Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mike McConnell

Crying Sheep

When you cry wolf once too often, you lose credibility. The same thing happens when you cry sheep.

Is the CIA now crying sheep about al Qaeda? In an interview with the Washington Post, CIA Director Michael Hayden sketches a series of triumphs in the global war on terrorism:

Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally — and here I’m going to use the word “ideologically” — as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam.

Before we uncork the champagne, let’s recall that it was less than a year ago that U.S. intelligence estimated that al Qaeda

is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qaeda senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.

As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.

Let’s also recall that in January 2007, John Negroponte, then Director of National Intelligence, offered a wolf-like assessment of Iran:

Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons. It is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution.

In December of that year, the same office, now led by Mike McConnell, issued a National Intelligence Estimate was crying sheep:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

And of course, the shadow hanging over all U.S. intelligence assessments is the botched 2003 estimate that Iraq had an active WMD program. But in this instance the wolf turned out to be a sheep.

Restoring the credibility of U.S. intelligence is an urgent task. What is the point of having intelligence agencies if we cannot even place a modicum of trust in their words?

But how should they go about the task? Ultimately, there is only one approach that will work: get rid of the clowns and start getting things right.

When you cry wolf once too often, you lose credibility. The same thing happens when you cry sheep.

Is the CIA now crying sheep about al Qaeda? In an interview with the Washington Post, CIA Director Michael Hayden sketches a series of triumphs in the global war on terrorism:

Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally — and here I’m going to use the word “ideologically” — as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam.

Before we uncork the champagne, let’s recall that it was less than a year ago that U.S. intelligence estimated that al Qaeda

is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability, including: a safehaven in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), operational lieutenants, and its top leadership. Although we have discovered only a handful of individuals in the United States with ties to al-Qaeda senior leadership since 9/11, we judge that al-Qaeda will intensify its efforts to put operatives here.

As a result, we judge that the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment.

Let’s also recall that in January 2007, John Negroponte, then Director of National Intelligence, offered a wolf-like assessment of Iran:

Our assessment is that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons. It is continuing to pursue uranium enrichment and has shown more interest in protracting negotiations than reaching an acceptable diplomatic solution.

In December of that year, the same office, now led by Mike McConnell, issued a National Intelligence Estimate was crying sheep:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

And of course, the shadow hanging over all U.S. intelligence assessments is the botched 2003 estimate that Iraq had an active WMD program. But in this instance the wolf turned out to be a sheep.

Restoring the credibility of U.S. intelligence is an urgent task. What is the point of having intelligence agencies if we cannot even place a modicum of trust in their words?

But how should they go about the task? Ultimately, there is only one approach that will work: get rid of the clowns and start getting things right.

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Every Which Way on the NIE

The November National Intelligence Estimate on Iran declared flatly in its opening sentence that ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at West Point last night, said that Iran remains “hell-bent” on acquiring nuclear weapons.

Does Michael Hayden, CIA director, agree? Speaking with Tim Russert  on Meet the Press on March 30, he said that “we stand by the judgment” in the NIE. That seems unequivocal.

But Hayden then began to equivocate. Russert asked him point blank: “Do you believe the Iranians are trying to develop a nuclear program?” Here is the transcript:

GEN. HAYDEN:  I–personal…

MR. RUSSERT: Yes.

GEN. HAYDEN: Personal belief? Yes. It’s hard for me to explain. And, you know, this is not court of law stuff. This is, this is, you know, in terms of beyond all reasonable doubt, this is, this is Mike Hayden looking at the body of evidence. OK. Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff they appear willing to pay for what they’re doing now if they did not have, at a minimum, at a minimum, if they did not have the desire to keep the option open to, to develop a nuclear weapon and perhaps even more so, that they’ve already decided to do that? It’s very difficult for us to judge intent, and so we have to work back from actions. Why the continuing production of fissile material, and Natanz? They say it’s for civilian purposes, and yet the, the planet, the globe, states around the world have offered them fissile material under controls so they can have their, their, their civilian nuclear program. But the Iranians have rejected that. I mean, when you start looking at that, and you get, not just the United States, but you get the U.N. Security Council imposing sanctions on them, why would they go through that if it were not to develop the technology that would allow them to create fissile material not under international control?

What about Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence? Here he is defending the NIE in congressional testimony on February 5:

I’d start by saying that the integrity and the professionalism in this NIE is probably the highest in our history in terms of objectivity, and quality of the analysis, and challenging the assumptions, and conducting red teams on the process, conducting a counterintelligence assessment about were we being misled or so on.

That sounds unequivocal. But then McConnell, too, begins to equivocate:

The only thing that they’ve halted was nuclear weapons design, which is probably the least significant part of the program. So if I’d had until now to think about it, I probably would have changed a thing or two.

So, with Secretary Gates joining in, we now have a trifecta of confusion. The top three intelligence and defense officials of the Bush administration are disavowing the NIE even as the adminstration stands by it.

The November National Intelligence Estimate on Iran declared flatly in its opening sentence that ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at West Point last night, said that Iran remains “hell-bent” on acquiring nuclear weapons.

Does Michael Hayden, CIA director, agree? Speaking with Tim Russert  on Meet the Press on March 30, he said that “we stand by the judgment” in the NIE. That seems unequivocal.

But Hayden then began to equivocate. Russert asked him point blank: “Do you believe the Iranians are trying to develop a nuclear program?” Here is the transcript:

GEN. HAYDEN:  I–personal…

MR. RUSSERT: Yes.

