Veteran former CIA analysts well remember the hours and days they spent urgently scrambling to determine exactly who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Like their CIA brothers and sisters assessing the horrific events in Israel and Gaza today, they knew broadly who was responsible, but needed to come up with unequivocal proof of who did it.
Nothing short of the political map of the Middle East, and the U.S. role in the region, was at stake. Today’s Hamas-Israel conflict poses similar existential questions.
“It’s really daunting,” former CIA analyst Gail Helt says, describing the atmosphere inside the analysis directorate when major events like the 9/11 attack and this month’s surprise Hamas invasion of Israel, followed by the troubling strike on a Gaza hospital, erupt.
“There’s immense pressure. Nobody wants to get it wrong,” she told SpyTalk. “And there’s the sense that people’s lives are hanging in the balance as you try to figure out what stream of sourcing is actually accurate here.”
No event frames that issue more acutely than Tuesday’s fiery explosion at Gaza City’s Anglican Church-owned Al Ahli Hospital, which Hamas says killed nearly 500 people. Major U.S. and foreign news organizations quickly accepted Palestinian claims that an Israeli bomb was responsible, only to reverse course when video emerged seemingly backing up intelligence gathered by Israel, corroborated by the U.S., based on its own “overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information,” that an errant missile fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another group of Gaza militants, was to blame.
“All these internal Hamas lines of communication lit up simultaneously,” a U.S. counter-terrorism official who has seen the U.S. intelligence told SpyTalk.
“They were all talking to each other and saying the same thing, which was that Islamic Jihad fucked up and misfired a missile,” he continued. “They also said they had to be really careful with how they discussed this because while they didn’t want Hamas to take the blame for the explosion, they also didn’t want to throw an ally like Islamic Jihad under the bus.”
The dispute remains unsettled. Faked videos and deliberate disinformation add to the allies’s challenge of sorting out truth from fiction—and persuading global audiences they are right. Israeli and U.S. agencies have gone into high gear to counter accusations on social media.