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date: 02 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

Intelligence failures are commonly understood as the failures to anticipate important information and events, such as terrorist attacks. Explanations for intelligence failure generally include one or more of the following causal factors: organizational obstacles, psychological and analytical challenges, problems with warning information, and failures of political leadership. The earliest literature on intelligence failures is found in the 1960s, having developed in the context of the Cold War. At the time, the stable bipolar system was threatened by periodic surprises that promised to alter the balance of power. With tens of thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, the United States and the Soviet Union spent a great deal of time and energy assessing each other’s intentions and capabilities and trying to avoid a catastrophic surprise. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, scholarship on intelligence failure decreased substantially. In the meantime, this scholarship diversified to include topics such as the environment, human rights, drug trafficking, and crime, among other things. Surprises in these areas were perhaps more frequent, but were less consequential. However, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003, interest in both scholarly and journalistic analyses of intelligence failures has once again increased.

Keywords: intelligence failures, strategic surprises, Cold War, intelligence successes, intelligence failure literature

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