Yom Kippur War Redux – How Israeli and U.S. leaders ignored the Arab drums of war in 1973

Amir Oren explores how newly released documents reveal details of American and Israeli leaders’ blindness to the warning signs

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Golda Meir during the 1973 Yom Kippur War
Reuters Photo

By Amir Oren
Haaretz

If only they had listened to Sharon, maybe the 1973 War would have been averted. Not GOC Southern Command up to 15 July 1973, Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, who left the Israeli Defense Forces just in time to be eligible to participate in the upcoming elections. The general, who would join the party born from the merger of the Liberal and Herut parties, was just as insouciant as his rivals on Israeli’s political left and among military brass. He too believed that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would avoid conflict, and that if despite this war were to erupt Egypt would be harshly beaten.

But there was another Sharon, probably a first name of a woman that escaped censorship. Her full name is on file at the National Security Agency, an agency dealing with signal intelligence, called Unit 848 during the 1973 War. Only now, nearly 4 decades later, the NSA reveals that their Sharon warned about the event to come, but was ignored because of her lowly rank. In this she is like Lt. Benjamin Siman-Tov of Sothern Command Intelligence, whose warnings went unheard by his commanders.

The NSA is an intelligence gathering agency that had two major shortcomings in 1973: its attention was focused on intercepting information on Soviet attacks with only marginal attention going to secondary conflicts such as the Israeli-Arab conflict; its research facilities were not as developed as those at the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, at the time. During the 60s it had satellites gathering electronic information, but had yet to accept that manned missions could be more of a liability than strength. So it was that within six months, during 1967-1968, two navy vessels under the command of the unit were involved in serious incidents – USS Liberty was attacked by the IDF and the USS Pueblo was commandeered by North Korean forces.

The NSA was nearly always headed by a 3-star general or admiral, usually without any expertise in intelligence. To further their career and return whence they came with a forth star on their collar, these commanders did their best to avoid rocking the boat. During August 1973, after only a single year, the head of the NSA, an Air Forces officer, who distinguished himself in the Apollo Project, was replaced by another Air Force officer. These men did not take their assignments in order to pick a fight with the CIA or the State Department.

According to a paper published by the NSA historian in the Agency journal, declassified this year, Sharon was a “special research intern,” assigned to the NSA Middle East and North Africa department, “not an expert on the Middle East, but a highly qualified and convincing handler, backed by experts.” One of the agencies top officers “was convinced that war was imminent, and as September progressed, more and more research officers became convinced that bloodshed was going to erupt; but had no official channel relay their concerns, because Intelligence Community Standing Order no. 6 specifically barred the NSA from generating ‘final intelligence assessments,’ meaning reports analyzing raw intelligence.”

Once Sharon was convinced of the need to issue warning, “her skill as a handler was seen as the way to disseminate the information, and she was assigned with the task of briefing the intelligence community. She faced a skeptical crowd on 4 October. Egyptian and Syrian began concerning the CIA in mid-September.” Even though the Israelis tried to ease U.S. concerns, “it was reported that the Israelis themselves were second guessing their assessments and had sent an intelligence gathering mission over the channel that morning. The Deputy Head of the CIA, General Daniel Graham, became worried and arranged for Sharon to brief Samuel Hoskinson, the CIA’s Middle East expert.”

Without a sound

The private briefing didn’t help. “Hoskinson was unconvinced. He maintained the political climate didn’t suit an attack, arguing that all the evidence presented could also indicate increased activity due to the holding of military maneuvers, like those held by the Egyptian army in the previous two years (It would later turn out that these were drills in preparation for the crossing of the Channel). An intelligence community report, distributed on 4 October, while it was still nighttime in Israel, stated that war was unlikely, a conclusion that will stick to the intelligence community like the failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor. On 5 October, the U.S. military attaché in Tel Aviv reported that the Israelis are deliberating their actions and would like to receive instructions, which were not given.”

