Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Low Point

Over the past seventy years, the U.S. intelligence community has had its share of dark moments, often culminating in unforeseen attacks, and thousands of dead Americans.

In fact, there have been so many blunders, it's hard to single out the worst. In the early days of the Korean War, the CIA predicted that Red China wouldn't enter the conflict. That analysis lasted until Chairman Mao's hordes marched south to rescue Kim Il-Sung's failing army, a development that extended the war by another three years, and cost the lives of more than 30,000 U.S. troops.

During Vietnam, the spooks believed that North Vietnam couldn't mount a major offensive until Tet rolled around. They were also caught napping during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1967 and 1973; Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and more recently, by Al Qaida's decade-long campaign against the U.S. that culminated in the events of 9-11.

Yet, for all those debacles, some would argue that the intel community didn't reach its nadir until 2007, with the release of that infamous National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. That's the assessment that declared--with moderate confidence--that Tehran halted work on its nuclear weapons development effort in 2003.

Of course, that headline-grabbing (and policy-altering) assessment was carefully calibrated. In a footnote, the NIE's authors defined "weapons development" as a pause in Iran's effort to develop a viable nuclear warhead. Never mind that warhead design is one of the latter steps in a nuclear program and that other elements--including uranium enrichment--continued apace, putting Tehran on track to develop a weapon well before the NIE's estimated 2015 timeline.

Making matters worse, production of the estimate was entrusted to senior intelligence officials who clearly had their own agendas. One, CIA Analyst Vann Van Diepen, had been arguing for years that Iran had a right to enrich uranium and pursue nuclear energy. Another, National Intelligence Council (NIC) Chairman Thomas Fingar, worked actively with Senate Democrats to derail John Bolton's nomination as U.N. Ambassador, silencing a particularly tough critic of Iran and its nuclear program.

And, if that weren't bad enough, a third official who led the NIE effort was none other than
Kenneth Brill, the former U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. During his posting, Brill steadfastly refused to acknowledge the dangers posed by the Iranian nuclear program, delivering only a single reluctant speech on the subject. As Kenneth Timmerman wrote in Shadow Warriors, Brill's performance at the IAEA was so poor that he was literally "fired" by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Unfortunately, Brill was subsequently rehabilitated by John Negroponte, the career diplomat who served as the nation's first Director of National Intelligence. Thanks to Negroponte's intervention, Brill not only gained another high-profile job, he was in the perfect spot to inject his views into the 2007 NIE.

Sadly, Messrs. Van Diepen, Fingar and Brill achieved their objectives with the assessment. The press and Congressional Democrats eagerly endorsed claims about Iran's "suspension" of its nuclear weapons program, leaving the Bush Administration with few options for going after Tehran. The matter was deferred to the next President, Barack Obama, who favored a continuation of diplomatic overtures.

Results on that front have been unimpressive, to say the least. At last report, Iran had rejected Mr. Obama's demands that it meet a December 31, 2009 "deadline" for complying with various U.N. resolutions, but the President has not offered any new plans for dealing more forcefully with Tehran. Meanwhile, the centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility keep spinning, and Iran creeps closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

And what of the intelligence analysis that helped put us in this spot? As we've detailed in previous posts, many intel officials began been backing away from the 2007 assessment almost as soon as it was published.

Now, it looks like the intel community is preparing to bury the NIE, once and for all. Eli Lake of the Washington Times reports that analysts are at work on a new estimate, which may be published as early as next month. Both the Times and Newsweek say that analysts now believe that Tehran never halted work on its weapons program. In fact, the current debate among analysts is not whether Iran has an active weapons program, but whether the country's supreme leader has ordered full-scale development of nuclear weaponry. While some intel officials believe that directive has already been issued, others believe it has not.

A senior U.S. military officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity last week revealed that the new argument among analysts is over Iran's decision to move forward with weaponization.

"There is a debate being held about whether the final decision has been made. It is fair to argue that the supreme leader has not said, 'Build a nuclear weapon.' That actually does not matter, because they are not at the point where they could do that anyway."

The officer, who is knowledgeable about operational matters and intelligence on Iran, said Iran's nuclear program is well-advanced and moving toward the point at which a weapon could be built.

