Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Deeply Flawed NIE Changes Nothing & Everything

If your initial reaction to the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities (NIE) was surprise at not finding the words "and they all lived happily ever after" in its concluding paragraph, you should be forgiven. If you suspected the authors might be Nancy Pelosi and Joe Wilson, it is understandable. After all, this NIE is more a policy document than an intelligence estimate. And several of this document’s critical conclusions are deliberately obfuscating.

The critical findings of this NIE are:

- Iran had an ongoing nuclear weapons program through 2003;

- Iran ended the overt nuclear weapons program (i.e., the military program to create HEU spheres for nuclear warheads and to place those warheads on an ICBM) in 2003;

- The Khomeinist theocracy is rational and uses a cost benefit analysis to reach its decisions;

- The decisive issues that caused the Khomeinist theocracy to end its nuclear weapons program in 2003 were the threats of IAEA inspections and sanctions;

- Iran’s ongoing nuclear program can be characterized as civilian in nature; and

- The intelligence community is moderately confident that Iran has not resumed a nuclear weapons program.

This NIE was written in such a manner as to minimze the threat posed by Iran and to portray the Khomeinist theocracy as a rational entity that can be dealt with without threat of – or resort to – use of force. Indeed, outside the U.S., some, such as Arab author Raghida Dergham, see the NIE as constituting an "internal coup." But for all it changes in our ability to meet the threat posed by Iran, the NIE does not change the actual threat posed to the world by that country’s Khomeinist theocracy. Our prior intelligence estimate completed in 2005 stated a belief that Iran was actively seeking the ability to create a nuclear weapon. Iran has not spent the intervening years turning its swords into ploughshares.

As a threshold matter, the NIE labels Iran’s ongoing nuclear program as a "civilian" program, explicitly distinguishing it from a nuclear weapons program. This might surprise the casual observer with any knowledge of the facts of Iran's "civilian" program that are are ignored in the NIE.

For all the nuclear processing of uranium that is going on in Iran – and processing uranium must be mastered in able to create a nuclear weapon – Iran has no "civilian" use for the nuclear fuel that they are creating. Iran has a heavy water plant operational yet no plans for nuclear reactors that will use that type of fuel. Heavy water is the most efficient medium for processing weapons grade fissle material. (Upadate: Alan Dershowitz makes this a centerpiece of his argument that the NIE assessment is incorrect). Nor does Iran have a use for light water fuel, from which HEU can also be made. (Update: The Washington Post picks up on this in an editorial, as does the New York Times). Iran is refining its ability to enrich uranium fuel and is bringing ever more P-2 centrifuges online, but for what purpose? While not serving as fuel, it can still be processed to weapons grade fissle material. Iran now has 3,000 P-2 centrifuges operational at its Natanz nuclear site and plans to increase that number to 8,000. It takes 3,000 centrifuges operating for one year to create enough fissle material for one nuclear weapon.

As to the nuclear fuel Iran is creating, it has a three to four year life during which it can serve as fuel for a power generating nuclear reactor. Iran has a single nuclear power plant under construction in its country. That plant at Bushehr is a light water reactor being built by Russia. Further, Russia is under contract to provide the fuel for that reactor for the first ten years after it comes online.

The NIE does not address any of these facts, but merely labels Iran’s ongoing nuclear activities as "civilian." Nor does the NIE analyze why Iran is minimizing its cooperation with the IAEA if, in fact, its program is "civilian." This superficial bit of labeling utterly minimizes the Iranian threat – and gives rise to more than a bit of cognitive dissonance. (Update: It should be noted that the intelligence agencies from Britain and Israel both believe that "we have it wrong in the NIE and that Iran in fact has an ongoing nuclear weapons program.")

But the NIE goes further to make Iran seem benign. As the NYT put it "Rather than painting Iran as a rogue, irrational nation determined to join the club of nations with the bomb, the estimate states Iran’s "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach . . ." How does one square that assessment with the fact that Iran, rather than cooperating with the IAEA in an attempt to forestall sanctions since 2005, is actually decreasing its cooperation with the IAEA, thus making sanctions ever more likely?