Standing Order 6 was changed after the war. Ever since, providers of raw intelligence are allowed to evaluate it and issue warnings. “It is still unclear why Sharon was sent to brief the intelligence community without the backing of the NSA command, which would have increased her credibility in the eyes of the community ‘elders.’ Could this have been an attempt to eat the cake and keep it too – if they become convinced the NSA gains prestige, if they don’t, the blame doesn’t make it to high ranking NSA officers, without support from ‘upstairs,’ Sharon could later be disavowed.”

Sharon of Port Mead and Lt. Siman-Tov of Be’er Sheva, were not alone in failing in their attempts to warn of imminent war, Colonel Yoel Ben-Porat commander of Unit 848 and Deputy Chief of Staff General Israel Tal, faced similar faiths. Ben-Porat and Tal would never forgive themselves, even after decades, for not raising hell at the time. Tal implored the Chief of Staff David Elazar (“Dado”) to plan for the worst. In a meeting held 4 October, Tal demanded the front lines be bolstered and reserves be drafted. If I am wrong and you are right, he said, we drafted them for nothing, inconvenienced them during the holidays and wasted money. That would be a shame, but not too bad. On the other hand if I am right and you are mistaken, we will face disaster.

The meeting broke up before the discussion was done, due to some constraints on the Chief of Staff’s time table. Still, Dado didn’t give up and continued his attempts in convincing his fellow officers, he proceeded to try convincing Intelligence Branch General Eli Zeira, to no avail. On Yom Kippur, when his dark predictions materialized, Tal’s spirits also darkened. His rivals in the IDF attacked him. Five years later, when Refael Eitan (“Raful”), a protégé of Tal’s, had become Chief of Staff, Minister of Defense Ezer Weizman took him out of reserves and reassigned Tal to the regular army to plan a multi-corps command of ground forces. Raful and his predecessor, Motta Gur, were worried that Weizman’s next step was to appoint Tal as head of the IDF and thus block their preferred candidate General Yanush Ben-Gal. Gur went on a public all out offensive on Tal, centered on his performance during the wars darkest hours. When he was made aware of the truth he apologized to Tal in a letter in 1984.

Secret group

The 2011 crop of declassified intelligence documents to shed light on the days leading up to the 1973 War, includes a volume of U.S. State Department documents from that year. The volume and its documents feature President Richard Nixon, and his chief council Henry Kiesinger. These documents describe the contact the U.S. government had with Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat, and Leonid Bartenev. The reasonability for receiving information from the Americans and analyzing it wasn’t army intelligence’s responsibility or that of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, which were prohibited to spying on the U.S., but rather the responsibility of the country’s political leadership headed by Prime Minister Meir, who spoke with Nixon and Kissinger herself and via her excellent ambassadors, Yitzhak Rabin (until March) and Simcha Dinitz.

The Foreign Ministry, headed by Abba Eban, wasn’t privy to the more classified intelligence; even diplomatic information was kept from him. Meir and Security Minister Moshe Dayan, were not fond of Even. His counterpart in Washington William Rogers, Kissinger’s rival. Only a small group was let in on the full picture; Meir, Dayan, and the Minister Israel Galili, with Rabin and Dinitz functioning as messengers. They communicated with the White House, Kissinger, and National Security Council. Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Alon filled in for Meir when she traveled to Austria during the ominous week that preceded the war, but Dayan and the head of the Mossad Zvi Zamir neglected to fully brief him. Kissinger actively kept information from Rogers, holding from him central details on his contact with Sadat’s emissary Hafez Ismail.

One of Roger’s assets was Josef Green of the State Department, which headed the U.S. Interests Office in Cairo (full diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed during the Six-Day War). Green had a source: the head of the Saudi intelligence agency, Kamal Ahadam. And this Ahdam himself had a source, his close friend Ashraf Marwan, who was married to Nasser’s daughter. Marwan was the diamond in the crown of Israeli spies.

