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Is the NIE Part of a Plot to Undermine President Bush?

Writing about the new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran’s nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, Norman Podhoretz entertains “dark suspicions” that the intelligence community, “which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.”

The purpose, he speculates

is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding.

Mimicking the language of the NIE itself, Podhoretz concludes by noting that he offers “these assessments and judgments with no more than ‘moderate confidence.’”

Could Podhoretz be right?

He is certainly right that a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration. Some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.

Could the same thing be true of an NIE? An NIE is the intelligence community’s “most
authoritative written judgments on national security issues.” Here is the official explanation of how these are produced:

NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers, Congressional leaders and at times are initiated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Before a NIE is drafted, the relevant NIO [National Intelligence Officer] is responsible for producing a concept paper or terms of reference (TOR) and circulates it throughout the Intelligence Community for comment. The TOR defines the key estimative questions, determines drafting responsibilities, and sets the drafting and publication schedule. One or more IC analysts are usually assigned to produce the initial text. The NIC then meets to critique the draft before it is circulated to the broader IC. Representatives from the relevant IC agencies meet to hone and coordinate line-by-line the full text of the NIE. Working with their Agencies, reps also assign the level of confidence they have in each key judgment. IC reps discuss the quality of sources with collectors, and the National Clandestine Service vets the sources used to ensure the draft does not include any that have been recalled or otherwise seriously questioned. All NIEs are reviewed by National Intelligence Board, which is chaired by the DNI and is composed of the heads of relevant IC agencies. Once approved by the NIB, NIEs are briefed to the President and senior policymakers. The whole process of producing NIEs normally takes at least several months.

As we know all too well, NIEs have been strikingly wrong in the past; the “slam-dunk” assessment issued on the eve of the second Gulf war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was built on a remarkably thin body of evidence, much of which turned out be false. The 2005 assessment warning of Iran’s active nuclear program, the intelligence community is now telling us, was also wrong.

But being mistaken, even disastrously mistaken, is one thing: producing an NIE with the naked purpose of undermining a President and foreclosing a policy option is another. Could this happen? It seems highly unlikely if for no other reason then that sixteen different government agencies are involved in the production of such documents, and the classified evidence on which NIEs are based is available for inspection and debate by senior policymakers.

There are significant ambiguities in this NIE, and as Max Boot rightly points out, it still leaves ample reason to worry about Iranian nuclear ambitions. But in the current climate of skepticism about the competence of the CIA and other intelligence bodies, the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit. Even if there was a shared desire among all sixteen agencies to do such a thing (which seems implausible on its face) pulling off such a caper would be a hugely difficult task, and almost certainly beyond the capacity even of America’s most ingenious spies — assuming we even have any ingenious spies.

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.



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