Posted by Lex, on July 19, 2010
Bush-era White House critics claimed that the president and his staff sexed up the National Intelligence Estimate for 2002 in order to support a war in Iraq. That may or may not be true – Karl Rove, for one, vigorously denies it:
On July 9, 2004, (Senate Intelligence Chairman Bob) Graham’s fellow Democrat on Senate Intelligence, Jay Rockefeller, charged that the Bush administration “at all levels . . . used bad information to bolster the case for war.” But in his remarks on Oct. 10, 2002, supporting the war resolution, he said that “Saddam’s existing biological and chemical weapons capabilities pose real threats to America.”
Even Kennedy, who opposed the war resolution, nonetheless said the month before the vote that Saddam’s “pursuit of lethal weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated.” But he warned if force were employed, the Iraqi dictator “may decide he has nothing to lose by using weapons of mass destruction himself or by sharing them with terrorists.”
For my own part, I continue to believe that confirmation bias played the largest role in our conviction that Saddam Hussein was actively seeking a WMD capability. Everyone “knew” he was doing so, and thus the effort was focused on “proving” what everyone knew to be true. Contraindications were disregarded, caveats relegated to footnotes.
But what is increasingly clear is that the 2007 NIE claiming that Iran had ceased work on any militarization of its nuclear ambitions was woven by analysts seeking not to inform policy makers, but bind them. The bill for that usurpation of power is about to come due:
Evidence has surfaced that the flawed 2007 NIE was the result of political cookery. Paul Pillar, a former top analyst at the CIA, has frankly acknowledged that in downgrading the Iranian nuclear threat analysts may well have had policy implications foremost in mind. The intelligence community was severely burned for its erroneous conclusion about Iraq’s WMD in 2002, which the Bush administration employed to justify going to war with Iraq. As a result, Mr. Pillar stated in a January 2008 NPR interview, “estimators might have shaped [the 2007 Iran] estimate in a way that would take this military option off the table.”
In his book published last year, “The Inheritance,” David Sanger of the New York Times quotes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a former CIA chief himself) declaring “that in his whole career in intelligence he had never seen ‘an NIE that had such an impact on U.S. diplomacy.’ He did not mean it as a compliment.”
Well enough to know, so long as this knowledge informs our policy decisions going forward. But the WSJ‘s Gabriel Schoenfeld claims that we have remembered everything, yet learned nothing:
Intelligence that today emphasizes the Iranian nuclear danger is useful for precisely the same political purpose for which it was employed by intelligence analysts back in 2007, namely to take the military option off the table.
Such intelligence bolsters the case for internationally agreed-upon sanctions, the Obama administration’s favored policy toward Tehran and the only course that might obviate the use of force. In pressing ahead, the Obama administration has used the intelligence agencies to provide classified briefings to foreign officials. The stronger the evidence, the stronger the case for action short of war.
And to be even more specific, there are various competing timelines now circulating in the intelligence world for when Iran will have passed the nuclear point of no return. The longer the time frame, the more room is left for sanctions to work their will.
The intel community, God bless their dark little hearts, has missed a lot of signals over the last few years. Iraq invaded Kuwait, and we were caught on the hop. India and Pakistan went nuclear, and we were left flat footed. The terror attacks on 9/11 caught us completely by surprise, and contributed in turn to a damaging intelligence failure over Iraq’s supposed stores of WMD. Some of these mistakes were technical, but others appear to policy based. Some may have even political. Most of them have at their heart senior people who have moved from one government place to another, but who retain influence over the type and nature of information that will chart the fates of nations. Schoenfeld wants to open the books on who has been cooking the books, and why.
Iran will detonate a nuclear weapon sometime between the next year – Israel’s estimate – or two to five years from now. When and if it is allowed to do so, the world will change unalterably.
This one we have to get right.