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Contentions

How Good Is Our Intelligence on Iran?

I join my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams and my Contentions colleague Jonathan Tobin in expressing reservations about whether the U.S. government really has the degree of insight into Iran’s nuclear program claimed in carefully orchestrated leaks such as this Washington Post article which brags about how stealthy CIA drones have penetrated deep into Iranian air space.

There is, I fear, not only political spin at work here (the administration wants to showcase U.S. intelligence capabilities to ward off an Israeli strike) but also deep-seated hubris on the part of the intelligence community. Perhaps the CIA has high-level assets within the Iranian government who for understandable reasons go unmentioned in the Washington Post article; but if we are indeed primarily reliant on signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, as the article implies, then we may be in for a nasty shock.

Indeed, we have experienced such surprises many times before–for instance, the U.S. intelligence community was caught off guard by the Pakistani nuclear test in 1998 and the North Korean test in 2006–and this at a time when U.S. intelligence capabilities were nearly as advanced as they are today. The reality is that our enemies are aware of many of our high-tech spying techniques (e.g. a stealth drone crashed in Iran) and know how to cloak their activities to prevent the full shape of their efforts from becoming clear.

I would be a lot more convinced by accounts such as the one in the Post if the anonymous intelligence officials quoted therein expressed some degree of humility about their ability to penetrate the deepest recesses of a closed political and military system such as Iran. The fact that they come across as being so utterly confident in their judgments makes them paradoxically less trustworthy: They are failing to question their assumptions just as they failed to question their assumptions about Iraq’s WMD program prior to the U.S. invasion.

 


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