Beyond that unexplained logical disconnect, this assertion in the NIE also puts our intelligence agencies at odds with the beliefs of most Middle East experts. Bernard Lewis, the West’s premier Orientalist, perceives Iran's theocracy as operating outside the constraints of Western logic. If Lewis is wrong and Iran's theocracy is "rational" according to Western standards, than a significant reason for preventing Iran access to nuclear weapons goes away. In making the bald assertion that Iran is rational, the NIE sites solely to the fact that Iran stopped its overt nuclear weapons program in 2003. There is no consideration given to all else that we know about the Khomeinist theocracy.

Iran’s theocracy has, since its inception nearly thirty years ago, been attempting to export its revolution beyond its borders and has justified its decisions on the basis of its messianic religion. Indeed, it is the Iranian theocracy that gave religious justification for the cult of the suicide bombers that now infuses radical Islam. And for Iran, kidnapping is a legitmate tool of foreign policy. As Sec of Def Gates said recently:

Everywhere you turn, it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents - Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. . . . There can be little doubt that their destabilizing foreign policies are a threat to the interests of the United States, to the interests of every country in the Middle East, and to the interests of all countries within the range of the ballistic missiles Iran is developing.

To ignore the role of Khomeini’s version of "twelver" Islam and write it out of the Iranian theocracy’s decision making process is both inexplicable and suicidal. As Michael Ledeen puts it, "[t]his is demeaning to the Iranian tyrants–for whom their faith is a matter of ultimate significance–and insulting to our leaders, who should expect serious work from the [16 organization intelligence community] instead of this bit of policy advocacy masquerading as serious intelligence."

Having "defanged" Iran as a threat to the West, the NIE proceeds to make policy recommendations, both overtly and by omission. As Michael Ledeen points out:

This document will not stand up to serious criticism, but it will undoubtedly have a significant political impact, since it will be taken as confirmation of the view that we should not do anything mean to the mullahs. We should talk to them instead. And that’s just what the Estimate says:
…some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might–if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible–prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.

Under what possible scenario would we want or be willing to see Iran expand its "regional influence"? Name any aspect of Iran's "regional influence" to date that can be characterized as benign. Do we want them wielding more of their already murdurous influence in southern Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza? Do we want to enable them to destabilize the Sunni countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia? Shall we support them in their maritime and land grabs with respect Iraq and their claim to Bahrain? Should we assist them in fomenting a coup in Azerbaijan? A compelling argument can be made that the radical Khomeinist theocracy - which has been at war with the US since 1979 - has been the single most destabilizing force in the Middle East since its inception.

Not only does this policy recommendation have no place in an NIE, it is an insane recommendation at that. At a minimum, we should be doing all we can to bring an end to Iran's theocracy, not enabling it.

The second policy recommendation apparent in this NIE is equally critical, yet it is one of omission. The NIE undercuts any justification for the use of force or the threat of the same against Iran as well as one of the justifications for keeping troops in Iraq. It does so by ignoring Iran’s reaction to force and by embracing the inference that Iran’s decision to halt its overt weapons program in 2003 was a reaction to sanctions. As WaPo observes, the NIE itself states that this conclusion is an inference based on the timing of Iran's decision to halt its weapons program.

Iran put a stop to weapons-related activities, including efforts to study warhead design and delivery systems, shortly after U.N. inspectors began probing allegations of a clandestine nuclear program. The timing of that decision, according to the intelligence estimate, "indicates 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."

The NYT verifies this, detailing the nature of the intelligence information on which the new NIE is based. That information is a series of documents and intercepts that tell us the overt weaponization program was ended in 2003 - i.e., work on crafting a nuclear warhead and putting it on an ICBM - but the intelligence says nothing about the basis for the theocratic leadership's decision.

