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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

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Oct 23rd
Home arrow News Content arrow Blog arrow Blog Items arrow Intelligence arrow NIE: An Abrupt About-Face
NIE: An Abrupt About-Face PDF Print E-mail
Written by The Weekly Standard   
Thursday, 06 December 2007

NIE
NIE

As many recognize, the latest NIE on Iran’s nuclear weapons program directly contradicts what the U.S. Intelligence Community was saying just two years previously. And it appears that this about-face was very recent. How recent? 

Consider that on July 11, 2007, roughly four or so months prior to the most recent NIE’s publication, Deputy Director of Analysis Thomas Fingar gave the following testimony before the House Armed Services Committee (emphasis added):

 

Iran and North Korea are the states of most concern to us. The United States’ concerns about Iran are shared by many nations, including many of Iran’s neighbors. Iran is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations and working to delay and diminish the impact of UNSC sanctions than in reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution. We assess that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons--despite its international obligations and international pressure. This is a grave concern to the other countries in the region whose security would be threatened should Iran acquire nuclear weapons.

 

This paragraph appeared under the subheading: "Iran Assessed As Determined to Develop Nuclear Weapons." And the entirety of Fingar’s 22-page testimony was labeled "Information as of July 11, 2007." No part of it is consistent with the latest NIE, in which our spooks tell us Iran suspended its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003 "primarily in response to international pressure" and they "do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

The inconsistencies are more troubling when we realize that, according to the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Fingar is one of the three officials who were responsible for crafting the latest NIE. The Journal cites "an intelligence source" as describing Fingar and his two colleagues as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials." (The New York Sun drew attention to one of Fingar’s colleagues yesterday.)

So, if it is true that Dr. Fingar played a leading role in crafting this latest NIE, then we are left with serious questions:

  • Why did your opinion change so drastically in just four months time?
  • Is the new intelligence or analysis really that good? Is it good enough to overturn your previous assessments? Or, has it never really been good enough to make a definitive assessment at all?
  • Did your political or ideological leanings, or your policy preferences, or those of your colleagues, influence your opinion in any way?

Many in the mainstream press have been willing to cite this latest NIE unquestioningly. Perhaps they should start asking some pointed questions. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Thompson on the NIE

The statement from Fred Thompson:

 

"The accuracy of the latest NIE on Iran should be received with a good deal of skepticism. Our intelligence community has often underestimated the intentions of adversaries, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea. And are all of the CIA detractors now going to take intelligence pronouncements at face value? It's awfully convenient for a lot of people: the administration gets to say its policies worked; the Democrats get to claim we should have eased up on Iran a long time ago: and Russia and China can claim sanctions on Iran are not necessary. Who benefits from all this? Iran.

"And what if the NIE estimate is accurate? It's essentially an analysis of Iran's intentions at a point in time. Meanwhile, Iran continues to enrich uranium for allegedly peaceful purposes, but which would allow them to easily transition to a nuclear weapons program at any point in the future. Maybe even now--now that so many seem willing to forget Iran's past deceptions and ongoing intransigence. After all, a nuclear weapons program is simply an extension of the process by why uranium is enriched for civilian nuclear fuel. To this day Iran has yet to comply with international demands and its Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty requirements for open inspections and other safeguard measures.

"The bottom line is that the United States must continue to improve its human intelligence capabilities and intelligence analysis. We must hope for the best, but not let our guard down for a moment. If something appears to be too good to be true, it very well may be."

 

Thompson gets it just about right, I think. The big news is that Iran might have nuclear weapons in two years. Is that reassuring? I'm not sure I understand the coverage that's come out given this fact. Iran is basically getting together the sugar, the flour, the icing . . . it just hasn't baked the cake yet. One has to ask why a country with so much oil would even want nuclear energy?

The NYTimes on Iran NIE

Today's New York Times editorial, titled "Good and Bad News About Iran":

 

There is a lot of good news in the latest intelligence assessment about Iran. Tehran, we are now told, halted its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, which means that President Bush has absolutely no excuse for going to war against Iran.

