Commentary Magazine


Topic: National Intelligence

The Real Bush Intelligence Failure

On Sunday, CIA director Michael Hayden warned on Meet the Press that a reconstituting al Qaeda was preparing operatives in Afghanistan who would draw no attention while passing through U.S. airport checkpoints.

Exactly how vulnerable are we right now to a significant terrorist attack? No one can answer that question with any certainty. What we can say with assurance is that even as George W. Bush has overseen the single most far-reaching reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) since the CIA was created in 1947, his single greatest failure as a president might well be that American intelligence remains mired in bureaucratic mediocrity.

That bureaucratic mediocrity has already exacted a high price. A major installment came due when the CIA and FBI missed the Sept. 11 plot. A second came a year later with the CIA’s “slam-dunk” assessment that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, Congress radically reshuffled U.S. intelligence, creating a new intelligence “czar” — the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — whose office, the ODNI, would assume many of the coordinating functions that had formerly been in the hands of the CIA.

This shift was intensely controversial. One of the most frequent criticisms was that grafting a new bureaucracy on top of an already dysfunctional system would only compound existing problems. Four years later, how is the ODNI faring?

I offer a partial answer to that question in The Real Bush Intelligence Failure in today’s Wall Street Journal.

On Sunday, CIA director Michael Hayden warned on Meet the Press that a reconstituting al Qaeda was preparing operatives in Afghanistan who would draw no attention while passing through U.S. airport checkpoints.

Exactly how vulnerable are we right now to a significant terrorist attack? No one can answer that question with any certainty. What we can say with assurance is that even as George W. Bush has overseen the single most far-reaching reorganization of the U.S. intelligence community (IC) since the CIA was created in 1947, his single greatest failure as a president might well be that American intelligence remains mired in bureaucratic mediocrity.

That bureaucratic mediocrity has already exacted a high price. A major installment came due when the CIA and FBI missed the Sept. 11 plot. A second came a year later with the CIA’s “slam-dunk” assessment that Saddam Hussein was acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, Congress radically reshuffled U.S. intelligence, creating a new intelligence “czar” — the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — whose office, the ODNI, would assume many of the coordinating functions that had formerly been in the hands of the CIA.

This shift was intensely controversial. One of the most frequent criticisms was that grafting a new bureaucracy on top of an already dysfunctional system would only compound existing problems. Four years later, how is the ODNI faring?

I offer a partial answer to that question in The Real Bush Intelligence Failure in today’s Wall Street Journal.

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Spy vs. Spy

Congress’s reshuffling of the intelligence community in the wake of 9/11 was intended to enhance cooperation among the 16 agencies that serve as our country’s eyes and ears. Is it working? It is hard to tell. But there’s continued sniping among the spy agencies. Why else would a high-ranking official at one of the agencies send me an article entitled How Intelligent is the Director of National Intelligence?, the implied — and lighthearted — conclusion of which is: not very.

Meanwhile, there is serious business to be done. Among the open questions of more than passing interest is: who poisoned the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 using polonium-21 and why? Was the Russian government behind this action? The consequences that would (or should) flow from such a conclusion are dire.

Edward Jay Epstein has long been one of the most interesting writers on intelligence matters, and also one of the most diligent researchers. He hasn’t solved the riddle, but he reports his findings in today’s New York Sun.  

After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations. His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him.

Congress’s reshuffling of the intelligence community in the wake of 9/11 was intended to enhance cooperation among the 16 agencies that serve as our country’s eyes and ears. Is it working? It is hard to tell. But there’s continued sniping among the spy agencies. Why else would a high-ranking official at one of the agencies send me an article entitled How Intelligent is the Director of National Intelligence?, the implied — and lighthearted — conclusion of which is: not very.

Meanwhile, there is serious business to be done. Among the open questions of more than passing interest is: who poisoned the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006 using polonium-21 and why? Was the Russian government behind this action? The consequences that would (or should) flow from such a conclusion are dire.

Edward Jay Epstein has long been one of the most interesting writers on intelligence matters, and also one of the most diligent researchers. He hasn’t solved the riddle, but he reports his findings in today’s New York Sun.  

After considering all the evidence, my hypothesis is that Litvinenko came in contact with a polonium-210 smuggling operation and was, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposed to it. Litvinenko had been a person of interest to the intelligence services of many countries, including Britain’s MI-6, Russia’s FSB, America’s CIA (which rejected his offer to defect in 2000), and Italy’s SISMI, which was monitoring his phone conversations. His murky operations, whatever their purpose, involved his seeking contacts in one of the most lawless areas in the former Soviet Union, the Pankisi Gorge, which had become a center for arms smuggling. He had also dealt with people accused of everything from money laundering to trafficking in nuclear components. These activities may have brought him, or his associates, in contact with a sample of polonium-210, which then, either by accident or by design, contaminated and killed him.

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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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Let’s Just Hire Der Spiegel

The always interesting Claudia Rosett has come up with this year’s best suggestion for President Bush: buy a subscription to Der Spiegel—and get rid of the bureaucracy that produces U.S. National Intelligence Estimates.

