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February 5, 2008

A Reworked NIE?

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton wants DNI Michael McConnell to redo the National Intelligence Estimate to properly reflect the threat Iran poses to the region and the US. The do-over should emphasize the dual-use nature of its nuclear program, which Bolton claims got glossed over in the original (via Memeorandum):

Today, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee (and Thursday on the House side) to give the intelligence community's annual global threat analysis. These hearings are always significant, but the stakes are especially high now because of the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

Criticism of the NIE's politicized, policy-oriented "key judgments" has spanned the political spectrum and caused considerable turmoil in Congress. Few seriously doubt that the NIE gravely damaged the Bush administration's diplomatic strategy. With the intelligence community's credibility and impartiality on the line, Mr. McConnell has an excellent opportunity to correct the NIE's manifold flaws, and repair some of the damage done to international efforts to stop Iran from obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons.

Bolton wants McConnell to commit to three actions in order to rebuild confidence in future NIEs. First, explain to Congress how this NIE got distorted and commit to a rewrite that more objectively reflects the current intel and analysis on Iran. Next, Bolton wants a commitment to a more professional process in compiling future NIEs, especially on the unclassified portions. Finally, the DNI has to enforce operational security by stopping the leaks.

It all sounds great, but can McConnell really commit to this and deliver? I think McConnell would want to have already made these commitments to Congress and the nation, but like most government bureaucracies, turning the ship takes a lot of time and more than a little strength. If the intel community has been as politicized as Bolton argues -- and it certainly appears that way -- a housecleaning would be required to make the kinds of changes necessary.

Needless to say, a purge during wartime is not the best set of circumstances. Joseph Stalin found that out the hard way in June 1941. It would get messy, and it would take the focus off of national defense and counterterrorism at a time when we can least afford it.

At the least, though, the DNI needs to revisit the NIE and explain how we could go from a high confidence in one year that Iran had continued its nuclear-weapons program to a high confidence the next year that it had been dormant for four years. The nation's confidence in its intel is not even moderate any more, and thanks to over a decade of bad calls, missing data, and dramatic reversals, it's not likely to improve much without that destructive housecleaning.


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