 

Then the bad news:

 

First, the report says “with high confidence” that Iran did have a secret nuclear weapons program and that it stopped only after it got caught and was threatened with international punishment. Even now, Tehran’s scientists are working to master the skills to make nuclear fuel — the hardest part of building a weapon.

Anyone who wants to give the Iranians the full benefit of the doubt should read the last four years of reports from United Nations’ nuclear inspectors about Iran’s 18-year history of hiding and dissembling. Or last month’s report, which criticized Tehran for providing “diminishing” information and access to its current program. In one of those ironies that would be delicious if it didn’t involve nuclear weapons, an official close to the inspection agency told The Times yesterday that the new American assessment might be too generous to Iran.

 

James Taranto:

 

In other words, the bad news, per the Times, is that a lunatic theocracy may soon become a lunatic theocracy armed with nuclear weapons. The good news is that that there's nothing President Bush can do to stop it.

 

The Israelis Jump In

Israel enters the NIE fray:

 

Israeli officials, who've been warning that Iran would soon pose a nuclear threat to the world, reacted angrily Tuesday to a new U.S. intelligence finding that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons development program in 2003 and to date hasn't resumed trying to produce nuclear weapons.

 

So here we have two intelligence communities, Israel and the United States, with two completely different estimates. Israel doesn't enjoy the electronic collection capabilities that the United States does, but the Mossad is widely to believed to field one of the most effective HUMINT networks in the world.

So who to believe?

There's no shortage of intel wonks who believe that running agents--HUMINT--is more reliable than signature, imagery, and signals intelligence. That's Israel's specialty. Given the Mossad's past successes, and their obsession with Iran's atomic program, one would assume that Israel has penetrated the Iranian government with a certain level of effectiveness. At the very least, they're worth a listen.

Update: More from Max Boot at Contentions.

NIE: An Abrupt About-Face

As many recognize, the latest NIE on Iran’s nuclear weapons program directly contradicts what the U.S. Intelligence Community was saying just two years previously. And it appears that this about-face was very recent. How recent?

Consider that on July 11, 2007, roughly four or so months prior to the most recent NIE’s publication, Deputy Director of Analysis Thomas Fingar gave the following testimony before the House Armed Services Committee (emphasis added):

 

Iran and North Korea are the states of most concern to us. The United States’ concerns about Iran are shared by many nations, including many of Iran’s neighbors. Iran is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations and working to delay and diminish the impact of UNSC sanctions than in reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution. We assess that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons--despite its international obligations and international pressure. This is a grave concern to the other countries in the region whose security would be threatened should Iran acquire nuclear weapons.

 

This paragraph appeared under the subheading: "Iran Assessed As Determined to Develop Nuclear Weapons." And the entirety of Fingar’s 22-page testimony was labeled "Information as of July 11, 2007." No part of it is consistent with the latest NIE, in which our spooks tell us Iran suspended its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003 "primarily in response to international pressure" and they "do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

The inconsistencies are more troubling when we realize that, according to the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Fingar is one of the three officials who were responsible for crafting the latest NIE. The Journal cites "an intelligence source" as describing Fingar and his two colleagues as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials." (The New York Sun drew attention to one of Fingar’s colleagues yesterday.)

So, if it is true that Dr. Fingar played a leading role in crafting this latest NIE, then we are left with serious questions:

  • Why did your opinion change so drastically in just four months time?
  • Is the new intelligence or analysis really that good? Is it good enough to overturn your previous assessments? Or, has it never really been good enough to make a definitive assessment at all?
  • Did your political or ideological leanings, or your policy preferences, or those of your colleagues, influence your opinion in any way?

