Strategic Warning:

Surprise, Intelligence Failures, and Indications and Warning Intelligence

The Writings of Richard K. Betts

Betts is one of the (if not "the") most highly regarded commentators on surprise, intelligence failures, and warning intelligence.

"Analysis, War, and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures Are Inevitable." World Politics 31, no. 2 (Oct. 1978): 61-89. In Power, Strategy, and Security, ed. Klaus Knorr. Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Kovacs, IJI&C 10.4/384, refers to this as a "seminal paper."

"Fixing Intelligence." Foreign Affairs 81, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2002): 43-59.

"Paradoxically, the news is worse than the angriest critics think, because the intelligence community has worked much better than they assume.... U.S. intelligence and associated services have generally done very well at protecting the country....

"The community has undergone several major reorganizations and innumerable lesser ones over the past half-century. No one ever stays satisfied with reorganization because it never seems to do the trick -- if the trick is to prevent intelligence failure. There is little reason to believe, therefore, that the next reform will do much better than previous ones....

"The underlying cause of mistakes in performance ... does not lie in the structure and process of the intelligence system. It is intrinsic to the issues and targets with which intelligence has to cope: the crafty opponents who strategize against it, and the alien cultures that are not transparent to American minds."

Betts, Richard K. "Intelligence Test: The Limits of Prevention." In How Did This Happen? Terrorism and the New War, eds James F. Hoge, Jr., and Gideon Rose. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

"Intelligence Warning: Old Problems, New Agendas." Parameters 28, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 26-35.

The author uses two general categories of warning -- factual-technical and contingent-political -- to conclude that in the post-Cold War world, "with many moderate and murky threats rather than one big and clear one,... it will become harder to view as many warning objectives in terms of the Cuban missile crisis or Midway [factual-technical] models. What were always the tougher challenges for warning, but could be considered secondary in wartime or the Cold War, are the contingent-political eruptions in all sorts of small countries. The simplest inferences from this are that the United States needs to cultivate more expertise on the new trouble spots, and to put more effort into human intelligence."

Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1982.

Pforzheimer tells us that this book is "considered by some to be the most useful and authoritative" work on Indications and Warning Intelligence. The author's examples are from 1940 onward.

"Surprise Despite Warning: Why Sudden Attacks Succeed." Political Science Quarterly 95, no. 4 (Winter 1980-1981): 551- 572.

"Warning Dilemmas: Normal Theory vs. Exceptional Theory." Orbis 26 (Winter 1983): 828-833.

and Thomas G. Mahnken, eds. Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003.

According to Freedman, FA 83.2 (Mar.-Apr. 2004), this tribute volume to the late Michael Handel "addresses one of Handel's favorite topics: how countries can manage their intelligence to avoid getting caught by surprise.... These essays ... conclude that there are inherent difficulties in trying to guard against surprise, although there are approaches to intelligence collection that can reduce its likelihood."

Peake, Studies 48.1 (2004), says that "[e]ach of these essays is well documented and calculated to make the reader think and learn." For Inbar, NWCR 58.1 (Winter 2005), the editors have "put together an impressive group of practitioners and academics to write on various aspects of the work of intelligence agencies." They have produced "an excellent introductory collection for students and the professional reader to the gamut of issues with which the field of intelligence grapples."

Return to Strategic Warning Table of Contents

Return to Analysis Table of Contents