This creates a gaping hole in the credibility of the NIE. While our intelligence agencies are willing to make inferences based on the timing of Iran’s decision to halt their weapons program, they studiously ignore the largest elephants in the room at the time Iran made its decision. Those elephants are the presence of our soldiers in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq specifically predicated on the belief that Iraq had a WMD program. As the Weekly Standard puts it:

The NIE claims that "Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure." How does the IC know what motivated Iran’s alleged change in behavior? Did the Iranians tell someone? Is this coming from clandestine sources? Assuming for the moment that Iran really did halt its program, are we to believe that a substantial U.S.-led military presence in Afghanistan and in Iraq (or potential presence in Iraq, depending on when in 2003 this change supposedly occurred), had nothing to do with Iran’s supposed decision? That is, are we to believe that U.S. led forces on Iran’s eastern and western borders had nothing to do with Tehran’s decision-making process?

Powerline had equally stinging criticism on that point. This is a critical disconnect that subsuquent statements of our intelligence officials have done nothing to clarify.

Stormwarning, in his essay on the NIE, quotes: "Senior intelligence officials said it is possible that Libya’s decision to halt its nuclear program and the war in Iraq were also factors, but said there was no direct evidence of either." That "senior intelligence official" is engaging in a huge bit of dissimulation. One, our intelligence is never constrained by direct evidence. The mere suggestion that conclusions can only be reached on direct evidence is ludicrous. Further, the conclusion that Iran operates according to rules of Western logic is itself an inference not based on any direct evidence of the same. What clearly has happened is that the drafters of the NIE made a policy decision to adopt one inference while ignore the equally valid second inference arising from the same facts.

That the intelligence community is ignoring these events in its NIE should give great pause. Ignoring our invasion of Iraq and presence in Afghanistan seems politically motivated. It appears willful blindness designed to forestall any argument that military force is the most effective threat against Iran and all that implies. This blindness also has implications as to the efficacy of maintaining troops based long term in Iraq after hostilities have ended - an issue that has now taken on very partisan political overtones.

As Stephen Rosen has written at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard:

In my view, the Iran program halted in 2003 because of the massive and initially successful American use of military power in Iraq. The United States offered no "carrots" to Iran, but only wielded an enormous stick. This increased the Iranians’ desire to minimize the risks to themselves, and so they halted programs that could unambiguously be identified as a nuclear weapons program. They were guarding themselves against the exposure of a weapons program by US or Israeli clandestine intelligence collection, and were not trying to signal the United States that they were looking to negotiate. They did not publicly announce this halt because if they did so, they would be perceived as weak within Iran, and within the region. By continuing the enrichment program, they kept the weapon option open.

If this is true, the Iranian government responds to imminent threats of force, not economic sanctions or diplomatic concessions. If that is the case, as the threat of US use of force goes down, the likelihood that Iran restarts its program goes up. . .

This bit of willful blindness on the part of the writers of the NIE could lead one to muse, as did Alan Deshowitz, that "[i]f Neville Chamberlain weren’t long dead I would wonder whether he had a hand in writing this 'peace in our time' intelligence fiasco."

All of this adds up to an NIE that is on its face deeply flawed and highly politicized, seemingly drafted by people who are pushing their own policy agenda upon the nation in the guise of an intelligence document. And there is reason to suspect that is true. The NY Sun stated in a recent editorial:

The proper way to read this report is through the lens of the long struggle the professional intelligence community has been waging against the elected civilian administration in Washington. They have opposed President Bush on nearly every major policy decision. They were against the Iraqi National Congress. They were against elections in Iraq. They were against I. Lewis Libby. They are against a tough line on Iran.

One could call all this revenge of the bureaucrats. Vann Van Diepen, one of the estimate's main authors, has spent the last five years trying to get America to accept Iran's right to enrich uranium. Mr. Van Diepen no doubt reckons that in helping push the estimate through the system, he has succeeded in influencing the policy debate in Washington. The bureaucrats may even think they are stopping another war.

It's a dangerous game that may boomerang, making a war with Iran more likely. . .

