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Many wonder how Israel intel missed attack prep as U.S. sends forces to Mediterranean

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israel and Hamas are waging one of their deadliest clashes ever, and there's a lot more going on as well. The U.S. is moving naval forces into the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, there is already debate raging on why Israel was not able to detect preparations for such a huge attack or able to defend against it. We're going to explore these developments with two NPR correspondents. Tom Bowman is in the studio with me. He covers the Pentagon. Hey there.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And Greg Myre, our national security correspondent. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tom Bowman, you kick us off. I just said this is a fight. This is a war between Israel and Hamas. Why is the U.S sending an aircraft carrier to the Med?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon said it's partly a show of force and partly to prevent these attacks from widening in the region. Now, besides the carrier USS Gerald Ford, you also have Aegis missile cruisers, which have ballistic missile capabilities, Mary Louise. So they could be used - its radar capabilities, for example, to prevent Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported fighters in Lebanon, from firing missiles into Israel. Also, dozens of American attack aircraft are being sent to bases in the region also as a deterrent, especially sending the message to Iran not to get involved. And now it's possible, of course, in the midst of these Hamas attacks, you could see Iranian militias take advantage of what's going on in Israel to hit U.S. forces in Syria, U.S. facilities in Iraq. We don't know how this will play out. It's just getting started.

KELLY: Everything you just described, Tom, is about the U.S sending a message. You just said sending a show of force to support an ally, Israel. The U.S. is not likely, not hoping to get involved in this fighting, but it is providing other kinds of support to Israel?

BOWMAN: No, that's right. You won't be seeing U.S. boots on the ground. Instead, you'll see more materiel support for Israel. Pentagon and state officials had a conference call with Congress last night. Officials said Israel needs more air defenses, precision-guided munitions, as well as artillery rounds. Now, that all sounds to me like this will escalate. Israel seems poised for a ground offensive into Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth with 2 million people. Now, as you know, urban warfare is the most horrific kind of a fight, and given the density, it could be some of the worst ever. You have to go building to building in clearing operations and then hold these buildings. And the defenders in this case, Hamas, have the upper hand, able to shoot at you from high rises, scoot through tunnels and sewers. In the middle of this, you have more than 100 hostages, not to mention civilians who will be caught in the crossfire.

KELLY: Yeah, Israelis and other nationalities who are now being held in Gaza. OK. Greg Myre, jump in from - I know you're joining us from Sea Island, Ga., this big annual conference underway of current and former national security officials who I'm guessing were expecting to be focused on Ukraine. What are you hearing about the Middle East?

MYRE: Well, I'm hearing language like cataclysmic, shocking, unprecedented. These officials, particularly retired officials who can speak more freely, stress a couple of points in particular. They're really at a loss as to why Israel's domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, didn't seem to know about the biggest attack that Hamas has ever launched. Israel constantly has drones over Gaza. It's considered capable of intercepting almost any phone call in the territory. It has powerful cyber tools and a large number of Palestinians who work for Israel as informants. And in addition, the Israeli military was just clearly unprepared for such a large-scale infiltration. This weekend was a holiday in Israel. And recent unrest has mostly been in the West Bank, so it seems Israel was distracted and wasn't keeping its usual close watch on Gaza.

KELLY: I will point out the obvious, which is that U.S. intelligence is also supposed to be keeping a close eye on Hamas, and it doesn't appear that they knew this was coming either, at least that has been made public. Was this also a U.S. intelligence failure?

MYRE: I'm not sure I would characterize it quite that way. You know, Gaza is Israel's backyard. It's a place that Israel watches or should be watching nonstop because an attack can come at any moment. The U.S. does have a close intelligence relationship with Israel, but this is more related to the broader region. Israel really takes care of Gaza.

KELLY: Speaking of the region, one more to you, Greg, which is Iran and what role Iran may or may not have played. What do we know?

MYRE: U.S. and Israeli officials say that, at this point, they've seen no evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the Hamas attack. Here's deputy national security adviser Jon Finer speaking on NPR earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JONATHAN FINER: For decades, Iran has provided financial support, has provided weapons, has provided training to Hamas, has helped build the entity that ended up crossing into Israel. And so Iran is definitely in the picture of these events. That said, neither we, nor apparently the Israeli Defense Forces has any specific information about Iran's direct involvement in the last couple of days' attacks.

MYRE: So Iran's leaders have celebrated these Hamas attacks on Israel, as they've done in the past. And you can be sure that U.S. intelligence is trying to figure out if Iran had a more explicit role. Israel is certainly doing the same. And on questions like this, the U.S. and Israel are likely to compare notes.

BOWMAN: So, Mary Louise, it's important to note that in the call with lawmakers last night, there was no discussion of Iran outside of long-standing materiel support to Hamas. There will be a classified briefing with Congress on Wednesday. And, of course, lawmakers will keep pressing on Iran and if it played any sort of a detailed planning role for this attack that goes beyond mere historic support.

KELLY: You mentioned Congress. And I'm thinking about, as you well know, because you've covered the wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, there's this long U.S involvement in Middle East wars. Are you hearing any appetite on the U.S side to get involved in another regional conflict?

BOWMAN: Absolutely not. I think the U.S. had enough in Iraq and clearly left there and has a few hundred troops there but clearly does not want to get involved in another Middle East war. Now, you could see the U.S. get involved more again if their Iranian militias start attacking U.S. troops in Syria or U.S. facilities in Iraq. But again, no indication or no interest in getting involved deeply in any kind of Mideast war.

KELLY: Greg Myre, you get the last word. What are you watching for in these next few days?

MYRE: Well, as Tom noted earlier, the big question is whether Israel will send in ground troops to Gaza, something they've only done reluctantly and briefly in recent years, but it is looking more likely. In this dangerous, dangerous urban landscape, the Israelis really risk ambushes and other kinds of just very difficult terrain. But now Israel has declared a complete siege of Gaza, cutting electricity, water, food, fuel. This certainly looks like it's setting the stage for a major ground invasion.

KELLY: All right. And we will be tracking this story all through the evening. Keep listening. We've been speaking with national security correspondent Greg Myre and Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MYRE: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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