Surprise Attack: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 to Benghazi

Surprise Attack: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 to Benghazi

by Larry Hancock


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Surprise Attack explores sixty plus years of military and terror threats against the United States. It examines the intelligence tools and practices that provided warnings of those attacks and evaluates the United States' responses, both in preparedness – and most importantly – the effectiveness of our military and national command authority.

Contrary to common claims, the historical record now shows that warnings, often very solid warnings, have preceded almost all such attacks, both domestic and international. Intelligence practices developed early in the Cold War, along with intelligence collection techniques have consistently produced accurate warnings for our national security decision makers. Surprise Attack traces the evolution and application of those practices and explores why such warnings have often failed to either interdict or intercept actual attacks.

Going beyond warnings, Surprise Attack explores the real world performance of the nation's military and civilian command and control history – exposing disconnects in the chain of command, failures of command and control and fundamental performance issues with national command authority.

America has faced an ongoing series of threats, from the attacks on Hawaii and the Philippines in 1941, through the crises and confrontations of the Cold War, global attacks on American personnel and facilities to the contemporary violence of jihadi terrorism. With a detailed study of those threats, the attacks related to them, and America's response, a picture of what works – and what doesn't – emerges. The attacks have been tragic and we see the defensive preparations and response often ineffective. Yet lessons can be learned from the experience; Surprise Attack represents a comprehensive effort to identify and document those lessons.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619025660
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Larry Hancock is considered one of the top investigative researchers in the areas of intelligence and national security. He is the author of four books, including Nexus: The CIA and Political Assassination, and coauthor of The Awful Grace of God, a study of religious terrorism, white supremacy, and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Hancock's books have received endorsements and praise from former House Select Committee of Investigations staff members and the former Joint Historian for the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency. He lives in Oklahoma.

Stuart Wexler is coauthor of The Awful Grace of God. His work has been featured in the The Boston Globe, USA Today, and on NBC News. Wexler's work on forensics and historical crimes helped win him a national award from the American Statistical Association in 2008. He lives in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt



There are always warnings!

In January 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto prepared and transmitted a paper titled "Views on Preparations for War" to the Japanese Minister of the Navy. Yamamoto's paper addressed the likelihood that Japan would enter into war with America if the United States continued to oppose Japan's efforts to expand its territorial influence in pursuit of desperately needed natural resources. Japan had based its effort at becoming a world power on militarization and industrialization. It had invaded and annexed Manchuria (Korea) in 1931 and begun an invasion of China in 1937. Years of military action had dramatically increased its demand for natural resources, in particular oil, iron and aviation gas. In response to the Japanese invasion of China, in 1938 American economic sanctions had embargoed shipments of war materials other than petroleum. When Japan invaded the Vietnam territories of French Indochina in 1940, the Roosevelt administration moved to embargo American sales of scrap iron and steel — extending federal licensing and controls that had already been placed on sales of aviation fuel and high-grade scrap iron.

As of January 1941, Japan had been locked up in years of warfare and was becoming desperate for the natural resources to sustain its military effort as well as the overall growth of Japanese industry. American embargos were hurting the Japanese, but beyond that, the American Navy represented the only major obstacle to their seizure of the strategic fuel and mineral resources held by the European colonial regimes in Southeast Asia and Malaya. To enable such an effort and remove the American strategic threat, Yamamoto's paper called for a surprise attack on the first day of the war, striking the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The strategic threat of Japanese surprise attacks conducted in conjunction with its further military moves south was not something the American military missed. In an almost simultaneous communication of January 1941, Chief of American Naval Operations Admiral Harold R. Stark expressed his concerns of such a Japanese action to the American Secretary of the Navy. In his message, Stark stated his opinion that "[i]f war eventuates with Japan it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be eventuated by a surprise attack upon the fleet [the American Pacific Fleet] or the naval base at Pearl Harbor." Stark identified the most likely threats as being an "air bombing attack" and "air torpedo attack." Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox concurred with Stark's views and referred them to Major General Walter Short, the commander of the U.S. Army's Hawaiian Department.