GEN. HAYDEN: Personal belief? Yes. It’s hard for me to explain. And, you know, this is not court of law stuff. This is, this is, you know, in terms of beyond all reasonable doubt, this is, this is Mike Hayden looking at the body of evidence. OK. Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff they appear willing to pay for what they’re doing now if they did not have, at a minimum, at a minimum, if they did not have the desire to keep the option open to, to develop a nuclear weapon and perhaps even more so, that they’ve already decided to do that? It’s very difficult for us to judge intent, and so we have to work back from actions. Why the continuing production of fissile material, and Natanz? They say it’s for civilian purposes, and yet the, the planet, the globe, states around the world have offered them fissile material under controls so they can have their, their, their civilian nuclear program. But the Iranians have rejected that. I mean, when you start looking at that, and you get, not just the United States, but you get the U.N. Security Council imposing sanctions on them, why would they go through that if it were not to develop the technology that would allow them to create fissile material not under international control?

What about Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence? Here he is defending the NIE in congressional testimony on February 5:

I’d start by saying that the integrity and the professionalism in this NIE is probably the highest in our history in terms of objectivity, and quality of the analysis, and challenging the assumptions, and conducting red teams on the process, conducting a counterintelligence assessment about were we being misled or so on.

That sounds unequivocal. But then McConnell, too, begins to equivocate:

The only thing that they’ve halted was nuclear weapons design, which is probably the least significant part of the program. So if I’d had until now to think about it, I probably would have changed a thing or two.

So, with Secretary Gates joining in, we now have a trifecta of confusion. The top three intelligence and defense officials of the Bush administration are disavowing the NIE even as the adminstration stands by it.

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An Anti-War “Teach-In” at the CIA?

Historians Against the War was formally founded at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Its statement of purpose can be found on its website:

As historians, teachers, and scholars, we oppose the expansion of United States empire and the doctrine of pre-emptive war that have led to the occupation of Iraq. We deplore the secrecy, deception, and distortion of history involved in the administration’s conduct of a war that violates international law, intensifies attacks on civil liberties, and reaches toward domination of the Middle East and its resources.

Taking a leaf from the anti-Vietnam war movement, Historians Against the War sponsors “teach-ins” on college campuses across the United States in which radical professors offer their view on such subjects as U.S. imperialism and the Bush administration’s “assault on the U.S. Constitution and civil liberties.”

On April 9, 2003, one such teach-in was held at Temple University in Pennsylvania, where one such radical professor, Richard Immerman, took part. As I have noted in the Weekly Standard, in a recently “scholarly” article in Diplomatic History, the journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Immerman recounts how the Bush administration, in leading the United States into the war in Iraq, made “every effort to ‘cook the books,’ . . . ‘hyped’ the need to go to war, and . . . lied too often to count.” He calls Bush and his cabinet members “cognitively impaired and politically possessed.”

Such views would all be completely unremarkable if Immerman were just a mere–and all too typical–professor at a second-tier university. But he is not. He has gone on to greater glory. Last September, he was appointed to the position of “assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards” and “ombudsman” inside the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the top intelligence body in the United States. In that slot he is in charge of ensuring the “analytic integrity” of American intelligence reports.

One question I have about this whole affair is whether Immerman has been taking part in or organizing “teach-ins” against the war inside the intelligence community in institutions like the CIA. Another question is what his colleagues and superiors think. To answer that second one, I’ve been contacting various top spies and seeking their comments. Here is what one senior intelligence official, who did want his name used, told me:

His assertions are way off base. His statements are not only biased, they are baffling. It’s troubling and it raises all sorts of questions. If someone who holds these views was selected for that particular position, it makes you wonder what the other candidates looked like.

It is mildly heartening that not everyone within the intelligence world thinks like Immerman, although at the same time the failure of anyone, including Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, to speak out publicly is profoundly discouraging.

We are in the middle of a war in which intelligence is the most critical front. The elevation of an obscure, radical, anti-war professor to be responsible for the “analytic integrity” of U.S. intelligence reports raises a question that after September 11, 2001, we should not be having to ask: is this country serious about intelligence or not?

Historians Against the War was formally founded at the 2003 annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Its statement of purpose can be found on its website:

As historians, teachers, and scholars, we oppose the expansion of United States empire and the doctrine of pre-emptive war that have led to the occupation of Iraq. We deplore the secrecy, deception, and distortion of history involved in the administration’s conduct of a war that violates international law, intensifies attacks on civil liberties, and reaches toward domination of the Middle East and its resources.

Taking a leaf from the anti-Vietnam war movement, Historians Against the War sponsors “teach-ins” on college campuses across the United States in which radical professors offer their view on such subjects as U.S. imperialism and the Bush administration’s “assault on the U.S. Constitution and civil liberties.”

On April 9, 2003, one such teach-in was held at Temple University in Pennsylvania, where one such radical professor, Richard Immerman, took part. As I have noted in the Weekly Standard, in a recently “scholarly” article in Diplomatic History, the journal of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Immerman recounts how the Bush administration, in leading the United States into the war in Iraq, made “every effort to ‘cook the books,’ . . . ‘hyped’ the need to go to war, and . . . lied too often to count.” He calls Bush and his cabinet members “cognitively impaired and politically possessed.”

Such views would all be completely unremarkable if Immerman were just a mere–and all too typical–professor at a second-tier university. But he is not. He has gone on to greater glory. Last September, he was appointed to the position of “assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards” and “ombudsman” inside the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the top intelligence body in the United States. In that slot he is in charge of ensuring the “analytic integrity” of American intelligence reports.