Some in the Mossad, notably Zamir are satisfied with the agency’s relationship with Marwan, others disagree. Rechavia Verdy, which headed the agency’s field intelligence command – Zomet, suspected Marwan’s loyalty. Verdy retired from the Mossad in 1972, and died in 2006, a while after telling his friend Asher Levi, a Brigadier-General in the IDF reserves, who was a high-ranking officer in the Southern Command during the War of Attrition and the 1973 War, “Marwan was a double agent.” Two of Verdy’s friends at the top of the Mossad hierarchy concurred.

Any one claiming that Marwan’s name leaked out only in recent years is simply mistaken. Already in 1974, some Israeli journalists knew, and not by way of intelligence officers, the identity of ‘Nasser’s son-in-law,” and had received samples of information he handed his operators.

Zaira, who was assigned Head of the IDF’s Intelligence Command in October 1972, hadn’t a clue that the Mossad’s star informant was. He preferred not to carry such sensitive material on his trips abroad for meeting with the heads of foreign intelligence agencies.

According to the American documents recently published, Meir told Kissinger that Israel has a high-ranking source in Cairo, unusual even with the relations between Israel and the U.S. as tight as they were, the two sides usually were careful not to expose information about their assets. Upon receiving a report from Rabin on what was said about the U.S. in a secret Soviet-Egyptian meeting, Kissinger asked whether Israel knew what the U.S. said about it to the Egyptians. Rabin didn’t answer.

A source of flesh and blood

In a consultation Dayan, Eliezer, Zeira, and others held o the morning of 5 October, the disturbing news that IDF intelligence intercepted information on the emergency evacuation of Soviet advisors and their families from Syria. “The Americans are unaware,” said Zeira, expressing his concern that letting the Soviets know about the information gathered would “gravely endanger our assets. If we hear they took off, we could make it look like we found out from the Damascus International Airport.” Dayan replied: “Ignoring the problem of protecting our source, politically, it is in our best interest that the Americans ask the Russians why they were leaving?” Zeira: “After they get home.” Dayan: “Regarding the phrasing, I agree we shouldn’t expose our asset.”

Zeira and Dayan were, apparently, talking about information obtained by intercepting communications. The source Meir told Kissinger about in the afternoon of 22 October, at the Mossad academy, was a source of flesh and blood. She mentioned him in passing, in a discussion focused on the attempts to stop the fire at the channel, with Kissinger’s assistant taking notes. The conversation continued, without raising any special attention. Only later after the conversation was analyzed by intelligence officers, the meaning of Meir’s slip was exposed.

“Sadat doesn’t live in reality,” Meir once complained. “He thinks he will win. We have a source that told us that Sadat, when talking about returning lost land even at the price of one million casualties, actually means it.”

Weather credible or not, Marwan wasn’t the highest-ranking of Israeli sources. Even more prominent them him was King Hussein. The scientific adviser to the Agranat Commission, which investigated the IDF’s failings leading up to the 1973 War, Yoav Gelber, described Hussein as Meir’s ‘source’ in a letter he sent her family. “Exposing a source is the responsibility of the source’s handler,” Gelber wrote.

When the source’s handler is also the one to make the assessment, it is difficult to emotionally disconnect from him. As was the case in the Mossad, with Zamir’s defense of questioned Marwan’s fidelity, as well as, in the case of the CIA, whose right hemisphere served as a secret channel of communication with Sadat, while the left hemisphere was responsible of assessing the information coming in through this channel. So was the case with Meir, who on the 25 September, heard from Hussein the true facts about the Syrian and Egyptian preparations for assault, accompanied by the faulty assessment that this attack will most likely never take place.

