Friday, 8 December 2006

Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups, John Hughes-Wilson, 2004

MILITARY INTELLIGENCE BLUNDERS AND COVER-UPS Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, Robinson, UK, 2004, 438 pages, paperback, NZ$29.95.
ISBN 1-84119-871-4 [NZ agents: Southern Publishers Group, Auckland]

I opened this book under the false impression that it would be cheerful reading, good for a little gentle mockery. I came to scoff and remained to pray. This is a stunning book, highly readable, with direct relevance for us all.

John Hughes-Wilson, believing we can learn from mistakes, provides a dozen detailed case-studies of intelligence failures. They make illuminating reading.

In July 2001 the counter-terrorist offices at FBI Headquarters received a warning from the Arizona FBI field office that al Qa’ida agents were active in the US, and that flight school owners had warned of Arab trainees who “were showing an inordinate amount of interest in learning to fly” but “weren’t taking much interest in takeoffs and landings.” This warning, with its four suggestions for action, was ignored. The author lists thirteen more specific intelligence indications, over the next two months, giving the US warning of an impending “terror strike”. The Philippines government even pointed to a specific date: 11th September. On that day, 3,030 people were killed by al Qa’ida, and a new world war began.

Why are so many warnings ignored? The 9/11 intelligence failure is the final case-study in Colonel Hughes-Wilson’s book, and after reading his masterly summaries, readers will not be surprised at human ability to get things wrong. Nobody spotted that Russia was about to invade Afghanistan, or Iraq to overwhelm Kuwait, or Argentina to take the Falklands. Avoiding hindsight, Hughes-Wilson shows what went wrong.

German intelligence failed to predict the site of D-Day because British intelligence was well-co-ordinated and able to feed the Germans an irresistible mix of misleading and genuine information. Only one operation was developed without formal authority and therefore without access to central intelligence. The 1942 Dieppe Raid, Canada’s Gallipoli, resulted in the most costly battle of the 20th Century. The author confirms Brian Villa’s 1989 revelation of Louis Mountbatten’s duplicitous dealings, and shows how ‘a disastrous intelligence blunder’ led to a casualty rate of 60%!

Too often, a nation’s intelligence services become competitors, so that in 1941 the fledgling intelligence services of the US Army and Navy dealt with Japanese signal traffic on alternating days with no co-ordination. Warnings of a possible attack on Pearl Harbour fell through the cracks.

Pity poor Peter Shepherd of the RAF. Told by a drunken Japanese engineer of Japanese preparations to attack Pearl Harbour and Malaya about 8 December 1941, he passed the information and stolen sketches on to RAF intelligence. Shepherd heard no more until Japanese bombs blew him through a door on his Malayan airfield, which hadn’t even been put on alert.

Intelligence services often supply the correct information to leaders who ignore or reject it because it doesn’t fit their preconceived ideas. The classic example is Stalin denying that Hitler planned to invade the Soviet Union, although Tony Blair’s government also merits a mention over Iraq.

An impressive account of an intelligence failure is the Yom Kippur War, where an alert Israeli intelligence officer accurately predicted Egypt’s surprise attack across the Suez Canal but his superior refused to forward his report.

Then there’s the fall of Malaya, the ‘shameful disaster’ in which almost everyone failed at almost everything, especially assessment of Japanese abilities and intentions. Even the traitor, Captain Heenan, who gave the Japanese full military details of Allied military dispositions, airfields and codes, was so incompetent that he was caught and shot just before the Japanese entered Singapore

Another important area is getting information to the troops. Ironically, the Americans had such a vast array of intelligence data in the 1991 Gulf War that it became too unwieldy to collate. It is over three decades since I put chinagraph to acetate, in my minor role as an intelligence clerk, but I was intrigued to find that the US 82nd Air-borne got their most reliable information from their French allies, who found the traditional “chinagraph and paper” methods were still the best way to get information into the hands of the people who needed it.

While new technology offers some hope for the future, the “globalisation of terror”, mean that we have all become potential targets. A book that would normally be recommended reading for officers is now a useful briefing for us all.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch in 2004

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