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Don’t Ignore the Politics of Mossad’s Iran Assessment

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is clearly doing her best to defuse the bombshell dropped last week by Israel’s outgoing Mossad chief, Meir Dagan. During a visit to the Gulf states yesterday, she stressed that Dagan’s assertion that Iran will not go nuclear before 2015 is no excuse for not keeping up the pressure on Tehran.

In their posts last week, Jonathan Tobin and J.E. Dyer both offered good reasons not to be reassured by Dagan’s prediction. But Clinton also alluded to a very different reason. “We don’t want anyone to be misled by anyone’s intelligence analysis,” she said.

That’s a diplomatic way of saying what two respected Israeli military analysts said openly that same day: Dagan’s public assessment must be evaluated in the light of its clear political purpose — to thwart any possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran, which he is known to oppose.

As Haaretz columnist Amir Oren put it, “Dagan didn’t provide a pure intelligence assessment, but rather a political statement designed to influence government policy.” And Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel, noting that Dagan avoided the media like the plague for the previous eight years of his tenure, termed the decision to go public with this assessment “a Bibi-bypass maneuver” — a way of constraining Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu by publicly asserting that military action against Iran is unnecessary.

Nobody is suggesting that Dagan deliberately falsified the evidence to reach this conclusion. But when intelligence is evaluated with a particular desired outcome in mind, it is human nature to magnify the importance of information that supports this outcome and downplay the importance of information that contradicts it.

That is precisely what happened with the now widely discredited 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The professionals who prepared it certainly didn’t deliberately falsify information; but they did want a result that would make it impossible, from a public-opinion standpoint, for then-President George W. Bush to go to war against another Muslim country. As a result, the report downplayed all the indications that Iran was continuing its nuclear program in order to reach its now-infamous conclusion: that Iran had halted its drive to obtain a nuclear bomb in 2003 and had yet to restart it.

It’s also important to remember, as Oren noted, that “in a marketplace of opinions based on the same intelligence data, his [Dagan’s] opinion is not superior to a contrary one held by other senior officials.” Some intelligence professionals have already reached different conclusions; others, including military intelligence staffers and the incoming Mossad chief, will certainly be reviewing the data, and may do so as well.

Precisely because Dagan is known to have vehemently opposed military action against Iran, his confident assertion that Iran won’t have the bomb before 2015 should be taken with a large grain of salt. Dagan is both a dedicated patriot and a consummate professional, but even patriotic professionals are still human. And it is only human nature to read the tea leaves in a way that supports what you would most like to believe.


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