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.