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Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs) 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801447853
ISBN-10: 0801447852
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Editorial Reviews


"In this cogently argued and revealing book, Jervis, a veteran CIA consultant, uses the Iranian and Iraqi cases to dissect why, in some circumstances, intelligence fails to provide accurate analysis to policymakers. . . . The section on Iran . . . identifies a number of errors with respect to intelligence on Iran, ranging from the mistaken belief that the shah was strong enough to undertake decisive and sustained action against his opponents to underestimating the role played by religion and nationalism in Iranian society. In the section on Iraq . . . Jervis contends that the fundamental reason for the WMD intelligence failure was that it made the most sense to assume that the country possessed WMD, given the Iraqi government's previous behavior. Highly recommended for all interested academic and general readers."―Library Journal (15 March 2010)

"In Why Intelligence Fails, Jervis examines two important U.S. intelligence lapses―the fall of the Shah in Iran and WMDs in Iraq―and tries to account for what went awry. After both, the CIA hired Jervis―a longtime student of international affairs―to help the agency sort out its mistakes. He thus brings an invaluable perspective as a smart outsider with sufficient inside access to appraise the agency's blind spots."―Gabriel Schoenfeld, Wall Street Journal, 24 February 2010

"There is no one better than Robert Jervis at dissecting intelligence, and this book is proof. Happily, at long, long last he has managed to free his three-decade-old inside postmortem on intelligence failure during the early stages of the Iranian revolution from the dark of classification, and he has coupled that with his recent writings on intelligence's woeful performance over those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that weren't. His conclusion is both wise and discomfiting: In both cases, doing better 'would have been to make the intelligence judgments less certain rather than to reach fundamentally different conclusions. Furthermore, better intelligence would not have led to an effective policy.'"―Gregory F. Treverton, RAND Corporation

"Why Intelligence Fails is a valuable and unique book combining a quasi-memoir from an eminent political scientist, well-applied theory, and two important case studies, with a healthy regard for 'insoluble dilemmas of intelligence and policy-making.'"―Bruce W. Jentleson, Duke University

"This is the sort of thorough, integrative, and provocative work we've come to expect from Robert Jervis. Students of the craft will find much to debate and ponder in this thoughtful assessment."―John McLaughlin, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University

"Jervis's practical experience is as a consultant with the CIA, and he offers a refreshing analysis and defense of this engagement with a government agency. Why Intelligence Fails feels like a reflection on a lifetime of thinking about intelligence. . . . The case studies (one of which is a slightly redacted version of the lessons-learned report Jervis wrote for the CIA about the Iranian Revolution, complete with comments made on it by senior CIA figures) ably highlight the lessons Jervis wishes us to take away from his study. Most importantly, he argues that further reforms of the intelligence machinery―a favorite reflex of politicians―will not necessarily produce improvements to intelligence product."― Robert Dover, International Affairs

About the Author

Robert Jervis is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University. He is the author of many books, including The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, also from Cornell, and, most recently, American Foreign Policy in a New Era.


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Product Details

  • Series: Cornell Studies in Security Affairs
  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (February 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801447852
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801447853
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #840,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Undoubtedly the most interesting portion of this very interesting book, is the CIA sponsored post-mortem report on why the Iranian Revolution caught CIA by surprise. Remarkably, this report is presented in full with very few redactions and includes the critiques of the report by senior CIA officials. As such it makes for fascinating reading.
The brief given to Jervis (then a part time CIA consultant) and an unnamed CIA officer who was to assist in this work was to concentrate on the specific issue of the analytic tradecraft employed by CIA Iranian analysts prior to the revolution. On the whole Jervis and his shadowy assistant produced what appears to be a very fair report. This report concluded that given the information available to them, the two CIA political analysts assigned to Iran did a pretty credible job. One of these analysts was actually an Iranian target expert and Farsi linguist.
Yet it is clear that these analysts took a very narrow view of their specialty and failed to place political events in the context of social and economic changes then effecting Iran. They also failed to make use of open source information on Iran or examine the strong Shia religious influences affecting Iran. As Jervis noted in his report what was then CIA's office of political analysis failed to communicate with its office of economic analysis. Further the National Intelligence Officer (NIO) for Iran failed to communicate with any of the analysts working Iran or to provide any guidance to them. Although his brief specifically did not include collection issues, Jervis also noted that the U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran (including CIA officers) included no Farsi speakers and did not have significant contacts outside of the Iranian Government.
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Format: Hardcover
In 2010's "Why Intelligence Fails", author Robert Jervis offers some clear-eyed, rigorous analysis of two of the US Intelligence Community's more infamous alleged failures. Jervis is an academic by trade, but not an accidential tourist in the Intelligence Community, having served as an outside consultant.

The book has four parts. In an extended introduction, Jervis discusses his own background, including potential biases, and his personal interactions with the US Intelligence Community.

The second part is Jervis's official postmortem on the failure to predict the fall of the Shah in Iran in 1978, written for the CIA and only recently declassified. The third part is Jervis' review of the 2003 Iraq WMD controversy.

In the Iran and Iraq case studies, Jervis supplies valuable context on the respective analyses and finds that the analysts, based on the information available to them, came up with plausible and reasonable assessments, that happened to be wrong. Further, although he identifies both procedural and factual errors, he is skeptical that changes would have produced significantly better results, due in part to the nature of the respective targets.

The final portion of the book is a broad discussion of the interaction between the intelligence community and policy makers, focusing on why that interaction is so hard to get right, and why periodic reorganizations of the intelligence community fail to fix the problems.

"Why Intelligence Fails" can make for dry reading. However, Jervis' analysis is an antidote to an often incorrect public general consensus. This book, especially the last chapter, is very highly recommended to intelligence professionals, and the general reader looking for a reasonably apolitical perspective.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Why does intelligence fail? Is there anything we can do to address failure? Those are key questions addressed by political scientist Robert Jervis. His methodology is appropriate: he uses two case studies to examine intelligence failure and how one might diagnose failure and improve matters to reduce the odds of major failure in the future.

The two case studies are the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Shah and the inaccurate intelligence on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the run up to the Iraq War and the deposing of Saddam Hussein. The first of the case studies is based on Jervis' own report to the CIA after the failure of intelligence in the Iran event. Here, the Shah of Iran was overthrown and the United States was caught unaware. Intelligence breakdowns of one sort or another were a part of this (from descriptive rather than analytic intelligence, pre-existing beliefs about what was going on, and the like). While Jervis notes some means of addressing problems, he notes that it would not be certain that--even then--the rapid fall of the Shah would have been clearly predicted.

The second case study is the failure of intelligence regarding WMD in Iraq. The book examines the nature of the failure and then tries to explain that failure. Among factors leading to failure--confirmation bias (seeking information to demonstrate that there were WMD), individual analysts'/operatives' failures (e.g., trusting Curveball, a source of information on Iraq who was, as it turns out, not a reliable source).

How to address intelligence failure? Jervis is critical of the "reforms" initiated within the intelligence community.
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