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Why did intelligence failures occur at Pearl Harbour? What are the consequences of the intelligence failure?

INTP376- Cases in International Security Submitted By Ryan Stirling Assignment Two


This research will be conducted on the attacks by the Japanese on the United States Navy at Pearl Harbour in 1941. The question that will be asked is how these attacks occurred with no US knowledge and to blatantly put it caught with their pants down. The answer to this question can be found by way of intelligence failure and in adversary, Japanese counter intelligence. Such intelligence failures and counter intelligences that will be brought to attention in this paper will be that of Japanese efforts to keep the attack a secret, underestimation of the Japanese strength and overconfidence on behalf of American powers, Sources of the US intelligence and finally the much talked about conspiracy theory. These factors can help explain why the US intelligence failed with regards to Pearl Harbour. Consequences of such failures will also be discussed with regards to mass fatalities, crippled navy and numerous injuries which consequently resulted in America entering into World War II.


In order to look at intelligence failure at Pearl Harbour, we must first look at the relationship between America and the Japanese leading up to this event in order to determine whether the attack was predictable or not. By looking at the political affairs between the Japanese and the US before Pearl Harbour, you can see that Japanese and American interests began heading on a potential collision course. This collision course stemmed from the Japanese being victorious over Russia in 1905 which resulted in Japan becoming the leading power in East Asia which consequently resulted in American becoming very cautious towards Japan. This caution

led to America creating a war plan, War Plan Orange for potential war on Japan in the future. Along with a huge power shift towards Japanese power resulting in concern, Japanese immigrants in America came under fire from American racism. This hatred towards the Japanese immigrants in America resulted in personal violence in schools especially which then led to segregation within schools. As a result in such racism, many discriminatory laws and treaties were brought against Japanese immigrants in America. An example of this is seen by Education boards passing regulations whereby children of Japanese descent would be required to attend racially segregated separate schools. Alongside this a gentlemans agreement between the two countries was formed which untimely stopped new Japanese immigrants coming into the country, this discrimination outraged the Japanese.

As seen above the relationship between Japan and America was not a particularly healthy one. With this in mind America would have had to have seen Japan as a potential enemy risk. This risk became very real on the dawn of December 7, 1941 when the Japanese launched more than 370 planes against the US Pacific Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbour. These Japanese fighters were deployed to raid Pearl Harbour and destroyed the American defences, which they comfortably did with the loss of only 29 aircrafts. Adversely severe damage was inflicted on the US forces as a result of the Japanese surprise attack. With the final death toll reaching 2,403 and some 1,178 injured, this was not an attack by a country that had a good relationship with America. Along with casualties caused the crippling of the US Air Force and Navy was astonishing with eighteen operational warships and six battleships destroyed beyond repair. The army air force losses were even more devastating with 18 bombers and 59 fighters being destroyed in the raid and in addition to this there was extensive damage to numerous airfields. With such severe damage been done at Pearl Harbour, elements of surprise was obvious, as American forces could only offer ineffectual resistance

Intelligence Failure-

Before determining whether the American forces failed to collect the appropriate intelligence to dismantle such an attack on their own soil, one must first distinguish what intelligence failure is. According to Sherman Kent Intelligence is knowledge, organisation and activity Intelligence failure would be to fail in anyone part of this definition resulting in an attack that was not predicted and evidently not stopped.

With such a history the likelihood of an attack in the above nature was imminent. The American intelligence however did in fact recognise such a threat this can be seen by the fact that on the eve of Pearl Harbour, Washington expected the Japanese surprise attack. However, failure occurred with regards to knowledge as American leaders could not detect the target or method of the attack. This failure stems mainly from a lack of qualified information, as well as counter intelligence on behalf of the Japanese. Secondly intelligence failed at the organisation stage from mistakes in analysis and management of intelligence. Finally the intelligence failed at the activity stage with regards to the lack of activity pursued once information was received that an attack was going to occur. This lack of activity stemmed from many things including underestimation of the enemy, over confidence in the American military power and finally the much talked of conspiracy theory. As a result of such failures serious consequences resulted with many lives lost and millions of dollars in military defenses.

Lack of qualified Intelligence:

Japanese Counter Intelligence:

The success of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbour can be attributed to three very important tactics employed by the Japanese to directly complicate the US intelligence collection and analytical efforts. Three tactics employed by the Japanese in attempt to counter the US intelligence agencies consisted of; thorough planning, strict security policies employed within the military and finally the use of deception. These three tactics combined to conceal Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor which as a result reduced the risk of an attack before the mission was carried out and it limited the effectiveness of US intelligence analysts and decision makers by way of not knowing the true intentions of the Japanese in the Pacific.