According to the American documents, this wasn’t the first warning Hussein gave Israel that year. On 3 May, Hussein warned: “A great international military fiasco in the region is imminent. Ground forces from Algeria and Sudan will soon be in Egypt. Morocco will send forces to Syria, Libyan Mirages are already in Egypt. Substantial Iraqi forces will be found by the Iraqi-Jordanian border, under a unified command. The Iraqis wanted to station Lightning fighter jets in Jordan, but they will be stationed elsewhere. The ambassador Denitz commented on the information provided by the Jordanian monarch that it was verified by other Israeli sources of information. It was known that the Syrians had a central role in any military action and that they have begun preparing their forces.
“What do you think?” Kissinger asked.

“We think,” answered Denitz, “the king is inclined to exaggeration. He’s an alarmist.” He added “We are more concerned by the fact that we have similar information from another source. Egypt is also involved. (It’s supposed to take place) within a month.”

Two to three months earlier, before Meir’s visit to the White House, Nixon and Kissinger debated how to respond to her request to receive (and manufacture in Israel) hundreds of additional fighter jets. They adopted the CIA’s position that the advantage the IDF has over the Arab militaries would keep even without the jet deal. Richard Helms, which finished that same months his seven year service as head of the CIA, told Nixon that the IDF “will be able to beat each and every one of its enemies and all of them together, as long as the Soviets don’t get involved in the next five years, without additional planes. Their advantage is colossal, even though they won’t admit it, what proves how good they really are. Damn it, the Israeli’s are really so much better off with what they have than their pitiful and stupid neighbors that cannot do a thing without the Russians.”

A bluff

The Israeli-friendly Helms was sent to Teheran, as U.S. ambassador to Iran. He was replaced as head of the CIA by James Schlesinger, who held a much cooler sentiment towards Israel, which a few months later was once again promoted and made Secretary of State. The mid-April Israeli warning to the U.S. on Sadat’s intentions to cross the channel and attack Israel during mid-May, seemed to him suspiciously sudden. He didn’t think it likely war would break out, and if one did it surely would be Israeli who starts it.

On 16 April, Schlesinger reported to Kissinger that the Israeli concerns over Egyptian actions against Israel contradict the up-to-date intelligence assessments heard by the military attaché to Tel Aviv, in conversation with the head of the IDF’s intelligence’s research department, brigadier-general Arye Shalev, on 12 April. At that point Shalev didn’t believe Sadat decided to restart the war with Israel, nor that he was likely to do so soon. (He was right the decision was made at the end of August.) He remained steadfast in this position, in spite of the developments in the Egyptian army, including the arrival of Libyan Mirages.

Schlesinger added that the actions being taken by the Egyptian army are not indicative of intentions to renew the fighting but rather of an Egyptian “bluff”, intended to put pressure on Israel and the U.S. and to distract Egyptian public opinion from internal problems.
On 5 May, two days after his conversation with Denitz, Kissinger received an updated CIA assessment: “The Arabs’ patterns of activity do not indicate that violence is expected to break out before the UN discussion on the Middle East, at the end of May, we find it unlikely that Sadat will attempt any large-scale operations in the next six weeks. The Arabs want to apply maximum psychological pressure on us and the Israelis. There is a danger that these actions will gain momentum of their own in the future. The Israelis are following the situation closely, and are probably more concerned than their intelligence assessments show. These assessments still state Sadat will not go to war.”

A time for war

In a security-diplomatic discussion held 15 May, Schlesinger reported on an intelligence gathering mission held over Egypt “between a week and ten days ago.” No equipment was transported to the canal, he said. This means that Egypt only has air raids as viable attacks on Israel, air raids that would be “highly unintelligent on their part.” Kissinger also remembered seeing plans to land paratroopers in the Sinai, but Schlesinger insisted: if Egypt were to start something, it will be a part of a diplomatic ploy to gather sympathy after being beaten by Israel, “and even if they are talking about getting a foothold in the Sinai, we believe they will not be able to hold it for more than a week, which will not be enough to allow them to kick start negotiations.”

