Why (and how) intelligence f*ck ups occur

    Intelligence Failures occur for three reasons –

    1. Failure to process and analyse information correctly.

    2. Failure to disseminate and share information.

    3. Failure to act on intelligence.

    Read these real-life case studies, understand intelligence failures, avoid the same mistakes.

    CASE STUDY: Curveball (The Source Who Lied)

    CASE STUDY: Curveball (The Source Who Lied)

    Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi (aka Curveball) provided false and misleading information on Iraq’s production of biological and WMDs.

    During the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Curveball made false claims about Saddam Hussain’s mobile weapons laboratories.

    His falsified information was used as rationale for the military intervention into Iraq.

    Interestingly, German Intelligence Service and the British Secret Intelligence Service questioned the authenticity of the claims.

    They doubted his reliability due to inconsistencies with his testimony.

    However, Curveball’s ‘information’ ultimately made its way to the White House and influenced President George Bush to invade Iraq in 2001.

    Years later, Curveball’s information was proven to be falsified.

    Lesson: Trusting Curveballs’ information was a critical intelligence failure to accurately evaluate the source and reliability of the information.

    Notable Intelligence Failures

    Operation Barbarossa (1941) – Stalin ignores Intelligence warnings that the Germans were preparing a surprise attack against Russia.

    Singapore, 1942 – British Intelligence believed the Japanese wouldn’t use tanks in the jungle…Next minute, everyone is eating Raman.

    Yom Kippur, 1973. Israel dismissed Intelligence indicating Egypt were planning an offensive.

    The Falkland Islands, 1982. British Intelligence didn’t think the Argentinians would launch an assault to recapture the Falklands…

    Pearl Harbor (1941). Americans were caught by surprise when the Japanese bombed the Navy base Pearl Harbor in 1941.

    So How (and Why) Do Intelligence Failures Occur?

    There’s a bunch of theory on this topic. But I’ve distilled Intelligence Failures down to the following three reasons:

    • Failure to process and analyse information correctly.
    • Failure to disseminate and share information.
    • Failure to act on intelligence.

    #1. Failure to Process and Analyse Information

    More often than not, Intelligence failures occur from an inability to process intelligence accurately!


    • Selective Information. Sometimes analysts refuse to accept information that contradicts preconceived opinions,  disregarding information that doesn’t fit a preferred narrative. This is the cardinal sin of Intelligence.
    • Denial or Avoidance. Sometimes analysts refuse to deal with unpleasant facts either by denying their existence or avoiding action needed to deal with it.
    • Groupthink. Sometimes, Often Intelligence Analysts accept the opinions of others (usually superiors) without checking assumptions are correct first.
    • Selective Vision. Trying to make a situation fit a preconceived conclusion.
    • One Track Mind. Refusal to recognise any need for new thinking. People tend to find it difficult to reverse a decision once its made (even if it was a mistake).
    • Over Complicating Matters. Ignoring the simplest explanation or solution in favour of an overly complex or less likely one. Tip. Remember Occam’s Razor!
    • Not My Idea. Stupid as it sounds, I’ve seen analysts dismiss an idea just because someone else thought of it.

    99 Problems but collection aint’ one

    Today I would say Intelligence collection is not an issue – We literally have the world’s information at our fingertips.

    In fact, we have more information than we know what to do with.

    This creates its own problems for Intelligence Analysts…

    #2. Failure to Disseminate and Share Information

    If Intelligence exists to provide an advantage over our adversary; what’s the point of having solid Intel if you don’t tell anyone?

    You gotta get it out there!

    This is the second reason for Intelligence failures. Failure to ship your Intel!

    Look, I get it – there’s a fine line between sharing information and keeping secrets right…

    Need to Know Vs. Need to Share.

    Too much sharing and nothing remains secret.

    Too many secrets and you wake up to a Japanese aerial raid.

    So, when it comes to intelligence, there needs to be a balance.

    Knowledge is power, and people like to hoard their information –

    Individual analysts like to be the ones with the info. It makes them feel indispensable.

    Similarly, Intelligence organisations, aren’t much better. Intelligence agencies will often hoard information to appear more effective (and protect their operational budgets).

    Problem: Keep too many secrets, people die.

    Fix: Foster a culture of information sharing and declassifying information for wider dissemination

    Or don’t. Whatever.

    #3. Failure to Act.

    The third cause for Intelligence Failures is a failure to act on Intelligence provided.

    My definition of intelligence is ‘processed information for action’ and so if no action is taken from your intel, there’s literally no reason for it to exist.

    If policymakers act independently of intelligence advice, and the operations team plan in isolation you’ll end up with an intelligence failure.

    Prior to Operation Barbarosa (1941) Stalin chose to be his own Intelligence Analyst and ignored the warnings that Hitlers Nazi’s were planning an invasion into the USSR.

    Super Valid Point. When I say ‘failure to act’, I’m saying intelligence failures occur when intelligence is ignored. Choosing to do nothing is fine because it’s a choice.


    People often put their own self-interest ahead of making a tough call or putting their neck on the line.

    It’s often easier to hide behind average intelligence rather than actually making the call.

    Call to action[able] Intelligence

    Let this lesson into Intelligence Failures be a straight-up call to action for Intelligence professionals; if your advice isn’t actionable, what’s the point?

    SOURCE: Intelligence101

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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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