Head-Scratching over the NIE

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion over the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons development program:

“It’s a little head-spinning,” said Daniel Benjamin, an official on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council. “Everybody’s going to be trying to scratch their heads and figure out what comes next.”

Critics seized on the new National Intelligence Estimate to lambaste what Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards called “George Bush and Dick Cheney’s rush to war with Iran.” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), echoing other Democrats, called for “a diplomatic surge” to resolve the dispute with Tehran. Jon Wolfsthal, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, termed the revelation “a blockbuster development” that “requires a wholesale reevaluation of U.S. policy.”

But the White House said the report vindicated its concerns because it concluded that Iran did have a nuclear weapons program until halting it in 2003 and it showed that U.S.-led diplomatic pressure had succeeded in forcing Tehran’s hand. “On balance, the estimate is good news,” said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. “On the one hand, it confirms that we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, it tells us that we have made some progress in trying to ensure that that does not happen.”

This confusion is manifest in the Weekly Standard’s article, Five Questions Concerning the Latest NIE. The five questions asked and elaborated on are:

First, what intelligence is this assessment based upon?

Second, what has changed since 2005?

Third, how did the IC draw its line between a “civilian” nuclear program and a military one?

Fourth, how does the IC know that Iran has stopped its clandestine activities with respect to developing nuclear weapons?

Fifth, how does the IC know what motivated Iran’s alleged change in behavior?

particularly in the second question.

I think I may be able to help clear this up. My impression is that NIE’s aren’t findings of fact, they are estimates of likelihood. And, equally importantly, they are consensus documents. Consensus is a human political process not a binary choice. No new data need have come up to change the consensus. The consensus will change as personnel are hired, retire, move on, or merely as people re-evaluate the data at hand through reflection and discussion with their peers. If I’m wrong about this perhaps some more knowledgeable person will correct me.

Saying that “such and such lied in 2005” or “so and so is distorting policy with politics” are off-base. An NIE can say that the consensus in the U. S. intelligence community of something is highly probably in 2005 and the consensus about its opposite highly probable in 2007 and both be true since it’s measuring the consensus. It’s sticking a toe in the water. You can stick your toe in the water in 2005 and say “it’s warm” and stick it back in in 2007 and say “it’s cold” and neither your toe nor the water need have changed—only the perception.

Most importantly, you can’t remove politics from such a process. It’s an inherently political one.

I also think that cherry-picking such documents looking for the tidbits that support your position and preferred outcome is an error, too. It’s either take it or leave it.

That’s the difficult thing about formulating policy. You operate from intrinsically flawed intelligence and, let’s face it, our human intelligence on Iran has been horrible for decades, hammer out a consensus on what it all means through a political process, and evaluate the politically possible alternatives through experience, insight, and luck. It’s not a science; it’s an art.

12 comments… add one
  • There have been key personnel changes in the interim. Don Rumsfeld out, Bob Gates in, to take the most obvious one. Rumsfeld kept a close grip on the Pentagon’s intelligence agencies, no? And he was an ally of Vice President Cheney. Bob Gates is another animal, altogether, a genuine public servant. With MIke McConell, he represents a major personnel shift in the intelligence community.

    What happened between 2005 and 2007? The GOP lost an election, Rumsfeld was ousted and Cheney was weakened significantly. And surprise, the intel consensus changes dramatically. Meanwhile, Mr. Cheney has been spinning Iran nukes in the most dire possible light, despite the fact that he surely knew the NIE would shift dramatically.

    I think your analysis is too generous. I think we were being deliberately pushed toward war with Iran by Mr. Cheney, and now we see Mr. Gates and Mr. McConnell pushing back.

  • By the way, I should add that I don’t think we are magically clear of the Iranian threat. Rather, I’m rapidly reaching the conclusion that the intelligence agencies of the United States are utterly useless. If we closed them all down I doubt we’d know any less about the world. Google you can trust. The CIA et al, not so much.

  • As VP Cheney has rattled sabres Secretary of State Rice has offered olive branches. I’ve taken both with a liberal amount of salt (more than a grain) as a continuation of the good cop/bad cop routine that the Bush Administration has been using for the last seven years.

    My intuition has been that interpreting this as a battle for dominance between Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld on the one hand and Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rick on the other is probably mistaken. Not that I agree with it but I think that it’s Bush’s management style.

  • Each release NIE contains 3 pages of important information on how NIE’s are created and how to interpret the words they use. It seems too many skip this important part…

    As for the change in assessment, it was not political. Such accusations are very frustrating for me to hear. The change is assessment stems from new information:

    Senior officials said the latest conclusions grew out of a stream of information, beginning with a set of Iranian drawings obtained in 2004 and ending with the intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders, that steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment.

    In one intercept, a senior Iranian military official was specifically overheard complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered years earlier, according to a source familiar with the intelligence. The intercept was one of more than 1,000 pieces of information cited in footnotes to the 150-page classified version of the document, an official said.

    This reiterates what DNI McConnell stated several weeks ago.

  • Andy, I think I may mean something by “political” than you do. I don’t mean partisan or ideologically-driven. I mean worked out by human beings. Note the words “steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment”. To me that’s a political process—people mulling over data more than the data themselves.