One question I have about this whole affair is whether Immerman has been taking part in or organizing “teach-ins” against the war inside the intelligence community in institutions like the CIA. Another question is what his colleagues and superiors think. To answer that second one, I’ve been contacting various top spies and seeking their comments. Here is what one senior intelligence official, who did want his name used, told me:

His assertions are way off base. His statements are not only biased, they are baffling. It’s troubling and it raises all sorts of questions. If someone who holds these views was selected for that particular position, it makes you wonder what the other candidates looked like.

It is mildly heartening that not everyone within the intelligence world thinks like Immerman, although at the same time the failure of anyone, including Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, to speak out publicly is profoundly discouraging.

We are in the middle of a war in which intelligence is the most critical front. The elevation of an obscure, radical, anti-war professor to be responsible for the “analytic integrity” of U.S. intelligence reports raises a question that after September 11, 2001, we should not be having to ask: is this country serious about intelligence or not?

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Who is Richard H. Immerman?

Is this a case of the fox guarding the henhouse?

Immerman is the man Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, appointed back in September to the position of “assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards.” Immerman also holds the position of “analytic ombudsman.”

Immerman’s job is to ensure that intelligence reports are created according to accepted norms and are vetted properly for accuracy and lack of bias. He also investigates complaints by others of shortcomings in the production of intelligence analyses.

But before assuming this position, Immerman was a professor at Temple University, where he adumbrated some views that make him a peculiar choice for a position of such high responsibility. I explore them — and their possible connection to the recent botched National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s WMD program — in If Michael Moore Had a Security Clearance, which appears in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard.

Here are the questions of the day:

How exactly did someone of Immerman’s particular political persuasion come to hold such a critical position in the intelligence community?

Will Mike McConnell keep him in his job?

What do readers of Connecting the Dots predict?

Is this a case of the fox guarding the henhouse?

Immerman is the man Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, appointed back in September to the position of “assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic integrity and standards.” Immerman also holds the position of “analytic ombudsman.”

Immerman’s job is to ensure that intelligence reports are created according to accepted norms and are vetted properly for accuracy and lack of bias. He also investigates complaints by others of shortcomings in the production of intelligence analyses.

But before assuming this position, Immerman was a professor at Temple University, where he adumbrated some views that make him a peculiar choice for a position of such high responsibility. I explore them — and their possible connection to the recent botched National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s WMD program — in If Michael Moore Had a Security Clearance, which appears in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard.

Here are the questions of the day:

How exactly did someone of Immerman’s particular political persuasion come to hold such a critical position in the intelligence community?

Will Mike McConnell keep him in his job?

What do readers of Connecting the Dots predict?

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Was Mike McConnell Asleep at the Switch?

The big news story coming out of the testimony of Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, seems to be the admission that three al Qaeda suspects were indeed subjected to waterboarding in 2002 and 2003. Evidently it hurt. The three men talked.

But far more significant were the DNI’s comments about the Iran National Intelligence Estimate. As summarized by the Washington Post,

McConnell said that, in retrospect, “I probably would have changed a thing or two” in the public presentation two months ago of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran had stopped work on the design of a nuclear weapon. The estimate appeared to conflict with Bush administration rhetoric and undermined Washington’s effort to win support for tough sanctions against Iran.

McConnell said yesterday that the halt in the design work was the “least important part” of the program and “the only thing halted.” He said Iran had continued its production of fissile material, although he noted that it faces “significant technical problems” operating centrifuges. He also disclosed differences within the community about when Tehran could get enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, with some saying 2009, others 2010 to 2015, but all recognizing the possibility that it could not come “until after 2015.”

This admission is of course a step in the right direction, but there is something immensely galling about it. The NIE was issued in November. Here we are, two months later, after an immense amount of confusion has set in around the world about America’s policy toward Iran. Why did McConnell wait until now to set the record straight?

What is more, he is correcting the record in the most insouciant and understated manner: “I probably would have changed a thing or two,” hardly addresses the fact that the NIE was so profoundly misleading about the real state of the Iranian nuclear project.

Why is McConnell acting in this way? Connecting the Dots has a theory. When the National Intelligence Council released the declassified summary of the NIE, McConnell was asleep at the switch, unaware of what his subordinates were up to, and gave his approval without realizing its import. But to admit the full gravity of the mistake, and to take corrective action, including in the realm of personnel shifts, would have been a bureaucratic and political shot in his own foot. Far better to soft-pedal things all around.

Of course, Connecting the Dots finds it difficult to believe that McConnell, who has a lifetime of outstanding and highly professional public service behind him, would put the preservation of his own image ahead of the public weal. But perhaps human nature set in and the two became confused in his own mind. If so, it would not be the first time in history that that particular human frailty set in.

The big news story coming out of the testimony of Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, seems to be the admission that three al Qaeda suspects were indeed subjected to waterboarding in 2002 and 2003. Evidently it hurt. The three men talked.

But far more significant were the DNI’s comments about the Iran National Intelligence Estimate. As summarized by the Washington Post,

McConnell said that, in retrospect, “I probably would have changed a thing or two” in the public presentation two months ago of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran had stopped work on the design of a nuclear weapon. The estimate appeared to conflict with Bush administration rhetoric and undermined Washington’s effort to win support for tough sanctions against Iran.

McConnell said yesterday that the halt in the design work was the “least important part” of the program and “the only thing halted.” He said Iran had continued its production of fissile material, although he noted that it faces “significant technical problems” operating centrifuges. He also disclosed differences within the community about when Tehran could get enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, with some saying 2009, others 2010 to 2015, but all recognizing the possibility that it could not come “until after 2015.”

