US intelligence warned of potential for Gaza clash in days before attack
CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 10/13/2023, 12:49 p.m.
Originally Published: 13 OCT 23 13:07 ET
Updated: 13 OCT 23 13:25 ET
By Katie Bo Lillis, Zachary Cohen, Alex Marquardt and Natasha Bertrand, CNN
Washington (CNN) — The US intelligence community produced at least two assessments based in part on intelligence provided by Israel warning the Biden administration of an increased risk for Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the weeks ahead of Saturday’s seismic attack on southern Israel, according to sources familiar with the intelligence.
One update from September 28 warned, based on multiple streams of intelligence, that the terror group Hamas was poised to escalate rocket-attacks across the border. An October 5 wire from the CIA warned generally of the increasing possibility of violence by Hamas. Then, on October 6, the day before the attack, US officials circulated reporting from Israel indicating unusual activity by Hamas — indications that are now clear: an attack was imminent.
None of the American assessments offered any tactical details or indications of the overwhelming scope, scale and sheer brutality of the operation that Hamas carried out on October 7, sources say. It is unclear if any of these US assessments were shared with Israel, which provides much of the intelligence that the US bases its reports on.
Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are also on a “hot spots” list included in intelligence briefings for senior officials almost daily, a person who receives the briefings said.
Intelligence assessments are written by the intelligence community to inform policy makers and enable them to make decisions.
“The problem is that none of this is new,” said one of the sources familiar with the intelligence. “This is something that has historically been the norm between Hamas and Israel. I think what happened is everyone saw these reports and were like, ‘Yeah of course. But we know what this will look like.’”
But the assessments were among a wave of high-level warnings given to the Biden administration by both its own intelligence community and Middle Eastern allies over the past year, raising questions about whether the US and Israel were appropriately attuned to the risk.
A senior official from an Arab country in the region said their country repeatedly raised concerns with US and Israeli officials that Palestinian anger was reaching a dangerous pitch. “But they never listened every time we warned them,” the official said.
A Middle Eastern ambassador in Washington, DC, also told CNN that their government had repeatedly warned the White House and US intelligence officials of a buildup of Hamas weapons and anger among Palestinians that was set to explode.
“The arms that exist in Gaza is beyond the imagination of anybody’s thinking,” they warned, the ambassador said. “The arms that exist in the West Bank, via Hamas, are also becoming a real problem and Hamas control of the West Bank is a real issue.”
“This in every meeting, every meeting in the last year and a half,” the ambassador added.
And in February, CIA Director Bill Burns told an audience at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service that he was “quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“I would not come to the conclusion that the intel community was not tracking this from a strategic level — in fact they were,” a US official told CNN.
Yet those strategic warnings did nothing to help US or Israeli officials predict the events of October 7, when more than 1,000 Hamas fighters poured across the border into Israel in an operation that would leave more than a thousand Israelis dead. For most US and Israeli officials who were tracking the intelligence, the expectation was that there would likely be just another round of small-scale violence by Hamas — perhaps some rocket fire that Israel’s Iron Dome would intercept, one source familiar with the intelligence explained.
“If we had known or if we know of a pending attack against an ally, we would clearly inform that ally,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Friday.
Senior Biden administration officials — as well as current and former intelligence officials — continue to say they remain focused on the crisis at hand and insist that is too soon to review how the planning for such a massive attack was missed.
Multiple current and former intelligence officials, as well as some lawmakers briefed on US intelligence, pushed back on the notion that the failure to provide tactical warning of the attack was the US’s responsibility — because so much of US intelligence reporting on Gaza originated with Israel in the first place.
Another source familiar with the intelligence sumbumed up the US view: “Israel missed this, not us. We have a level of confidence in Shin Bet, the IDF, Mossad and others.”
The New York Times also reported on the existence of some of the reports and that they were not briefed up to President Joe Biden.
The Office of Director of National Intelligence and the CIA declined to comment. The White House did not respond on Friday to repeated requests for comment from CNN.
Based on conversations with dozens of current and former intelligence, military and congressional officials, the view is coalescing among US officials and lawmakers that Israel’s failure to predict the explosion of simmering rage from Gaza was primarily due to a lack of imagination.
Hamas likely hid the planning of the operation through old-fashioned counterintelligence measures such as conducting planning meetings in person and staying off digital communications whose signals the Israelis can track. But US officials also believe that Israel had become complacent about the threat Hamas posed and failed to recognize key indicators that the group was planning for a large-scale operation.
For example, Israeli officials failed to recognize routine Hamas training exercises as a sign that the group was preparing an imminent attack. The militants trained for the onslaught in at least six sites across Gaza, a CNN investigation found, including at one site less than a mile from Israel’s border.
“There were numerous indicators of a change in posture generally by Hamas and then pivoting both in public rhetoric and posture more towards violence and attacks generally,” said one source familiar with US intelligence.
In general, the Biden administration’s public posture in the lead up to the attack also did not reflect a heightened sense of alarm about the potential for violence. The intelligence community’s annual assessment of worldwide threats, released in February, does not mention Hamas.
“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at The Atlantic Festival on September 29.
“Challenges remain,” Sullivan said, citing “tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. “But the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced.”
Hamas had refrained from entering two smaller cross-border skirmishes within the last year between another Palestinian militant group and Israel. Israel believed that its policy of offering work permits to Gazans and allowed Qatari money into the country had given Hamas something to lose — and lulled the group into quiescence.
“Hamas is very, very restrained and understands the implications of further defiance,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security adviser, told an Israeli radio channel six days before the assault.
It’s also possible that the Hamas operation was more successful than the group anticipated, one former intelligence official and another source familiar with current intelligence said.
“I think that it’s very possible, if not probable, that Hamas vastly exceeded its own expectations,” the second person said. “They thought we would mount this assault and there would be a couple dozen killed but never did they think it would rise to the level it did.”
This story is breaking and has been updated.