These discussions included all the basic parts of Sadat’s plan: crossing the canal, a foothold east of the canal, the renewal of negotiations – and the assessment that the plan will fail. On 17 May, the CIA assessment stated that Sadat believes the situation is “unbearable for himself and for Egypt,” and that therefore he is issuing threats, in hopes that this will entice the U.S. to put pressure on Israel. “Hostilities between Egypt and Israel seem unlikely in the next few weeks. The danger may rise if Sadat feels the discussions at the UN, during early June and the Nixon-Brezhnev summit at the end of June will not bring his country favorable results. Hostilities between Israel and the Arab world in 1973 will not include extensive land combat like on 1967 of a lengthy war of attrition like that fought in 1969-1970. Small and short commando operations or artillery barrages from Egypt followed by massive Israeli reparations are possible, though. An Israeli preemptive airstrike will be launched if Israel will receive the impression that Egypt is on the verge of an air raid on Israeli civilian targets.

On the day Hussein gave Kissinger an additional warning, all Syrian forces were given the order to concentrate on night combat. A top secret operation plan was written for a three-division night attack on the Golan Heights – clearing the Israeli front lines, followed by an armored divisions thrust the next day to capture the rest of the Golan. Iraq may provide to divisions as strategic reinforcements. Large quantities of Soviet military equipment including anti-aircraft missiles arrived at Syria in the past few months (The CIA has approved most of the information provided by Hussein until the arrival of equipment from Syria). It is possible that the Egyptians will soon begin some kind of action against Israel, it is also possible that the Syrians will be the first to attack only to be joined by an Egyptian attack on the canal.

Two weeks later, the head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Ray Klein sent Secretary of State Rogers, a more dire assessment regarding the possibility of war: If the deadlock between Israel and Egypt will not be broken in the UN discussions, “we estimate there is a higher than 50% chance that war will erupt by autumn. Sadat has no illusions that Egypt will be able to beat Israel militarily, but he is on the verge of deciding that only limited hostilities hold a real possibility of breaking the deadlock in negotiations, by forcing the world powers to get involved and force a settlement. If he stops debating the necessity of military action to bring a change in the American position, he will only need to decide on the timing and scope of the attack.

On the eve of the war, Klein predicted that despite the information received on Syrian intentions to attack Israel, “the political climate” was not ripe for such an attack, and Israel hasn’t expressed its concern. “Are ability to attain evidence of the preparations of land forces for war in Syria are very limited,” Klein explained.

After the warm the new head of the CIA, William Colby, dismantled and reassembled the CIA’s body responsible for issuing intelligence assessments. The CIA had not only failed to predict the war but also, once it began, initially, failed to determine which side started the war – Israel or its enemies. The NSA wasn’t fast enough to provide Colby with quality wiretaps, and only intercepted Damascus Radio which reported the war was started by Israel.

The mutual eavesdropping between Tel Aviv and Washington, between IDF’s intelligence units and the CIA, also contributed to the failure. The glass separating the two intelligence agencies was a mirror not a window. But the final word, with full logic, was given by Golda in a goodbye meeting with the new commander-in-chief Gur, after she announced her decision to step down in 1974.

The government is the supreme commander of the military and of intelligence. It also evaluates state and military intelligence. If responsibility is passed down from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense to the Chief of Military Intelligence, to the head of the research officers – and if we believe in the holiness of our sources, we arrive at the absurdity of Ashraf Marwan as the prime minister of Israel.

Golda reminded the major-generals that the raw intelligence does not speak for itself. It needs a spokesperson, it needs an interpreter. “I am afraid that the shock that struck the intelligence corps might cause people to be discouraged from interpreting pieces of news” said Golda to the new chief of intelligence, Shlomo Gazit. “Do you believe we must strengthen them? And while I do agree that we might this is the best intelligence in the world, they say that if you get burned, you become afraid, and it’s only human if humans say that it is best not to take chances, to remain neutral, and not say what we think. I believe that this could also be disastrous.”

“I gave the order to bring back the term ‘low probability’ to the lexicon”, dared Gazit. “But only if it is used properly,” responded Golda in agreement.

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