Commentary Magazine


Topic: National Intelligence Council

The CIA’s Grand Champion

 From 2002-05, Mark M. Lowenthal was an assistant director of the CIA and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He has written one of the more useful books by an intelligence official: Intelligence: From Secrets To Policy. An even more significant accomplishment to my mind — one that offers outside validation of his smarts — is having become a “Grand Champion” on Jeopardy in 1988.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Lowenthal candidly admitted that the “U.S. intelligence community has failed” both as “a public institution and as a profession.” But the failure, in his eyes, does not reside in either inability to intercept the 9/11 plot or the erroneous assessment of Iraq weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

September 11, Lowenthal argues, was not something that could have been forestalled by intelligence:

No one has yet revealed the one or two or 10 things that, had they been done differently, might have prevented the attacks. In my view, and in the view of many of my colleagues, even the missed “operational opportunities” identified by the 9/11 Commission would have done little more than force al-Qaeda to send different terrorists into the United States, especially considering the legal rules in play at the time. Even if every “dot” had been connected, they would not have led to the tactical intelligence needed to stop those four planes on that Tuesday morning.

I am not fully persuaded, but, for the sake of argument, let’s grant Lowenthal the point. He makes a similar observation about the botched 2003 WMD National Intelligence Estimate. Even if the tradecraft in producing that NIE had not been so shoddy, the result, he contends, might well have been the same:

it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to envision an NIE based on good intelligence that would have come up with the correct answer. The best my fellow analysts could have done, I think, would have been to offer three analytical options: Saddam Hussein has WMD; he does not have WMD; or we simply do not know. And of course, given his track record of gassing Kurds, attacking neighbors and resisting U.N. weapons inspections, the most likely of the three still would have been that he had WMD. But analytical responses that cover the waterfront of possibilities are not seen as very useful to policymakers, for obvious reasons. Moreover, even if we had concluded that we just didn’t know what Iraq had, Bush would have probably favored going to war anyway, and Congress would have gone along, largely out of political expediency.

This is more persuasive. But if these two alleged failures were not really failures at all, why then is Lowenthal so down on U.S. intelligence? His answer:

We failed because we have not explained ourselves adequately and comprehensibly to the public — describing our role, the limits within which we work and our view of what can be reasonably expected from us. We have failed because we have allowed ourselves to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us — or simply see us as convenient fall guys.

This is preposterous. Lowenthal is undoubtedly right that the public is ill informed about what can reasonably be expected from intelligence in view of the insuperable challenges it continually faces. I have made a similar observation in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) in COMMENTARY. But the idea that intelligence officials have allowed themselves “to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us — or simply see us as convenient fall guys” does not hold up.

I would point Lowenthal to the 2005 declassified summary of the Inspector General’s report on the CIA’s counterterrorism branch,  including its al-Qaeda unit run by Michael Scheuer. Perhaps the CIA could not have stopped the 9/11 plot no matter what it did. But the managerial and analytical ineptitude on display in that critical unit is staggering.  

I would point him to the decision to put Richard Immerman, an anti-war activist professor, in charge of analytical standards and integrity in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

I would point him to the tendentious declassified summary of the December 2007 NIE on Iran.

I would point him to the endless leaks from the intelligence community designed to undercut the policies of the administration it is tasked with serving. The intelligence community has not been vilified; rather, elements in it have been villainous and the entire operation has been paying the price. One doesn’t need to be a Jeopardy grand champion to understand that.

 From 2002-05, Mark M. Lowenthal was an assistant director of the CIA and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He has written one of the more useful books by an intelligence official: Intelligence: From Secrets To Policy. An even more significant accomplishment to my mind — one that offers outside validation of his smarts — is having become a “Grand Champion” on Jeopardy in 1988.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Lowenthal candidly admitted that the “U.S. intelligence community has failed” both as “a public institution and as a profession.” But the failure, in his eyes, does not reside in either inability to intercept the 9/11 plot or the erroneous assessment of Iraq weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

September 11, Lowenthal argues, was not something that could have been forestalled by intelligence:

No one has yet revealed the one or two or 10 things that, had they been done differently, might have prevented the attacks. In my view, and in the view of many of my colleagues, even the missed “operational opportunities” identified by the 9/11 Commission would have done little more than force al-Qaeda to send different terrorists into the United States, especially considering the legal rules in play at the time. Even if every “dot” had been connected, they would not have led to the tactical intelligence needed to stop those four planes on that Tuesday morning.