Many in the mainstream press have been willing to cite this latest NIE unquestioningly. Perhaps they should start asking some pointed questions. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More on the NIE

Just to add to Tom Joscelyn's excellent post on the National Intelligence Estimate, Cliff May offers this note from a former CIA insider:

 

[While this NIE] does confirm Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons in 2002 and 2003, its conclusions that as to why it may have stopped the program and why this halt may have continued are debatable [sic] and speculation. These KJs [Key Judgments] have too much political spin. This assessment was strongly influenced by two hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials who oversaw it, both former State officials who fought tooth and nail against Bush WMD policies, especially Iran.

 

I've heard similar rumblings from similar people, though less specific.

While I do agree that the NIE was somewhat less grounded than previous estimates, I don't agree with what is becoming a popular conservative talking point: Iran dropped their program in 2003 because OIF showed the world that America meant business. I think that it's far more likely that the Iranians--if they really did drop their program--had a North Korea (rather than Libya) style epiphany, realizing that the technological hurdle in constructing a bomb, shrinking it, and mating it to an effective delivery system was just too complicated of an endeavor. Had Iran truly been scared into submission by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I doubt we would have heard four years of blustering about "Iran's right to nuclear research and development" and boasting about "thousands of operational centrifuges."

But that doesn't mean that liberals are being any more rational. It's amusing to watch the transformation of the most ignorant left wing bloggers into defense experts every time an ideologically satisfying Pentagon/CIA press release appears, but any discussion about how the NIE is a blow to the Bush administration's plan to attack Iran is just silly. For one, the NIE's confirmation of Iran's nuclear intentions prior to 2003 completely justified the White House's relatively measured "all options are the table" rhetoric, and second, the White House has never deviated--nor threatened to deviate--from its commitment to a diplomatic resolution. And to clarify, no... acknowledging that military options exist is not a deviation from diplomacy. Executing a military option is a deviation from diplomacy.

NIE: What Changed Since 2005?

In a NIE just two years ago, the U.S. Intelligence Community (“IC”) concluded: “[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable.” However, the latest NIE on Iran’s nuclear program says, “…we do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” This is just one of many differences between the 2005 estimate, which concluded that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and this latest estimate, which claims that the “military” nuclear weapons program was shut down sometime in 2003. (Keep in mind that the “civilian” program, which everyone concedes is still up and running, could quite easily be repurposed for military use. And the NIE is drawing a line between the two without explaining how it made that judgment. See Question #3 here.)

What changed?

Judging from press accounts, anonymous intelligence officials are offering a number of answers.
For example, McClatchy newspapers ran this description (emphasis added):

 

Senior U.S. intelligence officials said the judgment that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in mid-2003 emerged four to six months ago as a result of fresh intelligence, some of it from open sources and some from a "very rigorous scrub" of 20 years of information, some of which informed the 2005 NIE.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the analysts who drafted the report also had applied lessons learned from an erroneous 2002 NIE on Iraq.

 

Taken at face value, we have here a number of explanations. What is the “fresh intelligence” gathered by the IC? I am a strong advocate of open source analysis, but what “fresh intelligence” was gathered through open sources (e.g. press articles, television appearances, etc.)? Can you determine through open sources that Iran shut down its nuclear program in 2003? If so, how?

What did the “very rigorous scrub” of two decades of information entail? Keep in mind that the U.S. and the international community were in the dark for much of this period concerning Iran’s nuclear program. And why did this scrub produce different results now since it also “informed the 2005 NIE”? Is this a concession that the tradecraft used in the 2005 estimate was sloppy? Or, have the analysts let the current climate, with partisan debates over how to handle Iran dominating the headlines, dictate the way they viewed this intelligence?

This last question is particular apt, since the McClatchy account tells us that the “analysts who drafted the report also had applied lessons learned from an erroneous 2002 NIE on Iraq?” Did the lessons have to do with tradecraft? Or, do they mean they just wanted to make sure that the intelligence coming out of the IC was not used to justify any military action, as it did in the case of Iraq?

The Washington Post, based on anonymous sources, gives us a sense of what intelligence was used in the revised estimate (emphasis added):

 

Senior officials said the latest conclusions grew out of a stream of information, beginning with a set of Iranian drawings obtained in 2004 and ending with the intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders, that steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment.