This admission is of course a step in the right direction, but there is something immensely galling about it. The NIE was issued in November. Here we are, two months later, after an immense amount of confusion has set in around the world about America’s policy toward Iran. Why did McConnell wait until now to set the record straight?

What is more, he is correcting the record in the most insouciant and understated manner: “I probably would have changed a thing or two,” hardly addresses the fact that the NIE was so profoundly misleading about the real state of the Iranian nuclear project.

Why is McConnell acting in this way? Connecting the Dots has a theory. When the National Intelligence Council released the declassified summary of the NIE, McConnell was asleep at the switch, unaware of what his subordinates were up to, and gave his approval without realizing its import. But to admit the full gravity of the mistake, and to take corrective action, including in the realm of personnel shifts, would have been a bureaucratic and political shot in his own foot. Far better to soft-pedal things all around.

Of course, Connecting the Dots finds it difficult to believe that McConnell, who has a lifetime of outstanding and highly professional public service behind him, would put the preservation of his own image ahead of the public weal. But perhaps human nature set in and the two became confused in his own mind. If so, it would not be the first time in history that that particular human frailty set in.

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The Big Stories

It’s only the morning after Super Tuesday, but it still’s not too early to think about the really super Tuesday—the one that comes in November. In that regard I was struck by the two major stories of this morning after the election news. One is that the economy is apparently continuing its slide into recession. The other is the testimony of Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, that Al Qaeda is improving its ability to attack the United States.

The former story seems to favor Clinton/Obama (or Obama/Clinton), the latter McCain. Of crucial importance will be the weight assigned by voters to the two. At the moment it appears that the economy and health care edge out the war in Iraq and terrorism as issues of concern in the polls. Of course a president can do far less to influence the economy than national security policy, and even if we’re in a recession it will probably be over by the time the next president is inaugurated. Moreover, since McCain is not closely associated with the Bush administration it is an open question to what extent voters will punish him for what may be seen as the Bush recession.

Admittedly, there is a strong tendency among voters to use a general election as a referendum on the state of the economy with the incumbent party being punished if the economic news is bad. But that could be trumped if terrorism and war stay in the news since McCain is so much more better qualified than Clinton/Obama to “keep us safe”—the only voter concern that can rival the economy in importance.

I don’t profess to have the foggiest notion of how these dynamics will play out. The only safe prediction seems to be that it will be a wild ride until November—as wild as the past year, and that’s saying something.

It’s only the morning after Super Tuesday, but it still’s not too early to think about the really super Tuesday—the one that comes in November. In that regard I was struck by the two major stories of this morning after the election news. One is that the economy is apparently continuing its slide into recession. The other is the testimony of Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, that Al Qaeda is improving its ability to attack the United States.

The former story seems to favor Clinton/Obama (or Obama/Clinton), the latter McCain. Of crucial importance will be the weight assigned by voters to the two. At the moment it appears that the economy and health care edge out the war in Iraq and terrorism as issues of concern in the polls. Of course a president can do far less to influence the economy than national security policy, and even if we’re in a recession it will probably be over by the time the next president is inaugurated. Moreover, since McCain is not closely associated with the Bush administration it is an open question to what extent voters will punish him for what may be seen as the Bush recession.

Admittedly, there is a strong tendency among voters to use a general election as a referendum on the state of the economy with the incumbent party being punished if the economic news is bad. But that could be trumped if terrorism and war stay in the news since McCain is so much more better qualified than Clinton/Obama to “keep us safe”—the only voter concern that can rival the economy in importance.

I don’t profess to have the foggiest notion of how these dynamics will play out. The only safe prediction seems to be that it will be a wild ride until November—as wild as the past year, and that’s saying something.

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Am I Missing Something?

The Washington Post offers a lengthy recounting this morning of how the intelligence community went about gathering the intelligence behind its new estimate that Iran shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. The story is particularly notable for three details.

First, it confirms what Dick Cheney has already said about the decision to make a summary of the NIE public. Initially, reports the Post, “Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, [had] decided to keep the new findings secret, but reluctantly reversed course in a flurry of discussions last weekend out of fear of leaks and charges of a cover-up.”

Second, with the decision to make the NIE public taken only last weekend, the story makes plain that the summary of the document, as opposed to the NIE itself, was produced in a mad rush: “analysts scrambled over the weekend,” the Post reports, “to draft a declassified version.”

This is crucial, because it leaves unclear whether the White House was ever shown or ever had a chance to sign off on the unclassified summary as opposed to the NIE itself. Perhaps the full NIE is a well-drafted and well-qualified document that makes it clear that, because of the “civilian” uranium-enrichment project at Natanz, the time-line on which Iran might obtain enough fuel to build a bomb is virtually unchanged from the supposedly discredited 2005 NIE.

But the declassified summary itself is anything but well-drafted and well-qualified. It leaves the misleading impression that all Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons came to a halt in 2003. The differences between the summary and the full document on this score might explain why the White House was so blindsided by its own decision to make the NIE public.

Third, the Washington Post story takes note of the controversy within the government about whether the intelligence underpinning the new NIE is accurate. But it nowhere mentions the more crucial fact that Iran has an ongoing “civilian” nuclear program that was downplayed in the NIE summary, relegated to a footnote. Failing to mention this is deeply disingenuous, even mendacious. The Post is complicit with the drafters of the NIE summary in promoting the false impression that Iran has completely changed course and there is nothing to worry about.

What is behind this striking omission? The Post story was written by Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer. Walter Pincus, Joby Warrick, and Robin Wright contributed to it. A team of editors undoubtedly also read it and made changes and suggestions as editors do. What are we dealing with here? Laziness, deliberate deception, a desire to please sources within the intelligence world, a blinding world-view? Connecting the Dots would like to know.