I am not fully persuaded, but, for the sake of argument, let’s grant Lowenthal the point. He makes a similar observation about the botched 2003 WMD National Intelligence Estimate. Even if the tradecraft in producing that NIE had not been so shoddy, the result, he contends, might well have been the same:

it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to envision an NIE based on good intelligence that would have come up with the correct answer. The best my fellow analysts could have done, I think, would have been to offer three analytical options: Saddam Hussein has WMD; he does not have WMD; or we simply do not know. And of course, given his track record of gassing Kurds, attacking neighbors and resisting U.N. weapons inspections, the most likely of the three still would have been that he had WMD. But analytical responses that cover the waterfront of possibilities are not seen as very useful to policymakers, for obvious reasons. Moreover, even if we had concluded that we just didn’t know what Iraq had, Bush would have probably favored going to war anyway, and Congress would have gone along, largely out of political expediency.

This is more persuasive. But if these two alleged failures were not really failures at all, why then is Lowenthal so down on U.S. intelligence? His answer:

We failed because we have not explained ourselves adequately and comprehensibly to the public — describing our role, the limits within which we work and our view of what can be reasonably expected from us. We have failed because we have allowed ourselves to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us — or simply see us as convenient fall guys.

This is preposterous. Lowenthal is undoubtedly right that the public is ill informed about what can reasonably be expected from intelligence in view of the insuperable challenges it continually faces. I have made a similar observation in The CIA Follies (Cont’d.) in COMMENTARY. But the idea that intelligence officials have allowed themselves “to be caricatured, vilified and misrepresented by people who do not know us, do not like us and do not understand us — or simply see us as convenient fall guys” does not hold up.

I would point Lowenthal to the 2005 declassified summary of the Inspector General’s report on the CIA’s counterterrorism branch,  including its al-Qaeda unit run by Michael Scheuer. Perhaps the CIA could not have stopped the 9/11 plot no matter what it did. But the managerial and analytical ineptitude on display in that critical unit is staggering.  

I would point him to the decision to put Richard Immerman, an anti-war activist professor, in charge of analytical standards and integrity in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

I would point him to the tendentious declassified summary of the December 2007 NIE on Iran.

I would point him to the endless leaks from the intelligence community designed to undercut the policies of the administration it is tasked with serving. The intelligence community has not been vilified; rather, elements in it have been villainous and the entire operation has been paying the price. One doesn’t need to be a Jeopardy grand champion to understand that.

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How Many CIA Agents Does It Take To Produce a Telephone Directory?

One of the most important functions carried out by U.S. intelligence is analysis of the vast quantities of data collected by the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community (IC). To do this job, the IC needs a lot of analysts. Who and where are they?

That has long proved to be a remarkably difficult question for senior officials to answer.

Ten years ago, one such official came up with the seemingly simple idea of creating a database that would record the names, locations, and specialties of all the analysts working in the IC.  The computers were duly programmed, but the data were never entered. What went wrong?

Thomas Fingar, the director of national intelligence for analysis, and the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, has offered a fascinating explanation in a recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. The database, he explained, had been

billed as a “This is where we’ll go if we need to build a task force. We needed a Serbo-Croat speaker to send out to East Armpit.” And people didn’t put that data in. Others — managers —  saw it as a free-agent list. “If I advertise what talent I’ve got, somebody . . . will try and steal it.”

The lesson here is that, try as one might to persuade people working in large organizations to cooperate for the common good, nitty-gritty career incentives will always and forever trump everything else.

Now, in the aftermath of 9/11 and other intelligence fiascos, the intelligence community is once again trying to create a telephone book. Fingar, who is running the initiative, has put out the word that being in the telephone directory is important: “If you’re not in it, it means one of two things: You don’t know anything, or your boss thinks you don’t know anything.” On top of that, a more draconian signal was sent out: “If you’re not in Fingar’s database, you’re not in a funded position.”

The results have been nothing short of astonishing. Reports Fingar:

I suddenly discovered I had 1,200 more analysts than I knew I had, even by estimating. But we can now reproduce phone book, e-mail directories. If you need to find an expert on economics in the Andean region, you can find out where they are, how to contact them. And people are using it.

Hearty congratulations are due the intelligence community. After ten years, it now has a telephone book. But where in the world is Osama bin Laden?

One of the most important functions carried out by U.S. intelligence is analysis of the vast quantities of data collected by the sixteen agencies of the intelligence community (IC). To do this job, the IC needs a lot of analysts. Who and where are they?

That has long proved to be a remarkably difficult question for senior officials to answer.

Ten years ago, one such official came up with the seemingly simple idea of creating a database that would record the names, locations, and specialties of all the analysts working in the IC.  The computers were duly programmed, but the data were never entered. What went wrong?