Admiral Yamamoto's proposal evolved into a detailed tactical plan of attack on the American Pacific Fleet and its port facilities at Pearl Harbor. It was based in his strategic assessment that a Japanese military move through the South China Sea against British and Dutch territories would immediately be threatened by a westward surge of the American fleet — past Midway Island and Guam and on through the Japanese-mandated islands in Micronesia to the Philippines. An early version of the U.S. War Plan Orange (war with Japan) had indeed called for just such a fleet surge, referred to as a "Through Ticket to Manila," but that concept had been refined in 1934 to a more complex set of intermediate fleet movements.

At that time the plan for the American Asiatic Fleet was also changed from a defense of the Philippines to a retreat from the region at the onset of any Japanese attack. As of January 1941, Yamamoto's strategic understanding of America's war plan was outdated — but that had little impact on his continued planning to significantly weaken America's Pacific Fleet before it could move west. And his plan was not based on the need for absolute surprise; the task force that ultimately sailed against Hawaii was briefed and fully prepared to fight its way forward — even under attack — to carry out its mission against Pearl Harbor.

Threat observations and assessments such as Admiral Stark's are a routine and ongoing outcome of strategic intelligence, the assessment of international political and military trends. Strategic warnings are critical to both international policy development and high-level military planning. Stark's views were based on several discrete elements, including the Japanese incursions into Indochina in 1940. Japanese military success had forced the French into an accord allowing a major Japanese troop presence there, as well as granting transit rights for even larger forces. Stark was also persuaded of the threat by other factors, such as the firm stance by Japan that it absolutely had to have increased access to natural resources in Southeast Asia, the continuing diplomatic confrontation between Japan and the United States and a long history of American military exercises that had shown Pearl Harbor to be vulnerable to surprise air attack. In 1932, during a joint Army–Navy exercise the commander of the "attacking" Navy force had raced his carriers to Hawaii, catching the Army defenders totally by surprise. His air attack, at dawn on February 7, had caught defending aircraft on the ground and established full air superiority, exposing the base's facilities to a devastating attack.

Ironically, Stark's strategic assessment was almost immediately joined by a second warning, communicated in January 1941. Edward Crocker, the first secretary to the American embassy in Tokyo, sent a dispatch to the State Department. His warning was based on information from a diplomatic source in Tokyo. Crocker's dispatch related that he had been informed by a Peruvian diplomatic colleague that in the event of "trouble with the United States," Japan would attempt a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor. The Peruvian ambassador did not name his specific sources but stated that one of them was Japanese. After considerable inquiry, it was determined that the Peruvian diplomat was most likely passing on comments picked up by his secretary-translator. The ultimate source was unclear, and the timing may have been coincidental, but apparently a range of individuals were discussing and speculating on the possibility of such an attack.

The State Department advised the U.S. Navy of the diplomatic intelligence from Tokyo; however, the official Navy assessment was that with the known disposition of the Japanese naval force at that particular point, no such attack was considered to be imminent. The Navy's short-term assessment was accurate, but it would be much less so when "trouble" seriously escalated in November of that same year — at a point when the entire Navy intelligence network was losing track of several of Japan's airplane carrier groups.

Strategic warnings such as Admiral Stark's are certainly important in the overall study of surprise attacks, but in reality they are only part of the story. The full story involves threat intelligence, more specific warnings, actual alerts and ultimately the command-and-control responses that occur in response to the attacks themselves. All are part of the surprise attack story, and all contribute to understanding the history of America's response to such attacks, on the nation and on Americans and American assets overseas. If we are to fully understand that history, and more importantly learn something from its terrible lessons, it is necessary to become familiar with all the elements, from intelligence collection and strategic warning to the practices and protocols of attack preparedness and response.

Of course it's obvious that the basic elements related to dealing with potential surprise attacks would evolve and become almost agonizingly more complicated as the conventional threats of the 1940s were replaced by several decades of Cold War — with the ongoing threat of preemptive nuclear strikes. The complexity of warnings intelligence and threat response only increased in the 21st century, under a much broader range of threats ranging from global terror attacks from non-state actors to deniable cyber attacks by independents or rogue nations to coordinated military/cyber/space attacks. At the time of this writing, all of those elements remain in the total threat "matrix," exacerbated and magnified by seemingly never-ending military confrontations and tensions among regional powers.

