December 5, 2007

Confidence Games, High And Low

The NIE released on Monday said that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons effort in 2003 after international pressure forced it to change directions, a conclusion in which the intel community had "high confidence". However, two years ago, the same intel community said that Iran continued to pursue nuclear weapons -- and had the same "high confidence" level in that conclusion as well. The Wall Street Journal wonders if the intel community hasn't played a confidence game on Iran, and notes a few of the players who might have reason to do so:

As recently as 2005, the consensus estimate of our spooks was that "Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons" and do so "despite its international obligations and international pressure." This was a "high confidence" judgment. The new NIE says Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 "in response to increasing international scrutiny." This too is a "high confidence" conclusion. One of the two conclusions is wrong, and casts considerable doubt on the entire process by which these "estimates" -- the consensus of 16 intelligence bureaucracies -- are conducted and accorded gospel status.

Our own "confidence" is not heightened by the fact that the NIE's main authors include three former State Department officials with previous reputations as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials," according to an intelligence source. They are Tom Fingar, formerly of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research; Vann Van Diepen, the National Intelligence Officer for WMD; and Kenneth Brill, the former U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For a flavor of their political outlook, former Bush Administration antiproliferation official John Bolton recalls in his recent memoir that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "described Brill's efforts in Vienna, or lack thereof, as 'bull -- .'" Mr. Brill was "retired" from the State Department by Colin Powell before being rehired, over considerable internal and public protest, as head of the National Counter-Proliferation Center by then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

No less odd is the NIE's conclusion that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to "international pressure." The only serious pressure we can recall from that year was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of a covert Iranian nuclear program to mill and enrich uranium and produce heavy water at sites previously unknown to U.S. intelligence. The Bush Administration's response was to punt the issue to the Europeans, who in 2003 were just beginning years of fruitless diplomacy before the matter was turned over to the U.N. Security Council.

An alternate theory exists, of course. They could have been flat wrong in 2005 and corrected their intel in the last six months. With the push to improve human and signal intelligence since 2001, they may have successfully penetrated Iranian defenses and discovered more information about Iran, and adjusted their conclusions accordingly.

That, however, doesn't change the fact that the intel community has consistently concluded until now that Iran had an active nuclear-weapons program, and refused to end it. That conclusion fits the facts somewhat better than the new one does. If Iran ended its nuclear program in 2003, why did they insist on refusing to verify it with their trading partners in the EU for the next several years? Why did the mullahs refuse to comply with UN Security Council resolutions and accept trade and diplomatic sanctions rather than allow verification at key sites? Just to prove a point when the US intel community suddenly reversed course, an event that no one predicted?

That makes no sense at all. The Iranians may have given up their weapons program in 2003, but if so, they did it then because of the exposure by the dissident group that year and the threat of American military force, as that was the sum total of "international pressure" in that year. The EU-3 began negotiations late that year with Teheran on this very subject, and that would have been the propitious time to allow verification. If Iran couldn't find room for verification with Jacques Chirac's France, Tony Blair's Britain, and Gerhard Schroeder's Germany in 2003, it wasn't because they had stopped working towards a nuclear weapon.

At any rate, Iran still hasn't offered complete verification of their nuclear intentions. If international pressure worked to supposedly shut down the nuclear program, then we need to continue it until Iran complies with UNSC resolutions and allows inspections of all suspected facilities for verification. As the Washington Post notes in an editorial, the latest high-confidence conclusion supports the Bush administration's efforts to use diplomacy and economic pressure to force Iran into full disclosure of their supposed halt to their weapons program.


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