Thomas Fingar, the director of national intelligence for analysis, and the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, has offered a fascinating explanation in a recent talk at the Council on Foreign Relations. The database, he explained, had been

billed as a “This is where we’ll go if we need to build a task force. We needed a Serbo-Croat speaker to send out to East Armpit.” And people didn’t put that data in. Others — managers —  saw it as a free-agent list. “If I advertise what talent I’ve got, somebody . . . will try and steal it.”

The lesson here is that, try as one might to persuade people working in large organizations to cooperate for the common good, nitty-gritty career incentives will always and forever trump everything else.

Now, in the aftermath of 9/11 and other intelligence fiascos, the intelligence community is once again trying to create a telephone book. Fingar, who is running the initiative, has put out the word that being in the telephone directory is important: “If you’re not in it, it means one of two things: You don’t know anything, or your boss thinks you don’t know anything.” On top of that, a more draconian signal was sent out: “If you’re not in Fingar’s database, you’re not in a funded position.”

The results have been nothing short of astonishing. Reports Fingar:

I suddenly discovered I had 1,200 more analysts than I knew I had, even by estimating. But we can now reproduce phone book, e-mail directories. If you need to find an expert on economics in the Andean region, you can find out where they are, how to contact them. And people are using it.

Hearty congratulations are due the intelligence community. After ten years, it now has a telephone book. But where in the world is Osama bin Laden?

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Spelling and “Analytic Tradecraft”

The CIA and U.S. intelligence have gotten a lot of things wrong in recent years, at great cost to our national well-being. A significant part of the problem lies in “analysis,” where data is supposed to be interpreted but is all too often misinterpreted.

Gregory F. Treverton and C. Bryan Gabbard have written a new study of “analytic tradecraft,” published by RAND, that takes up the nature of the problem and looks at some of the solutions being put in place.

Some of the approaches to improving analysis they point to are technological. For example, there is a program called GENOA -II, designed to help intelligence analysts work better in groups. Among other things, it attempts to “automate team processes,” develop “cognitive aids that allow humans and machines to ‘think together’ in real-time about complicated problems,” and find ways to “overcome the biases and limitations of the human cognitive system.”

This sounds great. But count me deeply skeptical. Here’s why.

No technological solution can be better than the people running it. Consider a very simple “cognitive aid” like a computer spell-check program. These things have been around for a long time and everyone uses them. Treverton and Gabbard are smart men, who have every interest in producing a highly professional study. Treverton has handled all of Europe for the National Security Council and served as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, overseeing the writing of America’s National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). Gabbard is also an accomplished person, with a wealth of experience under his belt. But even so, and even with RAND editors poring over their study before it was released, the spell-check program was not fail-safe.

The Treverton-Gabbard study has:

“intellience” and “intellence” instead of intelligence;

“builiding” instead of building;

“proceess” instead of process;

“solftware” instead of software;

“uniue” instead of unique;

“syehtsis” instead of synthesis;

“coopertive” instead of cooperative;

“poential” instead of potential.

Why should there be nine such mistakes when the technology is in place to produce, almost effortlessly, a zero-error rate? The United States is not going fall victim to a surprise attack because of some typos in a RAND study. But we will fall victim to another surprise attack if don’t focus on the fact that the problem facing our intelligence community is not technology but severe shortcomings in the selection of analysts themselves.

See the case of Michael Scheuer, the kooky head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden desk in the 1990′s, for one set of illustrations. See the case of Richard Immerman, the radical professor now in charge of analytic “integrity and standards” for the Intelligence Community, for another set of illustrations.

How many more illustrations do we need?

The CIA and U.S. intelligence have gotten a lot of things wrong in recent years, at great cost to our national well-being. A significant part of the problem lies in “analysis,” where data is supposed to be interpreted but is all too often misinterpreted.

Gregory F. Treverton and C. Bryan Gabbard have written a new study of “analytic tradecraft,” published by RAND, that takes up the nature of the problem and looks at some of the solutions being put in place.

Some of the approaches to improving analysis they point to are technological. For example, there is a program called GENOA -II, designed to help intelligence analysts work better in groups. Among other things, it attempts to “automate team processes,” develop “cognitive aids that allow humans and machines to ‘think together’ in real-time about complicated problems,” and find ways to “overcome the biases and limitations of the human cognitive system.”

This sounds great. But count me deeply skeptical. Here’s why.

