligence officer and currently a faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School, tackles the issue from a fresh angle, examining not only the known and unknown information but also the presentation of the information to and its reception by decision makers responsible for acting upon it.

Dahl divides the book into two parts—conventional military surprise attacks and terrorist surprise attacks. The “conventional” side focuses on the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and the later US surprise over the Japanese at Midway. He concludes that in both cases, information was available, analyzed, and presented—the major difference being that operational decision makers were not receptive to warnings of a carrier air attack on Pearl Harbor while those prior to Midway (especially Admiral Nimitz) were. Dahl presents several smaller case studies from the Cold War and post–Cold War period to test and reinforce his conclusion that the primary intelligence challenge to preventing conventional surprise attack is persuading decision makers to accept intelligence information and conclusions. In contrast, the author’s examination of terrorist attacks against the United States—those in 1998 against the US embassies in East Africa, a failed plan aimed at New York City shortly after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and the 9/11 strikes—places the onus more equally on the lack of specific, “actionable” intelligence (a collection failure); significant contradictions within the data collected; and the resulting lack of attention from decision makers.

Dahl does not examine a potentially significant difference between the two groups of cases: the operational-level recipients and the intended purpose. In the case of conventional surprise attacks, the operational recipients are military commanders, who use intelligence to inform their decision and action on the deployment and employment of forces. In this context, military commanders are accustomed to dealing with a level of uncertainty; if they trust the source, they may be more willing to accept incomplete or ambiguous information. In contrast, with regard to terrorist attacks against the United States (including US embassies), the operational-level recipients are law enforcement officials, who seek to assemble a case for prosecution in a court of law. As such, incomplete and ambiguous information is often set aside or discarded. Dahl does not include any case studies of terrorist action against military targets, such as the 1996 Khobar Towers strike in Saudi Arabia or the 2000 attack against the USS Cole. The book’s conclusions would benefit from this additional examination.

Although professionals within the intelligence community are an obvious audience for this book, operational commanders, planners, and policy makers will also find it an instructive and thoughtful read.

Col Jamie Sculerati, USAF, Retired
New Port Richey, Florida

"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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