The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran: Two Views

Opinions on the merits of the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program that was released yesterday are widely, widely varied. While many are quick to question why President Bush was apparently “out of the loop”, others have widely differing views of the report.

One quite positive interpretation of the NIEs significance comes from the editors of dNovus RDI’s NightWatch, which I’ve written about before. In the current Watch, they point to the careful choice of words contained in the NIE summary as a likely sign that the U.S. has “intelligence of exceptional quality” about the inner workings of Iran’s nuclear program. Almost exactly the opposite view is taken by Amir Oren, writing for Haaretz; in his article today, he describes the NIE as “embarassing”, “laundered”, and “much evaluation of no intelligence”. Iran, he says, can safely infer from the Estimate that the U.S. is clueless about the country’s nuclear program.

Who’s right? It’s hard to say. dNovus seems skeptical that the intelligence community would lie or otherwise produce (intentionally) misleading products, apparently choosing to believe that the political interference in the IC that led us into war in Iraq has ended. Oren, on the other hand, believes that the intelligence community is “angry with Bush”, and trying to pave the way for better relations with, and under, the next, hopefully more diplomatic, administration – a move which, if true, he believes is ultimately going to backfire, by emboldening Iran.

Personally, I’m unconvinced that the NIE findings have been “doctored” – but I’m also unconvinced that they are the product of any exceptional intelligence access. I suspect that politics have been at work, and that we’re living through a repeat of the troubled intelligence times of the early 1960s, when the intelligence community became sharply divided over the analysis of Soviet military intentions. The NIE is supposed to be the product of the intelligence community as a whole, but I would not be at all surprised to discover that at least one component – perhaps the Defense Intelligence Agency – has been largely excluded from the process and supports a view much more in line with the administration’s prevalent, anti-Iranian rhetoric. As history shows, the problem with trying to interpret a NIE from the summary is that you only get just that, the summary; there could, for example, be a dissenting appendix produced by one or more components that disagrees completely with the findings of the main Estimate.

My reason for this belief is simple: I don’t see what any component, nor the IC as a whole, would have to gain – ever, but especially in the current political climate – by doctoring their findings to be completely opposed to recent administration statements. If the NIE were intended to deter the most vocally militant from pursuing military options against Iran, it would – I think – be more assertive. Doing the opposite, however – telling the customer what they want to hear – would have been more understandable. (Foolhardy, given the stakes, but understandable nonetheless.) If there really were the excellent, incontrovertible, high-quality intelligence about Iran’s intentions that NightWatch believes exists, I think the intelligence community would be, on the whole, principled enough to stand by it. What appears to be happening could easily be the product of differing interpretations of quite sketchy, unreliable, and unconfirmed intelligence; looking at inkblots, for example, and trying to derive meaning and intent from them.

As with most things, we’ll probably never know the truth – at least not in time to make meaningful judgments. One thing is certain, though – the NIE summary raises far more questions than it answers…

Published in: General, History, Security | on December 4th, 2007| Comments Off on The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran: Two Views

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