No technological solution can be better than the people running it. Consider a very simple “cognitive aid” like a computer spell-check program. These things have been around for a long time and everyone uses them. Treverton and Gabbard are smart men, who have every interest in producing a highly professional study. Treverton has handled all of Europe for the National Security Council and served as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, overseeing the writing of America’s National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). Gabbard is also an accomplished person, with a wealth of experience under his belt. But even so, and even with RAND editors poring over their study before it was released, the spell-check program was not fail-safe.

The Treverton-Gabbard study has:

“intellience” and “intellence” instead of intelligence;

“builiding” instead of building;

“proceess” instead of process;

“solftware” instead of software;

“uniue” instead of unique;

“syehtsis” instead of synthesis;

“coopertive” instead of cooperative;

“poential” instead of potential.

Why should there be nine such mistakes when the technology is in place to produce, almost effortlessly, a zero-error rate? The United States is not going fall victim to a surprise attack because of some typos in a RAND study. But we will fall victim to another surprise attack if don’t focus on the fact that the problem facing our intelligence community is not technology but severe shortcomings in the selection of analysts themselves.

See the case of Michael Scheuer, the kooky head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden desk in the 1990′s, for one set of illustrations. See the case of Richard Immerman, the radical professor now in charge of analytic “integrity and standards” for the Intelligence Community, for another set of illustrations.

How many more illustrations do we need?

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Hellfire Without Brimstone

We’ve been taking down the intelligence community a lot here at Connecting the Dots, and for good reason. The CIA’s failures in the run-up to 9/11, and then in Iraq, and more recently the confusion created by the National Intelligence Council regarding Iran’s nuclear program, are of major national significance. They leave the impression of an intelligence agency that, when it is not completely blind, is unable to make sense of what it seeing.

But let’s not get carried away. Let’s begin by remembering that there are some 80 stars on the wall at agency headquarters, commemorating CIA officers who died in the line of duty. One of them was Johnny Micheal Spann, who was killed in November 2001 in a prison uprising in Afghanistan as he was attempting to interrogate captured Taliban prisoners. He was posthumously awarded the Intelligence Star and the Exceptional Service Medallion.

And not only are there courageous men and women in the CIA, sometimes their courage results in action that is highly effective. Our impression of the agency is undoubtedly skewed because many of its successes go unheralded. And it is further skewed by those CIA officials who leave the agency’s employ to become public buffoons. Michael Scheuer, who has lied about his own CIA medal, is hardly alone in that category. There is an organization of ex-CIA officers who join him in his hybrid Chomskyite-Buchananite brand of politics. But still, we need to keep things in perspective; this is a handful of individuals who are no longer with the agency, and perhaps some of them were pushed out for incompetence or madness or both. The CIA is composed of thousands of officials, and it is an open question if these types are representative.

Today’s Washington Post reports on a CIA operation that went very well indeed. 

In the predawn hours of Jan. 29, a CIA Predator aircraft flew in a slow arc above the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The drone’s operator, relying on information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants, clicked a computer mouse and sent the first of two Hellfire missiles hurtling toward a cluster of mud-brick buildings a few miles from the town center.

To read what happened next, and to whom, click here.

We’ve been taking down the intelligence community a lot here at Connecting the Dots, and for good reason. The CIA’s failures in the run-up to 9/11, and then in Iraq, and more recently the confusion created by the National Intelligence Council regarding Iran’s nuclear program, are of major national significance. They leave the impression of an intelligence agency that, when it is not completely blind, is unable to make sense of what it seeing.

But let’s not get carried away. Let’s begin by remembering that there are some 80 stars on the wall at agency headquarters, commemorating CIA officers who died in the line of duty. One of them was Johnny Micheal Spann, who was killed in November 2001 in a prison uprising in Afghanistan as he was attempting to interrogate captured Taliban prisoners. He was posthumously awarded the Intelligence Star and the Exceptional Service Medallion.

And not only are there courageous men and women in the CIA, sometimes their courage results in action that is highly effective. Our impression of the agency is undoubtedly skewed because many of its successes go unheralded. And it is further skewed by those CIA officials who leave the agency’s employ to become public buffoons. Michael Scheuer, who has lied about his own CIA medal, is hardly alone in that category. There is an organization of ex-CIA officers who join him in his hybrid Chomskyite-Buchananite brand of politics. But still, we need to keep things in perspective; this is a handful of individuals who are no longer with the agency, and perhaps some of them were pushed out for incompetence or madness or both. The CIA is composed of thousands of officials, and it is an open question if these types are representative.

Today’s Washington Post reports on a CIA operation that went very well indeed. 

