Moseman on Gentry and Gordon, 'Strategic Warning Intelligence: History, Challenges, and Prospects'

John A. Gentry, Joseph S. Gordon. Strategic Warning Intelligence: History, Challenges, and Prospects. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019. 274 pp. $36.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-655-4.

Reviewed by Scott Moseman (Kansas State University)
Published on H-War (December, 2020)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The Yom Kippur War. The ties that bind these events are failures of intelligence to conduct strategic warning. This topic is covered in meticulous detail by John A. Gentry and Joseph S. Gordon in their book, Strategic Warning Intelligence: History, Challenges, and Prospects. The informative scholarship belongs in the intelligence discipline but beckons interest from historians and political scientists alike, which is not surprising since Gentry and Gordon have doctorates in political science and history, respectively. They set out to prove that strategic warning—“the process of alerting senior leaders to the emergence of important threats and opportunities that require a policy decision to deter, defend against, or exploit” (p. 1)—has had a fair share of successes and failures in major world countries. Furthermore, the US strategic warning apparatus has had marked cycles, fluctuating between appreciation and disrespect in the last seventy-five years. Gentry and Gordon lament that the function is currently in a depression.

Gentry and Gordon’s main audience for Strategic Warning Intelligence is strategic warning analysts, who must sift through the noise to find signals of interests, and senior national decisionmakers, whom the analysts must persuade that the indicators of interest may be important to act upon. Therefore, the purpose of the book is as an instructive manual of the history and development, institutional capabilities, challenges, and common errors of performing the function. The authors offer recommendations for improving the structure and procedures of strategic warning in the US intelligence community. The scope of Strategic Warning Intelligence is intentionally broad as Gentry and Gordon explore how national-level intelligence services deal with the nature, challenges, and carrying out of this underappreciated responsibility. They take a “lessons-learned” methodology to their subject, using case studies and examples of warning failures to address warning intelligence as “an institution, as a mental process, and as an intelligence sub-discipline” (p. 7). The authors also rely heavily on personal experience (which is considerable) and secondary sources—political scientists, intelligence professionals, theorists—to drive their points home. They have no choice because many of the primary source documents are classified. The organization and presentation of their arguments is made that much more effective by clever use of the subtitle, History, Challenges, and Prospects, to provide a road map of the book.

Gentry and Gordon attempt to position their monograph as a seminal work of strategic warning intelligence by virtue of its being one of only a modest number of warning books written since World War II. They give great credit to prominent Pearl Harbor historian Robert Wohlstetter for truly beginning the discussion of what it means for a nation to strategically warn in his book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision (1962). The authors also speak highly of Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Cynthia Grabo and her work Anticipating Surprise: Analysis for Strategic Warning (2004) because she and the book were groundbreaking. Grabo was the first intelligence analyst to express the basics of the tradecraft in words and ideas, which she did not declassify and publish until the 2000s. Gentry and Gordon build upon other experts’ ideas of the subject —from academics to theorists to professionals—such as Richard Betts, Michael Handel, and Klaus Knorr. They judged that if they wrote on strategic warning intelligence at a macro level it would fill a gap in the literature. They have succeeded.

Strategic Warning Intelligence’s potency lies in how Gentry and Gordon present the material. The road map is easy to follow, with a sound and structured preface and introduction. They are unapologetic that this book is written for warning producers and consumers; academic readers are secondary. Their literature review is thorough, but concise. And for three pages in the introduction, Gentry and Gordon explain exactly what each chapter will cover. The audience can get the meaning and recommendations of the book without even reading the following twelve chapters. But if one must continue, the five types of government warning institutions detailed in chapter 3 are most helpful.

The manner in which the authors cover the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is disappointing. Gentry and Gordon obviously tried to avoid covering the horrific event in detail in their four case studies in chapter 2 presumably because it is the subject of dozens, if not hundreds, of academic and commercial books. What more can be said about strategic warning that has not already been discussed by historians such as Wohlstetter? Yet it must be done. The writers cannot convey the gravitas of their cyclical troughs argument without exploring perhaps the most prominent strategic surprise in US history. Moreover, the authors needed to explain how rudimentary strategic warning intelligence before World War II was a collateral duty of the Office of Naval Intelligence, G-2, Military Intelligence Division, and the Office of Coordinator of Information (forerunner to the Office of Strategic Services). By exploring further back in US intelligence history, the authors may find deep-rooted national character traits—such as exceptionalism; distrust of intelligence in an open, democratic society; and isolationist tendencies—that subtly affect the psyche of an American strategic warning analyst. How do these inclinations play into the US government’s love-hate affair with warning?

Nonetheless, Gentry and Gordon have accomplished what they set out to do: convince the producer and consumer reader that US strategic warning intelligence is currently in a trough and only a national disaster or proactive intelligence managers can improve the function. It would be fascinating if the authors could create follow-on editions. They could expand upon how their thesis might play out when the US strategic warning intelligence exits this nadir. The authors also describe President Donald J. Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community with trepidation, calling it a “controversial start” (p. 209); publication deadlines only allowed for an incomplete story. In two to three years, how would Gentry and Gordon assess the strategic warning analyst-Trump relationship? These musings aside, as they intended, Strategic Warning Intelligence will become the premier scholarship on the function for years to come.

Citation: Scott Moseman. Review of Gentry, John A.; Gordon, Joseph S., Strategic Warning Intelligence: History, Challenges, and Prospects. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.