As CONTENTIONS readers know, the American intelligence community, in an NIE released last December, stated that it had “high confidence” that Iran shelved its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. As Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testified at the Senate Intelligence Committee this month, weapons design is “the least significant” portion of a nuclear weapons program. The most important is obtaining fissile material. In Iran’s case that would be enriched uranium.

The NIE talked about that issue too. It said that Tehran would probably be able to produce enough uranium for a single bomb sometime “during the 2010-2015 time frame.” Yet not everyone agrees with this view. “New simulations carried out by European Union experts come to an alarming conclusion: Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium to build an atomic bomb by the end of this year,” reports Spiegel Online.

The end-2008 prediction is based on an assumption that Tehran’s technicians have figured out all they need to know about their centrifuges. That appears unlikely. Yet as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in November, Iran has made substantial progress recently. Even if the European Union has overestimated Iran’s technical capabilities, it would seem that Tehran will be in a position to build a bomb before the end of this decade, not the middle of the next one. That conclusion fits in with Israel’s estimate of 2010.

In any event, the EU simulations inject some urgency into the efforts to disarm the mullahs. European Union nations are planning in May at the earliest to offer a package of economic incentives to Iran if it gives up enrichment. The United States for its part looks as if it will succeed in persuading a sufficient number of other members of the Security Council to pass a third set of sanctions. Yet nobody expects the new measures, if they are in fact adopted, will actually stop the Iranians. As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Saturday about the Western efforts at the U.N., “They could spend 100 years passing resolutions but it wouldn’t change anything.

What is changing at this moment is Iran’s technical capability to enrich uranium. Yet, outside Israel and the offices of Der Spiegel, there seems to be an insufficient sense of urgency in stopping Tehran.

The always interesting Claudia Rosett has come up with this year’s best suggestion for President Bush: buy a subscription to Der Spiegel—and get rid of the bureaucracy that produces U.S. National Intelligence Estimates.

As CONTENTIONS readers know, the American intelligence community, in an NIE released last December, stated that it had “high confidence” that Iran shelved its nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. As Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testified at the Senate Intelligence Committee this month, weapons design is “the least significant” portion of a nuclear weapons program. The most important is obtaining fissile material. In Iran’s case that would be enriched uranium.

The NIE talked about that issue too. It said that Tehran would probably be able to produce enough uranium for a single bomb sometime “during the 2010-2015 time frame.” Yet not everyone agrees with this view. “New simulations carried out by European Union experts come to an alarming conclusion: Iran could have enough highly enriched uranium to build an atomic bomb by the end of this year,” reports Spiegel Online.

The end-2008 prediction is based on an assumption that Tehran’s technicians have figured out all they need to know about their centrifuges. That appears unlikely. Yet as the International Atomic Energy Agency reported in November, Iran has made substantial progress recently. Even if the European Union has overestimated Iran’s technical capabilities, it would seem that Tehran will be in a position to build a bomb before the end of this decade, not the middle of the next one. That conclusion fits in with Israel’s estimate of 2010.

In any event, the EU simulations inject some urgency into the efforts to disarm the mullahs. European Union nations are planning in May at the earliest to offer a package of economic incentives to Iran if it gives up enrichment. The United States for its part looks as if it will succeed in persuading a sufficient number of other members of the Security Council to pass a third set of sanctions. Yet nobody expects the new measures, if they are in fact adopted, will actually stop the Iranians. As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Saturday about the Western efforts at the U.N., “They could spend 100 years passing resolutions but it wouldn’t change anything.

What is changing at this moment is Iran’s technical capability to enrich uranium. Yet, outside Israel and the offices of Der Spiegel, there seems to be an insufficient sense of urgency in stopping Tehran.

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Loose Nukes

One of the many things that keep me up at night — and anyone who thinks about the future of terrorism —  is the possibility of a nuclear detonation in New York or some other American city.  North Korea has a small arsenal of nuclear bombs, and tested one in October 2006. It did not explode; it merely fizzled, but perhaps its scientists have learned from the experience and future tests will be more successful. In any case, the cash-strapped country has both indicated and demonstrated a willingness to disseminate its nuclear technology to other rogue states, most recently, some evidence suggests, to Syria. (For a discussion of North Korean proliferation, see the pertinent section in this report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Our own arsenal, of course, offers reason to worry, as the recent breakdown in control revealed in the Broken Arrow incident of last August makes clear. But the problem is of a different order of magnitude; preventing mishaps is vitally important, but the possibility of an authorized detonation, either deliberately or by accident, appears to be close to nil.

In response to my recent post on the surety of U.S. nuclear weapons, one of my sources in Washington pointed me to a Pentagon document summarizing dozens of accidents with U.S. nuclear weapons that occurred in the period 1950-1980.