In the predawn hours of Jan. 29, a CIA Predator aircraft flew in a slow arc above the Pakistani town of Mir Ali. The drone’s operator, relying on information secretly passed to the CIA by local informants, clicked a computer mouse and sent the first of two Hellfire missiles hurtling toward a cluster of mud-brick buildings a few miles from the town center.

To read what happened next, and to whom, click here.

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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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Learning to Love the Islamic Bomb

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has plunged Pakistan into what is likely to be a prolonged period of chaos. The United States has two vital interests at stake in the outcome: the future of the significant al-Qaeda presence in the country’s ungoverned borderlands, and the future of the approximately 70 to 115 nuclear weapons in the country’s arsenal. Should any of these Islamic bombs fall into the wrong hands, say, those of al-Qaeda or allied fanatics, neither the United States nor India would not be able to sit by complacently.

But could India locate and destroy the Pakistani weapons in a crisis? That is one of many fascinating questions addressed in an important study by Peter R. Lavoy that appears in Pakistan’s Nuclear Future: Worries Beyond War, a highly informative collection edited by the non-proliferation expert, Henry Sokolski.

Lavoy, formerly a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, now the National Intelligence Officer for South Asia at the National Intelligence Council, examines the implications of the tightening India-U.S. alliance for the survivability of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the face of an Indian strike. Among other weapons systems that India has either recently purchased or is attempting to purchase are Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, weapon-locating radars, manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, satellites, and a variety of guided-weapons systems. All told, writes Lavoy, as this collection comes on line, “India may be able to identify and target Pakistan’s strategic assets with its enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and it may be able to reach and destroy Pakistani strategic assets using its improved precision-strike aircraft and missile capabilities.”

In the face of the growing vulnerability of its nuclear force, Pakistan is unlikely to stand still. But how will it respond? Sokolski point out in his introduction that to deal with the array of challenges posed by the vulnerability of its nuclear arsenal, not only to a strike by India but to internal threats likes theft and sabotage, Pakistan “would need to have a fairly robust and active national government capable of mastering nuclear regulation, nuclear physical security, emergency preparedness, peacetime military strategic planning, energy research and development, and electrical system planning.” But Pakistan right now has anything but a robust national government.

There is no blinking the fact that the future of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal presents the U.S. and the world, as we have argued before, with a quietly developing strategic nightmare. What should be done about it? Let’s hope that someone somewhere in the U.S. government has better answers than Connecting the Dots currently does.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has plunged Pakistan into what is likely to be a prolonged period of chaos. The United States has two vital interests at stake in the outcome: the future of the significant al-Qaeda presence in the country’s ungoverned borderlands, and the future of the approximately 70 to 115 nuclear weapons in the country’s arsenal. Should any of these Islamic bombs fall into the wrong hands, say, those of al-Qaeda or allied fanatics, neither the United States nor India would not be able to sit by complacently.

But could India locate and destroy the Pakistani weapons in a crisis? That is one of many fascinating questions addressed in an important study by Peter R. Lavoy that appears in Pakistan’s Nuclear Future: Worries Beyond War, a highly informative collection edited by the non-proliferation expert, Henry Sokolski.

Lavoy, formerly a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, now the National Intelligence Officer for South Asia at the National Intelligence Council, examines the implications of the tightening India-U.S. alliance for the survivability of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in the face of an Indian strike. Among other weapons systems that India has either recently purchased or is attempting to purchase are Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, weapon-locating radars, manned and unmanned surveillance aircraft, satellites, and a variety of guided-weapons systems. All told, writes Lavoy, as this collection comes on line, “India may be able to identify and target Pakistan’s strategic assets with its enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and it may be able to reach and destroy Pakistani strategic assets using its improved precision-strike aircraft and missile capabilities.”

In the face of the growing vulnerability of its nuclear force, Pakistan is unlikely to stand still. But how will it respond? Sokolski point out in his introduction that to deal with the array of challenges posed by the vulnerability of its nuclear arsenal, not only to a strike by India but to internal threats likes theft and sabotage, Pakistan “would need to have a fairly robust and active national government capable of mastering nuclear regulation, nuclear physical security, emergency preparedness, peacetime military strategic planning, energy research and development, and electrical system planning.” But Pakistan right now has anything but a robust national government.

There is no blinking the fact that the future of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal presents the U.S. and the world, as we have argued before, with a quietly developing strategic nightmare. What should be done about it? Let’s hope that someone somewhere in the U.S. government has better answers than Connecting the Dots currently does.

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Is the NIE Part of a Plot to Undermine President Bush?