Japanese planning prior to the attack involved a very thorough process concerning the concealment of its movements during the operation along with which sea route to take to Hawaii. Planning of the route to take concerned a number of key aspects which included taking a route which eliminated the possibility of passing any other ship, this was a particularly hard task as the Pacific is a key importation and exportation route for ships. Along with this planning had to go into minimizing the risk of exposure the closer they got to the enemy territory. In order to plan for such occurrences the Japanese carried out research on what routes were never used by ships this process took ten or more years to conduct which involved accounting for the route of every single ship to sale the pacific in the time period. From such research conducted the Japanese were able to determine a course which was near 40 degrees North Latitude that no ships had ever passed before.

The second concern around the route to be taken was decreasing the chances of being detected the closer they got to enemy territory. Many plans were put in place in order to decrease this likelihood. The concealment of the Japanese fleet during the operation was a major focus. Concealment was reached by having units cross as far as three thousands miles apart so that they go unnoticed from the enemy. In addition, the closer to the enemy target they got task forces were to move with a high speed in the darkness of night this is to limit the visibility of US air forces. Ships were also instructed to not use radio communications so they

did not get picked up on radars or on American radio frequencies.

The second tool used by the Japanese in order to throw US intelligence agencies off their trail in discovering what the Japanese were really doing was the use of a sticked security policies employed on the army. Such policies were executed successfully by way of limiting the number of people who knew of the plan, the use of verbal contact over radio communications, the close surveillance of foreigners in the country and finally the censorship of all media going out of the country. By limiting the people who knew of the attack decreased the likelihood of something being leaked. This was pulled off by not informing soldiers and commanders of the plan to attack Pearl Harbour, until the moment when the operation was launched. Firstly in order to keep the plan in secrecy personnel preparing to depart their home ports as part of the strike force were informed that they were participating in a training exercise. The Japanese also chose to marshal their fleet in the Kurile islands prior to sailing. This eliminated virtually any chance of its detection by foreign attaches, observers, or agents.

Moreover, the most sensitive part of the order related to the operation was conveyed verbally.. Some captains went so far as to remove radio fuses and seal the transmitter keys to ensure there were no accidents.36

In addition, while the Japanese Imperial Navys detailed plan was issued in seven hundred pages, providing full details of the attack on the Philippines, Malaya, and so on, the Pearl Harbor mission was pointedly erased.65

Japanese security practices further concealed preparations from the U.S. intelligence effort and primarily took two forms: counterespionage and operations security. As noted earlier, the Japanese had a mania for spies and implemented a far reaching national security program. Society was conditioned to distrust foreigners and avoid contact; the secret police and military security forces effectively surveilled and controlled the

movement of foreigners throughout the country;33 and the government censored all wire cables, telephone messages, and newspaper articles being sent to foreign destinations.34 This activity caused Ambassador Grew to disclaim any responsibility for noting or reporting overt military evidence of an imminent outbreak of war.35 Complementing these activities were the operations security practices implemented by the Japanese Navy. Personnel preparing to

depart their home ports as part of the strike force were informed that they were participating in a training exercise. The Japanese also chose to marshal their fleet in the Kurile islands prior to sailing. This eliminated virtually any chance of its detection by foreign attaches, observers, or agents. Most importantly, the entire striking force observed strict radio silence after leaving their home ports in mid-November. Some captains went so far as to remove radio fuses and seal the transmitter keys to ensure there were no accidents.36 Complementing these activities were the deception techniques employed by the Japanese. These were quite thorough and designed to conceal the assembly, formation, and transit of the strike force from HUMINT and COMINT collection. Japanese soldiers were dressed as sailors and sent on leave in Tokyo and Yokohama to give the impression that the fleet was still in home waters.37 Aircraft designated for the carriers were replaced at their training bases by those from another unit in order to keep up the appearance of normal flight operations. Other deceptive activities included reinforcing garrisons in Manchuria, implying a possible invasion of Russia and sending false war plans for Chinese targets to individual commanders.38 The most important, however, involved the simulation of carrier radio messages.39 To enhance the deception, regular radio operators were left in home port by the departing task force to transmit the