Commentary Magazine


Get Rid of the Clowns

We’ve returned time and again to the National Intelligence Estimate of last December, which declared flatly, and misleadingly, that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003.

How did this intelligence fiasco happen? Leonard Spector and Avner Cohen, two close students of nuclear-proliferation, recently co-chaired a “roundtable” composed of intelligence officials and outside experts. According to what they learned, the Bush White House itself played a significant role in the botched nature of the declassified summary:

those responsible for the NIE on Iran knew that the heads of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed that its key findings would not be declassified. But the White House, fearful that the findings might leak to the media without any official explanation of their significance, overruled the agencies.

By the time the White House decided to release an unclassified summary, the classified version had been produced and was about to be handed over to the congressional intelligence committees. That created a problem. Even though the estimate’s “key findings” were originally intended to be understood in the context of the whole classified report, the intelligence community and the White House felt that they needed to repeat them almost verbatim in the unclassified summary. They worried that any rephrasing of the findings would open them up to accusations of playing politics with the estimate.

That still leaves the question of why the intelligence community spotlighted the finding on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We know that important new evidence on Iran’s nuclear activities in 2003 had been obtained and that it had required changing a 2005 estimate that the country was pursuing a nuclear weapon. In highlighting the new data, the authors of the 2007 unclassified summary unfortunately left out the context of the previous estimate — that a rogue Iran remained well on course to developing a nuclear capability.

All in all, Spector and Cohen offer an alarming glimpse of serious disarray at the upper levels of the intelligence community. The Iran NIE, they note, is not the only thing it has recently botched.

Last month’s unclassified congressional briefing on Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel on Sept. 6, 2007, was yet another reminder of the challenges confronting the U.S. intelligence community. Still smarting from its gross overestimation of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the community bent over backward to avoid overstating its case against Syria — and in doing so, it stumbled badly.

In the Syrian case (as with the release last year of part of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program) the intelligence community was unnecessarily cautious, and thereby underestimated the threats posed by Syria and Iran. Its efforts to improve precision have only created new confusion and uncertainty.

The key problem has been the intelligence community’s astonishing awkwardness in making clear what’s a fact and what’s an inference. In the case of Iraq, there were few facts on which to build a convincing case that Saddam Hussein was arming himself with weapons of mass destruction. But Hussein’s past pursuit of them, coupled with the anxieties unleashed by 9/11, led U.S. intelligence analysts and many policymakers to infer the worst and leap to conclusions unsupported by the facts.

The intelligence community has now jumped to the opposite extreme with respect to Iran’s and Syria’s nuclear ambitions, where there are more than a few facts. Yet it has virtually refused to draw any conclusions, no matter how obvious, about the two countries’ nuclear programs. The effect has been to seriously understate the dangers Iran and Syria pose and to distort the policy options available to the U.S. to manage them.

The more we learn about the performance of our intelligence agencies, the darker the picture grows. The intelligence community was subject to a radically reform after 9/11. Perhaps some good came of that, including better interagency coordination of counterterrorism operations. Clearly, however, some fundamental problems have not been solved. The analytic side of the house is simply is not up to the job of understanding the outside world, including matters of fundamental importance to our security.

What should be done? Repeatedly discovering that the CIA’s “info is worthless,” Richard Nixon came up with the right idea: His instructions were: “Get rid of the clowns.  – cut personnel 40 percent.”