The World Food Prize Foundation

Iowa View: Diplomat says ignoring intelligence reports can lead to tragedy

12/10/2012

By: Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

At 6 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1941, a communicator at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo dispatched a classified, encrypted message to the State Department in Washington, D.C., with the following information:

 

“ ... the Japanese military forces planned, in the event of trouble with the United States, to attempt

a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor using all of their military facilities ... ”

 

That’s right. Almost 11 months before the Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into World War II, a State Department Foreign Service officer, in what was arguably the single most important intelligence report ever submitted in our country’s history, had provided the exact target that Japan would actually strike.

This information had been obtained, not by any sophisticated technical intercept nor a spy, but rather by an American embassy officer from a “diplomatic” source — i.e., another foreign diplomat, one who had close relations inside the Japanese government. The information had been obtained at a cocktail reception.

Once received at the State Department, the cable was routinely shared with appropriate offices in the government, including in the intelligence community and the military command.

And yet, as U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorated during the year and the day of the attack grew close, with intelligence “chatter” in intercepts suggesting possible hostilities, this report was not brought to the attention of the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of war, nor any senior military commanders. Nor apparently was it ever referred to within any of the analytical estimates being produced inside the United States government.

And so when the Japanese planes shattered that sunny Honolulu morning, it came as a total shock to virtually everyone in government. Thousands died who perhaps might have been saved had the information in that report been heeded and U.S. Naval ships dispersed.

How could that have happened? How could it be that neither President Franklin Roosevelt nor anyone else in the U.S. foreign affairs hierarchy knew about the Jan. 27 embassy cable?

The answer appears to be that State Department reporting — “humint,” as it is called — was not, and still is not, accorded the same status as CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency or National Security Agency signals intelligence (called “sigint”) or information from controlled intelligence assets, which are called spies.

That Tokyo report had been filed away and never referred to again.

I confronted the same syndrome three decades later in 1974 while stationed virtually alone along the remote Vietnam-Cambodia border.

There, by interviewing refugees and piecing together bits and pieces of information, I was able to put together a lengthy analysis showing that the Khmer Rouge were a radical, extremely violent Communist Party with a plan to turn Cambodia into a totalitarian, genocidal killing field.

But no one in Washington believed what I had documented. Indeed, not even my superiors in Saigon accepted what I had discovered.

Despite my efforts when back in Washington to convince people of this incredible threat, no one really listened. And so, just like that prescient cable from Tokyo, my report was filed away.

When, a year later, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge followers captured Phnom Penh and imposed their genocidal regime — which would take the lives of two million Cambodians over the next four years, just as I had outlined — Washington and the world were incredulous.

Reflecting the continued low priority assigned to State Department reporting, over the past 30 years our country has systematically degraded our diplomatic collection system by closing consulates all over the globe and eliminating political reporting positions in embassies.

As a result, we did not have the assessments of emerging radical fundamentalism in the Middle East that language-trained officers traveling in the countryside, as I did with Cambodia, might have provided about the emergence of al-Qaida in the 1990s and the plans for the 9/11 attacks on America.

It was likely an effort to gather such critical reporting that motivated Ambassador Chris Stevens to open a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, where he was killed.

There is much debate about who will be the new secretary of state.

But to whomever occupies that proud office, I hope that one of your first acts will be to send a strong signal to the U.S. Foreign Service about how much you value the information that embassy officers can develop. I hope that you will revamp the way diplomatic reporting is evaluated and used by the intelligence community.

There could be no more fitting tribute to Ambassador Stevens. And, it might just head off another attack on our country or prevent another genocide.

Source: The Des Moines Register

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