When the furious mob was about to storm the sultan's palace, the wazir's agents spread the rumor that wheat was being distributed for nothing at the town gate. The mob forgot the palace and ran to the gate.
Suddenly the wazir jumped up and started to run. "Where are you going?" the sultan cried, "You know that there is no wheat!"
"Who knows?" retorted the wazir, "Maybe there is?"
I was reminded of this story by the recent turn of events in America. After long months of sheepish silence, since September 11, during which all the US media marched in lockstep behind the President (much like the Israeli media behind Sharon), critical voices started to be heard. Where had the intelligence agency been? Could they have known in advance what was about to happen? Are they guilty of a monumental failure? Who is responsible? Only the agencies, or the President, too?
Bush did not like it at all. When his people realized that this was going to come to a head, the agencies discovered a horrible new conspiracy: the cruel enemy was planning to explode radioactive bombs in the US. They even discovered the frightful bomber: a little street-punk of Hispanic origin, who was about, at any moment, to commit this truly sophisticated outrage.
The nation was seized by hysteria, the media and the Congress again stood to attention. Perhaps there was even some truth in the story. As the wazir said: Who knows? Maybe there is?
In the meantime, the failures of the intelligence agencies were put in the freezer again. But one cannot suppress the fact for long. The US isn't Israel; the media there are not used to goose-stepping and to licking the posterior of the people in power.
So what did the CIA and the FBI know? If they already had in their possession a multitude of suspicious facts, why did they not draw the obvious conclusions? Why did they not warn, take preventive steps, inform the leadership?
It reminded me of another episode, one that was quite different - and yet astonishingly similar.
After the 1973 Yom-Kippur war, the Chief-of-Staff, General David ("Dado") Elazar, was relieved of his office. A Commission of Inquiry declared that he bore the main responsibility for the failure to mobilize the reserves and to move the troops to the front in time, a failure that enabled the Egyptians and Syrians to take the initiative and make significant advances at the beginning of the war.
Some months later Dado invited me to his home. He was suffering from severe mental stress, convinced that a terrible injustice had been done to him. How could he be held responsible for the failure, if the army intelligence department (known by its Hebrew acronym, AMAN) had hidden from him, before the war, all the information that had accumulated in its files?
What information? Sitting next to him, I listened with growing amazement when he enumerated some of the items that had come to the knowledge of AMAN at the time. For example: that an Egyptian army Mufti (Muslim chaplain) instructed the soldiers of his unit that from the next morning the Ramadan fast must be broken. Since the Ramadan fast is one of the five cardinal commandments of Islam, this by itself should have lit a giant red light in AMAN.
The intelligence department had a lot of such items. An Egyptian submarine at sea was ordered to observe absolute radio silence from a certain hour on. An Egyptian soldier used the wireless to take leave of his brother in another unit with the Muslim blessing reserved for believers who are facing death. And so on...
What had happened to all these items of information? Nothing. They were buried in the files. Why? Because the chief of AMAN, Elie Za'ira, was absolutely sure that the Egyptians would not dare to attack the mighty IDF. He believed that their movements were a big bluff, designed to exert pressure on the Israeli government. All the pieces of information received fell into the black hole of this preconceived idea (called in Hebrew "Conceptsia", a word that became famous at the time.) They were not brought to the knowledge of the Chief-of-Staff, and therefore did not reach the Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, or the Prime Minister, Golda Meir.
(Only Little Me had warned Golda in a Knesset speech, some months before that, that the Egyptians would attack, even if they were convinced that they would be beaten. Golda's absolute refusal to respond to Sadat's peace signals had caused a complete political freeze. The Egyptian were certain that a military attack, even a failed one, would break the ice.)
The Yom Kippur failure smashed the myth of Israeli invincibility and changed the situation in the Middle East. But it was not a unique occurrence. Far from it. Much the same thing happened to the Russians on the eve of the Nazi invasion ("Operation Barbarossa"), when Soviet intelligence had received in time exact details of the impending attack, including date and hour. Nearly the same thing happened to the Americans at Pearl Harbor. The list is long. Why did this happen to them? Where (as you say in Hebrew) is the dog buried?
I have pondered about our 1973 failure for years. What had caused an intelligent officer like Za'ira (no pun intended, I don't think that "army intelligence" is necessarily an oxymoron) to stick to his "conceptsia", even when before his very eyes the Egyptian offensive was unfolding? Was it only intellectual arrogance, as some believed?
In Israel, the chief of AMAN has immense power. He is the only person to submit to the political leadership the "national situation evaluation, which to a large extent dictates government policies. In theory, he is an a-political soldier, and his evaluations are supposed to be totally professional.
But is this really so? In every country and under every regime, the chief of intelligence knows that his career depends on the political bosses. Consciously or unconsciously, he adapts himself to the concepts of the leader - be he a ruthless dictator or a democratic Prime Minister.
After the Six-Day War Golda and Dayan led a nation intoxicated by victory. They did not dream of giving up any of the conquered territories. For this purpose, they spread contempt for the Arabs, the feeling that Arabs were vastly inferior, that one could safely ignore them. "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people," Golda pronounced, and Dayan made jokes about the Arab armies. The army intelligence chief just adapted himself and turned this into the Conceptsia.
Stalin was not ready to admit that his agreement with Hitler was a historic mistake. Therefore, he threatened to send to Siberia any intelligence officer who brought him reports about the impending Nazi attack. The Americans made fun of the "little yellow fellows" and Franklin Roosevelt thought that he could provoke them with impunity.
Intelligence people hear their masters' voices and deliver the goods. Always. Much as the present Israeli intelligence chief supplies Sharon with the evaluations proving that Arafat is a villain and also quite irrelevant. These are leaked almost daily to the media.
Before September 11, 2001, the chiefs of the CIA and the FBI knew that the new president had no head for international affairs, that he wanted to concentrate his capabilities (such as they are) on domestic matters. Bush did not want to deal with the Middle East and quarrel with the mighty Jewish and Fundamentalist-Christian lobbies. So why tell him that in the Middle East an immense fury against America was building up, mainly because of its support for the Israeli occupation? That there was a concrete danger that Muslims were about to commit spectacular revenge actions? (And anyway, what could those miserable Arabs do?)
Therefore, no special importance was attached to the items of information coming in, which should have lit a big red ligh,t in time. They were not sent up, did not cause the quarreling agencies to pool information, and, of course, were not brought to the attention of the President and his crew in the White House.
Will an inquiry into this failure do any good? I wonder. Because, before the next disaster in the US, Israel or anywhere else, intelligence people will again deliver to their leaders exactly what they want to hear -all in the framework of a thoroughly "professional" Conceptsia.
Uri Avnery is an Israeli journalist, peace-activist, and former member of the Knesset.