The Washington Post offers a lengthy recounting this morning of how the intelligence community went about gathering the intelligence behind its new estimate that Iran shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. The story is particularly notable for three details.

First, it confirms what Dick Cheney has already said about the decision to make a summary of the NIE public. Initially, reports the Post, “Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, [had] decided to keep the new findings secret, but reluctantly reversed course in a flurry of discussions last weekend out of fear of leaks and charges of a cover-up.”

Second, with the decision to make the NIE public taken only last weekend, the story makes plain that the summary of the document, as opposed to the NIE itself, was produced in a mad rush: “analysts scrambled over the weekend,” the Post reports, “to draft a declassified version.”

This is crucial, because it leaves unclear whether the White House was ever shown or ever had a chance to sign off on the unclassified summary as opposed to the NIE itself. Perhaps the full NIE is a well-drafted and well-qualified document that makes it clear that, because of the “civilian” uranium-enrichment project at Natanz, the time-line on which Iran might obtain enough fuel to build a bomb is virtually unchanged from the supposedly discredited 2005 NIE.

But the declassified summary itself is anything but well-drafted and well-qualified. It leaves the misleading impression that all Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons came to a halt in 2003. The differences between the summary and the full document on this score might explain why the White House was so blindsided by its own decision to make the NIE public.

Third, the Washington Post story takes note of the controversy within the government about whether the intelligence underpinning the new NIE is accurate. But it nowhere mentions the more crucial fact that Iran has an ongoing “civilian” nuclear program that was downplayed in the NIE summary, relegated to a footnote. Failing to mention this is deeply disingenuous, even mendacious. The Post is complicit with the drafters of the NIE summary in promoting the false impression that Iran has completely changed course and there is nothing to worry about.

What is behind this striking omission? The Post story was written by Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer. Walter Pincus, Joby Warrick, and Robin Wright contributed to it. A team of editors undoubtedly also read it and made changes and suggestions as editors do. What are we dealing with here? Laziness, deliberate deception, a desire to please sources within the intelligence world, a blinding world-view? Connecting the Dots would like to know.

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Is President Bush the Real Author of the Iran NIE?

I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.  

“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,

is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”

“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”

Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.

But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?

Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye. 

“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.

I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.  

“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,

is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”

“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”

Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.

But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?

Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye. 

“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.

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Deconstructing the NIE

Like other contentions readers, I have been interested in the exchange between Norman Podhoretz and Gabriel Schoenfeld over whether the new National Intelligence Estimate was driven by a political agenda designed to block military action against Iran. Norman suggested that it was; Gabe argued that his suspicions were unjustified; Norman retracted* his earlier post; Gabe basically said maybe there is something to Norman’s “dark suspicions” after all.

I agree with the conclusion reached in Gabe’s second post that there probably was political calculation behind the NIE, and if so it comes out in the language chosen by its authors. As pointed out by reader Ben Orlanski, and quoted by Gabe, the wording of the NIE is hardly neutral. The lead sentence—“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”—is designed to convey an impression that we don’t have to worry much about Iranian nukes.

The second sentence, claiming that Tehran’s decision was “directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure” is designed to convey the impression that diplomacy is sufficient to keep Iranian ambitions in check and that no bombing is needed—even though, if Iran really did halt its weapons program in 2003, it must surely have done so in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not to any diplomatic gambit on our part.

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Like other contentions readers, I have been interested in the exchange between Norman Podhoretz and Gabriel Schoenfeld over whether the new National Intelligence Estimate was driven by a political agenda designed to block military action against Iran. Norman suggested that it was; Gabe argued that his suspicions were unjustified; Norman retracted* his earlier post; Gabe basically said maybe there is something to Norman’s “dark suspicions” after all.

I agree with the conclusion reached in Gabe’s second post that there probably was political calculation behind the NIE, and if so it comes out in the language chosen by its authors. As pointed out by reader Ben Orlanski, and quoted by Gabe, the wording of the NIE is hardly neutral. The lead sentence—“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”—is designed to convey an impression that we don’t have to worry much about Iranian nukes.

The second sentence, claiming that Tehran’s decision was “directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure” is designed to convey the impression that diplomacy is sufficient to keep Iranian ambitions in check and that no bombing is needed—even though, if Iran really did halt its weapons program in 2003, it must surely have done so in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not to any diplomatic gambit on our part.

A more neutral and accurate summary of the NIE would have read something like this: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program, but we have only moderate confidence that it has not resumed the program since then. In any case, we assess with high confidence that Iran continues to enrich uranium in violation of United Nations sanctions. Although Tehran claims that this enrichment is part of a civilian nuclear-power program, it could produce enough fissile material within a minimum of two years to make a nuclear weapon. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides do so, but we have no idea if that decision has been made.”

That would still convey the same information contained in the rest of the NIE, but it would give a very different impression up front, which is the only part most people notice.

I am not privy to any inside information about administration deliberations, but I am guessing that the wording of this NIE was criticized by Vice President Cheney and his aides, the keepers of the conservative flame in the administration’s waning days. I am guessing, again with no real basis, that they pressed for a more neutral write-up and won a few cosmetic concessions from the intelligence community, but that they were prevented from doing more because they feared that if the intelligence agencies lost a bruising interagency battle over the NIE, disgruntled officials would leak word that intelligence was being “politicized” and that the “books were cooked” to conform with the administration’s ideological agenda.