The bad news is that even when great care is exercised, major accidents have happened. The good news is that even when these fearsome devices are subjected to unexpected shocks and the heat generated in fiery airplane crashes and the detonation of their high-explosive triggering devices, the nuclear core of these babies has never once exploded.�

One of the many things that keep me up at night — and anyone who thinks about the future of terrorism —  is the possibility of a nuclear detonation in New York or some other American city.  North Korea has a small arsenal of nuclear bombs, and tested one in October 2006. It did not explode; it merely fizzled, but perhaps its scientists have learned from the experience and future tests will be more successful. In any case, the cash-strapped country has both indicated and demonstrated a willingness to disseminate its nuclear technology to other rogue states, most recently, some evidence suggests, to Syria. (For a discussion of North Korean proliferation, see the pertinent section in this report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Our own arsenal, of course, offers reason to worry, as the recent breakdown in control revealed in the Broken Arrow incident of last August makes clear. But the problem is of a different order of magnitude; preventing mishaps is vitally important, but the possibility of an authorized detonation, either deliberately or by accident, appears to be close to nil.

In response to my recent post on the surety of U.S. nuclear weapons, one of my sources in Washington pointed me to a Pentagon document summarizing dozens of accidents with U.S. nuclear weapons that occurred in the period 1950-1980.

The bad news is that even when great care is exercised, major accidents have happened. The good news is that even when these fearsome devices are subjected to unexpected shocks and the heat generated in fiery airplane crashes and the detonation of their high-explosive triggering devices, the nuclear core of these babies has never once exploded.�

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A Strike in the Dark?

A Strike in the Dark” is what Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker calls Israel’s September raid on a facility in Syria that may or may not have been nuclear in nature and may or may not have been in the process of being supplied with nuclear materials from North Korea.

Hersh is skeptical of the idea that there was anything untoward going on: “In three months of reporting for this article,” he writes, “I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.”

He suggests that reports to the contrary were transmitted directly from Israeli intelligence to senior members of the Bush administration in a way that kept the CIA from vetting them. In other words, it was the same “process, known as ‘stovepiping,” [that] overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.”

In writing his piece, Hersh seems to have interviewed every source in the Washington DC telephone book, and also every source in Damascus, where he traveled to interview Syrian officials. I have no evidence that contradicts his impressive reporting. But I am still skeptical of his skepticism.

For one thing, Hersh is remarkably predictable. No matter what happens in the world, Israel and the United States (especially under the Bush administration) are always made by him to look trigger-happy and sinister. But could events consistently break in one way? Or is this an artifact of Hersh’s well-known biases? 

My biases tilt the other way. I haven’t interviewed 734 sources, some of whom may or not exist, or even if they do exist may not be telling the truth. But I recently re-read a 2005 statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that is quite relevant to Israeli fears about the Syrian facility:

We remain concerned about North Korea’s potential for exporting nuclear materials or technology. At the April 2003 trilateral talks in Beijing, North Korea privately threatened to export nuclear weapons. During the third round of Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue in June 2004, Pyongyang included a ban on nuclear transfers in its nuclear freeze proposal. In April 2005, North Korea told a US academic that it could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists if driven into a corner. IAEA inspectors in May 2004 recovered two tons of uranium hexafluoride from Libya that is belied to have originated in North Korea.

Perhaps Israel’s action was “a strike in the dark.” But so what? Even if the intelligence leading Israel to hit the Syrian facility was incomplete or wrong, this was one of those cases where it would not be wise to wait until the evidence comes in the form of a mushroom cloud.

A Strike in the Dark” is what Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker calls Israel’s September raid on a facility in Syria that may or may not have been nuclear in nature and may or may not have been in the process of being supplied with nuclear materials from North Korea.

Hersh is skeptical of the idea that there was anything untoward going on: “In three months of reporting for this article,” he writes, “I was repeatedly told by current and former intelligence, diplomatic, and congressional officials that they were not aware of any solid evidence of ongoing nuclear-weapons programs in Syria.”

He suggests that reports to the contrary were transmitted directly from Israeli intelligence to senior members of the Bush administration in a way that kept the CIA from vetting them. In other words, it was the same “process, known as ‘stovepiping,” [that] overwhelmed U.S. intelligence before the war in Iraq.”

In writing his piece, Hersh seems to have interviewed every source in the Washington DC telephone book, and also every source in Damascus, where he traveled to interview Syrian officials. I have no evidence that contradicts his impressive reporting. But I am still skeptical of his skepticism.

For one thing, Hersh is remarkably predictable. No matter what happens in the world, Israel and the United States (especially under the Bush administration) are always made by him to look trigger-happy and sinister. But could events consistently break in one way? Or is this an artifact of Hersh’s well-known biases? 

My biases tilt the other way. I haven’t interviewed 734 sources, some of whom may or not exist, or even if they do exist may not be telling the truth. But I recently re-read a 2005 statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that is quite relevant to Israeli fears about the Syrian facility:

We remain concerned about North Korea’s potential for exporting nuclear materials or technology. At the April 2003 trilateral talks in Beijing, North Korea privately threatened to export nuclear weapons. During the third round of Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue in June 2004, Pyongyang included a ban on nuclear transfers in its nuclear freeze proposal. In April 2005, North Korea told a US academic that it could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists if driven into a corner. IAEA inspectors in May 2004 recovered two tons of uranium hexafluoride from Libya that is belied to have originated in North Korea.

