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Forty years ago, in October 1973, the United States was caught off-guard when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. The Arab-Israeli War was an embarrassment for the CIA. Until the last minute, it was telling policymakers that war was unlikely. The agency recently declassified documents that highlight its failures at the time.

NPR's Tom Gjelten spoke with the analyst at the center of those failures and has this report.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In hindsight, the evidence of imminent war that October looks overwhelming. Egypt was massing forces along the Suez Canal, across from the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula. A source in Syria passed word that Syrian tanks were set to move on the Golan Heights.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wanted to know whether the CIA believed the Syrian source. Richard Kovar, then the agency's top Middle East analyst, was not convinced.

RICHARD KOVAR: The Ops Center called me. I came in. And we worked out a very formal response. President Assad, the president of Syria, just wasn't going to commit national suicide.

GJELTEN: Invading Israel would be suicide for Syria, Kovar argued, because the Israeli response would be devastating. He drafted a memo for Kissinger: Not to worry.

KOVAR: And I have to tell you, my hand didn't tremble.

GJELTEN: That memo is one of several documents released last week at the Nixon Library in California. Charlie Allen, another top CIA analyst at the time, recalled writing a bulletin the night of October 5th, just hours before Egyptian troops attacked.

CHARLIE ALLEN: Our lead sentence for the current intelligence bulletin, which will live forever in my mind, stated as follows: The exercise and the activities underway in Egypt may be on a somewhat larger scale and more realistic than previous exercises; but they do not appear to be preparations for a military offensive against Israel.

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GJELTEN: The CIA was wrong. So were the Israelis, who had insisted the Arab armies would not dare attack. Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and drove deep into Israeli-held territory. In the north, Syria attacked the Golan Heights.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Syrian planes spent at three hours this morning bombarding the Israeli troop concentrations and military bases in the Golan Heights...

GJELTEN: The former CIA analysts attribute their intelligence failure to a lack of imagination. They gave too much weight to Israeli assurances that there'd be no war. The United States had seen the quick Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and assumed the Arabs wouldn't be foolish enough to attack Israel again. But they did and scored some impressive victories before the Israelis drove them back. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. In the war's aftermath, Arab states imposed an oil boycott on the West.

Anticipating developments in the Middle East and understanding their implications has long been hard for U.S. analysts. It still is, witness the Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria. And the cost of getting the region wrong is high, something Martha Kessler learned as a young CIA officer observing the 1973 events.

MARTHA KESSLER: It was a haunting experience. I was still in my mid-20's and I watched this thing unfold. And the consequences of what had happened really had a huge impact on me. And I spent a good deal of time with my parents discussing, whether I really wanted to stay in a profession where a mistake had such huge consequences.

GJELTEN: But no one was pained more by that 1973 intelligence failure than Richard Kovar, the Middle East analyst. Now 81, he still gets choked up remembering that he made the wrong call.

KOVAR: It was the lowest point, certainly, in my whole career and maybe my whole life. Here were these young soldiers dying because of what I had - just the night before, I had said there wasn't anything to worry about. And these soldiers were dying.

GJELTEN: Intelligence officers may be dispassionate, but that doesn't mean they don't feel responsible for what they say. The CIA quickly got up to speed once the fighting began. But an agency historian says the 1973 war turned out to be, quote, "one of a series of events that cost the agency great regard in Washington during a tumultuous period.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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