Pearl Harbor and 9/11: Intelligence Failure Essay

April 18, 2021 by Essay Writer


Some of the most dreadful incidents in the US are easy to pinpoint. Such cases include the death of President John Kennedy, the Pearl Harbor attack, and the 9/11 terrorist assault. In particular, the Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 may be viewed as the most traumatic events, considering the tension they caused in the entire US. Remarkably, many studies have continuously compared the two events pointing that they share many similarities. The most prominent claim, which forms the basis of the discussion in this paper, is that both events were a case of intelligence failure. Indeed, the cases of intelligence failure reoccur with disappointing regularity.

Subsequently, a committee is formed to identify the faults and/or recommend how they can be averted. Both traumatic events led to the formation of a body to investigate of the shortfalls. Based on the findings of the bodies and the ongoing discussion among Americans concerning the similarities, the ensuing discourse compares the events of 7 December and 11 September. The initial section will briefly describe the facts of the incidents. Subsequently, it will offer a comparison of the intelligence failure in both cases with a substantial consideration of the intelligence process. The discussion will conclude that the events were more different, rather than similar as many people suggest.

Facts of 9/11 and the Pearl Harbor Attack

The Pearl Harbor Incident

The attacks of the Pearl Harbor began during late 1941. About 350 Japanese planes struck the US Pacific Fleet based in Pearl Harbor and the neighboring airfields. The synchronized attack lasted for about two hours, leaving appalling results. About 2,400 Americans died while 1000 others suffered injuries. Close to 10 battleships were dented while more than 160 American planes were damaged. The Japanese people only lost about 30 aircrafts and five submarines. About 185 Japanese soldiers were also killed while others were injured. Evidently, Americans lost in the attack. Traditionally, the expected ratio of an aggressor against a defender should be three to one. At the close of 1941, the ratio was nothing close to the normal ratio. One Japanese casualty accounted for every twenty Americans deaths or injuries. The scenario was not only disheartening but also unforeseen.

Americans were devastated. Four investigative bodies were established to examine the probable causes of the attack and/or recommend the way forward. Justice Owen J. Roberts led the first panel. He was serving as the Supreme Court Associate Justice. The panel also comprised retired Army Generals and Navy admirals. After conducting its investigation, the Roberts Commission concluded that top Army and Navy officials in Hawaii should have been held accountable for the traumatic events that occurred in 7 December. Subsequently, according to Blewett (2015, p. 86), the Navy and Army who were in charge of the Hawaii jurisdiction were relieved of their duties.

After the Roberts Commission completed the assignment, the Army Pearl Harbor Board was instituted under the leadership of the Secretary of War, as well as Secretary of the Navy, to examine information concerning the calamity. The panel performed its duty for three months, collecting data from 151 witnesses. Its investigations were far much overstretched compared to the Roberts Commission. Soon after, Senator Alben W. Barkley led a Joint Committee in analyzing the consequences and factors that caused the Japanese people to attack America (Cole 2010, p. 8).

The committee, which comprised members of different parties, condemned the performance of national defense structure as being responsible for the distressing impact of the Pearl Harbor assault. Indeed, the subsequent investigations that were conducted after the Roberts Commission mainly due to the congressional dissatisfaction with the findings of the presidents initiated the establishment of a panel to recheck the matter (Markham 2005, p. 217).

Cole (2010, p. 14) asserts that the findings of the investigating panel constantly implied that the US should have foreseen a potential attack from Japan. The apprehensive relationship between the US and Japan began when the US confronted the Philippines back in 1898. The Japanese government considered the American action an assault on Japan. The situation was further exacerbated when America pushed Japan to opt for a warship ratio that they had disliked in 1922. Japan did not welcome this diplomatic triumph. Instead, it created a hostile relationship between the two governments. However, American intelligence had sources that spied the Japanese military prowess. Hence, the US had no need to fear.

