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THE FALKLANDS WAR: AN INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

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By Mikkel Bøgeskov Eriksen

Introduction

Today, getting the right intelligence is vital to the Kingdom of Denmark. Especially given the Russian rhetoric, perception and actions in the Baltic, Middle Eastern and Artic theatres. When do we know how to utilise pragmatism and when to draw a red line: too much deterrence can escalate a conflict, too much pragmatism and lack of willingness to fight, can convince the rival of one’s indirectly surrender.                                                                                           

As the article will elaborate later, the Sandwich Island Incident, in 1982, convinced the Argentine Junta that Britain was harmless. In relation, what does Putin think of the Danish Kingdom’s willingness to defend itself and its allies in the aftermath of the feint assault on Bornholm during the People’s Political Festival in 2014?

On April 2th 1982 Argentina initiated a military invasion of the Falkland Islands in relation to a long held territorial claim. The invasion was an outcome of numerous years of diplomacy which had failed to resolve the sovereignty dispute. Argentina’s decision to invade in April rather than September was taken only six days before the April 2th invasion date and this evidently made the invasion more difficult to predict.                                                               

This chain of events raises the key question, why the British Joint Intelligence Community failed to foresee the Argentine invasion of the Falklands. To attempt an answer, it is relevant to assess the challenges that confronted the UK Intelligence Community, to find out at what point in time the failure of the intelligence operation became inevitable, and to assess the underlying intelligence concepts.

Intelligence Failures

The Argentine invasion of the British Falklands Islands in 1982 has often been described as an intelligence failure; the failure of the Joint British Intelligence Community (JIC) to adequately warn and prepare the British Government against the threat of invasion. Consequently, Britten was taken by surprise, and she had to fight a war, far away from the British Islands, in the/a South Atlantic theatre, a war which could have gone both ways. 

This intelligence failure does not stand alone in contemporary history: one can think of Pearl Harbour, Operation Barbarossa, the Tet-offensive, Yom-Kippur, The Iraqi War of 2003 and 9/11. To explain these failures are difficult, and all these intelligence failures have their own unique chain of action in a specific historic context. We often tend to think certain events were destined to happen, or a nation’s leader could calculate and foresee the chain of actions after considering a vital political decision.                                                                                                                   

Therefore, we tend to forget all the other factors in the historical context, which could have shaped history in another direction. However, this not a question of ‘what if’ something else had happened. The point is rather a suggestion to look at these factors, which pointed at another direction than the one history took at a given time; and think of these as well, while trying to draw lessons learned or using a historical epoch as explanation to contemporary history.   

The highlighted intelligence failures are serious business. An intelligence failure can be deathly costly. In the case of the German Invasion of the Soviet Union, the loss of lives is numbered in millions. Speaking of operation “Able Archer” in 1983: lack of correct intelligence almost started a nuclear war, as the Soviet leadership and the Intelligence Community were convinced that the NATO exercise was a feint for an actually invasion. Consequently, the Soviets considered the first strike. The British mole Gordievsky, who were stationed at the Russian Embassy in London during the exercise, warned the British about the Soviet fear, and the operation was scaled down to such an extent that the Soviets restrained from conducting the first strike.  

Scrutinising intelligence failures 

Contrary to corrupted authoritarian states, democracies benefit from evaluations and scrutinising of intelligence failures: lessons are learned, and from those lessons we can improve, prepare against and prevent  threats. Recently, the Lord Butler Report of the British engagement in Iraq and the American 9/11 Commission stand as such examples. In the case of the 9/11 some of the lessons learned were: the need for more cooperation between the security and intelligence agencies, including better security infrastructure.

For instance, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) failed to distribute threat assessments on terrorist operatives, which could have improved domestic airports and airline security procedures. Also better platform for the political establishment and the agencies gathering intelligence in relation to the political strategy. Finally, the commission pointed out the threat of strategic thinking failure, in other words: the threat of being blind towards new threats.

Likewise, a commission report, the Frank Committee Report, was created in the aftermath of the Falklands War, and have by many scholars been used as reference to explain what really happened in the process leading up to the war. However, this article argues that the Frank Committee Report is politicised, and shows a wrong picture of the Intelligence Community’s handling (management?) of the Argentine threat. In fact, this article will illustrate that the Franks Committee Report was influenced by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO). The baseline of the argument are the first-hand sources: Hugh Bicheno, who was the only British intelligence officer located in Bueno Aires from 1976-80, and Major-General Julian Thompson who commanded the 3. Commando Brigade during the war. That said, the article shall now proceed to elaborate the argumentation of why the Franks Committee Report was manipulated. 

Why did the intelligence operation fail?

Richard Aldrich's review of the Franks Committee report states that:

"the war was very sudden and no one had predicted the Argentine invasion more than a few hours in advance."

