Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

The U.S. military has scrambled to add more intelligence analysts to cover Israeli and Palestinian issues since Hamas launched its gruesome killing spree in southern Israel on Oct. 7, according to two people familiar with the changes. Analysts at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters near Tampa, Fla., who had been following Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and other militant groups were reassigned to also start tracking developments and information coming in related to the emerging war between Israel and Hamas, the people said.

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The shift in resources was needed because, over the previous three years, leaders at CENTCOM, which oversees the U.S. war machine in the Middle East and Central Asia, had reduced the number of billets for civilian intelligence analysts tasked with keeping track of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said a person familiar with the changes. Those analysts that remained on the issue had focused their analysis less on Gaza and more on the West Bank and understanding internal Israeli politics, the person said.

Collecting and reviewing information about Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza has taken on new urgency for CENTCOM because Hamas is holding more than 200 hostages and some 10 Americans taken during the deadly rampage, and Iranian-backed militias have stepped up attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. President Biden has also directed two powerful carrier strike groups to sail closer to Israel. All three situations require CENTCOM’s attention.

The reshuffle reflects how the Oct. 7 attacks sent shockwaves through the U.S. national security apparatus, upending its priorities in the region. It also raises questions about how the broader U.S. intelligence community allocated its resources in the months and years preceding Hamas’ surprise offensive.

Officials at CENTCOM did not offer an explanation for why intelligence analysts needed to be reassigned.  “At this time, we are focused on providing our support to the people of Israel. We have a close partnership with Israel and always share timely intelligence about threats in the region with our partners,” said Michael Lawhorn, a spokesperson for CENTCOM, in a statement. “Our intelligence community is working hard to gain as much fidelity as possible. Will not comment further on the specifics of our intelligence sharing,” Lawhorn said. Officials at the  CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the entire U.S. intelligence community, declined to comment. 

During the Trump and Biden administrations, the U.S. government had focused diplomatic efforts in the region on trying to help normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and countering Iranian influence in conflicts from Yemen to Syria. The Biden administration was caught by surprise by Hamas’ surprise attacks.

“They didn’t see it coming. It’s not that they did a bad job. It’s just a reminder of the unpredictability of international relations,” says Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “The Israelis watch Gaza every day and they missed it.”

Earlier this year, CIA director William Burns suggested the situation in the region could soon turn more volatile. “Conversations I had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, you know, I think it left me quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians as well,” Burns said during a public discussion at Georgetown University in February. He added that he and others in the intelligence community were seeing similarities to a leading up to the Second Intifada uprising that lasted more than four years after former President Bill Clinton’s Camp David Summit failed to deliver a two-state solution in 2000.

In recent years, U.S. intelligence officials haven’t focused many resources on Hamas and the Gaza Strip because it wasn’t seen as presenting a threat to the U.S. homeland, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about closed-door discussions. “Israel is responsible for their own backyard. We cannot keep close tabs on Gaza the way they do,” the official says.

A decision by intelligence leaders to reallocate resources now, the official adds, “does not mean they were improperly allocated before” but that intelligence leaders are responding to new developments. “Given the outbreak in Israel, there is a larger risk, not so much of Hamas striking our homeland, as turning into a larger regional conflict that endangers US troops in the region,” the official says.

In recent days, Iran-backed proxy forces have launched drone attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, injuring U.S. service members, and a U.S. Naval ship shot down a rocket fired by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen that was heading toward Israel.

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