National Security

A Clear View from Foggy Bottom

How State Department analysts  -- and no one else -- foresaw the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

A fabled but previously secret State Department intelligence memorandum that predicted, five months in advance, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, has now emerged from classified vaults so obscure that even State Department historians and CIA officers responsible for Freedom of Information Act requests could not penetrate them.

When the war broke out on October 6, it surprised high-level officials in the Nixon administration. Yet, in a paper written the previous May, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had estimated that there was a "better than even bet" that war would occur "by autumn." Not one other office in the U.S. government had made such an estimate, and the Israelis themselves had dismissed the possibility of war. Although this example of INR's acuity has been known about for years, the document itself was surprisingly elusive and is being published for the first time here and on the National Security Archive website.

According to INR, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would start a war with Israel not to achieve specific military objectives but to spur "big power" diplomatic intervention in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The authors of the INR paper anticipated that as war unfolded, a variety of U.S. "interests" in the region could come under attack, with possible nationalizations of petroleum facilities, "efforts to displace US oil companies with those from Europe and Japan," and "prolonged oil embargoes." Despite the far-sighted INR analysis, senior officials in the Nixon administration saw war as unlikely.

A discussion of the INR report was a highlight of a remarkable conference held at Washington's Cosmos Club in October 1998, the war's 25th anniversary. Organized by the late ambassador Richard Parker, it included senior and mid-level former officials from Egypt, Syria, Israel, the United States, and the former Soviet Union -- including a secretary of defense, ambassadors, generals, and a KGB station chief -- all of whom played important roles at the time. The October 1973 intelligence failure was an important element of the discussion, and a memorable moment was when INR's former desk officer for Egypt, Roger Merrick, spoke about how he developed the estimate with input from INR colleagues David Mark and Phillip Stoddard.

For Merrick, the possibility of conflict was inherent in the dynamics of the situation. Egyptian leaders had tried to use diplomacy to recover territory in the Sinai Peninsula lost to Israeli forces during the Six-Day War in June 1967. But the Israelis were unresponsive, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had nothing to offer his Egyptian counterparts. By the spring of 1973, according to Merrick, Sadat had "established himself as a strong player, serious;" yet despite his push for a diplomatic resolution of the Sinai problem, he was "neglected, and in an intolerable position with his political alternatives exhausted." On the other hand, his "forces were in place to launch hostilities and had not raised any significant alarm; thus the estimate that there was a better than even chance of major hostilities within six months."

Analysts at the State Department's Office of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) rejected the INR view, and senior officials like Kissinger and Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco felt no alarm because the Israelis, underestimating Arab capabilities, kept assuring them that there was no danger. Kissinger did not tell any of the players that Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had warned of war in the region during his visit to the United States in June 1973. The dispute between INR and NEA over the possibility of war, Merrick recounted, "continued throughout the summer and fall until hostilities erupted," and INR's estimate was vindicated.

INR's analysts have often been on the money. In 1964, Allen Whiting predicted the strong likelihood of a Chinese atomic test, which Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced to the world two weeks before the event. During the Vietnam War, INR analysts starting with Lewis Sarris critically assessed the Pentagon's evaluation of "progress" in South Vietnam. In the run-up to the Iraq War, INR did share in the consensus that Saddam had been trying seriously to establish a biological and chemical warfare capability, but the bureau was spectacularly right in its doubt about the most important claim in the Bush White House's case for war: that Saddam was "reconstituting" a nuclear weapons capability. INR disputed the claims that Iraq's aluminum tubes were for gas centrifuges and that the country had recently sought uranium yellow-cake from Niger.

Some of the key instances of INR's astuteness are well documented, but the estimate on the possibility of war in 1973 proved hard to locate. During the 1998 conference, I asked Merrick whether he had a copy of his INR paper or knew where it could be found. He assumed it would be in the bureau's retired files at the State Department. This conversation set off a 15-year on-again, off-again quest through archival research and FOIA requests to the State Department and then the CIA, all of which proved in vain. Even a skilled State Department historian, Craig Daigle (now at City College of New York), then working to complete the Foreign Relations of the United States compilation on the war, could not find it despite having clearance to review classified government files.

One trace of the document was found, however, in the intelligence community's post-mortem of the October war intelligence failure, which the National Security Archive obtained in 2009. That document's discussion of intelligence sources and methods was heavily redacted, but it included a detailed account of the INR report, quoting it at length and characterizing it as a "remarkable memorandum" and a "case of wisdom lost." Daigle included this account in his compilation.

Then, for a conference on the October war this January at the Nixon Presidential Library, staffers in the CIA's Historical Collections Division compiled a large number of documents, some of which they described in a booklet. I was surprised to see, on page 42, a capsule summary of the INR memorandum. At my request, the CIA provided a copy of the document, which is slated to appear in an online compilation at the CIA's website.

How and where the CIA editors found the INR memo remains a mystery. Its first page shows that the State Department reviewed it for declassification in 2002 and that the CIA refused to authorize declassification, which seems absurd. For some 10 years it sat in an obscure paper or electronic file where State Department historians could not find it and where even the CIA's FOIA researchers could not locate it. A perfect example of one hand not knowing what the other one was doing.