Writing about the new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran’s nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, Norman Podhoretz entertains “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.”

The purpose, he speculates

is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding.

Mimicking the language of the NIE itself, Podhoretz concludes by noting that he offers “these assessments and judgments with no more than ‘moderate confidence.’”

Could Podhoretz be right?

He is certainly right that a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration. Some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.

Could the same thing be true of an NIE? An NIE is the intelligence community’s “most
authoritative written judgments on national security issues.” Here is the official explanation of how these are produced:

NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers, Congressional leaders and at times are initiated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Before a NIE is drafted, the relevant NIO [National Intelligence Officer] is responsible for producing a concept paper or terms of reference (TOR) and circulates it throughout the Intelligence Community for comment. The TOR defines the key estimative questions, determines drafting responsibilities, and sets the drafting and publication schedule. One or more IC analysts are usually assigned to produce the initial text. The NIC then meets to critique the draft before it is circulated to the broader IC. Representatives from the relevant IC agencies meet to hone and coordinate line-by-line the full text of the NIE. Working with their Agencies, reps also assign the level of confidence they have in each key judgment. IC reps discuss the quality of sources with collectors, and the National Clandestine Service vets the sources used to ensure the draft does not include any that have been recalled or otherwise seriously questioned. All NIEs are reviewed by National Intelligence Board, which is chaired by the DNI and is composed of the heads of relevant IC agencies. Once approved by the NIB, NIEs are briefed to the President and senior policymakers. The whole process of producing NIEs normally takes at least several months.

As we know all too well, NIEs have been strikingly wrong in the past; the “slam-dunk” assessment issued on the eve of the second Gulf war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was built on a remarkably thin body of evidence, much of which turned out be false. The 2005 assessment warning of Iran’s active nuclear program, the intelligence community is now telling us, was also wrong.

But being mistaken, even disastrously mistaken, is one thing: producing an NIE with the naked purpose of undermining a President and foreclosing a policy option is another. Could this happen? It seems highly unlikely if for no other reason then that sixteen different government agencies are involved in the production of such documents, and the classified evidence on which NIEs are based is available for inspection and debate by senior policymakers.

There are significant ambiguities in this NIE, and as Max Boot rightly points out, it still leaves ample reason to worry about Iranian nuclear ambitions. But in the current climate of skepticism about the competence of the CIA and other intelligence bodies, the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit. Even if there was a shared desire among all sixteen agencies to do such a thing (which seems implausible on its face) pulling off such a caper would be a hugely difficult task, and almost certainly beyond the capacity even of America’s most ingenious spies — assuming we even have any ingenious spies.

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.

Writing about the new National Intelligence Estimate reporting that Iran’s nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, Norman Podhoretz entertains “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.”

The purpose, he speculates

is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding.

Mimicking the language of the NIE itself, Podhoretz concludes by noting that he offers “these assessments and judgments with no more than ‘moderate confidence.’”

Could Podhoretz be right?

He is certainly right that a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration. Some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.

Could the same thing be true of an NIE? An NIE is the intelligence community’s “most
authoritative written judgments on national security issues.” Here is the official explanation of how these are produced:

NIEs are typically requested by senior civilian and military policymakers, Congressional leaders and at times are initiated by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Before a NIE is drafted, the relevant NIO [National Intelligence Officer] is responsible for producing a concept paper or terms of reference (TOR) and circulates it throughout the Intelligence Community for comment. The TOR defines the key estimative questions, determines drafting responsibilities, and sets the drafting and publication schedule. One or more IC analysts are usually assigned to produce the initial text. The NIC then meets to critique the draft before it is circulated to the broader IC. Representatives from the relevant IC agencies meet to hone and coordinate line-by-line the full text of the NIE. Working with their Agencies, reps also assign the level of confidence they have in each key judgment. IC reps discuss the quality of sources with collectors, and the National Clandestine Service vets the sources used to ensure the draft does not include any that have been recalled or otherwise seriously questioned. All NIEs are reviewed by National Intelligence Board, which is chaired by the DNI and is composed of the heads of relevant IC agencies. Once approved by the NIB, NIEs are briefed to the President and senior policymakers. The whole process of producing NIEs normally takes at least several months.

As we know all too well, NIEs have been strikingly wrong in the past; the “slam-dunk” assessment issued on the eve of the second Gulf war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was built on a remarkably thin body of evidence, much of which turned out be false. The 2005 assessment warning of Iran’s active nuclear program, the intelligence community is now telling us, was also wrong.

