It's Time to Stop Scoring 'Slam Dunks' for the Other Team
Senator Ensign, with the help of Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl, should pursue a commission to examine the NIE on Iran
By RS Insider Posted in Foreign Affairs | Iran | NIE — Comments (3) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Lost in the furious coverage of the primaries and abetted by the pack mentality of our national press corps, has been last month’s National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. Now that Congress is returning to Washington to begin a new year – another year in which it is unlikely that any legislation of import will be passed in its hallowed chambers – some are hoping that Republicans, led by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), will renew their efforts to get at least one important thing done in 2008: To examine the processes, analysis and intelligence that led to the NIE.
The NIE’s contents have been used as a bludgeon by administration critics, the media, and Iranian regime apologists to prevent any further ratcheting up of pressure on Iran. The Bush administration, for its part, has been pushed backed on its heels, and forced to defend the NIE as an “opportunity.”
There has been one, lone voice in the administration who has been having none of it: our inestimable ambassador to the U.N., Zal Khalilzad. Instead of gussying up the NIE’s incontrovertible long-term damage to our efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, Ambassador Khalilzad has openly called the NIE for what it is: “a goal against ourselves.”
Zal could have also used another sports analogy, one seemingly favored by our intelligence agencies: We scored a “slam dunk” for the other team. The last NIE may well prove to be as inaccurate as the previous conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, from Soviet missiles on Cuba in the 1960s, to underestimating Iraq’s nuclear capability before the first Persian Gulf War (Saddam, we later learned, was only a few years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon), to the original “slam dunk” estimates on Iraq’s WMD pre-2003.
The litany of failures goes on, yet the clearly broken intelligence system remains free from any culpability.
The release of the 2007 NIE on Iranian capabilities is problematic on several levels. First, it appears to the public as an isolated, inviolate and omnipotent statement from the powers of the Intelligence Community. Unfortunately, a NIE is, as its name suggests, no such thing. It is an “estimate,” not a declaration of surety. As veteran intelligence users John Bolton,Henry Kissinger, and James Schlesinger have pointed out, the 2007 NIE is a highly subjective document that is open to broad interpretation—and as such it is a problematic foundation for US policy towards Iran. Certainly our friends in Israeli and British intelligence view the NIE with a jaundiced eye.
In response to the NIE, Senator Ensign has proposed a commission to look into the intelligence methodology that produced it. Senator Ensign has not said much on his proposal in recent days, perhaps because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of his Democratic colleagues and the White House. Uncovering a cadre of intelligence analysts serving blatantly partisan ends could prove embarrassing to both.
Democrats want to declare the NIE unassailable holy writ, and even they have enough sense to know that their use of the NIE as a prop would be severely limited were it found that a fifth column in our intelligence community conveniently omitted pro-administration points from their analysis (i.e., those events of 2003 that may have given the Iranian mullahs pause: the Iraq war, Gaddhafi’s capitulation, the dismantling of A.Q. Khan’s network).
For the White House, the very public revelation by a Congressional commission that its intelligence community has run amok would be a stunning indictment of White House leadership, and the coup de grace for a highly politicized intelligence community that, leak after leak, has waged a covert war against the President and his policies.
But Senator Ensign should not give up, even in the face of such powerful opposition. The NIE continues to hang over Bush administration foreign policy like the proverbial black cloud, and something wielding this degree of influence should be critically assessed.
According to the Washington Post, Senator Ensign is modeling this effort on the 1998-99 bi-partisan “Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States,” convened in response to the 1995 NIE entitled “Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 years.”
The 1995 Estimate begins with the unequivocal statement, “No country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.” The judgment was so sweeping and the evidence used to support it so limited and misleading that the need for further inquiry into a grave national security threat was obvious to both sides of the aisle.
The Ballistic Missile Threat Commission consisted of Dr. Barry Blechman, General Lee Butler (USAF-Ret), Dr. Richard Garwin, Dr. William Graham, Dr. William Schneider, General Larry Welch (USAF-Ret), Dr. Paul Wolfowitz and James Woolsey. It was chaired by Donald Rumsfeld. If you don’t recognize some of those names, Google them.
You might be surprised to find that a group drawn from such a diverse civilian, military and academic—not to mention political—backgrounds that includes both users and producers of intelligence could reach consensus in condemning the methodology behind the 1995 NIE. That they did so should be instructive about the nature of this issue. National intelligence should not be a turf battle between departments and it should not be a political pawn. Improving intelligence should be a consensus effort.
The 1998-99 Commission produced a report on their findings, which can be found here. It also produced a “side letter,” a shorter document offered in conjunction with the report that addresses the issue of intelligence reform. Rather than criticizing the content of the NIE, it provides recommendations for improving future projects. This approach might be particularly useful for Senator Ensign to adopt.
In the side letter, the Commission commented on the tendency of intelligence products to cluster around current hot-button, media driven topics rather than long-term strategic goals: “The IC needs a clear and manageable set of priorities. Both the executive and legislative branches habitually task the IC on an ad hoc basis, driven more by contemporary issues than long-term intelligence requirements.”
The letter is well worth your time to read in whole. Its criticisms of the U.S. intelligence community are as trenchant today as they were a decade ago.
Unfortunately, the suggestions for reform set out in the Commission’s side letter have gone largely unheeded, and eight years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation with this recent NIE, which is symptomatic of the broader dysfunction in our intelligence community.
Confidential discussions with policymakers who challenge and probe intelligence methods and sources are leaked to the New York Times and Washington Post to score quick political points. Those with the temerity to ask questions of the country’s intelligence services are derided as those who have “politicized intelligence,” or, even more damaging, of “manufacturing intelligence.” Earlier this year the Department of Defense’s Inspector General issued a report chiding senior Pentagon officialsfor asking such questions and for examining the assumptions – many of them unsurprisingly flawed – under which intelligence analysts were operating. As a result, policy makers, wary of becoming the next target of a leak or investigation, aren’t engaging our intelligence officials. With selective leaks and highly politicized analyses, the intel community has entered the realm of policymaking.
To wit, the recent NIE shows an intent to hamstring an administration in its last year from pursuing meaningful action on a number of fronts. Is it a coincidence that this report appeared just when Europe was getting tougher and proposing a new, tougher round of sanctions, as the U.S. has been imploring for months? The NIE has effectively rendered useless any diplomatic efforts to tighten the screws on Tehran. Furthermore, plans to expand missile defense to Europe by building interceptors and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic will be significantly more difficult as this NIE, like its 1995 predecessor, soft-pedals the threats we face and emboldens those who oppose a robust defense policy designed to protect us and our allies.
It is time for us to recognize the intelligence situation for what it is—a slow-motion train wreck with potentially catastrophic ramifications for our national security.
Whatever the positions of the White House and Harry Reid, Senator Ensign, with the help of Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, and the Senate Republican leadership, should move forward with the commission proposal. And he should take the process a step further and actually push to enact reforms so we can stop scoring points for the opposing team.