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Surprise Attack Reviews

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  A valuable examination of U.S. national security crises past and present

A specialist in national security issues and intelligence, Hancock (Someone Would Have Talked: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, 2010, etc.) tackles the slippery and continuously vexing subject of surprise attacks against the U.S. Was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor really a “surprise” since there were numerous warnings, or was it rather a breakdown of the crucial C3, command, control, and communications? As the Soviet Union became the new threat after World War II, intelligence-gathering methods had to be beefed up to combat the growing “fear factors” introduced by the availability of atomic weapons. In the 1950s, the proliferation of alleged UFO sightings became a problem, from New Mexico to Washington, D.C., which underscored the sense of vulnerability of American national security. The Cuban missile crisis was a horrific moment in modern nuclear feasibility, yet Hancock points out the failure of U.S. intelligence in “several potentially disastrous areas” in getting the Soviets to back down. The author follows the evolution of the National Command Authority, culminating in the creation of the new “watch center,” called the Situation Room, to meet new threats, including the shooting of Ronald Reagan in 1982. The emergence “out of the shadows” of stateless terrorists at war with the U.S. occupies the last chapters of this thoroughly researched work, from the PLO seizures of aircraft and ocean liners to terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001. Considering the attention given by the Clinton administration to combating terrorism, Hancock notes his surprise at the breakdown in heeding warnings, and he moves step by step in delineating “points of failure.” The 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi underscores the current fragility of diplomatic missions and flimsiness of security.

A timely, pertinent study emphasizing the fact that when it comes to military or terrorist attacks, “there are always warnings.” 

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  Generalized warnings are futile in the absence of good threat intelligence

Ample warnings preceded Pearl Harbor and every subsequent attack on U.S. soil and U.S. forces, writes Hancock (Nexus: The CIA and Political Assassination), a veteran national security journalist, in this detailed, technical, and pessimistic analysis of American defense policy. Accounts of incompetence miss the point, he adds, and generalized warnings are futile in the absence of good threat intelligence, actual alerts, and prepared defenses. American war planners after 1945 assumed that the U.S.S.R. would start the next war without warning; the result was a vast, expensive, worldwide early-warning system and a huge military equipped with nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. This impressed Stalin—who never planned a sneak attack—but did not prevent other surprises. In Hancock’s dog-eat-dog world, rational powers (U.S., U.S.S.R., China, Putin’s Russia) obsessively mirror each other’s actions and in the process accumulate nuclear weapons, bomber fleets, or missiles far beyond any necessity. Irrational players such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and even Pakistan simply follow their bliss. Hancock stresses that even without warnings, every attack would have failed if sensible alerts and defenses had been in place. He is not shy about suggesting improvements, but admits that since American leaders may never get their act together, more surprises are likely in store.

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  An important topic for everyone – for all libraries

Surprise attacks, both potential ones and those that have actually occurred, have haunted the United States for decades. Hancock (Nexus) studies several incidents to understand the complicated evolution of the warning and response systems, and what worked and what went wrong within the U.S. intelligence and defense communities. In clear and detailed writing, the author focuses on the widespread American command and control networks that examine strategic/national and tactical/local intelligence. Just as important as threat assessment and detection is the idea of credible deterrence theory—the actions a country can take to make an opponent think twice about the costs to themselves from any attack.


An important topic for everyone to comprehend, as the threat of a new attack is constant, both from home-grown extremists as well as foreign groups.
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