Before venturing into such a complex environment, it is necessary first to explore the basics of surprise attacks in a simpler context, specifically in regard to the Japanese attacks in the Pacific in 1941. While the strike on Pearl Harbor immediately comes to mind, the Japanese actually opened the war against America with a dual attack — two strikes originally intended to occur virtually simultaneously but with that plan going astray in its earliest hours. While the attack on America in Hawaii was indeed largely a surprise attack, with local warnings and alerts over only a few hours, the Japanese moves against the Philippines were delayed by weather. That allowed a substantial, full-fledged state-of-combat warning to be communicated to the military command there.

The attacks in Hawaii and the Philippines provide a virtually unique comparison not only of the warning systems but also the tactical responses that followed, the alerts, the military reaction and the performance of the overall chain of military command and control as seen in two virtually concurrent attacks. Comparison of the American responses to these two "surprise attacks" proves revealing — and more than a little disconcerting. It also provides a series of benchmarks that can be used to determine the extent to which lessons were learned and carried into future decades.

As the months passed during 1941, there were continually increasing indications that Japan was preparing its military to move south, into the region of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Its strategic intentions were clear and openly stated; there were only two real questions: first, whether some sort of diplomatic accommodation would prevent military action, and second, if diplomacy failed, exactly where the Japanese would strike first. From the military perspective, the only viable answer to the question of Japanese attack plans was tactical intelligence, the real-time monitoring of Japanese naval unit movements via radio signal interception and, when possible, aerial reconnaissance. In January 1941, American naval intelligence had determined that the Japanese Navy was in no position to immediately threaten Pearl Harbor. That situation was much less clear by the fall of that year.

American radio tracking of Japanese naval units — signals intelligence (SIGINT) — was being conducted by some sixteen Pacific monitoring stations and an even more extensive network of monitors operated by the Federal Communications Commission inside the United States. That network used direction-finding equipment to track the location of ship broadcasts and was supported by an intense effort at code breaking, to actually translate the coded radio messages being sent by both military and diplomatic personnel. That code-breaking effort had been in play since 1921 when American code breakers had become able to read enough of the Japanese diplomatic codes to provide critical information to the negotiators in the international naval-arms treaty talks of that year. The story of American and Japanese code-breaking efforts prior to and during WWII is far beyond our scope and focus here; readers are referred to John Prados's groundbreaking work on the subject, Combined Fleet Decoded: The Secret History of American Intelligence and the Japanese Navy in World War II.

Our first point of focus in the Japanese strikes of December 1941 is on the strategic warnings that were provided to the commands that would come under attack. Threat indications and indications analysis are the key practices in what was to become a highly developed strategic intelligence specialty, "Warnings Intelligence," formalized during the Cold War. Warnings intelligence involves the constant search for developments, indicating that a hostile state or group is preparing an action that could affect American national security. To quote Cynthia Grabo, an intelligence service authority on the practice, "An indication can be a development of any kind. Specifically it may be a confirmed fact, a possible fact or an absence of something, a fragment of information, a photograph, a propaganda broadcast, a diplomatic note, a call-up of reservists, a deployment of forces, a military alert, an agent report or anything else." Some of most significant indicators relate to the steps, including the marshaling and movement of military forces, that the adversary would need to take in order to initiate hostilities.

General indications of imminent Japanese military action began to escalate significantly in the early fall of 1941. In October the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) alerted six American submarines to prepare for departure to Japan on short notice, submarines at Midway Island were directed to assume a war patrol in a ten-mile radius around the island, two submarines were sent to Wake Island to begin a similar patrol and orders were given to dispatch a squadron of reconnaissance planes for daily patrols in a hundred-mile radius around Midway. In addition, all Army and Navy troop transports, ammunition ships and others with military-related cargo were to be given military escort when sailing to or from Honolulu and Manila.

