I wrote an earlier version of this article for Yahoo! News several years ago. At the time, the media were reporting on some purported American intelligence failures in the Middle East. The appropriateness (and the conclusions being drawn) aside, I was motivated to highlight some of the significant (acknowledged) successes that American and Allied intelligence agencies had accomplished over the past 75 years or so.
Today, with the Intelligence Community facing political assaults here at home, I thought it’d be a good time to dust off the article and share it again. The American Intelligence Community has a proud history, and while thorough scrutiny of that community is essential in a democracy, those who would undercut the professionals dedicated to the defense of the nation for political gain need to be rebuked at the ballot box.
But I digress.
When the public hears about the CIA, NSA or military intelligence, it’s often not a good thing. Often, we find ourselves uncomfortable with the very idea of secret intelligence, as it seems at odds with the ideals of an open democratic republic. So when questions about data collection against US citizens arise, a shadow is cast over the intelligence community as a whole. In addition, as I alluded to above, significant intelligence failures (e.g., the September 11 attacks), can shake public confidence in our intelligence apparatus. And frankly, questions about the scope of intelligence collection, and whether the IC is fully capable of meeting today’s evolving threats are right and proper. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that the IC has a record of achievement second to none, and that’s just with what is known and acknowledged. Successful intelligence collection and analysis has been instrumental in turning the tide of war, and in some cases has aided in the shifting of the global balance of power.
I’ve collected here five success stories from modern history, each of which demonstrates the critical role that intelligence played in preserving national security. This list is, of course, subjective, and in no particular order. In every conflict, intelligence plays a vital role in victory. I chose these particular examples because of the relatively clear strategic impact these definable intelligence victories had. Also note that this is not a “top 5 of all time” kind of thing. I’ll work on that project sometime later.
Cracking Enigma (World War II): The German military‘s machine-based cryptographic system called Enigma had a ciphering capability that was theoretically unbreakable. And for the early part of the war, it was. Cracking Enigma took a combination of old fashioned spy work, signals collection (meaning the interception of radio transmissions), and cryptography. Polish breakthroughs combined with a German traitor provided by the French resulted in the first successes against Enigma. The British and Americans were able to expand this success into breaking the even more resilient Enigma machines used by the German Navy.
Result: Deep penetration of Hitler’s military movements. Cracking Engima helped save the vital support that the US was sending by ship to Britain by helping to counter the brutal German U-boat attacks. According to Ms. Wilcox, many historians believe that the success against Enigma shortened World War II by as much as two years.
Further Reading: There are many good books and articles detailing the story. For a concise telling, Jennifer Wilcox’s Solving the Enigma: History of the Cryptanalytic Bombe is a great read. The Enigma of Alan Turing, CIA, posted 10 Apr 2015. Also, Polish codebreakers ‘cracked Enigma before Alan Turing’, bySarah Knapton, the Telegraph, 17 February 2016.
The Battle of Midway (World War II): The U.S. Navy pretty much had one last chance to contain the burgeoning Imperial Navy, and that was at Midway. What transpired from roughly early March – June 4 1942 was a game of cryptographic cat and mouse. But through a mix of diligent signals collection and cryptographic analysis, the US Navy was able to forecast not only the timing of the impending attack on Midway, but also the direction it would come from. In his book Intelligence in War, John Keegan cites a source that describes this as “the most stunning intelligence coup in all naval history.”
Result: Despite the shortcomings of intelligence collection, the U.S. Navy was able to crack Japanese encryption, enabling them to concentrate on defending Midway, giving American forces this most critical of victories in the Pacific Theater.
Further reading: Intelligence in War, by John Keegan.
The Cuban Missile Crisis (Cold War): Leading up to the discovery of the construction of Russian Medium Range Ballistic Missile installations in Cuba, U.S. intelligence had observed a rash of surface to air missile sites popping up at various locations across the island. While this Russian military build-up had been detected using various maritime and other intelligence methods, the smoking gun that brought the world closer to nuclear war than it has even been was uncovered by American U2 imagery intelligence collection in mid-October 1962. Armed with this intel, President John F. Kennedy and his Administration took the evidence public a week later, beginning the tense confrontation that many feared would end in war.
Result: Caught red handed, the Soviets backed down and withdrew the missiles. This prevented the USSR from having the ability to reach the U.S. with its intermediate range nuclear missiles.
Further reading: Trust But Verify: Imagery Analysis in the Cold War, by David T. Lindgren.
Operation Desert Storm: From January 15 to February 24, 1991, Coalition aircraft hammered Iraqi Military and Command and Control targets. On some days, there were as many as 2,500 sorties. These attacks were not random, and except for military equipment found out in the open, were not typically targets of opportunity. The attacks were designed to “cut off the head of the snake.” Logistics lines and Republican Guard command centers were destroyed or evacuated for fear of bombing.
Result: When ground operations initiated on 24 February, it took only 100 hours to completely liberate Kuwait. But an even more far reaching impact wouldn’t become clear until December of that year. Some historians believe that the complete routing of the Iraqi military, which was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, was the final nail in the USSR’s coffin. Iraq’s overwhelming loss completely discredited Soviet air and ground defense doctrines and weapons systems.
Further reading: Heart of the Storm: The Genesis of the Air Campaign against Iraq, by Col. Richard T. Reynolds, USAF. Also, Desert Storm: The Military Intelligence Story, by Brigadier General John F. Stewart, US Army.
Eliminating Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Operation IRAQI FREEDOM): As the war in Iraq started shifting into sectarian chaos, the mysterious al-Zarqawi led the way. The leader of what would eventually be called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ), this brutal terror leader declared war on Western forces and Shi’a Iraqis in a bid to incite country-wide civil war. He also became one of the most wanted men in the country. He eluded Coalition forces for some time, but eventually, through the work of the intelligence community and a special US military task force, this key leader of the Iraqi insurgency was eliminated on June 7, 2006 by a targeted air strike.
Result: While of course, Iraq continues to face instability and had to deal with ISIS in recent years, the death of al-Zarqawi delivered a body blow to the Iraqi insurgency, threw AQIZ off balance, and likely magnified the effects of the soon to come military surge. It proved that the nascent Iraqi Government, the US-led Coalition, and reginal allies (Jordanian intelligence reportedly helped locate Zarqawi) were determined to oppose the ethnic warfare being waged by AQIZ.
Further reading: How Surveillance and Betrayal Led to a Hunt’s End, By Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and Richard A. Oppel Jr. New York Times, June 9, 2006. Also, JSOC and the Hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: The End Game, by Dwight Jon Zimmerman, DefenseMediaNetwork, May 26, 2013.
Of course, there’s so much more that we outside of this world don’t get to see. But I think it does us good to see from time to time what kind of return out tax dollars are getting from our significant investment in national intelligence.