The other day, my youngest daughter (age 17) walks in, looks at her phone, and mutters a phrase that I had never heard before. “TIFU” (pronounced tie – phoo).

“What does that mean?” I asked, expecting (and getting) some acronym that kids have come up with as the next buzzword.

She looked at me, shook her head and said, “Dad…TIFU. Today I f-ed up?” and walked out of the room. She was gone before I could shout back, “Hey! Watch your mouth!” But it got me thinking about how those four letters apply to the intelligence world, and the cost of how “f-ing up” affects us on everything from an individual to a global level. Particularly, how can even the slightest failure in the business of intelligence gathering affect people, policy, battles, and wars?

No one is perfect. Every action or inaction has consequences. These are lessons passed on to me by my parents and often painfully, by my life experiences. These same lessons have been (or should have been) learned by presidents from Lincoln to Obama, and military commanders from Pershing to Petraeus. But “learned” is a subjective term in both worlds, and that subjectivity is universal across history, language, and cultures.

During World War II, the German military prided itself on its ability to both wage lightning war and to stay one step ahead of the Allies. But Operation Fortitude, the false “field army” portion of the larger Operation Bodyguard deception program, so completely fooled the majority of the German intelligence apparatus that the June 6, 1944 landings at Normandy found the Nazi military taken totally by surprise. It was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.

On 1 November, 1950, thousands of Chinese infantry poured out of the hills near Unsan, North Korea, completely surprising and overrunning the South Korean, UN, and U.S. forces there. Similar attacks took place all along the Korea-China border, but then suddenly, on 6 November, the attacks stopped, and the Chinese forces melted back into the hills and disappeared.

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Despite the attacks and information from various sources, General Douglas MacArthur and his Far Eastern Command (FEC) intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, continued to insist that the Chinese would not intervene in force. On 6 November, the FEC continued to list the total of Chinese troops in theater as only 34,500, whereas in reality, over 300,000 CCF soldiers organized into 30 divisions had already moved into Korea.

Fast forward to 1998. The U.S. and allied intelligence community is taken by surprise when India, in retaliation for Pakistan’s test launch of a missile with a 900-mile range, conducted three underground nuclear-weapons tests. U.S. intelligence had been closely monitoring the facility in question via satellite and other SIGINT (signals intelligence) measures, but to my knowledge, had no human assets reporting on the government’s intentions. The tests were an embarrassment to the Clinton administration, the CIA, and the intelligence community; they also exposed the U.S.’s over-reliance on technology instead of using HUMINT (human intelligence) as a primary collection tool.

“We want this cooperation based on partnership,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a July 2014 interview with public broadcaster ZDF and noted in the July 12, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal. “But we have different ideas, and part of this is that we don’t spy on each other.” Merkel was referring to the leaking of classified information by former NSA/CIA contractor Edward Snowden, which, among other things, revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had allegedly tapped Miss Merkel’s phone. The accusation tainted a long and productive alliance with Germany, but it also had the effect of causing our other worldwide partners, some of whom we had been actively fighting alongside in Iraq and Afghanistan, to wonder if the U.S. had been doing the same to them.

The fallout of the disclosures led to the expulsion and declaration of persona non grata for the CIA station chief in-country, as well as a flurry of articles in Der Spiegel and other media. The CIA, NSA and the Obama administration quickly went into damage-control mode, and while other stories have dominated the headlines, the die has been cast and may have an effect that ripples for a long while.

At home in the U.S., even citizens who are (or were) supporters of the administration and the intelligence apparatus cast a suspicious eye, fearful that their Facebook account or cell phone had been compromised and was under surveillance. The administration has vowed that reforms would be made, but again, as far as the people are concerned, the damage has been done.

The Snowden disclosures have affected more than just foreign policy. Here in the U.S., Congress and other government offices have begun talking in public about things they had previously kept hidden. Companies have had to explain some of their cooperation with the government, and many of them publicly backed away from further dealings. Journalists who were not a party to the transaction with Snowden scrambled to add background to the story. As stated above, the average U.S. citizen questioned the administration, the intelligence community, the “war on terror,” and the cost of security.

After what many view as the costliest intelligence failure of our time, when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, President Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. In essence, the act was formulated to strengthen the powers of law enforcement and the courts to monitor and arrest those who would perpetrate acts of terrorism, as well as those who make up their support system.

While people wanted to keep our borders safe, the opposition to what many viewed as a gross invasion of both privacy and civil liberties was evident. Additionally, what was seen as “overkill response” to the attacks came in the form of color-coded threat-level alerts, plus the re-alignment and creation of additional layers of government bureaucracy (read: The Department of Homeland Security).

On July 31, 1941, a coded message sent from the foreign minister in Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in Washington, intercepted and deciphered by the U.S. Signal Intelligence Service, declared, “There is more reason than ever before for us to arm ourselves to the teeth for all-out war.” Tensions between the United States and Japan had been at an all-time high since the mid 1930s, but other than a few naval attaches, the U.S. had no HUMINT assets on the ground in the Far East. They had to rely on the newly formed SIS, who to that point had done an amazing job with the resources available.

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Nevertheless, and for reasons debated to this day, the White House chose to ignore the increasingly-alarming diplomatic messages that were being deciphered, including one that recalled the Japanese ambassador to the United States and ordered the destruction of all codes and cipher machines. Then, at dawn on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers and torpedo bombers, supported by fighter aircraft, attacked the navy yard at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Scores of American ships and aircraft were sunk, damaged, or destroyed, but worse still was the loss of life: 2,403 Americans were killed, and America’s entrance into World War II resulted in the deaths of a total of 420,000 of its citizens. With the exception of the the attacks of 9/11, no intelligence failure has resulted in the deaths of more Americans to date.

Meanwhile, none of this takes into account the cost in manpower, resources, money, and other logistical data. Mistakes and failures in life teach us lessons and make for good quotes like, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Intelligence failures and mistakes, on the other hand, do kill and do come with a cost. Despite what Hollywood might suggest, and while probably not often enough, folks do lose their jobs over failures, and at times even legal action is taken. But is it enough?

To modify the often-used cliche, are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Today, we have 9/11, the controversy of WMDs in Iraq, and the question of why the intelligence community was unable to predict (I personally hate that term, as it is often applied to intelligence matters) Russia’s intentions pertaining to Ukraine. TIFU? I am sure that this will be debated long after I am gone, but in the end, as long as we learn from our intelligence failures, we will have come a long way.

(Featured Image Courtesy: Multitechind.com)