Perhaps Israel’s action was “a strike in the dark.” But so what? Even if the intelligence leading Israel to hit the Syrian facility was incomplete or wrong, this was one of those cases where it would not be wise to wait until the evidence comes in the form of a mushroom cloud.

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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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Second Life

Today’s Washington Post reports on the intelligence challenged posed by virtual worlds like Second Life, in which millions of participants use “avatars,” computer-generated personae, to interact in an global role-playing game. The research arm under the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, has been studying such computer environments and finding potential dangers.

One intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had no evidence of activity by terrorist cells or widespread organized crime in virtual worlds. There have been numerous instances of fraud, harassment and other virtual crimes. Some computer users have used their avatars to destroy virtual buildings.

In addition to the threat of more virtual buildings getting blown up, there is also the danger of virtual terrorist training grounds, and other possibilities yet to be dreamed of. The immediate problem is that virtual worlds offer a channel for surreptitious terrorist communication. Second Life has some 12 million users with approximately 50,000 people logged on at any given moment, making it very difficult for the CIA to track al Qaeda operatives playing the game from virtual caves.

In a world of multiplying threats, Connecting the Dots wants to know of it would make sense to create a virtual CIA to monitor this world? And if so, who should be in charge? Is this a good moment for the agency to call Michael Scheuer back from retirement?

 

Today’s Washington Post reports on the intelligence challenged posed by virtual worlds like Second Life, in which millions of participants use “avatars,” computer-generated personae, to interact in an global role-playing game. The research arm under the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, has been studying such computer environments and finding potential dangers.

One intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had no evidence of activity by terrorist cells or widespread organized crime in virtual worlds. There have been numerous instances of fraud, harassment and other virtual crimes. Some computer users have used their avatars to destroy virtual buildings.

In addition to the threat of more virtual buildings getting blown up, there is also the danger of virtual terrorist training grounds, and other possibilities yet to be dreamed of. The immediate problem is that virtual worlds offer a channel for surreptitious terrorist communication. Second Life has some 12 million users with approximately 50,000 people logged on at any given moment, making it very difficult for the CIA to track al Qaeda operatives playing the game from virtual caves.

In a world of multiplying threats, Connecting the Dots wants to know of it would make sense to create a virtual CIA to monitor this world? And if so, who should be in charge? Is this a good moment for the agency to call Michael Scheuer back from retirement?

 

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There Goes John Bolton Again

In order to justify its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration cooked the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That is the allegation tirelessly hurled about by opponents of the war. Norman Podhoretz put paid to it in his Who is Lying About Iraq.

If turns out that if anyone has been doing the cooking, it has been the CIA and the broader intelligence community itself. The most recent glaring instance came with the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran that opened with the flat — and flatly false — assertion “that in fall, 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

How did this come about? Are the institutions that produced this flawed estimate out of control? Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, has been testifying today on Capitol Hill today about the threats facing the United States. Just in time, John Bolton has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal raising the key questions about the NIE that McConnell should be asked.

Was the NIE’s opening salvo intended to produce policy consequences congenial to Mr. McConnell’s own sentiments? If not, how did he miss the obvious consequences that flowed from the NIE within minutes of its public release?

This was a sin of either commission or omission. If the intelligence community intended the NIE’s first judgment to have policy ramifications — in particular to dissuade the Bush administration from a more forceful policy against Iran — then it was out of line, a sin of commission.

If, on the other hand, Mr. McConnell and others missed the NIE’s explosive nature, then this is at best a sin of omission, and perhaps far worse. Will Mr. McConnell say he saw nothing significant in how the NIE was written?
Does he believe in fact that the first sentence is the NIE’s single most important point? If not, why was it the first sentence?

These are excellent questions all. When Bolton was named United Nations ambassador by President Bush, the New York Times called it a “terrible choice at a critical time.” As I noted in my review of Bolton’s UN memoir, let us hope that more such terrible choices lie ahead. The nation needs an intelligence director who, in Bolton’s words, can “commit the intelligence community to stick to its knitting — intelligence — and return its policy enthusiasts to agencies where policy is made.” Come to think of it, John Bolton would be an excellent candidate for the job.

In order to justify its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration cooked the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That is the allegation tirelessly hurled about by opponents of the war. Norman Podhoretz put paid to it in his Who is Lying About Iraq.

If turns out that if anyone has been doing the cooking, it has been the CIA and the broader intelligence community itself. The most recent glaring instance came with the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran that opened with the flat — and flatly false — assertion “that in fall, 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

How did this come about? Are the institutions that produced this flawed estimate out of control? Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, has been testifying today on Capitol Hill today about the threats facing the United States. Just in time, John Bolton has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal raising the key questions about the NIE that McConnell should be asked.

Was the NIE’s opening salvo intended to produce policy consequences congenial to Mr. McConnell’s own sentiments? If not, how did he miss the obvious consequences that flowed from the NIE within minutes of its public release?

This was a sin of either commission or omission. If the intelligence community intended the NIE’s first judgment to have policy ramifications — in particular to dissuade the Bush administration from a more forceful policy against Iran — then it was out of line, a sin of commission.