Somewhat shamelessly, the CIA officials who reviewed this "case of wisdom lost" censored the names of its authors (see bottom of page 4). This is standard practice when CIA declassification reviewers scrutinize Agency intelligence reports -- the names of analysts are almost never made public. But this is a State Department document, and the names of the authors of INR reports are invariably disclosed in records at the National Archives and in State Department FOIA releases. They are not like CIA officials whose names are often kept secret. But at least now we can be sure that Roger Merrick and his colleagues get full credit for their insight.

Ministry of Defense via Getty Images

Dept Of Secrets

Our Man in Havana

Was USAID planning to overthrow Castro?

Imprisoned in Cuba, Alan Gross is suing the U.S. government. And the documents the case reveals are putting the Obama administration in a tough spot. 

At the very end of John Kerry's Jan. 24th confirmation hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) treated him to a lecture about repression in Cuba. "And then we have a United States citizen who all he tried to do is give access to the Internet to a small Jewish population in Havana and has been languishing in jail for almost four years," Menendez asserted. "That is real torture." In his final question to Kerry, Menendez asked if "we can expect you to be a strong supporter" of U.S. "democracy programs worldwide?" The all-but-confirmed nominee for secretary of state answered, "yes."

The democracy program in Cuba that concerns Menendez has come under increasing public scrutiny since that U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, was detained in Havana on Dec. 3, 2009. In the wake of his arrest, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), none other than John Kerry, put a temporary hold on the USAID-run operation, officially known as the Cuban Democracy and Contingency Planning Program (CDCPP). For almost a year, the SFRC made an effort to bring a degree of accountability to this little-known, under-the-radar, $140 million U.S. government initiative in Cuba.

To his credit, it is Gross himself who has done the most to lift the veil of secrecy from the CDCPP. Last year, he and his wife, Judy, filed a civil lawsuit against USAID and the contractor for whom Gross worked as a consultant, Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), in an effort to call public attention to his plight and press the Obama administration to step up efforts to negotiate his release. Specifically, their suit seeks damages for the failure of USAID and DAI to inform him of the risks he faced, to "take basic remedial measures to protect Mr. Gross," and to provide the education and training "necessary to minimize the risk of harm to him."

Their legal complaint acknowledged that he was paid under a broader USAID contract with DAI to travel multiple times to Cuba, posing as a tourist, carrying specialized technology to establish independent satellite communications networks on various parts of the island; it quotes his own trip reports that this was "very risky business" for which he was not adequately trained or supervised.

This document, an August 2008 USAID contract with DAI, is one of a number of substantive records released in court filings by the suit that reveal the mission, procedures, and sensitive operations of USAID's Cuba program -- including contingency planning for political, civic, and economic support to a post-Castro government. Upgraded at the end of the Bush administration, the main objectives of the program are "hastening transition" to democracy (read: regime change), creating information channels to and from Cuba, and establishing a network through which USAID could create and deploy a "rapid response programmatic platform" on the island in the event of instability and transition.

The contract shows that USAID's program intends to be prepared for a variety of contingencies in Cuba, including, as the implementation section of this document suggests, "if a USG-Determined Transition occurs, and USAID is asked to provide assistance." In that event, USAID hoped to have staffing, networking, and infrastructure in place to be able to rapidly supply financial, technological, and educational assistance to help a new government consolidate. The CDCPP is designed "to support Cuba's pro-democracy actors," the document states. "This task order will provide a contractual mechanism that will allow the USG to respond quickly to different types of opportunities or emergencies, particularly those that may result from macro-political changes." 

Due to the sensitivity of these operations, the "CDCPP demands continuous discretion," states another document attached to DAI's Jan. 15 motion to dismiss the suit. But the suit itself is already eroding the discreet nature of the USAID Cuba democracy operation, and opening it to public debate over the wisdom, propriety, and efficacy of the program. In DAI's decision to file these documents in court there seems to be an element of "graymail" -- the threat of exposure of far more sensitive information about the surreptitious nature of its work with the U.S. government in Cuba -- if the lawsuit goes forward. DAI's motion states clearly that the company is "deeply concerned that the development of the record in this case over the course of litigation could create significant risks to the U.S. Government's national security, foreign policy, and human rights interests."

The incoming secretary of state is no stranger to the Cuba issue. Indeed, the beginning of the Kerry era at the State Department presents an opportunity to reevaluate not only the democracy program, but the Obama administration's overall approach to Cuba policy. Despite Obama's campaign pledge to "write a new chapter" in U.S.-Cuban relations during his first term, the president failed to substantively alter Washington's half-century posture of hostility toward the Castro regime. The fact that Alan Gross's freedom depends on a new approach to U.S.-Cuban relations is an added incentive for that reevaluation to be expeditious.

When I visited Gross in late November in the military hospital where he is incarcerated, he told me that he wanted to see the United States and Cuba "sit down and talk tachlis -- truthfully -- about mutual interests," including his case. It is now up to Kerry to move toward a normal dialogue with the Cuban government in which Gross's case can be resolved. 

Read Gross's lawsuit and contract with DAI on the next page.

Alan Gross Lawsuit 

USAID DAI Contract