September 29, 2009

Sometimes Its Good to Be Cautious about Intelligence

Intelligence Community
The disclosure of a secret nuclear facility near Qom last week apparently had the effect of convincing people that Iran is not only working towards building nuclear weapons, but is quite close to achieving that goal. But the fact is that all sixteen agencies within the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) still believe that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has yet to restart it.
As a result of this position, the IC has been criticized by commentators who point toward German, French and Israeli intelligence reports that claim Iran never stopped its weapons program.  Today’s New York Times article by David Sanger suggested that the IC is being overly cautious, overcompensating for the WMD intelligence debacle that helped launch the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“Some Israeli and European officials say the Americans are being overly cautious, having been stung by the Iraq intelligence debacle. The Americans deny this, insisting they are open-minded. One American intelligence official said the view of Iran’s weapons design program, “like every analytic judgment, is constantly checked and reassessed in light of new information, which comes in all the time.”

The article’s authors and European and Israeli officials, however, seem to have forgotten that in 2003 IC analysts were plenty cautious about stating that Iraq’s stockpile of WMDs was a number greater than zero. They didn’t rush into a judgment, nor were they intent on pushing biased intelligence.  Until, that is, the White House put a great deal of pressure on the IC to “sex up” its threat assessment of Iraq.
It was as a result of White House pressure that the IC changed its assessment of Iraq’s WMD program. Intelligence reports went from initially wary about the danger of Iraq’s WMD program, to absolutely certain (a “slam dunk”) that Iraq possessed WMDs.
This is not meant to be a blind defense of the IC (which wasn’t blameless for the Iraq war), but instead a refutation of arguments that dismiss a guarded intelligence assessment in favor of evaluations that can be used to support a more bellicose, confrontational approach. The intelligence reports that the leaders of the P5+1 countries take to heart before negotiations could greatly affect the outcome of the talks.
Unfortunately, neoconservatives and Iran hawks in the US have spent the last two years trying to discredit the 2007 NIE which stated that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003.  The orchestrated campaign to attack the consensus assessment of US intelligence is nothing more than a repeat of the Bush administration’s cooked-up push for a justification to go to war in Iraq.  While the “clock is ticking” on Iran’s nuclear program, as people often say, this repeat of history can only hasten a confrontation.
If the German, Israeli and French intelligence assessments are given priority, then there will be a greater sense of urgency to Thursday’s meeting with Iran. On the other hand, if the IC’s reports are believed, then there is certainly time to work on diplomacy before “crippling” sanctions are warranted.
The talks on October 1st should be treated by all parties involved as a soft opening for the second round of talks scheduled for October 6th. On Thursday, members of the P5+1 and Iran can raise the issues that are important to them, but no party should be overly rigid in its stance. The door to discussion should be left wide open, since everyone will be back at the table again in five days.

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