OpinionIran in the World PressStupid intelligence on Iran

Stupid intelligence on Iran

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Wall Street Journal: The release earlier this month of “key judgments” from the National Intelligence Estimate — including the bald assertion “that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” — has caused both astonishment here at home and consternation overseas, where it has resulted in confusion about America’s policy goals and steadiness. The Wall Street Journal

COMMENTARY

By JAMES SCHLESINGER

The release earlier this month of “key judgments” from the National Intelligence Estimate — including the bald assertion “that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” — has caused both astonishment here at home and consternation overseas, where it has resulted in confusion about America’s policy goals and steadiness.

Let us stipulate that the intelligence community has acquired evidence sufficiently persuasive to lead it to reverse its prior judgment that Iran was hard at work developing nuclear weapons. For that it has been praised, particularly in traditional intelligence quarters, for “speaking truth to power,” and thereby dissipating some of the distrust generated by its faulty earlier judgments on Iraq.

The NIE’s about-face on Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents a reversion to an earlier style of intelligence analysis — featuring a renewed determination not to get beyond the “hard evidence.” But as we shall see, this has led to a decision not to consider several crucial elements that lay behind the presumed 2003 decision in Tehran.

Clearly, the key judgments in the NIE were overstated. And that, in turn, may reflect the very late decision to declassify the key judgments, written in a kind of shorthand, and thus incautiously phrased.

The crucial decision, hidden in a footnote, was to define the “nuclear weapons program” which had been halted to mean only “Iran’s weapon design and weaponization work and covert . . . uranium enrichment-related work.” Thus it excludes Iran’s overt enrichment program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

We have long understood that the production of fissile material, whether overt or covert, remains “the long pole in the tent” in the development of a nuclear capability. Thus the NIE defines away what has been the main element stirring international alarm regarding Iran’s nuclear activity.

Yesterday Tehran announced its Bushehr nuclear power plant will be operating at full capacity by the end of next year. Yet even though Russia supplied the nuclear fuel for Bushehr, the Iranians insist on maintaining their “civilian” uranium-enrichment program. Weapon design and weaponization, at least for the simpler weapons, is a far less demanding and less time-consuming task than uranium enrichment.

Let us examine what else has not been considered. The NIE asserts “that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure” and that “indicates that Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach.” Now what might have constituted the principal elements in that “international pressure” to induce Tehran, at least temporarily, to halt its covert weaponization program?

• The American invasion of Iraq, resulting in the seizure of Baghdad in 10 days time — something that had widely been suggested could not be accomplished.

• The earlier destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, another display of American military prowess.

• The decision of Col. Moammar Gadhafi to abandon his nuclear program and to renounce and make amends for terrorism.

• The exposure and partial demolition of the A.Q. Khan nuclear technology network, Khan’s confession and his confinement by the Pakistani government to his home.

Does it not seem likely that Tehran took notice of these events, and may have been intimidated by them into more circumspect behavior? The NIE argues that “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach.” Given those successful American actions, those who guide decisions in Iran may well have decided that the potential costs of being caught with a clandestine program had risen sharply, and that the presumed benefits of early clandestine weaponization efforts could safely be deferred.

In brief, since the “long pole in the tent” remains the production of fissile material, Iran likely decided that the prudent course of action was to pursue an open enrichment program ostensibly to produce fuel for nuclear reactors. It is a course that had been chartered by North Korea — and arguably was legitimate under the Nonproliferation Treaty. This central path to obtaining fissile material — the focus of international concern — has been treated in the NIE as quite distinct from the “nuclear weapons program.”

Still, the achievements of American arms and American policy during that period were undoubtedly noted in Tehran. Why not mention them in the NIE as possibly influencing Tehran’s decision in 2003?

The answer, in brief, is that it would have been speculative and in violation of the renewed commitment of the intelligence community to stick to the “hard evidence.” There was no intercept; there was no agent’s report that such calculations were, indeed, the source of Iran’s switch. So in order to avoid the kind of speculation that had gotten the intelligence community into trouble in its judgments regarding Iraq, these realities were left up to the imagination of others and the intelligence community stuck to what it had evidence for.

What was obvious about events in and around 2003 should have been obvious at least to the American media. The media, Lord knows, have no inhibitions about engaging in speculation or urging us to “connect the dots,” or feeling any obligation to limit themselves to hard evidence. The NIE almost begged for others to follow up on the nature of “international pressure” and the calculations behind Iran’s “cost-benefit approach.”

But the American media today almost reflexively treat any development as a setback for the administration of George W. Bush. So, the media quite clearly ignored the obvious: that a surprising decision by Tehran in 2003 to halt the covert weaponization effort likely was a tribute to the successes of American policy and arms during that period. Thus, administration policies and actions that likely induced caution in Tehran could be characterized, ironically enough, as an administration defeat.

Little more need be said about the process by which what might have been heralded as a victory was transformed into a defeat and echoed overseas. But a few words do need to be added about the intelligence community’s decision to restrict its key judgments to “hard evidence.” Many in the intelligence community embrace this as a return to virtue. Yet in itself it has severe drawbacks. As in this case, reading the key judgments may now require something akin to Cliffs Notes listing other relevant events and considerations that may be necessary in interpreting an Estimate limited to the hard evidence.

Exclusive reliance on hard evidence not infrequently results in deliberately blinding oneself to the most obvious explanation of what has occurred. The classic example of this failing occurred during the Vietnam War, when intelligence analysts stubbornly refused to accept that enemy supplies were pouring through Sihanoukville ostensibly on the grounds that there was no hard evidence. (Actually, there was an agent’s report that revealed the activity, but it was dismissed as insufficient.) Intelligence based on hard evidence requires supplementation by other forms of intelligence.

“Failures of imagination,” to which the 9-11 Commission referred, can come in a variety of modes.

Mr. Schlesinger is a former secretary of defense, secretary of energy and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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