In one intercept, a senior Iranian military official was specifically overheard complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered years earlier, according to a source familiar with the intelligence. The intercept was one of more than 1,000 pieces of information cited in footnotes to the 150-page classified version of the document, an official said.

Several of those involved in preparing the new assessment said that when intelligence officials began briefing senior members of the Bush administration on the intercepts, beginning in July, the policymakers expressed skepticism. Several of the president's top advisers suggested the intercepts were part of a clever Iranian deception campaign, the officials said.

 

What drawings were obtained? Were there any intercepts that cut against the thesis that the program was shuttered in 2003? Were any of the “more than 1,000 pieces of information” cited in the report contradictory? If so, how were these contradictions explained away?

As the Post notes, senior administration officials expressed their skepticism concerning these intercepts, noting that it could be part of an elaborate deception campaign. The IC then did a review to determine if this was plausible and evidently concluded that the intercepts were valid. I have no reason to think their judgment is wrong, but then again, who knows?

Key questions regarding the intercepts: Are the conversations intercepted between parties that would know the full scope of the program? Are intercepts alone enough to validate the cessation of the “military” program in 2003, or is human intelligence also needed? Did any human intelligence go into this assessment? Are there any intercepts pertaining to the current state of the “military” nuclear program? Do any of the intercepts relate to the “civilian” nuclear program and its dual uses?

It will be interesting to follow the details of what made up this NIE in the press over the next few days.

Additional note: Over at NRO’s The Corner, Seth Leibsohn offers his own rundown of the different explanations for the flip-flop appearing in the press.

Liberman on Iran, NIE

Senator Lieberman just put out the following statement in response to yesterday's release of the NIE:

 

“The National Intelligence Estimate reinforces the need for concern and caution, not complacency, on the part of the United States and the international community, about Iran’s illegal nuclear activities.

“On the one hand, today’s NIE suggests that economic and diplomatic pressure can work in persuading the Iranian regime to suspend at least some elements of its illegal nuclear activities—and that therefore we should continue to work with our allies to ratchet up the heat.

“At the same time, as the NIE makes clear, the Iranian regime has neither verifiably ended nor abandoned its secret nuclear weapons program—the existence of which Tehran continues to deny. Rather, the Iranian regime has at best made a tactical decision to halt certain elements of this program, in response to increased international pressure and scrutiny, and which it may restart at any time.

“As the NIE also makes clear, the Iranian regime continues to pursue its illegal uranium enrichment program, in violation of its international commitments and in flagrant disregard of the will of the international community.

“As the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency have long insisted, Iran’s illegal uranium enrichment program is totally unacceptable. That is because, if Iran is able to perfect the technological know-how to produce highly enriched uranium through this program, this technology is then equally transferrable to produce a nuclear weapon.

“It is very important for the American people to understand this point: even if Iran has suspended its direct drive for a nuclear weapon, its continued efforts to develop the technological know-how that would allow it, at short notice, to be able to assemble a nuclear weapon are just as threatening.

“That is why it is so important for the United States and our allies to continue to turn up the economic and diplomatic pressure against Iran, to convince its regime to negotiate an end to all of its illegal nuclear activities.”

 

That ought to drive folks on the left absolutely bonkers.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Five Questions Concerning the Latest NIE

The story dominating the news cycle right now is the public release of "Key Judgments" from an NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. In particular, the first sentence of the NIE is drawing the press’s intention: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…" But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Given the poor performance of the U.S. Intelligence Community ("IC") in drafting previous NIE’s, we should review the IC’s work with a skeptical eye--no matter what conclusions are drawn. Interestingly, the IC now concedes that it is certain Iran had a nuclear weapons program. But that isn't getting the headlines. And after having read the little that has been made public from this NIE, we are left with substantive questions.

First, what intelligence is this assessment based upon?

