Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

US Intelligence: Did December’s NIE Get It Wrong on Iran?

Posted by K.E. White on February 8, 2008

The Wall Street Journal discusses Intelligence Director Michael McConnell’s recent Senate testimony. The editorial portrays McConnell as back-pedaling on last December’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that found Iran backing off its nuclear weapons program. The editorial paints the December NIE the work of fervent anti-Bush partisans with—even worse—State Department connections. 

Whether right or wrong, the editorial illustrates one point painfully: America has yet to effectively collect and release intelligence into the public; and, as a result, the corrosive politicization of intelligence continues. 

From the editorial:

The December NIE made headlines the world over for its “key judgment” that in 2003 “Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programs” — programs that previously had been conducted in secret and in violation of Iran‘s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.

This was a “high confidence” judgment, though the intelligence community had only “moderate confidence” that the program hasn’t since been restarted. The NIE also waded into speculative political and policy judgments, such as that “Tehran‘s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.”

He expressed some regret that the authors of the NIE had left it to a footnote to explain that the NIE’s definition of “nuclear weapons program” meant only its design and weaponization and excluded its uranium enrichment. And he agreed with Mr. Bayh’s statement that it would be “very difficult” for the U.S. to know if Iran had recommenced weaponization work, and that “given their industrial and technological capabilities, they are likely to be successful” in building a bomb.

The Admiral went even further in his written statement. Gone is the NIE’s palaver about the cost-benefit approach or the sticks-and-carrots by which the mullahs may be induced to behave. Instead, the new assessment stresses that Iran continues to press ahead on enrichment, “the most difficult challenge in nuclear production.” It notes that “Iran‘s efforts to perfect ballistic missiles that can reach North Africa and Europe also continue” — a key component of a nuclear weapons capability.

All this merely confirms what has long been obvious about Iran‘s intentions. No less importantly, his testimony underscores the extent to which the first NIE was at best a PR fiasco, at worst a revolt by intelligence analysts seeking to undermine current U.S. policy. As we reported at the time, the NIE was largely the work of State Department alumni with track records as “hyperpartisan anti-Bush officials,” according to an intelligence source. They did their job too well. As Senator Bayh pointed out at the hearing, the NIE “had unintended consequences that, in my own view, are damaging to the national security interests of our country.” Mr. Bayh is not a neocon.

Admiral McConnell’s belated damage repair ought to refocus world attention on Iran‘s very real nuclear threat. Too bad his NIE rewrite won’t get anywhere near the media attention that the first draft did.

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