The threat of leaks also must have compelled the President and Vice President, whatever their misgivings, to approve the release of the NIE. They would know that if they didn’t release the NIE, intelligence officials opposed to their policies (and that’s most of them) would leak selective tidbits to make the President look bad the next time he warned of the dangers from Iran.

It would be nice if high-level deliberations like this could be conducted without the constant threats of leaks from our oh-so-secret intelligence agencies, but that’s not the way Washington works these days. The power to go public gives intelligence officials great pull that they can exercise if they disagree with the views of senior policymakers, and they have not been shy about using this gambit, no matter how illegal or destructive their leaks might be.

I hasten to add that I do not suspect the director of National Intelligence, retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, or the director of the CIA, Air Force General Michael Hayden, of participating in this political campaign. Both strike me as mild-mannered, straight-down-the-middle technocrats, but it is precisely that neutrality on their part that can leave them open to a partisan agenda pushed by senior subordinates such as the “hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials” said by the Wall Street Journal editorial page to be the primary authors of the NIE.

*CLARIFICATION: Norman Podhoretz informs me that I mischaracterized his views (see below) in my item on “Deconstructing the NIE.” He emails: “For the record…the only thing I retracted was the suspicion that the NIE was another one of those leaks that have regularly gushed out of the CIA and State to undermine Bush. But when I learned for a fact that the White House knew about it in advance and authorized publication (for fear that it would leak anyway and make it seem that they were suppressing unfavorable intelligence), I felt that I had to make a correction. What I didn’t retract is the charge that it’s a political document disguised as an intelligence report—especially in the way the conclusions are presented.” Mea culpa.

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What is That Strange Odor at Langley?

A day has passed since the release of the new intelligence-community estimate of the Iranian program and the smell of rotting fish is growing stronger. Even the editorial page of the New York Times is wondering if the NIE erred on the side of incaution. It reports that an official “close” to the International Atomic Energy Agency “told the Times yesterday that new American assessment might be too generous to Iran.”

Any careful reading of the NIE makes its obvious that this is true. The report’s stark opening declaration – made with “high confidence” – that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 is blatantly misleading. The only thing that was halted in 2003 was what the intelligence community calls the military side of Iran’s nuclear program.

Leaving the impression that the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran has receded, the NIE omits all mention of the fact that a civilian uranium-enrichment program remains as active as before at Natanz, where 3,000-plus centrifuges are whirring away. This critical point is only referred to obliquely in the single footnote in the declassified version of the NIE. In other words, it is buried. The footnote read: “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

But as William Broad writes in today’s Times, “[t]he open secret of the nuclear age is that the line between civilian and military programs is extraordinarily thin.” Indeed, in a country like Iran, when it comes to civil and military uranium-enrichment programs, we are dealing with a distinction without a difference. The enriched uranium produced at Natanz could be turned to military purposes tomorrow or the day after if that is what ayatollahs decree.

Even the new NIE implicitly acknowledges this fact. It judges with “moderate confidence” that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009.” Although it says this is “very unlikely,” it adds that by the following year, i.e., in the 2010 to 2015 time frame, Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon.” These timelines differ only marginally from the timelines offered in the 2005 NIE that is now said by the intelligence community to be incorrect.

The overall impression created by the NIE is that the Iranian nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, and such is the interpretation it is being given all over the world. But we do not have to rely on leaks, or on the differing assessment of allied countries like Israel, to see that this is false. All the evidence we need is contained in the NIE itself, which is framed in a deeply slanted way.

There are so many dots in need of connecting here that we would need a pointillist painter to make sense of what is going on.

1. Why was the public version of the NIE written in this misleading way?

2. How did the two Bush appointees running the intelligence community, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, allow such a flawed product to make its way into the public domain? Is this a case of the fish rotting from the head? Should one or both of them be fired for incompetence, or worse?

3 Why did President Bush, who was only fully briefed on the new “findings” last week, also authorize the NIE’s release? Did he welcome the document as a way of taking the pressure off him to strike Iran? Or, as seems more likely, was he compelled to do so to avoid charges of suppressing intelligence?

Yesterday, I dismissed Norman Podhoretz’s expression of “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. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.

I responded to him by noting that leaks were one thing, an NIE produced by a laborious inter-agency process is another, and that “the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit.”

But in dismissing Norman’s dark suspicions, did I treat his claim “a bit too literally,” as Ben Orlanski has written in the comments section in response to my post? Orlanski goes on to explain: 

This isn’t a question of cooking the books to produce bogus information to defeat Bush. It is a question of how this was spun. The NIE report chose to lead with the made-for-headline finding about the halt to the program. But this isn’t really the most relevant part of the report, just the part that was pretty clearly intended to grab headlines. Is saying that a conspiracy? I don’t think so. I think the authors wanted to impact the political debate, and did so not by lying or creating bogus conclusions or reasoning, but simply by choosing to emphasize the part of their overall conclusions that played most pointedly into the political environment. [This] suggest[s] certain political canniness [on the part] of our intelligence agencies, and also suggests that they wanted to have an impact on ultimate policy. That is not their role, and there is something disconcerting about their assuming it.

With this I would entirely agree. If that is indeed what happened here, and the evidence that it did so is in front of our eyes, and if it is indeed what Norman was saying, then, like the intelligence-community’s disavowal of its 2005 NIE, I would have to disavow my previous “low confidence” estimate in Norman “dark suspicions” and join him in voicing equally dark suspicions of my own.

A day has passed since the release of the new intelligence-community estimate of the Iranian program and the smell of rotting fish is growing stronger. Even the editorial page of the New York Times is wondering if the NIE erred on the side of incaution. It reports that an official “close” to the International Atomic Energy Agency “told the Times yesterday that new American assessment might be too generous to Iran.”