Any student, or even casual observer, of the U.S. intelligence community knows that it has done a remarkably poor job of recruiting spies inside unfriendly regimes. For example, we had no meaningful spies inside Saddam’s regime. That was at least part of the reason the U.S. intelligence community misjudged Saddam’s WMD programs so badly. (Whatever came of Saddam’s WMD, U.S. intelligence clearly did not know what was going on since the few sources it had were on the periphery of Saddam’s regime.)

Reading the latest NIE does not provide, of course, any clues as to how the IC came to these conclusions. If the IC does have good sources inside the Iranian regime and its putative nuclear program, then quite naturally it would want to protect them. And we wouldn’t expect to see any information about sources in a declassified "Key Judgments" such as this.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the IC does not have good intelligence inside Iran. For example, both of the leading members (one Republican, one Democrat) of the House Intelligence Committee explained back in 2006 that we did not really know then what was going on inside Iran. And the Robb-Silberman Commission, which investigated what the IC knew about WMD programs around the world, found in 2005: "Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or ten years ago." Understandably, the Commission refrained from discussing the specifics of the intelligence community’s infiltration, or lack thereof, of both the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. But it is a safe bet that the statement cited above applied in both cases.

Thus, we should not be confident, at all, that the IC has the type of intelligence that would allow it to make a definitive assessment one way or another. This is true no matter what conclusions the IC publishes. Who or what are the sources cited by IC? How do we know they are telling the truth? If they are members of the Iranian regime, have their so-called bona fides been established? Are they in a position to know what they claim to know? Do they have any motives to lie, or distort the truth? We should be mindful of all of these questions and more.

Second, what has changed since 2005?

As this latest NIE notes, its conclusions are at odds with what the IC believed in 2005. The last page of the declassified Key Judgments notes significant differences between what the IC believed in 2005 and what it is saying now. In 2005, the IC noted: "[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable." Now the IC says, "…we do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." So, in 2005 the IC was sure that Iran was determined to build a nuclear weapon and now it is not sure at all. This is a profound change in opinion and, at a minimum, does not inspire confidence that the IC can get this story right. After all, if the IC’s judgments can change so drastically in two years time, why should we believe any of its pronouncements one way or the other?

What is the basis for this flip-flop? What has been learned in the meantime to warrant such an about-face?

Third, how did the IC draw its line between a "civilian" nuclear program and a military one?

In the very first footnote the authors of the NIE explain: "For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment."

Continue reading "Five Questions Concerning the Latest NIE" »

Dubious Sources

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is out, but I'll leave the serious analysis to Thomas Joscelyn, who should have something up in this space shortly. Still I think it's worth pointing out how ridiculous some of the claims being made about the NIE process are, almost all of which tie back to Gareth Porter. We've documented some of Porter's BS stories here in the past, and the description of Porter's employer, IPS, is a dead give away that their work product isn't news, but activism--they describe themselves as "civil society's leading news agency, [...] an independent voice from the South and for development, delving into globalisation for the stories underneath.”

Still, this quote from a November 8 story by Porter has been linked by numerous bloggers, including Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly and Bradford Plumer at the New Republic. Here's the bit that seems to be of interest to the left:

 

A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear programme, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's militarily aggressive policy toward Iran, according to accounts of the process provided by participants to two former Central Intelligence Agency officers.

But this pressure on intelligence analysts, obviously instigated by Cheney himself, has not produced a draft estimate without those dissenting views, these sources say. The White House has now apparently decided to release the unsatisfactory draft NIE, but without making its key findings public.

 

Again, Porter has no source with first-hand knowledge of any of this. He's playing a game of whisper down the lane, if he's to be believed at all, same as he did when he reported that Admiral Fallon had called General Petraeus "an ass-kissing little chicken-shit" based not on sources familiar with the meeting but "familiar with reports of the meeting.” And, of course, Porter's reporting totally missed the mark again this time. These weren't "dissenting judgments" at all, they were the reports "primary conclusions" as Drum notes, and the administration has released the estimate--contrary to Porter's earlier reporting. If Porter actually knows anyone familiar with the current NIE process, it doesn't show.



Last Updated ( Thursday, 06 December 2007 )
 
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