Aldrich's view constitutes the general assumption that the invasion of the Falklands was due to an intelligence failure. Gerald W. Hopple follows the same assumption, concluding that the conflict was not foreseeable partly because of lack of intelligence.

Aldrich claims that the JIC influenced the ministers and officials to assume that Buenos Aires would use peaceful means to achieve their goals.

On the basis of the Franks Committee Aldrich stresses that the JIC identified two intelligence failures: perseveration and overreliance on secret intelligence. Psychologically, perseveration refers to a brain damage thus forcing the individual to repeat certain acts or words. This assumption seems out of proportion, since it demotes intelligence officers to being unable to respond to stimuli from their surroundings thus exacerbating the intelligence failure.

On the other hand, Hugh Bicheno, who worked as an intelligence officer in Buenos Aires claims that the Franks Committee knew that an invasion was imminent due to Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) from the National Security Agency (NSA) and the listing post on HMS Endurance, which provided a couple of days advanced warning, but the Frank’s committee was restrained from making it public.

It is noteworthy that the FCO controlled the JIC and decided to whom secret intelligence reports were to be read. That being said, it is likely that the reports that came out the FCO illustrated the FCO's agenda. Bicheno claims that his reporting on the Dirty War was suppressed by the FCO after the reports had convinced Prime Minister Callaghan that it would be morally wrong to hand over the inhabitants to a military dictatorship.

“I’m not handing over two thousand Britons to a gang of fucking fascists”

In short, the Dirty War is a reference to the period of 1974 to 1983, in which the Argentine Junta conducted an organised state terror to supress supporters of socialism.

In regard to the overreliance of secret sources, an FCO correspondence on the 28th December 2012 shows that open sources, such as British Ambassador Anthony Williams, whom Aldrich is referring to, was irrelevant since the information with which he contributed was already known.Mr Williams suggested that the advice he had been sending to the FCO about Argentine intentions had been ignored. The FCO’s responded: 

“In this he is not correct or fair. Officials and Ministers dealing with the Falklands were only too aware of the emotions the Falklands issue raised in Argentina. Furthermore, they knew that Argentine patience was running out and that once the Argentine Government concluded that the negotiation process held no promise of success, they would turn to other means, not excluding military action”

Clearly, there is a contradiction between the Franks Committee's report, supported by the general academic assumption, and people involved in the operation, such as Bicheno, Major-General Julian Thompson and Williams. Regarding Bicheno, et al., it is possible that they exaggerated the actions of the FCO due to personal involvement in the operation, however, the bottom-line points are of significance.

On balance, the operation was not a holistic intelligence failure because it accurately estimated the imminent threat of invasion thus a success of solving the puzzle of indicators. However, it was a failure in solving the secrets of a surprise attack and the exact time. The British mind-set and the lack of Argentine domestic and international interpretation, restrained the JIC to foresee that the Argentine political elite would conduct a surprise attack and an actual occupation of the Islands.

The structure sets off from a psychological level to a domestic and international level.

The challenges that confronted the UK Intelligence Community

The Psychological Approach

Mirror imagining

Mirror imaging helps to explain why the intelligence committee failed to foresee the invasion. In words of David Omand:

“(the JIC) found it difficult to believe that the potential aggressor would indeed find the use of force politically acceptable.”In addition, a “tendency to assume that factors which would weigh heavily in the United Kingdom would be equally serious constraints on countries ruled by one party governments and heavily under the influence of a single leader.”

As a democratic country with a history of respecting International law, the intelligence committee expected the Argentinian government to follow the logical path of escalation.

The logical sequence was for Argentina to cut off air communications and to impose a naval blockade, raising the economic and diplomatic cost to Britain so that it would be forced to negotiate from weakness”

It is possible that the perception was transferred to the new elite who would be "Crying wolves" and thereby use threats or even an occupation for negations. Nevertheless, from the British perspective the invasion was too irrational to consider possible. In the words of Bicheno:

“The last thing anyone, myself included, suspected was that they would do the one thing that would unequivocally put them in the wrong and justify a military response with full domestic and international support. They were far, far more stupid than we were prepared to believe”.

Admiral Jorge Anaya's mind-set

Besides Galtieri the new elite included Admiral Jorge Anaya who showed great contempt for the UK. Anaya was involved in planning the operation of the South Sandwich Islands in 1977. The British government's wish  not to publish the incident encouraged him to convince Galtieri to invade the Falklands. In relation to this, inter-service rivalry was a driving force  because Galtieri's had a personal interest in strengthening his position within the military, and by conducting an invasion Galitieri would gain stronger naval support from Anaya.

Argentinian Domestic Policy

Nationalism

The JIC should have considered the domestic situation in Argentina as a potential spark to conduct a surprise attack. The socio-economic situation was increasingly unstable. In relation to this, the military's actions during the Dirty War might have led Galtieri to believe that an invasion would change the perception of the military and thereby the political elite thus reversing declining legitimacy and credibility by boosting nationalism. the massive enthusiasm of the Argentine people post invasion, left Galtieri little space to manoeuvre and the possibility of "occupar para negocier" was obsolete.

