Remembering "A day that will live in infamy"

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Thomas Hensley
  • 315th Training Squadron commander
The surprise dawn attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, brought disaster on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack resulted in the sinking of 18 major fighting ships, including four out of eight battleships; 188 aircraft destroyed and 2,403 U.S. personnel killed.

The Japanese suffered minimal losses: 29 aircraft, five midget submarines, and 65 personnel. The assault came as an enormous shock to the American people. United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it "a date which will live in infamy." And, as a result of the attack, America formally entered World War II, putting into motion a chain of events that would eventually result in the employment of the first atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Japan, and the establishment of America as the dominant world power.

However, the attack should not have come as a surprise.

America had key intelligence indicators of an imminent Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, but it failed to recognize and act on those indicators. Strategically, war with Japan was almost inevitable. By July 1941, Japan's continued militaristic and expansionist policies throughout the Pacific forced the Allied powers to take action. President Roosevelt employed military power by moving the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Hawaii and building forces up in the Philippines to deter Japanese aggression. In addition, led by the United States, the Allied powers instituted an embargo on the export of oil, rubber, and steel to Japan.

America and her allies intended to use economic power to force the Japanese to the negotiating table. Japan's war-making ability and economy absolutely depended on these vital resources. American policy makers and intelligence analysts predicted that Japanese stockpiles would run out in six months and that the Japanese High Command would be forced to pull back from its expansionist conquests and come to the bargaining table. This perception, however, proved disastrously wrong. In contrast to America's intended effect, Japanese planners only saw one option - seize by force the resources that Japan required and remove America's ability to interfere in the Pacific.

Despite this strategic miscalculation, America had tactical intelligence that revealed Japanese intentions. Similar to Britain's Ultra operations that resulted in the breaking of the German Enigma encryption system, America could read secret Japanese ciphers, code-named Magic, and had critical insights into their plans in advance. The Navy and Army divided the responsibility for collecting, processing, and disseminating these intercepts. The Navy intelligence service, under the operation code-named Orange, had nearly complete access to daily Japanese naval traffic. The Army's Signals Intelligence Service, under the operation code-named Purple, was responsible for breaking the diplomatic traffic.

However, due to inter-service competition, the two services did not cooperate on collection management and refused to share information. This inter-service rivalry, coupled with the distrust shared by both services of American politicians' abilities to keep secrets, resulted in an unorganized, disjointed and fragmented American intelligence architecture built on service fiefdoms, stovepipes, and, ironically, secrets. As a result, American national intelligence lacked the ability to coordinate and fuse intelligence. No one had the complete picture.

The inability to collect, analyze, and report signals intelligence effectively to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, can not be attributed solely to the fractured nature of the intelligence architecture. Intelligence personnel had to deal with a significant amount of "noise," other collected bits of information that mask vital intelligence. Japan was also preparing to conduct major, higher priority attacks on other targets for strategic occupation, primarily in the Far East. By November 1941, it was clear that the American-led policies of bringing Japan to the table were failing; Japan was preparing for military operations against Thailand, Malaya, Burma and the Dutch East Indies.

For signals intelligence analysts, the "noise" was quite deafening. The collected intercepts concerning Japan's attack against these territories drowned out the indicators of an imminent attack on Pearl Harbor, leaving few unambiguous indications. As a result, the forces at Pearl Harbor remained unprepared. The commanders on the island knew a Japanese attack against American interests was imminent, but they never thought an attack would occur against the heart of the Pacific Fleet.

On this day, America remembers and honors the sacrifices of its fallen heroes at Pearl Harbor. However, as the Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of Goodfellow Air Force Base remember that infamous day, we're also reminded of the critical role that intelligence plays in our nation's security - and the perpetual challenges to effectively integrating that intelligence into policymaking and war fighting.

The United States intelligence community will always deal with issues of proper training, limited resources, collection priorities, perceptions and misperceptions, intended and unintended consequences, and "noise." Piercing the fog of war and providing perfect, predictive intelligence will remain an elusive task, especially when trying to get inside the mind of adversaries to determine their intentions. Breaking down fiefdoms and stovepipes, sharing secrets, and improving critical thinking skills have been resurgent themes for American policy makers following the surprise attack by Al Qaeda on 9/11.

America's national intelligence community has made great strides in these areas; however, it is vital that America continues to perfect its ability to pierce that fog.

We owe our nation, its leaders, its military forces, and its people nothing less.