Commentary Magazine


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U.S. Intel Undermined by Iraq, Obama

Much of Sunday’s New York Times story by James Risen suggests that U.S. intelligence analysts are overcompensating for their past failures on Iraqi WMDs by minimizing the risk of Iranian WMDs in the future. The upshot is that the Israelis might be right to distrust President Obama’s “we can wait until the very last minute” reassurances on Iranian weaponization, as politicized and skittish U.S. intelligence evaluations might miss that signal.

But Iraq isn’t the only ghost the article finds wandering around the hallways. The phrase you’re looking for is “top-down pressure,” which appears right below a paragraph about how the Obama administration is committed to studious denial of Iranian intentions:

But some conservatives who support more aggressive action to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon argue that the C.I.A.’s restraint has, in fact, been influenced by political pressure exerted by the Obama administration. President Obama has said he would use military force only as a last resort against Iran, and conservatives argue that the Obama administration does not want the intelligence community to produce any reports suggesting the Iranians are moving swiftly to build a bomb.

“The intelligence analysts I’ve dealt with have always been willing to engage in debates on their conclusions, but there is top-down pressure to make the assessments come out a certain way,” said John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration.

Previous and subsequent paragraphs reference the notoriously politicized and eventually discredited 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) – a quasi-putsch created to knock out President Bush’s knees lest he act on Iranian nuclearization – that certain intelligence sources have been shopping around to the media. The article further points out that the unpublished 2010 NIE concluded that Iran had restarted “some basic weapons-related research” but had not “restarted the actual weapons program.”

That’s the kind of semantic distinction-without-a-difference that makes people – described in the article as “some conservatives” – worry that U.S. intelligence agencies are trying a little too hard to avoid drawing obvious conclusions.

A more popular version of the same basic talking point is that “the Iranian leadership has not made a decision to build an atomic bomb,” a phrase that also makes an appearance in the article. This is not a good argument. Of course the mullahs haven’t made the decision to construct a bomb yet. They’re not there yet. When they have the components for a nuclear device, then it will make sense to talk about their decision to construct one. They’re not at a point where they can say “yay” or “nay,” so they still haven’t said “yay.” No kidding.

This reasoning is the equivalent of me pointing out how “I have not made a decision to spend my lottery millions on an island.” That’s technically true, but only in the trivial sense that – having not yet won the lottery – I haven’t gotten to the point where I can sensibly make a decision on whether I’m going to spend my winnings. Iran hasn’t made a decision to build a nuclear weapon in the same technically true but totally trivial sense. And yet public and private Iran analysts insist there’s some significance in the mullahs not having made a decision on something they’re still incapable of deciding upon.

It’s getting easier and easier to understand why the Israelis don’t take those arguments seriously, and why they’re nervous that some in the U.S. intelligence community seem to.