International conditions

“JIC reports were notoriously narrow focused and lacked international context and lateral thinking.”

International anarchy

In 1981-82 the international system was in a sort of anarchy, e.g. Iran´s hostage situation, and that created a window of opportunity which could be exploited by the Argentine political elite. First, the Argentine efforts of fighting communism lead the political elite to think that the US would allow the military to invade the Falklands. Second, the US approach to the Suez crisis

in 1956 likely generated a rational perception that the US would not support the UK due to the US policy on colonialism.

NATO allied arms sales

In relation to the perception of a British acceptance of an invasion, UK Allied arms sales to Argentina during the 1970's included West Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Belgium. The underlying signal was an approval for an increase of Argentine military capability thus strengthening the Argentine perception of a legitimate occupation of British territory. 

UK international approach

In regards to the perceived signals of approval, the UK's International approach also impacted the Argentine political elite's perception of a weak UK that would not engage in a War. This is mainly because of two factors. First, The British self-perception of a nation in decline, due to economic stagnation and the loss of the empire, was reflected into the international arena, and absorbed by the Argentina's political elite.

Second, policy action such as the Memorandum of Understanding in 1968 signed by Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart and Argentine Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez. The essence of the memorandum was a promise of management of the Falklands:
 
“When it could be shown to be in the best interest of the inhabitants the Government of the United Kingdom as a part of a final settlement will recognize Argentina's sovereignty over the Islands from a date to be agreed".
 
However, the British Government was caught in a dilemma, since the islanders did not wish to join Argentina. The outcome of the dilemma was an appeasement policy, which was regarded as weakness and could be exploited to bully the UK into giving up the Falklands.
 

At what point was the failure of the operation inevitable

Hindsight bias and the complexity of history sometimes makes small decisions significant in retro-perspective which makes it difficult to establish a point of inevitability.  Nevertheless, FCO Secretary Lord Carrington later admitted that he had been warned about Argentine intensions. He knew that if the New York talks in 1982 did not provide the Argentine government with a desirable result they would use force. Since the UK Government could not offer anything new, and the Islanders could not? be persuaded, Carrington  knew that an invasion was inevitable and this is also the explanation of his reassignment due to his responsibility. The Frank’s Committee Report states that the JIC expected that 

 “Argentina would not do anything rash until faced with a clear breakdown in negotiations"

One must ask: what constitutes a clear break down? Such a statement is tended to wipe away the responsibility of the Lord Carrington and the FCO. In reality, a “clear breakdown” to the Argentinians meant that they could not be offered anything new by the British, and Lord Carrington knew that.

Inevitable Failure of the Underlying Intelligence Concepts

The FCO and the Ministry of Defence were warned by the JIC but both were reluctant to make contingency plans, making the reports pointless. The FCO's reluctance could be due to a desire to bring the dispute to a UN level and get rid of the Islands because of their cost. This helped Argentina to believe that an invasion would be tolerated. In relation to the "Intelligence Cycle" the dissemination failed to circulate to the right people, such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, due to the FCO repression of INT assessments. As a result, policy action was taken despite intelligence recommendations.  The JIC had been, to a great extent, politicised.

In respect to forecasting the invasion date, the concept of "Strategic Surprise" includes two failures: if policy makers interpret in a certain way or ignore intelligence, and if analysts cannot define what intelligence is significant and what is not. If policy makers had not ignored the intelligence and enforced a deterrence policy, combined with enough highly altered forces in the Falklands theatre, the surprise attack could have been reacted on either by the Junta to continue negations or by responding on SIGINT from Endurance and NSA. In addition to analytic failure, the JIC did to some extent fail to define the significant intelligence, which by the use of the intelligence cycle (figure 1) can be due to inability to gather the right or sufficient intelligence i.e. a mole within the power elite could have warned London in advance. In regard to the analysis, cognitive weakness and institutional bias contribute to explain the failure of foresee the invasion. As Richards Heur explains:

"The longer they are exposed to this blurred image, the greater confidence they develop in this initial and perhaps erroneous impression, so the greater the impact this initial impression has on subsequent perceptions"

The blurred image or "impression" of a "logical escalation path was cognitive weakness that not only existed within the JIC but also in the FCO and thereby creating a loop between the institutions and reinforcing this assumption. It relates to the term "layering" which also seems to be the case of  the intelligence that led to the assumptions that Saddam Hussein had WMD thus layering intelligence to a fundamentally wrong assumption.

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Conclusion

The invasion can be explained by the FCO all-but invited the Argentine Junta to resolve the matter by force, and for the reason that the FCO and the MoD impacted the Argentine Junta to be certain that the UK not only would, but also could not regain the Falklands Islands. Therefore, the politicised Franks Report can be regarded as a smokescreen to conceal the contemptible truth.

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