Let’s Talk About Hamas and ‘Intelligence Failure’

By David Marlowe, Former Deputy Director CIA, Operations

Marlowe served 32 years in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service, including as Deputy Director, CIA, for Operations.  Prior to that, he served as Assistant Director, CIA, for the Near East, from 2017 through 2020.  Marlowe spent the majority of his career overseas, primarily in the Middle East, including several tours as Chief of Station.

OPINION / EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – Secret Intelligence, that material acquired through clandestine or sensitive means, makes up a small but important part of the vast volume of insight that can inform decision-making.  Nations and non-state actors seek to conceal information, and their adversaries seek to steal it. 

It’s a dynamic game of hide and seek – deny and deceive versus penetrate, gain access and collect.  Our adversaries have different authorities, capabilities, and methods than we do, but they match us with determination and creativity. 

When we underestimate them, we do so at our own peril.  Our overconfidence can allow our adversaries the opportunity to mislead us or to gain advantage that we thought they were not capable of. 

This is the world that intelligence, planning and operations professionals live in.  Conceal and steal.  Find and act in the blind spots.  Sometimes we have the upper hand and often, we do not.

The preponderance of information used in strategic intelligence assessments does not typically come from these sources.  It comes instead from diplomatic, political, economic, academic, social engagement – all the non-sensitive ways that we interact with the rest of the world. 

Clandestine and sensitive intelligence is only supposed to add fine tuning to that which can almost always be understood through simpler means.  While intelligence gained through sensitive means often provides a key piece of information, we rarely rely solely on secret access to tell us what is going on.

The professionals of the intelligence community pride themselves on objectivity.  Within agencies, there is a powerful culture of peer review, consciousness of bias, examination of all sides of an issue, and a deliberate divorce from any ideological prism.  Analytic objectivity is among the most important criteria against which individuals and teams measure themselves.  And because issues of critical importance are assessed and written about by multiple agencies, the IC has the additional check and balance of interagency review of independent pieces of work, as well as collaboration across agencies on seminal pieces.

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Intelligence professionals participate in policy discussions at every level, but their role is to present the facts, discuss potential outcomes and assess opportunities, but not to drive policy.  It’s a marketplace of ideas in Washington and intelligence – the actual ‘facts’ – is but one component and most often, is not the loudest voice in the room. 

The purpose of intelligence is to inform wise strategic decision making.  We often joke that there are intelligence failures and policy successes.  That is, when things go right, policymakers accept credit, and when things go wrong, they look at the intelligence community.  The problem is that intelligence and policy are intended to go hand in hand.  The best intelligence is of no value if it is not heard and considered, and if it does not stimulate decision making and action.

Anybody watching the rising tension between the government of Israel and the various Palestinian entities over the last few years, will have seen the trajectories leading inexorably to conflagration.  It seems that amidst the well-understood context, Hamas successfully concealed the timing, scope and means of their actions of October 7. 

Failing to discover this can be argued to have been an intelligence failure, and the intelligence community will be right to conduct a thorough review.  No doubt there will be plenty of offers of help.  But the fact that crisis and tragedy were inevitably coming, well, that has been talked and written about for some time and with increasing urgency and clarity in recent months.  Failing to take heed cannot be pointed to as simply an intelligence failure. 

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To say that we need better intelligence is a truism.  We could almost always benefit from better intelligence collection, and better collection can allow for more granular analysis.  Because of the competitive environment in which we conduct sensitive collection, we will almost always have an imperfect intelligence picture.  That is an eternal reality.  But imperfect collection or production of analysis does not equate to insufficiency either.

We have no shortage of understanding of the phenomena in the Middle East and we have more than enough intelligence and insight to support wise decision making. Pointing to an incomplete intelligence picture should not let policy off the hook.

David Marlowe, Former Deputy Director, CIA for Operations, is the newest member of The Cipher Brief’s expert network, comprised of deeply-experienced national security professionals who bring expert-level context to events of the day.

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals. 

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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