  • Dave and Andy:
    You’re making the assumption that the description of events in in the NIE — the bases for the conclusions — are themselves trustworthy and the given dates are accurate. And you are granting these people the benefit of the doubt, an assumption of underlying honesty and professionalism.

    We went from Rumsfeld to Gates, and from GOP congressional chairmanships to Democratic chairmanships, and suddenly, as though by magic, we have one of the most dramatic turnarounds any of us has ever seen. I don’t buy that it is simply new data.

    If this were another administration — Bush Sr. for example, maybe. But why, in God’s name, would I grant any portion of this administration the benefit of the doubt? At what point did they earn our trust?

  • PD Shaw Link

    I have not seen the 2005 NIE, but a summary reported by WaPo, which doesn’t seem that different in many respects from the 2007 NIE. The timeline is no different (2015) and the major source of progress according to both is the energy program.

    About the clandestine weapons program in 2005 it was reported: “The new National Intelligence Estimate includes what the intelligence community views as credible indicators that Iran’s military is conducting clandestine work. But the sources said there is no information linking those projects directly to a nuclear weapons program.”


  • Dave,

    Certainly there are politics in the IC – meaning organizational politics, not partisan ones. Good point.


    You’re making the assumption that the description of events in in the NIE — the bases for the conclusions — are themselves trustworthy and the given dates are accurate. And you are granting these people the benefit of the doubt, an assumption of underlying honesty and professionalism.

    As someone who worked in the IC for many years and has many friends who work in the IC today, you’re damn right I grant them the benefit of the doubt. An assessment change of this magnitude does not occur because of the political winds in Washington. Period. It comes from new information which spurs new analysis. The administration does not have the influence over the IC which conspiratorialists believe. Even prior to the Iraq war, where the pressure was much greater, the administration still had to resort to Doug Feith creating his own intel along with other nefarious activity. Additionally, according to the WAPO article, the administration DID push back and directly questioned the conclusions in this NIE. The IC went back and looked at the data again and used analytical methodologies and techniques designed to expose wrong assumptions and bias. At the end of the day, their assessment was confirmed.

    The IC today is perhaps more cognizant than anyone of the dangers of a politicized intelligence process. To suggest that the community is seemingly more pliant to political whim (by reversing previous assessments – not something that happened with Iraq) is a rather fantastic claim to make.

    PD Shaw,

    Read the last page of the new NIE. There’s a graph there showing the three fundamental changes between the 2005 NIE and the new one. Here’s the file.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Thanks Andy, I did miss the last page.

    I must not have mastered the art of subtlety because I don’t see a whole lot of change. The second and third change both appear to be saying the same thing (2) Iran could have the technical capability of producing HEU for a weapon in 2010-15, (3) its possible, though unlikely, it could do so by 2009.

    The main change appears to be on the issue of intent. Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons versus we don’t know if it intends to do so. That’s a move from certainty to uncertainty, but not to the opposite conclusion. And it doesn’t seem to be material if Iran (intentionally or unintentionally) is progressing with its technical capabilities all the same.

  • Andy:

    All due respect, Andy, no sale. You did not work in all 16 intelligence agencies. You cannot therefore vouch for their independence. As Dave and you both acknowledge, it’s a consensus. Change the positions of several players you change the conclusion.

    When the then administration wished believe that Cubans would rally to overthrow Castro, the intel community supported that conclusion. When it was government policy to focus resources on the USSR, the intel community missed the collapse of the USSR — after decades of over-estimating Soviet capabilities. When it was administration policy to rationalize an invasion of Iraq, the intel community managed to find a cause.

    Now the intel community has done a somersault and concluded that a nuclear program they reported in 2005 was alive and well, they now believe was terminated in 2003. In the interim the Pentagon has changed management. Congress has changed management. The intel community has a new boss. The president and Vice president are lame ducks.

    And we’re being asked to believe that it’s all a matter of new data? When the administration has been clearly agitating for dramatic action against Iran as recently as a couple of weeks ago?

    Too big a coincidence. I don’t buy it. I don’t do conspiracy theories, but neither am I credulous. Rumsfeld out, Gates in, and suddenly, shazzam, the NIE conforms to Gates’ well-known resistance to military action against Iran.

  • Michael,

    Lacking any substantive evidence for your argument, it essentially boils down to what you see as conspicuous timing – which is a rather weak rationale in my view. Correlation =/= causality and all that.

    Change the positions of several players you change the conclusion.

    Well, I’m afraid you expose your ignorance here. None of the players that changed have any input into an NIE since they are policymakers. NIE’s themselves are written by analysts within the various agencies, not the appointed agency heads. Additionally, although NIE’s are mostly consensus based – dissenting views are highlighted within them and this latest provides an example of that.

    No, the IC does not reverse itself based merely on a new SECDEF and DNI – it just ain’t the case.


    You’re right about intent. However it’s a bit more than just that: In 2005, the IC believed Iran was still engaged in an active weapons program. This latest NIE states that was wrong and the program was suspended in the fall of 2003.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Andy, I’m still stuck on the Washington Post’s August of 2005 description of the 2005 NIE, which I characterize as ‘program strongly suspected, but not directly evidenced.’ Which I compare to the 2007 NIE description of a ‘program strongly evidenced, but suspended for now.’ I understand how this change deflates the case of Iran’s intentions from clear to ambiguous, but it certainly is not a material change to my policy preference: ratchet up the sanctions.

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