Um trabalho inédito e uma exposição com o máximo de rigor acadêmico, confrontados a decisões pré-estabelecidas e desastrosas.
I Was a Psychologist at Israel's Military Intelligence. Here's Why the Unit Keeps Getting It Wrong
When I was hired by Military Intelligence, I was told they were interested in my work in cross-cultural psychology. What I found was a body so in the thrall of its own internal culture that it couldn't listen to a contrary voice
Haaretz, Dec 1, 2023
From August 2021 until January 2022 I worked as a psychologist in the research unit of Military Intelligence. I am a clinical psychologist by profession, and a researcher in the eld of cross-cultural psychology. The invitation to work with MI came because they felt that I represented a perspective dierent from what they were familiar with. I was the only psychologist in the unit, and to the best of my knowledge, psychologists haven’t lasted in the system for very long.
The purpose of these lines is to level empathetic and constructive criticism, not to look for people to blame. I don’t think there is a particular individual who is specically to blame for the horric massacres of October 7. To the best of my understanding, for many years, the system’s structure has been problematic, and its forecasting failures many and consistent (Yom Kippur War, Oslo Accords, two intifadas, the massacre in October). But I have reason to believe that some of the problems I encountered during my brief tenure at MI can oer insight into the systemic failure that characterized the branch’s operation leading up to the October attack.
The organization is based on a talented group of relatively young people who were carefully selected and have been working together for years as ocers. Work in a closed group over a period of years is a necessity because of the training and secrecy required, but it does not permit an airing-out of ideas, and indeed creates xed ideas, because the members of the group tend to reinforce one another’s thinking.
The group is quite homogeneous, with no older people, few women in senior positions and almost no cultural diversity. I was about 20 years older than the most senior of them (who were in their 40s). Older people are usually less arrogant than younger individuals, and less likely to view the world in black- and-white terms. Women are less apt than men to engage in ego battles, and their need to be right is not as strong.
Cultural diversity is a very important tool. The talented people in the research unit are for the most part young and come from a modern, Western background in which analytical thinking takes priority, but they possess limited social skills. Most did not grow up surrounded by their extended family, and with an authoritative parent – an environment that demands that one get to know the other and get along with them.
As in every unit in every army, MI’s structure is hierarchical in a manner that limits open, critical, creative thinking – even though it aspires to just such openness. The commanders seek to rise to the top of the pyramid, which becomes ever narrower as one ascends, and therefore do not allow themselves to express their opinions freely. This is a particularly important facet of Intelligence, which is supposed to be the thinking brain of the army and the state.
I was in meetings in which not a single dissenting voice was raised when new projects were proposed. In one case a ranking gure admitted to me after a meeting that he “wanted to kick myself” for not speaking his mind in such a gathering. Clearly he was not the only one. He added that the army’s chief of sta heaps so much praise on them that they are tempted to think they have no room for improvement.
I was told many times what to say and how to say it. For example, not to say in a broader forum that the research unit is a closed group whose members strengthen each other, because that would be insulting to the others (I said it anyway, simply because I had no fears about my place); and not to make counter-proposals, because “they’ll do an ippon on you” (referring to a winning move in judo). When I clashed with a certain senior gure who ruled out any role for cross-cultural psychology in our work (claiming it was impossible to generalize about cultures), I was told that he was the MI director’s right- hand man and that I was just a troublemaker.
When I made suggestions that I perceived as innovative, I was told they wouldn’t be passed on because the political decision- makers would not accept them, and that now was not the time. I only asked to make my opinion known and noted that it was obviously the right of my superiors to accept or reject it, but I was given the brush-o.
Also problematic is way papers are written by the research unit. Such papers, which are distributed condentially among all the security bodies, are not written freely and openly as in academia, where the responsibility for its content is that of the writer, and the academic institution bears no responsibility for its content. In MI every paper needs to be approved by two senior personnel, who may make changes in the written material. Beyond the adverse eect on freedom of thought, the examiners often raise objections about material they know nothing about.
The choice of which dierent research studies, in diverse realms, to execute, with costs that can run to millions of shekels, is made by a former senior army person, who need not know anything about the subject in question. For example, projects that incorporate Big Data, and require extensive computer power. Project leaders themselves sometimes felt that the choices were bizarre. I shared with the person in charge my impression that a professional opinion from a separate expert would be benecial for the various elds touched on by a project. He agreed, but I don’t know whether a change was eected.
It’s clear that the research unit should be able to turn to a psychological consultant: First, in order to allow the sta to speak freely and openly, and to protect them from any authority that might attempt to restrict or neutralize that freedom. Having an experienced psychologist sitting in on their discussions could denitely further this goal.
The case of Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip (and the presumed mastermind of the October 7 attacks), can illustrate another aspect to the importance of a clinical psychologist. During my work, I met with most of the senior personnel of the research unit. Some of them had been monitoring Sinwar’s behavior carefully for years. A few of them have a large photograph of him in their oces. It’s clear that with a close connection of this sort, emotions develop toward the research subject, and I encouraged them to express those emotions. One said they held him in very high regard. One person felt pity for him, describing him as a person who must be constantly on the run; another perceived him as a warm father gure; a fourth said he felt genuine hatred for him.