Meanwhile, Japan was constantly disturbed by on its conquests. It sought to take actions to cripple the Americans. Attacking America’s principle war instrument, namely the US Pacific Fleet, and/or defending any counter attacks appeared as the most viable option to remove America from the Japanese territories in East Asia. Conversely, the US did not conceive that such an attack could occur since it underestimated Japanese potential (Markham 2005, p. 219). However, consuls, shipmasters, and other relevant officials were reporting on Japanese forces moving southwards. Despite receiving information on Japan’s potential, the US government only viewed such an attack as irrational, especially because it (the US) was a superpower. Therefore, the notion that the Pearl Harbor was an intelligence failure is defensible. This claim will become clearer in the subsequent sections of this paper.

The 9/11 Attack

According to Perrow (2005, p. 99), the 9/11 assault comprised a sequence of four synchronized extremists attacks that were perpetuated by the Al-Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist movement. The attackers directed their assault on key figurative American landmarks. About 20 Al-Qaeda extremists seized four airplanes headed to California and directed them to specific buildings in the US, including Pentagon, North and South Towers of the World Trade Center, and in Pennsylvania. The results of the attack were tragic. About 2,996 lives were lost and property worth $10 billion demolished. In total, the cost of damage was $3 trillion. Several police officers and firefighters died in the process of rescuing the victims. The attack destabilized the American economy, particularly the Lower Manhattan area where it affected citizens from more than ninety nations (Blewett 2015, p. 86).

Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, initially refuted any involvement in the attack but later accepted responsibility. He asserted that the assault was a response to the US constant funding of Israel and other non-Islamic regimes in Muslim-dominated countries. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed did the investigations in 1996 before bin Laden authorized him (Mohamed) to continue with the idea in 1999. Under the leadership of bin Laden, the terrorist movement identified jihadists who were best qualified to perform the attack (Marrin 2011, p. 182).

Accomplishing the task relied highly on the capability of the attackers to get American visas and successfully go through the US Immigration Checkers. Moreover, they sought to live in America unnoticed to perfect the plan. Consequently, the hijackers acquired the necessary documents, entered the country, and adopted a normal life of the inhabitants. For instance, in preparing the September 11, the perpetrators even took flight training in American schools. The hijackers acquired the skills that could help them to operate the planes (Lowenthal 2014, p. 20).

The situation led to the reorganization of the government, legislation of new policies, and the formation of panels to investigate the assault. The Department of Homeland Security was established to devise mechanisms for preventing terrorist activities in the US. Nonetheless, suspicions also rose among citizens who questioned how the government could fail to detect such an attack (Marrin 2011, p. 184). The Joint Inquiry was formed to respond to such doubts. However, the citizens did not welcome the findings. Markham (2005, p. 219) asserts that the 9/11 Commission had to go through many setbacks before submitting its reports. Reports such as the 9/11 have shown that the US had the capability to predict the occurrence of the Al-Qaeda-driven incident. The intelligence failure in 9/11 reminded most Americans of the Pearl Harbor and probably triggered the popular assertion that the attacks share many things. The subsequent section will examine the intelligence failure of these two traumatic national disasters in the American history.

Intelligence Failure

According to Blewett (2015, p. 87), there are several similarities between the Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks. Both are claimed to have occurred because of intelligence failure. To determine the validity of this claim, consideration has been made on whether there was sufficient information to point to the probability of occurrence of an attack and/or whether the attacks would have been curtailed by proper analysis and dissemination of the information. It is also important to understand the role played by American intelligence bureaucracy concerning the inability to stop the attacks. In December 1941, the Pearl Harbor attack occurred in Hawaii. The strategic intelligence was aware that an attack on the US was likely to occur.

Admiral Kimmel and General Short of the Navy and Army respectively were tasked with preparing for war with Japan in Hawaii in 1941. The war was caused by the role that the US was playing in trying to quell Japanese aggression in Asia. An official message of preparation for war was disseminated from the superiors in Washington, including Admiral Harold R. Stark and General George Marshall. The information was released in November 1941 warning of an impending and probable attack over the following few days because of the failure of their negotiations with Japan and Japan’s acts of aggression.

In the September 11 attacks, the strategic intelligence was also aware of the probability of an attack occurring on the US soil. The Al-Qaeda had attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, the Kenyan and Tanzanian US embassies in 1998, and Yemen in 2000. These acts were indicators to the intelligence offices of the likelihood of the US being the target of a terrorist attack (Lowenthal 2014, p. 31).