During late November 1941, primary-attack warning indicators began to be "tripped." False and diversionary Japanese radio messages, obscuring naval movements, became apparent. American tracking station operators noted in their reports that signals traffic had suddenly become very complex, with the same message being repeated numerous times, a characteristic of communications deception and of units going to "receive only" radio silence. By November 24, American naval intelligence was increasingly in the dark about the locations of a number of Japanese aircraft carriers. The ships had gone to total radio silence — just as the Japanese ships had that turned up off Indochina supporting Japanese landings there a year earlier. While they didn't fully realize it at the time, in reality naval combat intelligence had lost track of Japan's First, Second and Fifth Carrier Divisions. It would not locate them again until after hostilities had begun.

While the location of several Japanese carriers had become problematic, signals intelligence was able to track the movement of a number of heavy cruisers and battleships proceeding toward the South China Sea. The implications of those movements were not lost on the naval command, and Pacific Fleet Commander Husband Kimmel advised Naval Operations and the Navy command in the Philippines that the Japanese were engaged in an active military operation, involving two task forces. It appeared that Japanese military action was imminent.

The implications were also fully understood in the highest circles of military command in Washington, D.C. On November 24, Chief of Naval Operations Stark dispatched a top-secret estimate of the situation to the senior Navy commanders in the Pacific, CINCPAC Kimmel in Hawaii and Admiral Thomas Hart in the Philippines:

Chances of favorable outcome of negotiations with Japan very doubtful. This situation coupled with statements of Japanese Government and movements of their naval and military forces indicate that a surprise aggressive movement in any direction including attack on the Philippines and Guam is a possibility. Chief of Staff has seen this dispatch concurs and requests addressees to inform senior Army officers in their areas. Utmost secrecy necessary not to complicate an already tense situation or precipitate Japanese action.

It would be hard to visualize a situation involving a broader range of strategic warnings. CINCPAC had advised Washington and the Philippines that Japanese military action appeared to be imminent. The chief of Naval Operations had advised CINCPAC and the Philippines' Navy commander to expect surprise attacks on American installations in conjunction with Japanese military action. Within days, Washington made the situation clearer by specifically issuing a "war warning" message to all Pacific military commands, including not only Hawaii and the Philippines but those responsible for the West Coast and the Panama Canal. The wording in the message to Admiral Kimmel in Hawaii was especially specific:

Chances of favorable outcome of negotiations with Japan very doubtful. This situation coupled with statements of Japanese Government and movements of their naval and military forces indicate that a surprise aggressive movement in any direction including attack on the Philippines and Guam is a possibility. Chief of Staff has seen this dispatch concurs and requests addressees to inform senior Army officers in their areas. Utmost secrecy necessary not to complicate an already tense situation or precipitate Japanese action. This dispatch is to be considered a war warning. Negotiations with Japan looking towards stabilization of relations with Japan in the Pacific have ceased and an aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days. The number and equipment of Japanese troops and the organization of the naval task forces indicates an amphibious operation against the Philippines, Thai or Kra peninsula or possibly Borneo ...

For our focus, certain points need to be noted about these messages. First, in terms of strategic/threat warning, the general threat of surprise attack was seemingly as evident as we will find in virtually any of the instances of the following decades, including that of a terror strike inside the United States in the fall of 2001. Second, while the commanders at Pearl Harbor would receive the most criticism and actual disciplinary action following the initial Japanese attacks, it was the Philippines command, in particular General MacArthur, who had been most specifically warned that the imminent Japanese military action would involve a surprise attack on his forces. Finally, the last sentence of the message sent to Kimmel and Hart, with its order to conduct defensive preparations in secrecy, brings up a subject to devote considerable discussion to as this work proceeds — the concept and effectiveness of "deterrence."


Excerpted from "Surprise Attack"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Larry Hancock.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 WARNINGS,
Chapter 4 A NEW THREAT,
Chapter 9 TARGETING,
Chapter 10 CRISIS,
Chapter 17 INERTIA,
Chapter 18 ATTACK,

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