Israel may have just avoided an unnecessary war this weekend.
It is also possible that the country merely delayed an inevitable additional round of fighting with Hamas. But with most considering the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2014 Gaza war to have been unintended by all sides, if intelligence helped avoid an unintended war this time, most would consider that a win.
Former IDF intelligence chief Amos Yadlin and other top intelligence minds like to emphasize that intelligence regarding intentions and war is an art, not a science.
If that is true, can an ongoing and increasing push by US, Israeli and other spy agencies to integrate academic disciplines into their work help avoid major bloody mistakes? Or does the art aspect of intelligence make academic disciplines less relevant?
In a recent study for the Intelligence Ministry by former senior IDF intelligence officer and academic Kobi Michaeli and researcher Ahron Kornblut of the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (IICC), they argue that academia is crucial to the future of intelligence agencies.
As the study puts it, academia’s impact on the field of intelligence is already a fact.
The questions then are not whether academia will impact spy agencies, but how broad the impact will be and in which direction academia will help channel the agencies among the many potential paths.
Israel in 2006 and 2014 was not the first to make critical errors in navigating its adversaries’ intentions leading to a series of escalating mistakes and eventually unintended war.
The study notes that the academic study of intelligence grew tremendously after the US intelligence community failed to stop the 9/11 terror attacks and incorrectly concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as a mistaken basis for invading it in 2003.
This was an era in which there were enormous fights over politicizing intelligence, with some saying that politicization led to fateful decisions based on mistaken assumptions.
Israel itself expanded the intelligence community from ultra-focused on IDF intelligence prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War to a more pluralistic focus which increased the influence of the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency.)
But as the study notes, growing into and dialoguing with academia goes far beyond empowering multiple intelligence agencies to give differing viewpoints.
It means releasing more information into the public sphere and enduring more public and systematic criticism from academics who are not necessarily looking to save the intelligence community from embarrassment.
Curiously, the study states that the “academicization” process of intelligence has run differently in different countries.
For example, the study said that US and Israel not only endorse the academicization of intelligence, but also have more of a revolving order in bringing academics into government positions, and in retiring intelligence officers graduating into university lecturers.
In contrast, the study said that Britain already has more of a separation between the intelligence and academic communities, and France, Germany and Spain have a complete separation and even disassociation between the groups.
According to the study, the countries which keep academics and intelligence more separate come into the issue with a greater history of intelligence agencies having interfered in citizens’ lives and have developed a stronger distrust of spy agencies.
Besides those structural differences, the study said that different intelligence agencies view the purpose of applying academia to intelligence in different ways.
The least flattering intelligence approach to academia is almost to view it as part of a complex public relations game.
The study said that some intelligence officials view academia as a way to broaden the public’s knowledge of their activities so that they can better appreciate spy agencies’ contributions and better understand how they help the political echelon make fateful decisions about war and peace.
But the study said that other intelligence officials view academia as directly enriching the intelligence community. They even lean toward requiring intelligence agents to return to university for an additional degree if they want to ascend to higher posts.
Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit is fond of a common-sense approach in which intelligence agencies should used their countries most senior experts to solve whatever puzzles arise.
If there is a psychology puzzle, he always wanted psychologists to weigh in. If historical context was needed, then historians, and if balancing complex questions of statecraft, then diplomats.
Some spy officials are even more nuts and bolts, said the study, thinking of academia as mostly useful for advancing their agency’s technological and logistical abilities.
A state comptroller report with full access to Israeli intelligence agencies’ materials leading up to the 2014 Gaza War appeared to criticize the community on three grounds.
The three issues were: group think (say the same thing everyone is saying); the law of averages (do not give any opinion with too much certainty); and withholding a minority opinion from the security cabinet that Hamas had a high likelihood of going to war even without wanting to because its economic situation was so dire.
The IICC study noted that many leading academics on intelligence focus on issues such as avoiding group think and emphasize keeping an open mind.
While politicians on both the Left and the Right often have populist instincts and may ignore a view that disagrees with what they think is politically advantageous, academics are also always careful to cite all opinions whether a majority or minority view.
The current IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi was head of IDF intelligence during a period when it elevated not only its use of big data, but its level of academic and systematic thought and processes.
It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to avoid an unnecessary war this weekend anyway.
But if Kochavi and the intelligence agencies got a better read this time versus 2014 on how to walk the fine line between deterring Hamas rocket fire and escalating into general war, academia may have had its place in striking that balance and neutralizing politicization.
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