"Are they acting as if they would like to be in a position to do what the supreme leader orders if he gives the thumbs up at some point down the road? The answer to that is indisputably yes," the officer said.

How did Iran arrive at that position? The answer is obvious; Tehran never suspended its weapons development program, just the warhead research element. Looking for any information to deter a possible U.S. attack against Iran, authors of the 2007 NIE latched on the halted warhead effort as "proof" that the entire weapons program had been suspended. They full understood the consequences of their actions, but still published an NIE based on inconclusive evidence (the suspension claim was reportedly based on a single source) and specious logic.

Nearly three years later, the most liberal administration in recent U.S. history is being forced to back-track from the 2007 report and its "findings," just in case Tehran quickly produces a nuke, as it almost certainly will. The Obama Team's willingness to abandon the NIE speaks volumes about the product and provides even more proof that the assessment was nothing but a fraud.

In a recent speech about the underwear bomber investigation, President Obama indicated that members of the intelligence community will be held "accountable" for mistakes that prevented the detection of Farouk Abdulmutallab and his plot. Accountability is a fine thing, but only if it's actually enforced, and administered without regard to partisan politics. As we see it, there is plenty of blame to go around in the Abdulmutallab case, and plenty of heads ought to roll, Democrat and Republican alike.

The same holds true for the 2007 NIE on Iran. Left to their own devices (and motivated by partisan politics), three senior intelligence officers produced a key estimate that was demonstrably false, and aimed more at influencing American policy that providing a true accounting of Iran's nuclear program. The same standard should be applied to that snafu as well.

Van Diepen, who is still on the federal payroll (as an Assistant Secretary of State) should be fired immediately. Brill and Fingar retired last year, but there are provisions for a retroactive censure, and repayment of bonuses paid to them during their work on the fraudulent NIE. Their punishment would send a needed shockwave through the intelligence community, where political partisans have evaded punishment for decades. It's about time for some real accountability in our spy agencies, and disciplining the "authors" of the 2007 NIE would be a good starting point.

if we don't insist on accountability, our intel community will face even greater debacles in the future. It's hard to imagine another calamity like the Iranian NIE, but left unpunished, the hacks who produced that report can generate more politically-charged assessments, rending even more damage to our national security.


john barton said...

The 2007 NIE requires more than blog posts. This scandal requires a book. Perhaps you should tackle it? It's essential that the politicization of intellligence be revealed, and those behind it exposed. This episode is the opportunity to do so.

Rich said...

The 2007 NIE was approved by the DNI and the National Intelligence Board, the political implications presumably understood by all. The the weakness of the assessment should also have been fully understood - even under the time constraints for internal review. Combine weak agency leadership, well connected authors clearly sharing the Congressional committee agenda. . .there you have it. Seems to me, this failure also falls heavily on those who permitted these 3 idiots to run through their own NIE conclusions?

gr8scott said...

Excellent analysis.

TOF said...

I'm pretty sure that someone knew that the Spring 1972 offensive by the NVA was coming. After all, Lavelle had bombed massing invasion assets in January-February 1972. A week or so before the invasion actually began, at the end of March, routine photo-recce revealed that a substantial number of SAM sites in the North had been abandoned and no one knew where the radars and missiles were. We would find out where they were a week later.

Yet, with all those indicators we were still surprised when the invasion actually began, especially by the ferocity of it. It took a while for the ARVN to stand and fight; that was encouraged in no small part by US aircraft coming in low and dropping napalm at the request of the South Vietnamese government.

In any case, someone had to know that invasion was coming.

Mrs. Davis said...

Unrealistic as the idea is, I'd favor criminal prosecutions for interference in domestic politics.

cj_thespook said...


I am a student of Intelligence Studies, and working on a term paper on identifying and analyzing the 9/11 Commission’s major recommendations for reforming the intelligence community. I will be including the NIE report you used. I would appreciate greatly, if you would share the sources used for the information within your excellently written analysis. I would also include your blog in the paper to give credit where credit is due. Unfortunately, academia does not list blogs as reliable sources.

Thanks so much,

Mrs. Jacquot