But being mistaken, even disastrously mistaken, is one thing: producing an NIE with the naked purpose of undermining a President and foreclosing a policy option is another. Could this happen? It seems highly unlikely if for no other reason then that sixteen different government agencies are involved in the production of such documents, and the classified evidence on which NIEs are based is available for inspection and debate by senior policymakers.

There are significant ambiguities in this NIE, and as Max Boot rightly points out, it still leaves ample reason to worry about Iranian nuclear ambitions. But in the current climate of skepticism about the competence of the CIA and other intelligence bodies, the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit. Even if there was a shared desire among all sixteen agencies to do such a thing (which seems implausible on its face) pulling off such a caper would be a hugely difficult task, and almost certainly beyond the capacity even of America’s most ingenious spies — assuming we even have any ingenious spies.

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.

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The Riddle of the NIE

The American Intelligence Community has radically revised its estimate of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, or has it?

The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most authoritative document produced by the American Intelligence Community, begins with a stark sentence: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

A previous NIE in 2005 drew the opposite conclusion, assessing with “high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

The new NIE appears completely to contradict the old one. But one needs to read between the lines; what is striking about this new NIE are some of the uncertainties and ambiguities in which it is couched.

Let us consider some if its “key judgments.”

The NIE states with “high confidence” that until the fall of 2003, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons” before they came to a halt. But the NIE mentions this 2003 halt in the Iranian program with a curious phrase: “the halt lasted at least several years.”

What do those words mean? They appear to leave open the possibility that the halt itself has halted, and work on nuclear weapons has resumed.

Even more curiously, the NIE then notes that, because of “intelligence gaps,” the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council assess only with “moderate confidence” that the “halt to activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear-weapons program.”

What do those words mean? They plainly suggest, first of all, that the Intelligence Community’s understanding of Iranian nuclear-weapons activities is incomplete. They also make clear that two key component agencies of the Intelligence Community have serious doubts about whether the halt is a full or a partial halt. But the NIE then proceeds to downplay that possibility, stating quite categorically: “We assess with moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”

Without access to the underlying intelligence on which these back-and-forth assertions in this committee-produced document are founded, interpreting them involves groping in the dark. But the peculiar language, and the disclosure of dissenting views expressed by the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council, strongly hint that sharp internal divisions exist about the precise nature of the Iranian halt — if it is a halt at all.

Connecting the Dots, which has been highly critical of leaks of classified information, is left in the uncomfortable position of hoping for a leak of classified information that will resolve all the mysteries surrounding this new assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. Only one thing can be said with “high confidence” about this new NIE: when sharp divisions exist within the U.S. Intelligence Community, leaks are on the way.

The American Intelligence Community has radically revised its estimate of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, or has it?

The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most authoritative document produced by the American Intelligence Community, begins with a stark sentence: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

A previous NIE in 2005 drew the opposite conclusion, assessing with “high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

The new NIE appears completely to contradict the old one. But one needs to read between the lines; what is striking about this new NIE are some of the uncertainties and ambiguities in which it is couched.

Let us consider some if its “key judgments.”

The NIE states with “high confidence” that until the fall of 2003, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons” before they came to a halt. But the NIE mentions this 2003 halt in the Iranian program with a curious phrase: “the halt lasted at least several years.”

What do those words mean? They appear to leave open the possibility that the halt itself has halted, and work on nuclear weapons has resumed.

Even more curiously, the NIE then notes that, because of “intelligence gaps,” the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council assess only with “moderate confidence” that the “halt to activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear-weapons program.”

What do those words mean? They plainly suggest, first of all, that the Intelligence Community’s understanding of Iranian nuclear-weapons activities is incomplete. They also make clear that two key component agencies of the Intelligence Community have serious doubts about whether the halt is a full or a partial halt. But the NIE then proceeds to downplay that possibility, stating quite categorically: “We assess with moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”

Without access to the underlying intelligence on which these back-and-forth assertions in this committee-produced document are founded, interpreting them involves groping in the dark. But the peculiar language, and the disclosure of dissenting views expressed by the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council, strongly hint that sharp internal divisions exist about the precise nature of the Iranian halt — if it is a halt at all.

Connecting the Dots, which has been highly critical of leaks of classified information, is left in the uncomfortable position of hoping for a leak of classified information that will resolve all the mysteries surrounding this new assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. Only one thing can be said with “high confidence” about this new NIE: when sharp divisions exist within the U.S. Intelligence Community, leaks are on the way.

