Against the Grain: Challenging the Consensus in IDF Intelligence

The IDF’s Intelligence Control Division challenges the conventional thinking of Israel’s intelligence community.  Its soldiers analyze top-secret information to find flaws and improve Israel’s understanding of its enemies.  The unit’s work helps to minimize threats and deter those seeking to harm the people of Israel.

You could call them the IDF’s most determined contrarians. They reject conventional wisdom and oppose the status quo. They challenge arguments and decisions, no matter how sound or reasonable. They even contradict IDF commanders and some of Israel’s smartest analysts.

IDF Intelligence Officers

IDF Intelligence Officers

Soldiers in the Intelligence Control Division are the military’s star debaters. Their job is to scrutinize Israel’s intelligence assessments and prove them wrong if necessary. Their findings could thwart enemy attacks and keep Israel’s civilians safe.

Although one of the IDF’s smallest intelligence units, the Control Division plays a central role in evaluating the threats facing Israel. Its work relates to a vast range of threats – including terror attacks, unconventional weapons and the risk of a war against Israel.

The unit prevents intelligence failures by reviewing interpretations of enemy activity. “Even with all of the processing, coordination and training [in IDF Intelligence], it’s always possible to make a mistake,” explains Colonel E, the commander of the Control Division. “We help [intelligence analysts] make mistakes much less frequently. We prevent people from getting locked into their points of view.”

The division grew from the lessons of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Syria and Egypt launched a surprise assault on Israel. After winning the war, the IDF made improvements to the Intelligence Corps to prevent future surprise attacks against the country. A key step was to create the Control Division, a unit that would study IDF intelligence assessments and offer alternative points of view.

Playing the devil’s advocate

The division applies a rare technique called the “vice versa approach,” or “the opposite is true” method. The approach requires soldiers to assess the conclusion of Israel’s intelligence establishment and defend the opposite perspective. Soldiers must examine intelligence from every possible angle and make the case for a different interpretation if necessary.

Soldiers Alerted to the Front During the Yom Kippur War

Soldiers were alerted to the battlefront after a surprise attack that began the Yom Kippur War

With the help of this technique and others, the unit performs a painstaking review of key Israeli intelligence. It must consider whether all of the facts support the conclusions of the analysts who produced them. In some cases, soldiers must decide whether certain conclusions were based on assumptions or on all of the available facts. The soldiers also consider the various conclusions that may be drawn from the same database of information.

“We are exposed to everything that’s done in research and intelligence gathering,” Colonel E says. “I have a very small but skilled staff – people with expertise in a variety of fields. From the materials we receive, they produce questions that others wouldn’t normally think of.” In this way, the division raises unique interpretations that may reach senior commanders and ultimately shift the IDF’s intelligence analysis.

In many cases, the unit is effectively asked to challenge experienced analysts. Its researchers thoroughly examine pages of analysis to identify conflicting claims, find logical flaws and build the case for a better assessment. “We don’t need to be right,” Colonel E explains. “Our role is to help the people we’re in touch with – whether it’s the Chief of IDF Intelligence or analysts in the IDF’s branches and regional commands  – to understand that they might need to test themselves, and examine whether they’ve made mistakes.”

The unit’s techniques reveal its unique culture within the IDF system. In a world characterized by rules and order, the division welcomes an open environment of debate and discussion. This culture allows for differences of opinion among analysts, thereby stimulating a more fruitful and productive conversation. On a daily basis, researchers in the division freely express their opinions without fear of penalty. In addition, the unit prevents commanders from pressuring analysts to alter their views.

IDF Chief of Defense Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi

IDF Chief of Defense Intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi

“Sometimes a low-ranking officer comes to his commanders with a particular opinion, and he’s encouraged to present his opinion to the entire division,” Colonel E says. “Assuming there is something worth examining, we perform the proper evaluation, and in some cases the idea reaches the Chief of IDF Intelligence.”

Making an impact beyond the IDF

The influence of military security officials in Israel reaches far beyond the IDF. In 1996, the unit began to share reports directly with Israel’s top political leaders – including the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister and members on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of Israel’s parliament.  In this respect, the unit enjoys one of the highest levels of free expression relative to similar control units worldwide.

While the Control Division focuses much of its resources on the IDF, it also examines the findings of the Mossad and the Israel Security Agency (ISA or Shin Bet Security Service)  – Israel’s elite intelligence agencies. The unit compares the estimates of Israel’s research bodies and highlights their differences for key consumers of Israeli intelligence.

With these distinguished roles, the Control Division is able to broaden its influence on Israeli society. Most importantly, the unit is positioned to give crucial guidance to Israel’s leaders and deter enemies seeking to harm the people of Israel.