If, on the other hand, Mr. McConnell and others missed the NIE’s explosive nature, then this is at best a sin of omission, and perhaps far worse. Will Mr. McConnell say he saw nothing significant in how the NIE was written?
Does he believe in fact that the first sentence is the NIE’s single most important point? If not, why was it the first sentence?

These are excellent questions all. When Bolton was named United Nations ambassador by President Bush, the New York Times called it a “terrible choice at a critical time.” As I noted in my review of Bolton’s UN memoir, let us hope that more such terrible choices lie ahead. The nation needs an intelligence director who, in Bolton’s words, can “commit the intelligence community to stick to its knitting — intelligence — and return its policy enthusiasts to agencies where policy is made.” Come to think of it, John Bolton would be an excellent candidate for the job.

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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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The Iran NIE is Perfectly Sound

The Wall Street Journal has run a lengthy account this morning of how the latest controversial National Intelligence Estimate reporting a 2003 shutdown of the Iran’s nuclear-weapons program came to be written. It suggests that charges of political manipulation by conservative critics are overblown, possibly even absurd:

Hundreds of officials were involved and thousands of documents were drawn upon in this report, according to the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], making it impossible for any official to overly sway it. Intelligence sources were vetted and questioned in ways they weren’t ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thomas Fingar, a former State Department official now with the National Intelligence Counsel, one of the leading figures in drafting the NIE, mocks reports of politicization. “A lot of it is just nonsense,” he says. “The idea that this thing was written by a bunch of nonprofessional renegades or refugees is just silly.”

Connecting the Dots has not seen the classified version of the NIE, but it is inclined to agree with Fingar that it would be very difficult to tailor-make a NIE for political ends. This is perhaps one reason why President Bush, as he traveled across the Middle East and met allied governments that were confused by the document, declined to disavow it.

So why the controversy?

The NIE may be perfectly sound, but the declassified summary of it, produced at the last minute after the White House decided to release the document, is something else. By relegating to a footnote the fact that Iran has a continuing uranium-enrichment program, and by declaring flatly that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, without so much of an indication that a crucial aspect of that program — the development of fuel for a nuclear-bomb core — continues apace, the public — including America’s allies and adversaries — were baldly misled. The NIE summary is about as deceptive as the headline of this post.

Compounding the scandal here is the fact, as the Journal reports, that Fingar and other architects of the NIE, were in their previous assignments in the State Department bitter opponents of the administration’s tough line on Iraq. The Bush administration has been lambasted for politicizing intelligence; but in this instance at least it can be faulted for something equally bad: tolerating the naked politicization of intelligence by bureaucratic opponents of its policies.

Connecting the Dots still wants to know when a housecleaning of U.S. intelligence, badly overdue, will take place.  

 

The Wall Street Journal has run a lengthy account this morning of how the latest controversial National Intelligence Estimate reporting a 2003 shutdown of the Iran’s nuclear-weapons program came to be written. It suggests that charges of political manipulation by conservative critics are overblown, possibly even absurd:

Hundreds of officials were involved and thousands of documents were drawn upon in this report, according to the DNI [Director of National Intelligence], making it impossible for any official to overly sway it. Intelligence sources were vetted and questioned in ways they weren’t ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thomas Fingar, a former State Department official now with the National Intelligence Counsel, one of the leading figures in drafting the NIE, mocks reports of politicization. “A lot of it is just nonsense,” he says. “The idea that this thing was written by a bunch of nonprofessional renegades or refugees is just silly.”

Connecting the Dots has not seen the classified version of the NIE, but it is inclined to agree with Fingar that it would be very difficult to tailor-make a NIE for political ends. This is perhaps one reason why President Bush, as he traveled across the Middle East and met allied governments that were confused by the document, declined to disavow it.

So why the controversy?

The NIE may be perfectly sound, but the declassified summary of it, produced at the last minute after the White House decided to release the document, is something else. By relegating to a footnote the fact that Iran has a continuing uranium-enrichment program, and by declaring flatly that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, without so much of an indication that a crucial aspect of that program — the development of fuel for a nuclear-bomb core — continues apace, the public — including America’s allies and adversaries — were baldly misled. The NIE summary is about as deceptive as the headline of this post.

Compounding the scandal here is the fact, as the Journal reports, that Fingar and other architects of the NIE, were in their previous assignments in the State Department bitter opponents of the administration’s tough line on Iraq. The Bush administration has been lambasted for politicizing intelligence; but in this instance at least it can be faulted for something equally bad: tolerating the naked politicization of intelligence by bureaucratic opponents of its policies.

Connecting the Dots still wants to know when a housecleaning of U.S. intelligence, badly overdue, will take place.  

 

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Is John Bolton a Reckless, Unilateralist, Right-Wing Ideologue?

What are we to make of John Bolton? The New York Times called his appointment as United Nations ambassador “a terrible choice at a critical time.” But if Bolton is despised by many on the Left, he is a hero to quite a few on the Right. What does he really deserve: contempt or adulation?

Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., has a new book out, Surrender is Not an Option, telling the story of his career. I’ve reviewed it in the latest issue of Commentary and I found myself agreeing with the New York Times. He was indeed a terrible choice for UN ambassador — terrible, that is, for the corrupt UN. 

