The Never-Never Land of Israeli Intelligence
By Richard H. Curtiss
Source: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
It’s no secret that much of the news reported in Israel’s Hebrew-language media never reaches the mainstream American press, for the simple reason that items unfavorable to Israel generally are not translated. And, because very few Israelis break this self-imposed censorship, items from the Hebrew press that do appear may be much more newsworthy than their anemic English translations indicate.
It was a bit stunning, therefore, to read an article in Strategic Assessment, the quarterly bulletin issued by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. The report, titled “The War in Iraq: An Intelligence Failure?” was written by Shlomo Brom, a brigadier general in the Israeli army reserves, and said what no one seems to have dared publish since President George W. Bush decided to wage war on Iraq. Shockingly, it told the full truth about the American and British intelligence “sources” making the case for war.
In fact, according to Brom, these sources were utterly compromised by Israeli intelligence, which made the case for starting the war and kept it going as long as necessary. The retired general described Israel as a “full partner” in U.S. and British intelligence failures that exaggerated Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs in the lead up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Israeli intelligence sources and political leaders provided “an exaggerated assessment of Iraqi capabilities,” raising “the possibility that the intelligence had been manipulated,” wrote Brom, former deputy chief of planning for the Israeli army.
Brom said his remarks were directed at Israel’s Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and the Mossad intelligence agency. The Israeli army declined to comment on his report, and the Mossad did not return press calls.
David Baker, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, also refused to comment on the report. However, similar allegations have surfaced from U.S. and British sources following months of futile efforts to uncover evidence of Iraq’s pre-war weapons programs.
In a Dec. 5 article, Washington Post correspondent Molly Moore quoted from the report: “‘In the questioning of the picture painted by coalition intelligence, the third party in this intelligence failure, Israel, has remained in the shadows…A critical question to be answered is whether governmental bodies falsely manipulated the intelligence information in order to gain support for their decision to go to war in Iraq, while the real reasons for this decision were obfuscated or concealed.’”
Articles by Laura King of the Los Angeles Times, Peter Enav of Salon.com.News, and the Associated Press also appeared on the report.
Israel was a “full partner” in U.S. and British intelligence failures.
Brigadier General Brom’s criticism of the Israeli intelligence community—which many Americans believe to be one of, if not the world’s best—was unusual. Like many retired intelligence officers, Brom, who retired after a 25-year career, most likely continued to be privy to a great deal of sensitive government information.
Salon.com’s Enav quotes Stuart A. Cohen, vice chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, as having written in November that, given all the evidence the U.S. possessed on Iraq, “no reasonable person could have…reached any conclusions or alternative views that were profoundly different from those that we reached.”
Cohen, Enav pointed out, “was the acting chairman of the council when he oversaw the production of a National Intelligence Estimate summarizing U.S. evidence on Iraq’s alleged weapons programs, concluding that Iraq possessed prohibited biological and chemical weapons and missiles and was producing more.”
According to Brom, however, Israeli intelligence “badly overestimated the Iraqi threat to Israel and reinforced the American and British belief that the weapons existed.”
Attributing the poor intelligence to a lack of professionalism and poor supervision, Brom wrote, “Even if Iraq had any Scud missiles left, I can’t understand how Israeli intelligence officers came to believe they threatened Israel, particularly when they hadn’t been used in more than 10 years. It’s a clear example of how an inability to think clearly is undermining the Israeli intelligence community.”
Noted Enav, “Israeli leaders said on the eve of the Iraq war there was an outside chance that Saddam Hussein might arm Scud missiles with chemical or biological agents and attack the country. Partially based on the precedent of the 39 Iraqi Scuds that hit Israel during the 1991 Gulf war, the warning resulted in the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars and disrupted daily life.
“Brom also cited bitter memories of the 1973 Middle East war,” Enav reported, “when Israeli intelligence failed to anticipate an attack by Egypt and Syria, and the country suffered thousands of casualties.”
An Overstated Threat
As Brom observed in his report, “Israeli intelligence agencies have tended to overstate the threat the country faces ever since 1973.”
Wrote The Post’s Moore, “The study did not cite specific exchanges of intelligence. Israeli officials frequently told foreign journalists before the war that Israel and the United States were sharing information, particularly regarding Iraqi missiles and non-conventional weapons that could possibly be used against Israel. The report accused intelligence agencies of being blinded by a one-dimensional perception of Saddam Hussein.”
Moore continued, “At the heart of this perception lay the colorful portrait of an embodiment of evil, a man possessed by a compulsion to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to strike Israel and others, regardless of additional considerations.” [Ironlight: sound familiar?]
According to Moore, “The analysis said a ‘certain degree of intelligence wariness is justified,’ but added, ‘the problem lies in getting carried away to extremes, as was clearly the case with Israeli intelligence on Iraq’…
“When ‘Israeli intelligence became aware that certain items had been transferred by the head of the regime from Iraq to Syria,” Moore quoted the report as saying, “‘Israeli intelligence immediately portrayed it—including in leaks to the media—as if Iraq was moving banned weapons out of Iraq in order to conceal them.’”
Brom criticized Israeli intelligence for failing to include the more probable scenario that Saddam Hussein and his aides were moving cash or family members out of the country in the face of an impending attack.
“The study noted,” Moore wrote, “that Israeli and U.S. governments have disagreed over the past decade on the ‘weight of various threats in the Middle East.’ The report said Israel has generally claimed that Iran poses a more serious threat than Iraq, because the latter was ‘contained and under control.’”
Moore further quoted the Brom report as saying that “Once the Bush administration decided to take action against Iraq, it was more difficult for Israel to maintain its position that dealing with Iraq was not the highest priority, especially when it was obvious that the war would serve Israel’s interests.”
According to Laura King’s report, “Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, Israeli officials sent mixed signals to the public over the threat of a biological or chemical attack by Hussein’s forces. They described the likelihood of Israel being targeted as slight, yet the country was placed on a war footing. Jet fighters patrolled the skies 24 hours a day. Israelis were told to prepare ‘sealed rooms’ in which they could take shelter in the event of an attack. Children were sent off to school carrying gas masks. Many Israelis had vivid memories of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, during which Iraq lobbed 39 Scud missiles at Israel, none armed with a chemical or biological agent.”
Enav quoted Israeli legislator Yossi Sarid, now a member of the pro-peace opposition Meretz Party, as calling “for a parliamentary inquiry on the performance of Israeli intelligence services.
“Sarid told Israel Radio,” Enav reported, that “the article proved that Israeli intelligence assessments on Iraq caused Israel considerable damage by compelling it to prepare for ‘threats that did not exist.’”
One thing is certain. Israel’s competing intelligence services soon will begin—if they haven’t already—to write scenarios explaining why it will be necessary to bomb Iranian weapons technology, and a whole new virtual weapons industry will materialize.
The reason, of course, is to focus international attention on yet another “rogue state,” so as not to have to deal with the real problem, making peace with Palestinians. How much longer can this flight from reality be allowed to last?
Richard H. Curtiss enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II, and served as a military correspondent in Berlin, Germany after the war. After earning a B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California and working on newspapers for the United Press, he served as a career Foreign Service officer with the Department of State and the U.S. Information Agency throughout the world and in Washington D.C. During his U.S. government career he received the U.S. Information Agency’s Superior Honor Award and the Edward R. Murrow award for excellence in Public Diplomacy, U.S.I.A.z’s highest professional recognition.
Curtiss is currently the Executive Editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.