Morning Report: December 7, 2007

Misunderestimations: More on the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).

National Intelligence Estimate - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities (DNI release) - PDF document

John Bolton: Flaws in the NIE. John Bolton at the Washington Post notes that the 2007 NIE differs from the 2005 model more in style than in substance, and enumerates five key areas where he considers the current document flawed:
First, the headline finding -- that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- is written in a way that guarantees the totality of the conclusions will be misread. ...

Second, the NIE is internally contradictory and insufficiently supported. It implies that Iran is susceptible to diplomatic persuasion and pressure, yet the only event in 2003 that might have affected Iran was our invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not exactly a diplomatic pas de deux. ...

Third, the risks of disinformation by Iran are real. ...

Fourth, the NIE suffers from a common problem in government: the overvaluation of the most recent piece of data. ...

Fifth, many involved in drafting and approving the NIE were not intelligence professionals but refugees from the State Department, brought into the new central bureaucracy of the director of national intelligence. These officials had relatively benign views of Iran's nuclear intentions five and six years ago; now they are writing those views as if they were received wisdom from on high. ...

A tip of the hat to LGF; go read Bolton's full article at the link.

Michael Ledeen: The great scam. Michael "Faster, please!" Ledeen: 'At this point, one really has to wonder why anyone takes these documents seriously. How can anyone in his (there was no female name on the document, nor was any woman from the IC [intelligence community - aa] present at the press briefing yesterday) right mind believe that the mullahs are rational? Has no one told the IC about the cult of the 12th Imam, on which this regime bases its domestic and foreign policies? Does not the constant chant of “Death to America” mean anything? I suppose not, at least not to the deep thinkers who wrote this policy document.'

Michael Tanji: Not BDS, just BS. Taking a dissenting view, Michael Tanji at Haft of the Spear doesn't see a sinister plot to discredit the Bush Administration and aid the IRI; he just sees a typical, muddled, committee-written, bureaucratic document.

Finally, building an NIE is not unlike any other bureaucratic exercise that involves multiple agencies of the government. Competing opinions are argued, disputes are mediated, and dissent noted. At the end of the day a deliverable is due – the rough draft – and the involved parties get to sit at their home offices for a period of time, ruminate on the work, and forward to the principle drafter their comments, edits, suggestions and recommendations. What follows are several rounds of review and edit sessions with increasingly more senior members of the agencies involved and the National Intelligence Council, until the final draft is ready for review, approval and dissemination. ...

If there is a bias being exerted here (and again, I do not dispute the presence of Bush Derangement Syndrome sufferers in the IC) it is a bias driven by intellectual and professional fear and less raw politics. That may be parsing to some, but I think the distinction is important. Regardless of where an intelligence officer falls out on the political spectrum, none of them can stand being the experts that never get anything right (or more accurately, have their failures so publicly exposed). I’ve been as guilty as anyone in the business: I knew secrets, I should have been able to make better calls that people who did not, but often times I did not. So the dramatic shift in the NIE may have less to do with any killer piece of new information and everything to do with the fact that the community is in a mindset that has them prepared to do anything (anything but apply a full-court intel press against hard targets – and pay the associated human cost) to avoid being exposed as ineffective. ...

... Ignore the hype and rhetoric and read the key judgments carefully for yourself. Assume everything used to construct the work is accurate and base your own assessment on the language used: do you feel highly confident?

Well, do ya?

George Friedman: Solving a geopolitical problem. Stratfor's George Friedman, taking a more realpolitik view, believes the nuclear program was only ever a "bargaining chip" for the IRI, and that what is at stake here is really the future of Iraq, and Iran's role in the region.
As we have argued, the central issue for Iran is not nuclear weapons. It is the future of Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 was the defining moment in modern Iranian history. It not only devastated Iran, but also weakened the revolution internally. Above all, Tehran never wants to face another Iraqi regime that has the means and motivation to wage war against Iran. That means the Iranians cannot tolerate a Sunni-dominated government that is heavily armed and backed by the United States. Nor, for that matter, does Tehran completely trust Iraq’s fractured Shiite bloc with Iran’s national security. Iran wants to play a critical role in defining the nature, policies and capabilities of the Iraqi regime. ...

The NIE solves a geopolitical problem for the United States. Washington cannot impose a unilateral settlement on Iraq, nor can it sustain forever the level of military commitment it has made to Iraq. There are other fires starting to burn around the world. At the same time, Washington cannot work with Tehran while it is building nuclear weapons. Hence, the NIE: While Iran does have a nuclear power program, it is not building nuclear weapons.

Deputy DNI Donald Kerr: Iran regime's intentions "not benign". YNet (from Reuters): 'The deputy director of National Intelligence, Donald Kerr, told a House of Representatives Intelligence subcommittee that there was reason to believe Iran still wanted an ability to make nuclear weapons. Iran still had the "most important" component of a future program, a uranium-enrichment plant, Kerr told the panel. "We did not in any way suggest that Iran was benign for the future," Kerr told the panel.'

Sarkozy, Merkel: Iran remains a danger. YNet (from AP): '''I think we are in a process and that Iran continues to pose a danger,'' German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Paris at a joint news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in response to a new US intelligence report indicating Iran stopped nuclear weapons development in 2003.'

Commentary. I'm going to devote a separate post to this, but here's an outline of my impressions of the new NIE.

First, I find Michael Tanji's comments helpful and probably credible. There's a temptation for ideological neocons (including yours truly) to read more into the report than may be there. And I definitely encourage you to follow Michael's suggestion and "read the key judgments carefully for yourself". It doesn't take long, we're only talking two and a half pages. I've put the link right at the top of this post.

Now about those key judgments. A lot of people are claiming this report discounts the Iranian nuclear threat. My reaction to this is, "I do not think that report doesn't say what you think it doesn't say." What the report does say is that
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)

We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.

Whoa. I feel better already, don't you? Let's read that last sentence again, out loud, with feeling: "We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon."

Nowhere does the report assert, as Friedman claims, that "there is no Iranian nuclear weapons program". It does state "with high confidence" that the program was "halted" in 2003, and with similar confidence that the halt lasted "at least several years" (whatever that means). But the report states with only moderate confidence that Iran has not re-started its program ... and with only "moderate-to-high" confidence that Iran doesn't already have a nuclear weapon.

There's something rather peculiar, though, about the wording of a couple of phrases in the Key Judgments that does make me think that there's an agenda to promote the idea that Iran's nuclear program was halted "primarily in response to international pressure". I'm going to go into this at length in the next post. So, with the greatest respect to Michael Tanji, I assess with moderate or maybe even high confidence that there's an ideological agenda here.

Finally, I keep being reminded of the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq a year ago. There was a great kerfluffle and brouhaha around the report ... and President Bush thanked its authors politely, and then proceeded to do exactly as he pleased.