The Hamas attack on Israel: an ‘intelligence failure’ or a failure of intelligence? 

In the alacrity to assign blame for preventing the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, that country’s spies were held responsible, wrongly it turns out.

Humans have an unfortunate tendency to want to assign blame right away when something goes wrong. I am not sure why as I am no psychologist, but I would wager it has something to do with a need to point the finger at someone or something and achieve ‘closure’. Then we can move on to the next (perceived) mistake. 

As a consequence of this need to find fault, conclusions are drawn often on the fly while facts and data are still coming in. Some make up their minds on who is responsible for what despite the lack of clarity or even reliable information on what actually happened. I have a term for this: instant analysis. 

This resonates with me as a former intelligence analyst with CSE and CSIS. I and my colleagues were tasked regularly with trolling through scads of information from a variety of sources (domestic and international, reliable and of unknown certainty, established and new, etc.) and make sense of all of it. The products we produced for senior government officials (whether they read it or not – see below) was carefully crafted to be as accurate as possible in the face of time constraints. Did we get it right all the time? Of course not, but we did fairly well if I may say so. 

Those occasions on which we got it wrong have their own term: intelligence failure. That phrase has been bandied about quite a bit lately in the wake of the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. The latter’s storied intelligence assets – Shin Bet (their version of CSIS), Mossad (the Israeli CIA) and military services – have all been slandered as incompetent, unaware, or ‘asleep at the wheel’. The ‘instant analysis’ machine has been in overdrive for three weeks and counting, and the only acceptable conclusion is that the Israeli spies blew it. 

Or did they? 

New information, not available a month ago, is now showing that Israel’s intelligence agencies actually DID tell the Netanyahu government on several occasions as early as July that the country’s enemies (I.e. Hamas, Hizballah, Iran and others) saw Israel as weak. Alas, no one but two members of the Knesset bothered to hear their warnings. At the same time the military’s Chief of Staff tried to pass information to Prime Minister Netanyahu but was refused a meeting. That same official advised preparations for a multi-pronged attack on September 11: the PM’s allies went on Israeli television and condemned him for “sowing panic”. 

There’s more…

A junior Israeli officer in the elite 8200 intelligence unit warned of Hamas’s plan of a mass infiltration event and was ignored by her commanders. She was told, and I quote, “I don’t want to hear about this nonsense again. If you bother me with these things again, you will stand trial.”

Gee, what does this sound like? Anyone remember when the Trudeau government repeatedly misled Canadians about having received CSIS intelligence about Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 elections? Our PM even said that those raising those concerns were engaging in ‘anti-Asian racism’. And then Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, former Chief of Toronto Police and someone you would think would get the importance of intelligence, said he didn’t get anything in his inbox on the matter

Intelligence agencies, whether Canadian, Israeli or wherever, serve an important purpose in our democracies. They act in the shadows with shadowy figures to keep us safe and to protect our ways of life. They seek to provide the best information possible so that better decisions and policies can be made and do so irrespective of what government is in power. That those governments, themselves partisan by definition, accuse their spies of altering the message to meet some sort of ‘agenda’ is an insult. 

PM Netanyahu is the head of the most right-wing government in his nation’s history. His coalition relies on the support of Jewish extremists who carry out acts of violence in the West Bank against Palestinians in the name of ‘settlers’, a threat Shin Bet avows has drained resources away from the much larger jihadist threat in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon. If anyone ‘failed’ it is the current administration, not the intelligence organisations. 

Here in Canada, our abysmal lack of intelligence culture (which I have written on at another time in these pages) accounts for the failure of many governments to treat information delivered on a silver platter by CSE, CSIS et al. This is not an ‘intelligence failure’: it is a failure of intelligence by the government of the day. 

Canadians (and Israelis) deserve better. When tragedies happen, those truly responsible have an obligation to fess up and own their mistakes. Do I expect either Mr. Netanyahu or Mr. Trudeau to do so anytime soon? Although I currently call the village of Russell home I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday, so no. 

And so ‘instant analysis’ will continue, and it will continue to be wrong on many occasions. Yet, we will have moved on… 

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.