Strategic intelligence was aware of the probability of Hawaii being the target of an attack during the December 7 attacks. After the two officers, Kimmel and Short had taken office, they received official reports of the possibility of a surprise attack commencing Japanese hostilities. The attack was probably going to be on the Fleet or Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. The report also gave information that the most likely means of attack would be air bombing or air torpedo, which would require aircrafts as carriers. There was also intelligence information to the US on the probability of the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Following the Islamic extremists attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, it became apparent to the US intelligence that it was probable for it to be a target of attack. On the other hand, the Pentagon is the control and command center of the US Armed Forces. For this reason, it was a very probable target. Information was available proving that the attack on a US target was imminent before the Pearl Harbor assault. The information was disseminated from Washington on November 27, 1941. It mentioned the possible target areas and the means of attack, as well as the timeline, which was within a few days from the time of the notice (Blewett 2015, p. 87).

Conversely, although there was information showing the probability of an attack occurring, there was none to indicate the imminence of the US being attacked before the 9/11 attacks. There was no information to indicate the specific location of either the Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. Decrypted messages from the Japanese diplomatic agencies indicated that there would be an attack on the US soil on 7 December 1941.

However, the information was not of any help to the officers because the intelligence indicated that the most probable targets of attack would be their forces in Guam or Philippines. Although there was the lack of intelligence, the sinking of a submarine at 6.40am at the Pearl Harbor should have acted as intelligence or a tactical warning that would have given the intelligence team one and a quarter hours’ notice that would have made a difference in how the attack played out. There was no information that indicated to the US intelligence that the Pentagon or World Trade Center was going to be attacked by the Al-Qaeda in the immediate future (Marrin 2011, p. 185).

Before both the Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, there was intelligence on the methods of attack that were deemed most probable in the event of an attack. Both of them were predicted to be carrier airstrikes or commercial airliners. In 1924, after his Asia tour, Brigadier General Bill Mitchell indicated that Hawaii was likely to be attacked by a carrier airstrike. Additionally, in 1930, Naval War College conducted war games, which indicated that a carrier attack was most probable (Perrow 2005, p. 101). The message that was given from Washington on 27 November 1941 also indicated that an airstrike was the most probable means of hitting in the impending attacks.

Before the 9/11 attacks, intelligence experts conjectured for over ten years that a commercial airliner would be used by terrorists as a flying weapon to attack the US. 1n 1993, a report by Marvin Cetron indicated that airplanes posed a threat of being used for bombing. According to the report, an airstrike would make it possible for the US White House and Pentagon to be hit concurrently. The officers who were tasked with preventing the Hawaii attack had more information to examine as compared to those who were in operation during the 9/11 attacks (Lowenthal 2014, p. 32).

In both attacks, there was no information to indicate that the Japanese or the Al-Qaeda would use airliners or carriers. There was no certainty, but only information of probability. The US Navy was aware of Japan’s intimidating carrier capacity. However, the Navy failed to know about Japanese policies that allowed carriers’ autonomy of operation from the rest of the surface ships. The Navy was also oblivious of the planned Japanese airstrike on the US Fleet based in Hawaii. As for the 9/11 attacks, despite the speculation by Marvin Cetron of an airstrike as a means of attack on the US, the counterterrorism unit of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) considered an airborne suicide bombing one of the many probable means of attack on the US. However, the US intelligence had no knowledge by concerning Al-Qaeda’s plot to hijack a commercial airliner for the purpose of aerial bombing (Lowenthal 2014, p. 33).

Before the Pearl Harbor attack, the US Navy was aware of the Japanese capability to conduct an air attack on Hawaii. Information available to intelligence agencies indicated the probability of the attacks on Hawaii being airstrikes. They were also aware that Japan was well armed and that it was capable of unleashing an attack. They were also aware that Japan preferred surprise attacks and that the US no longer had a track of the Japanese carriers. Conversely, before the 9/11 attacks, the US did not have information that the Al-Qaeda had the capacity to unleash an airstrike on Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was aware that Al-Qaeda had used high explosives on previous occasions to bomb the US targets. However, the agency did not have information that the Al-Qaeda had the capacity to operate an airstrike. Although it was aware that the Al-Qaeda could hijack commercial planes, it did not imagine that the terrorist group had the expertise to fly the plane independently and convert it into an aerial bomb (Lowenthal 2014, p. 34).