If a Republican wins the presidency next year, what would be the most suitable appointment for Bolton in the new administration? My own preference would be to nominate him as Director of National Intelligence. Among other things, Bolton is a bureaucratic steamroller; and if there ever was a crying need for fixing a set of broken institutions, this is it.  

If readers have other suggestions, I would welcome them.

What are we to make of John Bolton? The New York Times called his appointment as United Nations ambassador “a terrible choice at a critical time.” But if Bolton is despised by many on the Left, he is a hero to quite a few on the Right. What does he really deserve: contempt or adulation?

Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., has a new book out, Surrender is Not an Option, telling the story of his career. I’ve reviewed it in the latest issue of Commentary and I found myself agreeing with the New York Times. He was indeed a terrible choice for UN ambassador — terrible, that is, for the corrupt UN. 

If a Republican wins the presidency next year, what would be the most suitable appointment for Bolton in the new administration? My own preference would be to nominate him as Director of National Intelligence. Among other things, Bolton is a bureaucratic steamroller; and if there ever was a crying need for fixing a set of broken institutions, this is it.  

If readers have other suggestions, I would welcome them.

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Has the U.S. Intelligence Community Been Penetrated Yet Again?

Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush’s UN ambassador and a straight-shooter if there ever was one, spoke the truth yesterday when he called the new National Intelligence Estimate of Iran’s suddenly non-existent nuclear-weapons program “a goal against ourselves.”

Why, after countless reforms, and so much handwringing, is U.S. intelligence in such sad shape? More importantly, what should be done about it?

On December 6, Donald Kerr, the PDDNI, that is, the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, laid out his agency’s 500-day plan to set things right. “What is required, first and foremost,” he said in congressional testimony, “is integrating the foundational elements and removing the barriers — in the areas of policy, management/budgeting, technology and acquisition, information, collection and analysis, and culture.” To this end, we need “to promote and build an intelligence community (IC) identity or sense of ‘jointness’ by creating programs that provide for cross-agency work assignments and training.”

The 500-day plan enters almost immediately into a discussion of the vital importance of “Equal Opportunity and Diversity.” It offers high praise for the intelligence community’s Diversity Strategy Implementation Workshop, an event held this past October that was an “an important step in the accomplishment of the IC-wide EEO and Diversity Cross-Cutting Emphasis Area Plan (CCEAP) by providing each of the IC Agencies with the mechanisms and direction. . . .”

I won’t bore you with the rest, but it is an astonishing compendium of bureaucratic gibberish guaranteed either to put you to sleep if you simply read it, or to give you nightmares if you pause to think about its implications.

What do we really need to do about the CIA? The memoirs of Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Robert Gates, From the Shadows, a significant book for understanding our present dilemmas, has some passages about Bill Casey, Ronald Reagan’s first CIA director, that should hit a nerve in anyone thinking about what do about U.S. intelligence today:

What truly set Bill Casey apart from his predecessors and successors as DCI . . . was that he had not come to CIA with the purpose of making it better, managing it more effectively, reforming or improving the quality of intelligence. What I realized only years later was that Bill Casey came to CIA primarily to wage war against the Soviet Union.

Above all, Casey wanted information and analysis that informed or provoked action. Nor for him assessments that simply were “interesting” or educational. He wanted information that would help target clandestine operations better, or be useful for U.S. propaganda, or assist military operations, or put ammunition in the hands of negotiators. For Casey, the United States and CIA were at war . . . and speed and relevance were his benchmarks for effective analysis.

Casey had his undeniable and glaring faults as a CIA director. But how does he stack up against the current crew, who may more accurately be called moles from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission disguised as spies?

Gates has another passage in his memoir describing what he found in the CIA when he became chief of staff to Casey in 1981. This is what he wrote in a memo to his boss:

As a result of the lack of innovative and creative personnel management, I believe this agency is chock full of people simply awaiting retirement: some are only a year or two away and some are twenty-five years away, but there are far too many playing it safe, proceeding cautiously, not antagonizing management, and certainly not broadening their horizons, especially as long as their own senior management makes it clear that [risk-taking] is not career enhancing. How is the health of CIA? I would say that at the present time it has a case of advanced bureaucratic arteriosclerosis: the arteries are clogging up with careerist bureaucrats who have lost the spark. It is my opinion that it is this steadily increasing proportion of intelligence bureaucrats that has led to the decline in the quality of intelligence collection and analysis over the past fifteen years — more so than our declining resources . . . or congressional investigations or legal restrictions. CIA is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture.

That was twenty-six years ago, and to judge by the intelligence-community’s 500-day plan to fix itself, things have only gotten worse in the interim.

If the United States gets clobbered again as we were on September 11, we are not going to even see it coming unless we toss out, or “re-educate,” Chinese style, our current PDDNI, Donald Kerr, and all the other bureau-technocrats who signed on to the preposterous “500 Day Plan for Integration and Collaboration,” which more appropriately might be called a “500-Day Plan to Turn the Entire Intelligence Community Into the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and Possibly Get A Lot of Americans Killed Along the Way.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush’s UN ambassador and a straight-shooter if there ever was one, spoke the truth yesterday when he called the new National Intelligence Estimate of Iran’s suddenly non-existent nuclear-weapons program “a goal against ourselves.”