Each of these senior gures recommended a dierent way to deal with Sinwar. The recommendations were backed up rationally, but it was clear that they stemmed from each person’s emotional approach. Anyone who esteemed him or saw him as a father gure was less inclined to propose actions that might harm him, while the person who felt hatred toward him complained to me that he did not understand his subordinates, who thought that nothing could be done that might hurt Sinwar. “What do they think, that he’s God?” he protested, and maintained that Sinwar should be eliminated. In other words, these colleagues engaged in rationalization – a defense mechanism intended to provide practical justication for emotional positions – and not in rational thought, as they undoubtedly believed. A clinical psychologist can point out such tendencies.
A “devil’s advocate” group in MI’s control system has the job of posing challenges to xed opinions and presenting thinking that veers from the conventional. The group came into being on the basis of a recommendation made by the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, following the trauma of the Yom Kippur War, in 1973. My impression was that there are voices in intelligence who are aware of the limitations of the devil’s-advocate method. It is untenable to require someone to persuade others of a conception about which he himself is not persuaded, only as an exercise. In any case, my overriding impression of the research unit was that it occupies itself mainly with lofty philosophical discussions and hairsplitting that complete misses the point.
I felt that a language of sorts had actually come into being in the research unit – a highbrow language that is not intended to be used to provide recommendations but rather promotes evasion and concealment. Why should I recommend something and afterward be criticized for it? Better just to adopt diplomatic language that will allow me to rise through the ranks without really taking a stand. Instead of a devil’s advocate group and the language of concealment, what MI needs are personnel who are encouraged to take risks and say what they truly feel and think. Discussions of that kind, led by a psychologist in appropriate cases, could ght the human tendency to get along with everyone.
Indeed, the human inclination is to repress danger, especially when it exists over time. We are not built for prolonged situations of anxiety that demand high adrenaline levels over long stretches. We all get tired at a certain stage, we want quiet and a good life, and we repress recognition of danger. That happens to us repeatedly. Psychological tools can help combat this natural tendency to some extent. The wisdom of Proverbs (16:18), which tells us that, “Pride goes before ruin, Arrogance before failure” (“There will not be another war for 10 years,” Moshe Dayan said before the Yom Kippur War; or, “Hamas will be deterred for ve years,” as the current head of Military Intelligence declared – reminds us how supercilious human nature can be.
A xed concept gives us the feeling that we are in control and understand what is going on, and it is powerful to the point of causing us to ignore many facts which, as we are now aware with regard to October 7, were also known prior to the massacre. MI actually needs people who harbor a slightly depressive tendency (research shows that the perception of reality by that group is better than that of the average person) in order to do battle against uncontrolled optimism. Anxious individuals and those with a tendency to minor paranoia (not a pathology, but a personality line) could also combat the euphoria of a “startup nation” that relies on “all-knowing” technology. Indeed, I can attest to the fact that the feeling in MI’s research unit was that we knew everything about Hamas.
If you ask the man in the street whether the other side thinks dierently from us, they will undoubtedly tell you that yes, they do. But if you go on to ask in what way they think dierently, you will not get a clear answer. What is obvious to the average person is hidden from the eyes of MI. They assume that the enemy thinks the way we do, and thus project our way of thinking on them. There is no attempt to learn systematically how the enemy thinks, even though many books and articles have been written about cross-cultural dierences in thinking. No one can predict events to come, but such learning makes us more modest and aware of what we do not understand, and that can provide a great advantage and even immunize us from know-it-all conceptions.
When I took up my duties, I was asked to read a thick volume about the conception of MI and its work. As a clinical psychologist, I was appalled by the imposition of the cognitive agenda on the mind of the enemy. Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, for example, was described as thinking according to the binary logic of a owchart (yes/no selection nodes) that is appropriate for work with a computer.
My question as to whether this is really how Nasrallah thinks elicited a smile, and agreement that this is not the way he thinks. Where is consideration of the emotional world that pilots us all? Where is recognition of the defenses, of the well-known Arab sense of honor, the sophisticated lies that have led us astray for years, the ambitions to destroy us? There is no doubt that these talented young people are doing marvelous cognitive work with ecient technology, but both because of their age and because of their analytical tendencies, they are greatly lacking in emotional sensitivity – with regard to both toward themselves and the enemy – thus leaving the state exposed.
My work in the research unit came to an end when I wrote a letter to the director of MI in which I shared the diculty I was having in introducing psychology overall and cross-cultural psychology in particular into MI’s work, and asked for his help in carrying out my mission. My supervisor asked me not to send the letter. I refused, and sent it. For my disobedience, I was dismissed. I never heard from Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, the director.
Following the termination of my work, I sent my detailed demurrers to then-defense minister Benny Gantz, to State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman and to the CEO of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Har-Even – part of the research unit was under his auspices. None of them responded.
Dr. Ofer Grosbard is a clinical psychologist and cross-cultural researcher. He is the author of the ve-volume “Cultural Code Series” (published in Hebrew and English by Ben-Gurion University), which discusses dierences in thinking between East and West, and in particular Israel and the Arab world.