Contrary to the case of the 9/11 attack, there was the tactical intelligence of an attack on the Pearl Harbor. In December 1941, the USS Ward sank a submarine at the Pearl Harbor entrance. This event alone would have given the US a tactical advantage of seventy-five minutes. Additionally, the Army sensor discovered an increased number of aircraft approaching Oahu. This discovery was made early in the morning. It would have been an indicator of the predicted Japanese attack. However, the officers in charge dismissed the signs, speculating on the significance of the occurrences. It was only after the first bomb was released that they realized that the attack was occurring. For the 9/11 attacks, the first plane struck the World Trade Center at some few minutes to 9 a.m., although the case was misreported by media as an accident (Marrin 2011, p. 185). Nevertheless, fifteen minutes later, the second plane hit the south tower. The nature of the attack was then realized.

The above situation brings up the issue of indications and warnings, which may be more apparent in cases of war as compared to terrorism. Terrorism comes mostly with the element of surprise and less need for large numbers of people, thus making it harder to detect. Indications and warnings had been present during the December 7 attacks, including the encrypted diplomatic messages and the sinking of the submarine, as well as the increase in the number of the aircraft in the army’s radar. However, the officers dismissed the warnings. There is a possibility that the US would have found indications and warnings for the 9/11 attacks, had there not been a great underestimation of the capacity of the Al-Qaeda to attack (Marrin 2011, p. 186).

Both the December 7 and September 11 attacks are examples of intelligence failure. However, a difference is evident in the circumstances that surrounded them. The former had more information about the attack as compared to the latter. Therefore, it is important to scrutinize the difference in the cause of intelligence failure in the two cases. In the Pearl Harbor attack, the responsibility of the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was to collect information that would have protected Hawaii from the attacks. Only the Navy and Army had the intelligence services to gather such information.

Given the impending threat posed to Hawaii and Guam, ONI had the responsibility to keep track of Japanese aircraft, ships, ordinance, and any of the Japanese policies that would be a threat to the US. Because ONI did not have spies in Tokyo, it used an American Naval attaché who gathered information from print media and other public information sources. Linguistic and cultural barriers made it even harder for the body to collect information (Cole 2010, p. 3). Therefore, the US intelligence remained in the dark about the attack. As for the 9/11, it is argued that if the US had missed several opportunities, and that had it had been more skillful in considering the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, the plot would have been uncovered (Blewett 2015, p. 88).


The world is quickly transforming and becoming more hostile. Any slight mistake from the security department may have significant consequences. Intelligence practitioners should consider all information they receive with much gravity. Otherwise, any laxity may lead to tragic events such as those of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks. While most individuals believe that 7 December and September 11 have a lot in common, the two had obvious differences. As a matter of intelligence failure, the nature of the two catastrophes was disparate. While Hawaii Army and Navy officials had adequate facts to anticipate the occurrence of the Pearl Harbor attack, FBI did not have a proper intelligence to avert the attack.


Blewett, D 2015, ‘Surprise Attack: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 to Benghazi’, Library Journal, vol. 140, no. 15, pp. 85-92.

Cole, L 2010, ‘Special National Investigative Commissions: Essential Powers and Procedures (Some Lessons from the Pearl Harbor, Warren Commission, and 9/11 Commission Investigations)’, McGeorge Law Review, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 1-61.

Lowenthal, M 2014, Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, SAGE Publications, New Delhi.

Markham, I 2005, ‘The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11’, Conversations in Religion & Theology, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 217-236.

Marrin, S 2011, ‘The 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: A Failure of Policy Not Strategic Intelligence Analysis’, Intelligence & National Security, vol. 26, no. 3, pp.182-202.

Perrow, C 2005, ‘A Symposium on the 9/11 Commission Report’, Contemporary Sociology, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 99-107.

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