The WSJ goes into much greater detail about the partisan bent of the senior authors of the NIE and why the report itself is less than credible. As does Newsmax's Keith Timmerman in a report that calls into question both the loyalty and competence of the people who oversaw the writing of this NIE. Also, one should read this post by Big Lizards that looks at this question of partisanship and credibility in some detail, examining both the Timmerman article and an article by Bill Gertz on which Timmerman relies.

And while the NIE is deeply flawed, it in many ways changes very little. The 2005 NIE estimated that Iran had an active nuclear weapons program that would result in an atomic weapon between 2010 and 2015. According to this NIE, if Iran continues its current course, it will be able to enrich uranium to weapons grade in approximately the same time frame. Iran is not cooperating with the IAEA to allow full inspections. The threat posed by the Iranian theocracy is still very much extant. As Foreign Policy Watch puts it: Iran has decided to punt on the issue of nuclear weapons acquisition but is overtly pursuing the technical means to rapidly develop even a crude arsenal should it make the political decision to do so in the future (a "break-out" capability)."

Thus, the NIE does not tell us that the threat posed by a nuclear armed Iran has disappeared or even significantly diminished. As Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse points out:

. . . regardless of whether the Iranians have an active weapons program or not; they continue to defy the UN by expanding their enrichment program. Until Iran cooperates fully and the IAEA gives them a clean bill of health (while ensuring compliance through inspections and monitoring), sanctions should continue and be expanded the longer the Iranians refuse. The conclusions drawn by the NIE do not change this situation one iota. It is the enrichment program that poses a danger to the world and must be shut down until there are adequate safeguards in place that the Iranians will not use their knowledge to build a weapon.

And in the wake of the NIE,President Bush has stated that we still must seek an end to Iran's nuclear program. Unfortunately, what the NIE does change is our ability to accomplish that. By any measure, this NIE has largely undercut our efforts to stop Iran's nuclear program. The NIE was written in a manner to delegitimize the option of using military force against Iran. Removing the credible threat of military force reduces to near zero our ability to convince Iran to give up their nuclear weapons program peacefully and in the near future.

This has very significant ramifications beyond the problem of Iran's theocracy. While Iran's program is ongoing, everyone seems to be ignoring that other countries throughout the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are making plans for or have already formally started nuclear programs out of self defense. The possiblity of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the chance of a nuclear exchange and the chance of nuclear terrorism all rise exponentially with such proliferation. And the proliferation will continue every day the West fails to deal decisively with the Iranian nuclear program.

Additionally, this NIE will make it far less likely that we will be able to muster sufficient support for the biting sanctions that have even a chance of convincing Iran to give up its nuclear program. The European countries, - and in particular Germany - who have signficant involvement in the Iranian economy are not now likely to engage in those types of severe sanctions. As John Bolton has written:

While the president and others argue that we need to maintain pressure on Iran, this "intelligence" torpedo has all but sunk those efforts, inadequate as they were. Ironically, the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions in an essentially unmolested fashion, to the detriment of us all.

And domestically, the NIE has led to anything but clarity on how we as a nation should proceed. That said, there have been islands of intellectual honesty amidst that partisan sea, as reported in the Washington Post:

Some moderates in Washington expressed concern that this intelligence report's conclusions will be overinterpreted in one direction, just as past findings have been distorted. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of a nonproliferation subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Iran's uranium enrichment remains worrisome and is not dependent on U.S. intelligence because Tehran has openly acknowledged it. . .

But the reality is that most Democrats have seen the new NIE as nothing more than a partisan political tool to be used for attacking the real existential enemy of freedom and democracy in the world, the Bush administration. The irony is that, for the first time since 2003, Democrats and the Iranian theocracy have now found an intelligence product that they trust implicitly.

