One of the most studied intelligence failures of the past fifty years is Israel’s performance in the lead up to the Yom Kippur War. Despite numerous indicators that Egypt and Syria were planning an actual attack, Israel’s intelligence establishment continued to dismiss them as acts of deception. To be sure this failure was not one of “collection.” Israeli intelligence had collected many facts and identified numerous “dots.” Rather, this was a failure of analysis. The question is why did this happen?
The heart of the problem from Israel’s perspective was that its intelligence community became a prisoner of its assumptions—assumptions that had never been tested or proven true to begin with and were certainly not tested as time went on. The underlying assumption guiding Israel’s analysis was that Egypt would not go to war without knowing a military victory was possible. Short of a military victory, Israel could not conceive of any reason to go to war.
Given this primary assumption Israeli intelligence developed “the Concept.” According to the Concept, Egypt would not consider itself capable of military victory without sufficient air power to neutralize Israel’s air superiority. Since at the time, Egypt did not have such air power, Israel assumed that Egypt would not attack. Given Israel’s primary assumption that Egypt would only go to war if it could win, the Concept made sense. Such being the case, Israel was forced to dismiss or interpret accordingly evidence that did not support this working hypothesis. Sadly for Israel the primary assumption was wrong. Egypt under Sadat was not aiming for a military victory, but rather a political victory that would better position it in future negotiations with Israel.
Although Israeli intelligence fell victim to many cognitive traps while analyzing Egyptian activity in late-summer 1973, the erroneous projection of Egyptian goals was a result of what is known as mirror imaging. Mirror imaging is when analysts (or decision-makers, for that matter) project their own views of reality and personal perspectives on others. For example, prior to Pearl Harbor many American decision-makers did not think Japan would attack the United States because it wasn’t a war Japan could win in the long run. They failed to understand that Japan’s goal was not to win the war, but to force the United States to negotiate with them under favorable conditions. Likewise, American leaders could not conceive that Saddam Hussein would prevent inspectors from checking for WMD if he didn’t actually have them. They failed to understand that Hussein was more fearful of the consequences if Iran discovered that he was bluffing.
Leaders must not only be careful that they don’t fall victim to mirror imaging, they must, assume that the other side will fall victim to mirror imaging and act accordingly. This concern is underscored in Moshe’s supplication to Hashem in the aftermath of the Meraglim’s sin. The Torah relates (14:12) that G-d wanted to destroy Bnei Yisrael and start anew by establishing a nation through Moshe’s offspring. Hashem’s calculus, as Moshe understood, was simple. Bnei Yisrael sinned – terribly. As such, they forfeited their right to exist. By punishing Bnei Yisrael so thoroughly and swiftly G-d intended to teach the world an important lesson.
Moshe, however, pleaded with G-d and argued that the nations of the world would derive the wrong lesson. He felt that the other nations would not imagine that Hashem Who, loved Bnei Yisrael so dearly, would ever destroy them simply because they were disobedient. Rather, as Rashi explains Moshe’s argument (13-16), the nations of the world would claim that G-d was strong enough to defeat one king, namely Pharaoh. But the reason He destroyed Bnei Yisrael was because G-d was not strong enough to defeat thirty-one kings. Therefore, instead of encouraging people to believe in and fear G-d, by destroying Bnei Yisrael G-d would just fuel the impression that He didn’t have enough power to conquer the land of Israel. Moshe was in essence arguing that the nations of the world would fall victim to mirror imaging. According to their understanding of how deities operated, a god would only destroy his people if he were powerless to defend them. They couldn’t imagine that G-d’s love of Bnei Yisrael was conditional upon observance of His laws and belief in His omnipotence. Such an idea was simply not on their radar.