In the Jan./Feb. 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, former CIA official Paul Pillar takes down the conventional wisdom about the degree to which intelligence -- both good and bad -- can influence presidential decision-making, alter U.S. foreign policy, and prevent surprises. Whatever the limits of the U.S. intelligence community, it continues to face criticism for its perceived shortcomings, most recently for not predicting the Arab Spring and totally missing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death.
Indeed, while the intelligence community can claim several successes (Pillar, for example, points to the CIA nailing the Six-Day War in 1967), it has also endured a number of humiliating failures. As the ten examples below demonstrate, these intelligence breakdowns have been at the heart of pivotal events that refashioned the Middle East, altered the course of the Cold War, and thrust the United States into World War II, the war on terror, and the war in Iraq.
Pearl Harbor Attack
As dawn broke on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pushing a once-reluctant America headlong into World War II. The naval base was utterly unprepared for battle, even though the United States had managed to break Japanese diplomatic code in the lead-up to the assault and a military attaché in Java had warned Washington of a planned Japanese attack on Hawaii, the Philippines, and Thailand a week earlier. "Never before have we had so complete an intelligence picture of the enemy," Roberta Wholstetter wrote in Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.
That picture, however, was not seen in full because of inadequate intelligence-sharing among government agencies, faulty U.S. assumptions about Japan's appetite for carrying out such a brazen attack, and rivalries within the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA -- established in 1947 as part of the National Security Act -- later noted that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor highlighted the need to separate "signals" from "noise" and create a centralized intelligence organization.
Above, the USS Arizona burns during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.