The most questionable reaction to the NIE is to embrace its recommendation for talks. The NIE has given rise to a call by many on the left and even a few on the right that the U.S. should stop putting pressure on Iran and instead engage in unconditional and unilateral talks with Iran's theocracy. What do proponents of unilateral and unconditional talks expect the US to concede that would make Iran suddenly become a responsible player on the world stage? Further, such advocates of unilateral talks with Iran completely ignore the years of wholly fruitless talks that the EU has had with Iran on the nuclear issue, despite the offer of numerous incentives fully backed by the U.S. In light of Iran's history and the nature of its theocracy, this makes as much sense as engaging Nazi Germany in talks during the 1930's - and likely to be every bit as counterproductive. Yet the clarion call has been sounded, and opinion pieces are starting to surface in support of unilateral talks - some of which are grounded on highly dubious arguments indeed.

As to the left side of the blogosphere, the NIE has presented high times for a tsunami of snide commentary and paranoid theories. But by far the most colorful charcterization of the NIE and its implications comes from Granny Doc at Daily Kos. She incisively opines that:

US Intelligence Agencies are knee capping the Iranian Wet Dreams of the War Mongering Chicken Hawks!

There should be an award for that one.

On a final note, it seems likely the timing of the release of this NIE has everything to do with partisan politics. In the lead up to the Iraq war, our leaders thoroughly questioned some of the conclusions of our intelligence agencies, seeking to find answers and forcing those agencies to justify their conclusions. That is what we should expect of of our leadership. Indeed, in the 9-11 report, the intelligence analysts did not characterize this as pressure to change their opinions, but lauded the administration for forcing the analysts to dig deeper. That the process resulted in incorrect intelligence is very unfortunate, but that does not mean that the process itself is improper. And indeed, we are seeing the lack of that process in the release of this deeply flawed NIE.

The left has turned the process of questioning intelligence by our leadership on its head. A very partisan, neo-liberal left vilified the leadership for asking any questions of our intelligence agencies and held up that process as proof that we were "lied" into the Iraq war. It is a left for whom this war on terrorism has become an opportunity for power rather than a core issue of our national security. As one news report of a few years ago described it, Democrats have pushed hard to turn the issue of "pre-war intelligence into a political minefield." There is a clear line in war between loyal opposition and acts of partisan politics injurious to our nation. The Republicans walked that line in World War II. The Democrats of today ran past that line at a sprint, they are still running, and they have never looked back.

We are seeing the effects of that in this untimely release of a flawed NIE. The classified and unclassified versions of the NIE were dictated by the Iran Intelligence Oversight Act passed in 2006. But while the unclassified summary was mandated by statute, release of the unclassified version without any input from our leadership was not. We are seeing a Republican administration acting to forestall any charges that they might be twisting intelligence and acting with the near certainty that the NIE would be leaked otherwise. Thus they immediately released this NIE without any input or questioning. And the ramifications of this incredibly weak-willed act - for which our Democrats must shoulder much of the blame - may well be extreme in the long run.

(Update: A WSJ article concurs with this conclusion: "The White House was presented with this new estimate only weeks ago, and no doubt concluded it had little choice but to accept and release it however much its policy makers disagreed. Had it done otherwise, the finding would have been leaked and the Administration would have been assailed for "politicizing" intelligence.")

In sum, a fifth column in our intelligence community has undercut our ability to deal with the threat posed by Iran. Some of the things the report does not comment upon are glaring inadequacies. As a result of this NIE, Iran will now be an even more dangerous threat as their nuclear ambitions will go unchecked. And as the Iranian threat grows, we can expect to see the nightmare scenario of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. Further, this NIE demonstrates that our intelligence community is desperately in need of an overhaul. Whether one agrees with the conclusions of this NIE or not - and whether or not this NIE is the product of improved analytical techniques established in the wake of Iraq - under no circumstance can this NIE be characterized as the end product of an objective intelligence cycle.

Updated: 12/10/07


Hube said...

Excellent post! And a belated welcome to the Watcher's Council!

GW said...

Thank you for the comment and welcome.

Georg Felis said...

Truth is if/when the Iranians test their first bomb in Israel, it will not be these leftist bureaucrats who catch the (well deserved) blame, but the Bush administration. Sadly.