Pearl Harbor: An Intelligence Failure That Lives in Infamy

Stratfor Global Intelligence, 07.12.2016
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor has been the subject of intense scrutiny and countless rehashings. But just as important as the events that unfolded Dec. 7, 1941, are the circumstances leading up to the assault. (HO/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor has been the subject of intense scrutiny and countless rehashings. But just as important as the events that unfolded Dec. 7, 1941, are the circumstances leading up to the assault. (HO/AFP/Getty Images)



It has been 75 years since Japan launched its surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, and in that time, the raid has lived in the infamy that President Franklin D. Roosevelt described. The events that unfolded on Dec. 7, 1941, have been the subject of intense scrutiny and countless rehashings through the years, noted as much for their military tactics as for their role in drawing the United States into World War II. But just as important as the attack and its aftermath are the dynamics that preceded them. Though the strike on the Hawaiian naval base came as a shock to the United States, it did not come without warning. For those of us in the business of forecasting, Pearl Harbor offers a sobering case study on the shortcomings of intelligence and prediction. 



Compared with the elaborate infrastructure that the United States boasts today, the country's intelligence apparatus was inchoate in the early 1940s. Nevertheless, analysts and military leaders had been tasked with monitoring and assessing Japan for a potential threat. For months before the attack, the United States had been engaged in high-level negotiations with Japan to stabilize the situation in East Asia. As the talks deteriorated, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications indicating that Tokyo did not see a future for its diplomatic relations with the United States. American communications specialists had broken the codes Japan was using for diplomatic missives and could read the messages Tokyo sent to its various embassies, including instructions sent just ahead of the attack for diplomatic posts to destroy all sensitive materials. Yet when the Imperial Japanese Navy struck Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Pacific Fleet was sitting unaware and vulnerable in port. The United States knew of Japan's preparations for hostilities, but it came up short in understanding Tokyo's thinking and anticipating its strategy.


A Misjudged Threat

One of the U.S. military's gravest errors leading up to the attack was underestimating Japan's military capabilities. U.S. intelligence on Japan was woefully out of date, thanks to Tokyo's secrecy and Washington's lack of deep contacts in the country. The United States assumed, for instance, that Japanese vessels lacked the fuel capacity needed to bring them in range of Pearl Harbor. Analysts pegged U.S. military positions in the Philippines and Guam as more likely targets. In addition, the U.S. military mistakenly thought that Japan's torpedoes would be ineffective in the relatively shallow waters of Pearl Harbor and that its air force still relied on designs copied from other militaries. Without the intelligence necessary to update their understanding, U.S. analysts and military commanders could not account for the steady improvements Japan's military had made over the preceding 20 years. Consequently, when signs of the impending attack were detected — American naval vessels spotted submarines outside Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, and radar picked up aircraft that were misidentified as U.S. B-17 bombers — they were not interpreted as such.

The United States' military and intelligence analysts made another fateful mistake in failing to consider Japan's point of view in the runup to the assault. American analysts' own biases colored their assessments of U.S.-Japanese relations and initially led them to dismiss the possibility that Japan would be so foolhardy as to wage war on a country with 10 times its industrial capacity. Little did they understand that Tokyo considered the oil and steel embargo placed on it by the United States as an existential threat and felt that it needed to act quickly — no matter the consequences — before it ran out of supplies. Furthermore, the analysts based their evaluation on the assumption that Japan would attack the United States only to engage it in a full-blown war. But in striking Pearl Harbor, Tokyo had merely intended to weaken the United States to keep Washington from interfering with its campaign in East Asia.


The Pitfalls of Strategic Intelligence

Though intelligence fallacies and faulty forecasting are seldom as consequential as they were in the case of Pearl Harbor, recent history offers numerous examples of similar challenges and oversights. Few foresaw the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, despite the unrest that had been brewing throughout the Middle East and North Africa. What began as a series of protests in 2010 soon exploded into a wave of popular revolt against governments that, like much of the international community, had underestimated the extent of public dissatisfaction and the political force that disenfranchised youth and labor unions could bring to bear. Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014provides another study in the fallibility of forecasting. The crisis unfolding in Ukraine was unmistakable, and Moscow's involvement was clear, but even so, few observers could imagine a foreign power annexing a European territory in the 21st century. The hybrid warfare method that Russia used, moreover, came as a surprise to the rest of the world, even though it had been enshrined in that country's military theory since the waning days of the Cold War.

There is, of course, no silver bullet with which to overcome the inevitable pitfalls of strategic intelligence. Even the soundest methods and the best intelligence collection assets can yield erroneous conclusions. Avoiding mistakes, or at least minimizing them, is a matter of analytical culture — from the profiles and training of the analysts to the way they approach their task, communicate with one another and present intelligence to its intended audience. To a great extent, strategic intelligence is as much an art as it is a science, requiring fluid levels of creativity and imagination that defy the constraints of a set methodology. Still, to properly assess a situation and correctly interpret information, analysts must have a firm foundation of subject-matter expertise and rigorous procedures to guide them. As one gets further away from tactical intelligence, assessments depend more and more on probability. The complexity and nuance of a given situation may be difficult for an analyst to accurately assess and even harder to communicate between layers of analysis or to consumers such as policymakers.

The demands of strategic intelligence are constantly evolving, as is the discipline itself. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States' intelligence capabilities were in their infancy and did not begin to develop in earnest until after World War II concluded. But the infamous battle offers lessons in strategic intelligence that still ring true 75 years later.

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