When it comes to a history of failure, bad intentions and antisemitism, it is difficult to top the U.S. State Department, but the CIA’s record is as bad or worse, just not as well-known. The current CIA director, Bill Burns, a longtime employee of State, brought his ill-informed and destructive views to the agency.
Before addressing Burns’ latest inaccurate analysis and harmful activities, let’s briefly review a few lowlights of the CIA’s history in the Middle East.
In October 1947, the CIA was concerned with the “political, economic and social stability” of the region “to counter Soviet infiltration” and ensure U.S. access to Middle East oil, which “depends on friendly U.S. relations with the Arab people as well as with their governments.”
On the eve of the partition vote, the CIA incorrectly predicted the Arab states would not declare war or send their armies to fight the Jews. It believed the Arab leaders feared their position at the U.N. would be jeopardized if they defied a U.N. decision. The CIA’s assessment that the Jews could mobilize around 200,000 well-equipped and trained fighters and that the economy would collapse was also wrong. The agency also inaccurately predicted the Jews could not hold out longer than two years.
After failing to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, the CIA sought to sabotage it and prevent America from developing a close relationship with Israel. In 1951, King Saud asked U.S. diplomats to finance a pro-Arab lobby to counter what later became the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). That organization, the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), was funded by the CIA until 1967.
The CIA was caught flatfooted when Israel collaborated with France and Britain to attack Egypt in 1956, infuriating President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The CIA boasts of its accurate analysis of the situation in 1967, but the Board of National Estimates concluded that May it was “highly unlikely” Egypt would attack Israel and that while Israel could drive the Egyptians from the entrance of the Strait of Tiran, it would suffer heavy losses. The board anticipated a possible Israeli attack, which it said would weaken the U.S. position in the area.
While Israeli intelligence failures related to the 1973 Yom Kippur War are well-known, the CIA’s may be less familiar. An analysis of U.S. intelligence said a report issued on Oct. 4 indicating war was not expected was “a conclusion that was to haunt the intelligence community like no other since Pearl Harbor.” President Richard Nixon admitted, “As recently as the day before, the CIA had reported that war in the Middle East was unlikely.”
The CIA was and continues to be wrong in its assessments of the nuclear threat in the region. The CIA did not recognize the danger of Iraq’s nuclear project or the Israeli plan to attack it. It did not know about Syria’s nuclear reactor, downplayed its military nature when Israel provided intelligence about it and judged a covert raid as “too risky.”
More worrisome, the CIA rejected Israel’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear program in 1992 (its doubts were not allayed until 2003) and has had to rely on Israeli intelligence to discover documents and facilities. Despite the evidence of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, Burns said as recently as 2021 that the CIA “doesn’t see any evidence that Iran’s Supreme Leader has made a decision to move to weaponize.”
Besides these intelligence failures, the CIA has taken actions to deliberately undermine Israel’s security. It has long been the case that Israel has had better spy networks in the region, but a cable sent by an outgoing CIA officer, leaked to The New York Times, admitted it had lost its sources in Iran and that the U.S. is relying on Israeli agents. Israel is so concerned about leaks from the CIA and other officials with access to intelligence about its operations that it has taken precautions to limit the information it shares with the U.S.
During the Obama administration, there were routine leaks, such as when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed information about a possible Israeli strike against Iran. In 2019, U.S. officials confirmed Israel bombed an Iranian arms depot. Another disclosure was that Israel had assassinated a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 2022. The year before, leaks revealed that Israel had attacked Iranian ships. Most recently, U.S. officials told the press that Israel was behind the drone attack on the Iranian military facility in Isfahan.
Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security, noted these leaks “are intended to limit Israel’s maneuvering room” and signal to the Iranians that the U.S. can be trusted in negotiations on the nuclear deal because it is reining in the Israelis. Meanwhile, they undermine confidence between Israel and the U.S.
Although less damaging to Israel’s security, Burns’ recent remarks are alarming. Speaking at Georgetown University after returning from his trip to Israel, where he used the stale evenhanded language of the Arabists to describe the situation, Burns suggested that conditions were reminiscent of the days before the second intifada (which I believe more accurately should be called the Palestinian War). He was talking about the violence over the past week or two, ignoring that terror attempts and attacks have been incessant since the signing of the Oslo Accords, when the Palestinians promised to end all violence. His remarks also misrepresented history, as the Palestinian War was not an outgrowth of mutual attacks but an uprising orchestrated by Yasser Arafat.
The CIA has a long record of failures in the Middle East, which Burns seems determined to augment. This is not only dangerous for American interests, but Israel is also threatened if his agency engages in the type of malign activities towards the Jewish state reflective of its longstanding anti-Israel bias.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby,” “Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”