Why, after countless reforms, and so much handwringing, is U.S. intelligence in such sad shape? More importantly, what should be done about it?

On December 6, Donald Kerr, the PDDNI, that is, the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, laid out his agency’s 500-day plan to set things right. “What is required, first and foremost,” he said in congressional testimony, “is integrating the foundational elements and removing the barriers — in the areas of policy, management/budgeting, technology and acquisition, information, collection and analysis, and culture.” To this end, we need “to promote and build an intelligence community (IC) identity or sense of ‘jointness’ by creating programs that provide for cross-agency work assignments and training.”

The 500-day plan enters almost immediately into a discussion of the vital importance of “Equal Opportunity and Diversity.” It offers high praise for the intelligence community’s Diversity Strategy Implementation Workshop, an event held this past October that was an “an important step in the accomplishment of the IC-wide EEO and Diversity Cross-Cutting Emphasis Area Plan (CCEAP) by providing each of the IC Agencies with the mechanisms and direction. . . .”

I won’t bore you with the rest, but it is an astonishing compendium of bureaucratic gibberish guaranteed either to put you to sleep if you simply read it, or to give you nightmares if you pause to think about its implications.

What do we really need to do about the CIA? The memoirs of Secretary of Defense (and former CIA director) Robert Gates, From the Shadows, a significant book for understanding our present dilemmas, has some passages about Bill Casey, Ronald Reagan’s first CIA director, that should hit a nerve in anyone thinking about what do about U.S. intelligence today:

What truly set Bill Casey apart from his predecessors and successors as DCI . . . was that he had not come to CIA with the purpose of making it better, managing it more effectively, reforming or improving the quality of intelligence. What I realized only years later was that Bill Casey came to CIA primarily to wage war against the Soviet Union.

Above all, Casey wanted information and analysis that informed or provoked action. Nor for him assessments that simply were “interesting” or educational. He wanted information that would help target clandestine operations better, or be useful for U.S. propaganda, or assist military operations, or put ammunition in the hands of negotiators. For Casey, the United States and CIA were at war . . . and speed and relevance were his benchmarks for effective analysis.

Casey had his undeniable and glaring faults as a CIA director. But how does he stack up against the current crew, who may more accurately be called moles from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission disguised as spies?

Gates has another passage in his memoir describing what he found in the CIA when he became chief of staff to Casey in 1981. This is what he wrote in a memo to his boss:

As a result of the lack of innovative and creative personnel management, I believe this agency is chock full of people simply awaiting retirement: some are only a year or two away and some are twenty-five years away, but there are far too many playing it safe, proceeding cautiously, not antagonizing management, and certainly not broadening their horizons, especially as long as their own senior management makes it clear that [risk-taking] is not career enhancing. How is the health of CIA? I would say that at the present time it has a case of advanced bureaucratic arteriosclerosis: the arteries are clogging up with careerist bureaucrats who have lost the spark. It is my opinion that it is this steadily increasing proportion of intelligence bureaucrats that has led to the decline in the quality of intelligence collection and analysis over the past fifteen years — more so than our declining resources . . . or congressional investigations or legal restrictions. CIA is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture.

That was twenty-six years ago, and to judge by the intelligence-community’s 500-day plan to fix itself, things have only gotten worse in the interim.

If the United States gets clobbered again as we were on September 11, we are not going to even see it coming unless we toss out, or “re-educate,” Chinese style, our current PDDNI, Donald Kerr, and all the other bureau-technocrats who signed on to the preposterous “500 Day Plan for Integration and Collaboration,” which more appropriately might be called a “500-Day Plan to Turn the Entire Intelligence Community Into the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and Possibly Get A Lot of Americans Killed Along the Way.”

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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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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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Surprise, Surprise — Kaboom!

As early as 1965, the U.S. intelligence community began reporting that India was capable of producing a nuclear weapon and would detonate one “within the next few years.” Nearly a decade later, India tested its first nuclear bomb. Despite months of preparation around the test site, the CIA missed signs of the impending blast and failed to warn policymakers in advance, depriving them of any possibility of persuading India not to go ahead.

As we learn from a top-secret CIA post-mortem released to the public earlier this month (click here to enter the CIA library, and click once again on the document dated 7/1/1974 to read the heavily redacted report), the failure to connect the dots was due to two factors: “inadequate priority against an admittedly difficult target,” and “lack of adequate communications among those elements of the [intelligence] community, both collectors and producers, whose combined talents were essential to resolving the problem.

Today, Iran is also a difficult target. Will Iran one day in the not too distant future surprise us with a nuclear test? Pakistan is another difficult target. Will a Pakistan mired in chaos one day in the not too distant future surprise us with one of its weapons coming loose?