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Commentary Onscreen: Gordon G. Chang

Gordon G. Chang is a regular contributor to contentions and the author, most recently, of “How China and Russia Threaten the World,” from the June issue of COMMENTARY. Chang has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, and has advised the National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Pentagon. He has also served two terms as a trustee of Cornell University, his alma mater. Contentions interviewed Chang at our offices in New York City. We discuss American policy towards Taiwan, Beijing’s Olympics, capital punishment in China, and more.

Chang’s newest book, Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, is available from Random House.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9EWmKK_23A[/youtube]

Gordon G. Chang is a regular contributor to contentions and the author, most recently, of “How China and Russia Threaten the World,” from the June issue of COMMENTARY. Chang has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Weekly Standard, and has advised the National Intelligence Council, Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Pentagon. He has also served two terms as a trustee of Cornell University, his alma mater. Contentions interviewed Chang at our offices in New York City. We discuss American policy towards Taiwan, Beijing’s Olympics, capital punishment in China, and more.

Chang’s newest book, Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World, is available from Random House.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9EWmKK_23A[/youtube]

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A Frighteningly Irrefutable NIE

How should we assess the new National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland”?

This document was produced by the National Intelligence Council, now under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the new body that sits astride the CIA and the fifteen other agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA, both as an intelligence collector and as analytic machine, played a central role in its preparation.

Reaction to the document so far has largely revolved around whether it helps or hurts the tottering Bush administration. But while such speculation is inevitable—and also necessary given the possibility that the CIA might be continuing to wage guerrilla warfare against the White House—it is in some respects beside the point.

The key thing to bear in mind in thinking about this NIE is that it was produced by an organization that is still bleeding from a series of self-inflicted wounds. Having missed the 9/11 attacks, and then botched its assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the second Gulf War, the CIA is locked in perpetual defensive motion.

A document of this nature, and of such importance, therefore has to be written defensively; in other words, given all the missteps taken and falsehoods purveyed by the intelligence community in the past, everything this NIE says now about the terrorist menace has to be irrefutable.

Read More

How should we assess the new National Intelligence Estimate on “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland”?

This document was produced by the National Intelligence Council, now under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the new body that sits astride the CIA and the fifteen other agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community. The CIA, both as an intelligence collector and as analytic machine, played a central role in its preparation.

Reaction to the document so far has largely revolved around whether it helps or hurts the tottering Bush administration. But while such speculation is inevitable—and also necessary given the possibility that the CIA might be continuing to wage guerrilla warfare against the White House—it is in some respects beside the point.

The key thing to bear in mind in thinking about this NIE is that it was produced by an organization that is still bleeding from a series of self-inflicted wounds. Having missed the 9/11 attacks, and then botched its assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the second Gulf War, the CIA is locked in perpetual defensive motion.

A document of this nature, and of such importance, therefore has to be written defensively; in other words, given all the missteps taken and falsehoods purveyed by the intelligence community in the past, everything this NIE says now about the terrorist menace has to be irrefutable.

That’s a tall order, especially since terrorists remain a hard target; they cannot be counted by satellites like Soviet ICBM’s. To meet the challenge, the NIE, to judge by the declassified summary, has gone in a perfectly comprehensible direction; while warning against looming dangers, it is telling us absolutely nothing we did not already know.

Here are some of its “key judgments”:

We judge the US Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat over the next three years. The main threat comes from Islamic terrorist groups and cells, especially al Qaeda, driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading a leading newspaper, like the New York Times?

We assess that greatly increased worldwide counterterrorism efforts over the past five years have constrained the ability of al Qaeda to attack the U.S. Homeland again and have led terrorist groups to perceive the Homeland as a harder target to strike than on 9/11. These measures have helped disrupt known plots against the United States since 9/11.

Once again, is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading a leading newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal?

We assess that al Qaeda’s Homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic, and infrastructure targets with the goal of producing mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the US population.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by watching television news, local channels included?

We assess that al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability.

Is there anything in the above paragraph that could not be deduced by reading the footnotes of the wikipedia entry on al Qaeda?

To be sure, there are some interesting nuggets in the NIE summary that suggest that the intelligence community might know one or two details that are not already known by the rest of us.

It is conceivable that its discussion of two subjects—the emerging importance of al Qaeda in Iraq, and developments in Pakistan’s tribal areas—might be backed by some highly specific intelligence, based upon interrogations, communications intercepts, and other forms of spycraft.

But on the whole, the NIE appears, at least in its unclassified form, to be a shining example of bureaucratic self-protection. The CIA and affiliated agencies do not want to be wrong again; and they have found a way never to be wrong: by stating the obvious and calling it a National Intelligence Estimate.

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