December 6, 2007

John Bolton, Dick Cheney Diverge On NIE

People would assume that two fire-breathers on national security may have the same objections to the just-released NIE downplaying the danger of Iran. However, while John Bolton responds with vigor in the Washington Post, Dick Cheney seems more sanguine about the conclusion that Iran has halted its drive towards nuclear weapons. Bolton presses home the thin basis for the U-turn, and blames it on the culture of the State Department:

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. As undersecretary of state for arms control in 2003, I know we were nowhere near exerting any significant diplomatic pressure on Iran. Nowhere does the NIE explain its logic on this critical point. Moreover, the risks and returns of pursuing a diplomatic strategy are policy calculations, not intelligence judgments. The very public rollout in the NIE of a diplomatic strategy exposes the biases at work behind the Potemkin village of "intelligence." ...

Fourth, the NIE suffers from a common problem in government: the overvaluation of the most recent piece of data. In the bureaucracy, where access to information is a source of rank and prestige, ramming home policy changes with the latest hot tidbit is commonplace, and very deleterious. It is a rare piece of intelligence that is so important it can conclusively or even significantly alter the body of already known information. Yet the bias toward the new appears to have exerted a disproportionate effect on intelligence analysis.

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. In fact, these are precisely the policy biases they had before, recycled as "intelligence judgments."

Compare that to Cheney's response during an interview at The Politico:

Cheney said he has no reason to question the intelligence released this week showing that Iran is not an imminent nuclear threat, putting him at odds with conservatives such as former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a presidential candidate, and others who have raised doubts or disputed the findings.

“I don’t have any reason to question what the [intelligence] community has produced,” he said. “Now, there are things they don’t know. There’s always the possibility that circumstances will change. But I think they’ve done the best job they can with the intelligence that’s available.”

However, the vice president said the administration remains “concerned” about Iran’s enrichment activities

“We still think there’s a need to continue the course we’ve been on to persuade the Iranians not to enrich uranium,” he said.

Between the two, I'd trust Cheney on this question. He has seen the data and received the briefing; Bolton is out of the loop now. Cheney has no reason to go easy on the ODNI or CIA, especially since the NIE contradicts what he has stated for the last few years on Iran. Cheney has more motivation to go on the attack than Bolton, and yet he seems content to let the NIE analysis stand. That should speak to its credibility.

Both men, however, make the same point about the limit of the intel that formed the basis of this analysis. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Until Iran fully complies with the IAEA and the UN Security Council, we know that we cannot verify their intentions or actions. We have no firm knowledge that Iran -- which lied about this program for years until 2003 -- has not moved its efforts elsewhere in the country to continue its weapons program.

Until Iran complies, the US should maintain diplomatic and economic pressure on Teheran. That's the prudent course, even if we can now do it with a little less recklessness in the rhetoric. The NIE may make it more possible for Iran to back down and engage in the kind of verification necessary to ensure that the American intel community got this right. If they don't, we can then assume that the latest NIE will wind up with more major revisions in the near future.


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