Any careful reading of the NIE makes its obvious that this is true. The report’s stark opening declaration – made with “high confidence” – that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 is blatantly misleading. The only thing that was halted in 2003 was what the intelligence community calls the military side of Iran’s nuclear program.

Leaving the impression that the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran has receded, the NIE omits all mention of the fact that a civilian uranium-enrichment program remains as active as before at Natanz, where 3,000-plus centrifuges are whirring away. This critical point is only referred to obliquely in the single footnote in the declassified version of the NIE. In other words, it is buried. The footnote read: “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

But as William Broad writes in today’s Times, “[t]he open secret of the nuclear age is that the line between civilian and military programs is extraordinarily thin.” Indeed, in a country like Iran, when it comes to civil and military uranium-enrichment programs, we are dealing with a distinction without a difference. The enriched uranium produced at Natanz could be turned to military purposes tomorrow or the day after if that is what ayatollahs decree.

Even the new NIE implicitly acknowledges this fact. It judges with “moderate confidence” that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009.” Although it says this is “very unlikely,” it adds that by the following year, i.e., in the 2010 to 2015 time frame, Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon.” These timelines differ only marginally from the timelines offered in the 2005 NIE that is now said by the intelligence community to be incorrect.

The overall impression created by the NIE is that the Iranian nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, and such is the interpretation it is being given all over the world. But we do not have to rely on leaks, or on the differing assessment of allied countries like Israel, to see that this is false. All the evidence we need is contained in the NIE itself, which is framed in a deeply slanted way.

There are so many dots in need of connecting here that we would need a pointillist painter to make sense of what is going on.

1. Why was the public version of the NIE written in this misleading way?

2. How did the two Bush appointees running the intelligence community, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, allow such a flawed product to make its way into the public domain? Is this a case of the fish rotting from the head? Should one or both of them be fired for incompetence, or worse?

3 Why did President Bush, who was only fully briefed on the new “findings” last week, also authorize the NIE’s release? Did he welcome the document as a way of taking the pressure off him to strike Iran? Or, as seems more likely, was he compelled to do so to avoid charges of suppressing intelligence?

Yesterday, I dismissed Norman Podhoretz’s expression of “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. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.

I responded to him by noting that leaks were one thing, an NIE produced by a laborious inter-agency process is another, and that “the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit.”

But in dismissing Norman’s dark suspicions, did I treat his claim “a bit too literally,” as Ben Orlanski has written in the comments section in response to my post? Orlanski goes on to explain: 

This isn’t a question of cooking the books to produce bogus information to defeat Bush. It is a question of how this was spun. The NIE report chose to lead with the made-for-headline finding about the halt to the program. But this isn’t really the most relevant part of the report, just the part that was pretty clearly intended to grab headlines. Is saying that a conspiracy? I don’t think so. I think the authors wanted to impact the political debate, and did so not by lying or creating bogus conclusions or reasoning, but simply by choosing to emphasize the part of their overall conclusions that played most pointedly into the political environment. [This] suggest[s] certain political canniness [on the part] of our intelligence agencies, and also suggests that they wanted to have an impact on ultimate policy. That is not their role, and there is something disconcerting about their assuming it.

With this I would entirely agree. If that is indeed what happened here, and the evidence that it did so is in front of our eyes, and if it is indeed what Norman was saying, then, like the intelligence-community’s disavowal of its 2005 NIE, I would have to disavow my previous “low confidence” estimate in Norman “dark suspicions” and join him in voicing equally dark suspicions of my own.

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Smarter Secrecy?

Chalk one up for my friend Steve Aftergood. Back in 2002, his organization, the Federation of American Scientists, sued the CIA in a fruitless effort to get it to declassify the sum total it was spending annually on intelligence. That number had long been classified. But the 9/11 Commission recommended that it be made public and Congress agreed. The WaPo reports that Adm. Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, will announce today that the fiscal 2007 intelligence budget is near $50 billion. Aftergood’s efforts have borne fruit after all.

But will this revelation damage national security?

Back in August, in a post entitled Secrecy for the Sake of Secrecy, I argued that declassification of the budget total was a bad idea, not because the information itself was sensitive but because it would send the wrong signal.

“Good and completely rational arguments exist for disclosing the intelligence budget,” I wrote. “But the larger fact is that an unfortunate and damaging climate of openness has come to surround things that should be wrapped in darkness. For that reason alone, if for no other, disclosing the total intelligence budget would be a step in the wrong direction.”

Aftergood commented sardonically on my post at the time, saying:   

Gabe, I find this argument hard to follow. Can it be that because “highly sensitive secrets . . . are leaked to the press with regularity” we should classify things that are not highly sensitive? Is this some kind of hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you remedy? I think the new consensus in favor of budget disclosure makes much more sense: Smarter secrecy, not more secrecy.

Aftergood and I often sharply disagree about what constitutes “smarter secrecy.” But let’s give him one point in this round. My argument was somewhat perverse. I will take a zero.

Chalk one up for my friend Steve Aftergood. Back in 2002, his organization, the Federation of American Scientists, sued the CIA in a fruitless effort to get it to declassify the sum total it was spending annually on intelligence. That number had long been classified. But the 9/11 Commission recommended that it be made public and Congress agreed. The WaPo reports that Adm. Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, will announce today that the fiscal 2007 intelligence budget is near $50 billion. Aftergood’s efforts have borne fruit after all.

But will this revelation damage national security?

