Faults and Failures

Last February, the head of the Mossad lost his cell phone. He left it in his car — that’s right, the head of Israel’s renowned top secret spy agency left his cell phone in his car. When he returned, he found someone had bashed his windows and stolen it. On it were the numbers of, well, everyone on whom Israel’s security and defense relies.

“The robbers reportedly broke into the car when it was parked in Tel Aviv and could easily have planted a bomb had they wanted,” Israeli Army Radio reported.

Mossad chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Meir Dagan contacted his cellular service company and had the phone’s memory erased, so in the end all he suffered was embarrassment and of course the royal pain of reprogramming a new cell.

I recall this story as the nation awaits the report of The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission. This is the bipartisan effort President George W. Bush’s White House initially opposed, but eventually chartered under pressure from the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. The committee has already made public certain pieces of the report, and has made clear that we should expect no shocking, other-foot-dropping revelations when the full report is released July 21.

Open societies thrive on open inquiry. Saudi Arabia held no public independent hearings into why so many Sept. 11 hijackers devolved from its soil. But Israel’s intelligence community has regularly been the subject of commissions, reports, restructuring and open criticism.

The most well-known example is the Agranat Inquiry Commission, which investigated why Israel was caught by surprise by Arab armies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“For the nation as a whole, the major instrument of therapy was an inquiry commission,” writes Abraham Rabinovich in his recent and gripping, “The Yom Kippur War” (Schocken, 2004). It was clear to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that only such a commission could “restore public confidence in the government and the army” — even though both leaders knew full well their own necks were at stake, too. Within three weeks of the cease-fire, the five-member commission began its work. Within the year, its findings called for six high-level resignations, including that of Eli Zeira as chief of intelligence.

There is no indication that the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation will be anywhere near as far-reaching, or as finger-pointing. For postwar Israelis, accountability was therapeutic. For post-Sept. 11 Americans, the language of therapy has replaced actual accountability. Former CIA Director George Tenet left his post even as the president heaped him with praises. Analysts whose analysis was clearly wrong, politicians whose reactions were clearly lethargic — we are told they all tried their best or did their darndest. Listening to the president and many Democrats as well, I began to wonder what they were protecting: our country or George Tenet’s self-esteem?

The Agranat Commission did not seek vengeance, nor did it make innocents of wrongdoers.

Beyond assigning blame, Agranat also sought structural changes in the Israeli intelligence community. Such will also be the main focus of the 9/11 Commission.

“The system is broken,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-El Segundo) told me, emphatically, when I met her a month ago at her field office.

Harman, a centrist Democrat, is a ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee and helped spearhead all House actions in response to the Sept. 11 attacks as ranking member on the panel’s Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Speaking of the intelligence failures that led up to our invasion of Iraq, she said, “Having now carefully studied the intelligence the intelligence was wrong…. This was a screw up, yes.”

The same system helped keep us in the dark about Sept. 11. “Sept. 11 was a failure to connect the dots,” Harmon said. “With Iraq and WMD, there were too few dots connected to the wrong conclusion.”

Harmon said she supports what is expected to be a centerpiece of the 9/11 report: the appointment of a director of national intelligence, who will coordinate intelligence gatherings from some 15 different agencies with a combined budget of more than $30 billion.

Interestingly enough, Israel’s Agranat Commission called for just such a post, as have numerous Israeli commissions and reports looking into the country’s intelligence lapses over the years. The most recent recommendation came this year in the Steinetz Report, which investigated the failure of Israeli intelligence to accurately assess Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and missile delivery systems.

But Israel has never followed through on this recommendation, and there’s no indication that the American public will clamor for that change now.

“Israeli national security decision making could probably benefit from the presence of such an adviser,” wrote security analyst Yossi Alpher, “But at the end of the day, no intelligence service is immune to failure.”

Harmon and others will have to convince us how adding more names to a flow chart will make us safer. Without a stronger culture of accountability — people made to feel bad, even, yes, fired — I doubt it will. Meanwhile, I keep thinking of that top-security cell phone, and how even the best intelligence experts can leave us a car window away from disaster.