By the logic of things, the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about both countries. By the same logic, it also doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about its own continuing internal coordination problems. Despite massive efforts to foster better sharing of information, including especially the establishing of a new layer of bureaucracy over the intelligence community –– the Office of the Director of National Intelligence –– the possibility of communication lapses remains alive. Periodic failure is in the nature of the intelligence business, and connecting the dots is not an activity at which the U.S. in recent years has done particularly well.

The lesson for policymakers is obvious. On the one hand, they must rely on intelligence to formulate policy. On the other, they must bear in mind that intelligence can be badly flawed and formulate policies that take into account the ever-present possibility of unpleasant surprise.

As early as 1965, the U.S. intelligence community began reporting that India was capable of producing a nuclear weapon and would detonate one “within the next few years.” Nearly a decade later, India tested its first nuclear bomb. Despite months of preparation around the test site, the CIA missed signs of the impending blast and failed to warn policymakers in advance, depriving them of any possibility of persuading India not to go ahead.

As we learn from a top-secret CIA post-mortem released to the public earlier this month (click here to enter the CIA library, and click once again on the document dated 7/1/1974 to read the heavily redacted report), the failure to connect the dots was due to two factors: “inadequate priority against an admittedly difficult target,” and “lack of adequate communications among those elements of the [intelligence] community, both collectors and producers, whose combined talents were essential to resolving the problem.

Today, Iran is also a difficult target. Will Iran one day in the not too distant future surprise us with a nuclear test? Pakistan is another difficult target. Will a Pakistan mired in chaos one day in the not too distant future surprise us with one of its weapons coming loose?

By the logic of things, the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about both countries. By the same logic, it also doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about its own continuing internal coordination problems. Despite massive efforts to foster better sharing of information, including especially the establishing of a new layer of bureaucracy over the intelligence community –– the Office of the Director of National Intelligence –– the possibility of communication lapses remains alive. Periodic failure is in the nature of the intelligence business, and connecting the dots is not an activity at which the U.S. in recent years has done particularly well.

The lesson for policymakers is obvious. On the one hand, they must rely on intelligence to formulate policy. On the other, they must bear in mind that intelligence can be badly flawed and formulate policies that take into account the ever-present possibility of unpleasant surprise.

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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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“Integration” of the Intelligence Community

Are we safer today than we were on September 10, 2001?

The answer is undoubtedly yes. But the sixteen agencies that comprise the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) still do not adequately share with one another the secret information they acquire. Fixing that problem remains an urgent task: organizational “stovepiping,” as the phenomenon is known, was one of the dysfunctions that led to our failure to thwart the plot behind September 11.

Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, has now unveiled a 500 Day Plan for Integration and Collaboration aimed at coordinating the work of the disparate agencies. But whoever prepared the plan seems to have understood the meaning of the word “integration” in an unexpected way. Thus, the plan contains two “core initiatives” and number one on the list is to “Treat Diversity as a Strategic Mission Imperative.” The Intelligence Community, it says, needs to have “a workforce that looks like America.”

This objective will be attained in 500 days by working toward four “key milestones”:

• Design mechanisms to hold IC leaders accountable for excellence in EEO and diversity management in concert with the IC Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) policies
• Assist in workforce planning to increase diversity representation
• Improve the IC’s ability to recruit, hire, develop, and retain a diverse workforce
• Promote career development and advancement to ensure all IC employees have the opportunity to realize their full potential

One can have no doubt that, with concerted efforts and sufficient resources, the Intelligence Community can be made more diverse within 500 days, and that it can measurably improve in its stated goal of increasing “the representation, recruitment, hiring, development, and retention of minorities, women, and persons with disabilities.”

But how does any of this affirmative-action gobbledygook contribute to making us safer? And what does any of this have to with ending bureaucratic stovepiping?

Are we safer today than we were on September 10, 2001?

The answer is undoubtedly yes. But the sixteen agencies that comprise the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) still do not adequately share with one another the secret information they acquire. Fixing that problem remains an urgent task: organizational “stovepiping,” as the phenomenon is known, was one of the dysfunctions that led to our failure to thwart the plot behind September 11.

Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, has now unveiled a 500 Day Plan for Integration and Collaboration aimed at coordinating the work of the disparate agencies. But whoever prepared the plan seems to have understood the meaning of the word “integration” in an unexpected way. Thus, the plan contains two “core initiatives” and number one on the list is to “Treat Diversity as a Strategic Mission Imperative.” The Intelligence Community, it says, needs to have “a workforce that looks like America.”

This objective will be attained in 500 days by working toward four “key milestones”:

• Design mechanisms to hold IC leaders accountable for excellence in EEO and diversity management in concert with the IC Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) policies
• Assist in workforce planning to increase diversity representation
• Improve the IC’s ability to recruit, hire, develop, and retain a diverse workforce
• Promote career development and advancement to ensure all IC employees have the opportunity to realize their full potential

One can have no doubt that, with concerted efforts and sufficient resources, the Intelligence Community can be made more diverse within 500 days, and that it can measurably improve in its stated goal of increasing “the representation, recruitment, hiring, development, and retention of minorities, women, and persons with disabilities.”

But how does any of this affirmative-action gobbledygook contribute to making us safer? And what does any of this have to with ending bureaucratic stovepiping?

Read Less




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