Back in August, in a post entitled Secrecy for the Sake of Secrecy, I argued that declassification of the budget total was a bad idea, not because the information itself was sensitive but because it would send the wrong signal.

“Good and completely rational arguments exist for disclosing the intelligence budget,” I wrote. “But the larger fact is that an unfortunate and damaging climate of openness has come to surround things that should be wrapped in darkness. For that reason alone, if for no other, disclosing the total intelligence budget would be a step in the wrong direction.”

Aftergood commented sardonically on my post at the time, saying:   

Gabe, I find this argument hard to follow. Can it be that because “highly sensitive secrets . . . are leaked to the press with regularity” we should classify things that are not highly sensitive? Is this some kind of hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you remedy? I think the new consensus in favor of budget disclosure makes much more sense: Smarter secrecy, not more secrecy.

Aftergood and I often sharply disagree about what constitutes “smarter secrecy.” But let’s give him one point in this round. My argument was somewhat perverse. I will take a zero.

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The Leak Wars

“The government’s ability to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects overseas allowed the United States to obtain information that helped lead to the arrests last week of three Islamic militants accused of planning bomb attacks in Germany, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told Senators on Monday”–the New York Times, September 11, 2007

This is curious. Here we have our top spy revealing one of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, involving not only sources and methods but also that holy of holies: communications intelligence. 

If, say, the fruits of an ongoing U.S. surveillance program had been something uncovered and published by the New York Times for all the world to read, would a whole host of critics, including me, be up in arms? What is going on?

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“The government’s ability to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects overseas allowed the United States to obtain information that helped lead to the arrests last week of three Islamic militants accused of planning bomb attacks in Germany, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told Senators on Monday”–the New York Times, September 11, 2007

This is curious. Here we have our top spy revealing one of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, involving not only sources and methods but also that holy of holies: communications intelligence. 

If, say, the fruits of an ongoing U.S. surveillance program had been something uncovered and published by the New York Times for all the world to read, would a whole host of critics, including me, be up in arms? What is going on?

The conundrum is easily resolved. First, McConnell, as the nation’s top intelligence officer, and unlike any reporter or editor at the Times, is in a position to evaluate whether a given disclosure will cause damage to American security.

Second, McConnell has the authority, under law, to declassify information when he determines it is in the national interest. The New York Times claims the same authority under the First Amendment. But the First Amendment is compatible with a whole range of restrictions on the press, as in the law of libel, the laws governing commercial speech, and so forth. By contrast, the idea that the media is not obligated to follow laws currently on the books restricting publication of national-defense information flies in the face of both reason and precedent.  

Third, in disclosing the success of the U.S. surveillance program in averting a disaster in Germany, McConnell was not revealing anything new. Why not? Because the Times had already compromised the key facts about the scope of National Security Agency surveillance in a series of stories that began in December 2005.

The fact that even after the Times had tipped them off, terrorists continue to use readily interceptible telephones and email demonstrates how difficult it is for them to find alternative means of rapid long-distance communication. But that is by no means a justification for what the Times did. A host of governments officials–Democrats and Republicans alike–have attested to the damage inflicted on U.S. counterterrorism efforts by the Times’s reporting.

CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden, speaking earlier this week at the Council on Foreign Relations, addressed the problem. His words are worth quoting at length:

Revelations of sources and methods or what seems to me to be an impulse to drag anything CIA does to the darkest corner of the room can make it very difficult for us to perform our vital work. When our operations are exposed–you know, the legal, authorized operations overseen by Congress–when those operations are exposed, it reduces the space and it damages the tools we use to protect Americans.

After the press report on how banking records in the international Swiss network could be monitored, I read a claim that this leak–and I’m quoting now–”bears no resemblance to security breaches”. . . I could not disagree more strongly. In a war that largely depends on our success on collecting intelligence on the enemy, publishing information on our sources and methods can be just as damaging as revelations of troop or ship movements have been in the past. Now the compromise to safety can be both immediate and lasting, and it extends beyond specific individuals. Each revelation of our methods in tracking terrorists, tracking WMD, tracking other threats allows our enemies to cover their tracks and change their practices. We’ll respond, but it takes us valuable time to readjust.

Now, some are out there who say there’s no evidence that leaks of classified information have actually harmed national security. As CIA director, I’m telling you there is and they have. Let me give you just two examples. In one case, leaks provided ammunition for a government to prosecute and imprison one of our sources whose family was also endangered. The revelations had an immediate chilling affect on our ability to collect [intelligence] against a top priority target. In another, a spate of media reports cost us several promising counterterrorism and counter-proliferation assets. Sources not even involved in the operation that was exposed lost confidence that their relationship with us could be kept secret and so they stopped reporting.
. . . On their own, journalists often simply don’t have all the facts needed to make the call on whether the information can be released without harm. I’ve heard some justify a release based on their view of the sensitivity of their story’s content with no understanding of the effect the release may have on the intelligence source at the heart of the story. . . [W]he the media claims an oversight role on clandestine operations, it moves that clandestine operation into an arena where we cannot clarify, we cannot explain, we cannot defend our actions without doing even further damage to our national security.

It’s important–as I say this, it’s important to bear in mind that my agency is subject to another oversight mechanism that has full access to our operations and takes our security requirements into account, it’s your representatives in Congress.

George Tenet and Porter Goss, George Bush’s previous CIA directors, never said anything nearly as sustained or lucid on this vital subject–and they and we paid for their silence with an accelerating flow of leaks appearing in the media. It is unlikely that Hayden’s caution will be heeded by many in the press, least of all at the New York Times. But the issue, at least, has finally been joined in a serious way by the Bush administration.

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