One would have thought that most Americans would have been relieved to learn that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program back in 2003 and there are no indications that they have revived it since then. The unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that reported the collective view of the sixteen agency strong US intelligence community relied on multiple sources and was extremely carefully drafted and coordinated after the politicization of the 2002 Iraq NIE led to false claims about Saddam Hussein and to a war that clearly was avoidable. Far from being relieved to learn that the United States is not seriously threatened and would not be fighting a second war in the Middle East, the neoconservatives who have been calling for an assault on Tehran lashed out, indicating that for many, agenda driven ideology trumps reality every time. The pundits who wanted a war last week still want one this week, NIE be damned.
The redoubtable neocons, operating out of their bastions at the American Enterprise Institute, The Weekly Standard, and a clutch of other institutes and media outlets, had embraced the 2002 Iraq NIE, which was a cobbling together of poor information to support an essentially political agenda. Much of the truly bad information that wound up in the Iraq NIE was generated by the neocons themselves through the questionable and frequently fictitious resources of their protégé Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. Neocons in the administration also were allowed to "assist" in the drafting process, even though they were hardly experts on Iraq. Now they are attacking the Iran NIE claiming, somewhat bizarrely, that the information it is based on is unreliable and that the analysis is suspect. Their specific claims are worth considering, if only to demonstrate that they are as wrong about the current NIE as they were about Iraq.
Norman Podhoretz, the godfather of the neoconservative persuasion, was the first to denounce the NIE. He based his criticism on "dark suspicions" that the intelligence community is again attempting to undermine President Bush and create conditions that will make impossible military action against Iran. Podhoretz is voicing the frequently heard allegation that there has been a conspiracy against the White House emanating from the intelligence community, but his argument just does not hold up based on how the NIE is prepared. Bad NIEs do sometimes get produced, but even the bad ones are mostly right. When the analysis is bad it is bad for three reasons: first and foremost because the information it is based on is thin or speculative. Second, because the analysis has been politicized and deliberately skewed to support a predetermined agenda, as took place with the 2002 Iraq estimate. Third, because of "group think" in which a consensus view external to the actual analysis actually shapes the report by ignoring divergent explanations. All three of these problems were addressed by the intelligence community in 2005-6 and the 2007 Iran NIE's key judgments are derived from reliable information that has been carefully tested. The information on the nuclear program in particular came from multiple sources, both technical and human, while the analysts were carefully protected from politicization of the process by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and his senior staff. "Red teams" were set up to test the analysis being made and divergent views were welcomed rather than suppressed, with all sixteen US intelligence agencies fully involved in the reviewing and approval of the final product. Given all of that and other safeguards in the system, it is impossible than an individual or a group of individuals could seek to deliberately undermine a president and overturn a policy option. In this NIE, the facts speak for themselves.
Patrick Clawson of the AIPAC funded Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) takes a somewhat different tack than Podhoretz, noting that the intelligence community has made mistakes before and pointing out that a 2005 NIE on Iran came to the opposite conclusion, i.e. that Iran was actively seeking a nuclear weapon. Clawson's glib put down asserts the failure of many intelligence assessments to be accurate, but his own assessment rests on an assumption that the analysis process always produces right and wrong answers. That is not the case. Analysis depends on reliable information, the old "garbage in, garbage out" principle. In 2005, the sources of information on Iran's weapons program were very poor, leading to judgments that were inaccurate, but anyone reading the full report would have been aware that there were large gaps in the assessment. After a remorseless effort by CIA to improve its collection capabilities, the information being obtained today is of much better quality, so much so that the intelligence community had the confidence to make a solid judgment that contradicted what the White House would have liked to see, something that would have been unthinkable two years ago.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is possibly the most extreme opponent of the NIE, claiming that the judgment that Iran has suspended its nuclear program is based on a "single, unvetted source" and that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have succeeded in "laundering fake information" that has deceived the intelligence community. Timmerman claims unnamed sources in Tehran for this breathtaking interpretation, but what he reports is contradicted by the intelligence community's confirmation that the information about the weapons program came from multiple independent sources and that careful steps were taken to test the intelligence to make sure it was not disinformation.
Michael Ledeen, the Freedom Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, adds his own expertise by noting in a rambling piece by returning to the theme that the intelligence community has been wrong before. He then adds that Iran has the well deserved reputation for being one of the most deceptive regimes on earth and that, for what it's worth, the US developed a bomb in only four years in the 1940s. All of which presumably adds up to Iran having a program that no one knows about, except presumably Ledeen and his neocon buddies based on information that they have obtained from their own secret sources, possibly the same ones who manufactured the Niger forgeries and discovered mobile weapons labs in the Iraqi desert. Ledeen's circular argument is reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld's confident assertion that "the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence."
Finally, there is John Bolton. Bolton believes that the NIE could be embarrassingly wrong because it is possible that Iran has succeeded in hiding its weapons program so well that the US cannot find it. He also suggests that the information used in the report might be disinformation and that the intelligence community is involved in "policy formulation," presumably policies that Bolton dislikes. Bolton also skewers the Iranians for wanting to have a civilian nuclear program and presumably agrees with President Bush's judgment that Iran should not have even the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon. When it comes to Iran, the neocons believe that every time they comply with something it is time to more the bar higher. Bolton's assessment of Persian duplicity and his skepticism about the NIE recalls another trenchant comment by Rumsfeld on the nature of reports, that "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns...but there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know." Bolton would undoubtedly agree with that trenchant assessment of what we know and is clearly keen to apply it to foreign policy formulation. Going beyond the abstractions of human knowledge and what is known, he also argues that the NIE report itself as it stands is a good reason to get tougher with Iran because it suggests that Tehran can begin to "weaponize" its nuclear fuel at any time. For Bolton, Iran's possible future intentions, of which he knows nothing, are just as dangerous as anything that it has actually done.
Interestingly AIPAC has not yet weighed in on the Iran NIE issue, apart from calling for yet more punitive sanctions to stop Iranian attempts to enrich uranium, and is apparently relying on its usual cheering section to take the lead. It will be interesting to see what various Congressmen, particularly leading Democrats, will say about the NIE as it is clearly displeasing to Israel and puts them in an awkward position. As has been pointed out ad nauseam but probably bears stating yet again, Iran has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful uses. It is a signatory of the UN's Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Israel has refused to sign, and its nuclear facilities are subject to inspection. As the NIE makes clear, if Iran is threat at all, it is manageable and containable.