'High Confidence' NIE

There’s only one problem with the new State Department-generated National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  The people who wrote it don’t have enough confidence in it to claim that the 2005 NIE — which this one diametrically opposes — was wrong.  

According to a House source who sat with the three primary authors in a two-hour briefing Wednesday, the three — Thomas Fingar, Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill — refused to say the 2005 estimate was wrong though adamantly defending their “high confidence” conclusion that Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003.

The three — who, according to a source reported by the Wall Street Journal Wednesday  have reputations as “hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials — have created the illusion that there’s no reason to worry our pretty little heads about Iran.  The reactions, from Iran to the Washington Post’s op-ed page — are predictable.  

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s Izod ayatollah, is proclaiming the new National Intelligence Estimate is a huge victory for his nation.  Ahmadinejad said, “This is a declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue," adding, “This was a final shot to those who, in the past several years, spread a sense of threat and concern in the world through lies of nuclear weapons."

And it is as much a victory for Ahmadinejad as the speech he gave at Columbia University this summer: it’s a propaganda bonanza for the Iranians.  

According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the NIE posits an Iran, “…that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be ‘deterred.’”  Were he there in 1938, Ignatius would probably have declared the same of Hitler when Chamberlain returned from Munich with the infamous “peace in our time” note.

This NIE — primarily written by the State Department intelligence branch — is no better than the one it supposedly discredits, because it is the product of the same intelligence community that was as surprised that the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 as it was when it was built in 1961.  The State Department part of that community has just as good a track record as the CIA. In February 2001 — seven months before 9-11 — the State Deparment’s intel chief, Thomas Fingar, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (in a hearing on current and projected national security threats to U.S.) that, "Happily, the severity of specific threats to our nation, our values, our system of government, and our way of life are low and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future."

Fingar, as the Wall Street Journal reports, is one of the three principal authors of the new NIE.

Just what do we really know about Iran?  In truth, not much.  Only sixteen months ago, Cong. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mi), then chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report that said of Iran, “…the United States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran and there are many information gaps.”   Then-Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte said, in his 2006 Annual Threat Report, that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons.

In that threat assessment, Negroponte also said that Iran will not be in a position to have a nuclear weapon until, “…sometime between the beginning of the next decade and the middle of the decade.” That is, as soon as 2010.

Even more damning is the about-face Fingar himself has made in only four months.  On July 11, 2007 — testifying before the House Armed Services Committee Fingar said, “We assess that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons — despite its international obligations and international pressure.  This is a grave concern to the other countries in the region whose security would be threatened should Iran acquire nuclear weapons.”

And now — a year and a half after the Hoekstra report, a year after the Negroponte assessment and four months after Fingar’s own assessment — the new NIE tells us that all is well.  What epiphany did Fingar have since July?

The new NIE would have us believe that in those five months the intelligence community has been so reformed, so cured of the problems that go back to the 1960s, that this new NIE on Iran is precisely right.  It claims “high confidence” in conclusions intended to guide the president — and his successor — in the ultimate decisions of peace or war.

Cong. Pete Hoekstra told me in an interview Wednesday that he stands by the conclusion of his 2006 report:  the intelligence community really doesn’t know what is going on inside Iran. He also said that he is still concerned that the judgments in the new NIE — the ones in which “high confidence” is claimed, including the one that says Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 — are based on insufficient intelligence reporting to merit that type of conclusion.  (Hoekstra  and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Ca), a former member of the HPSCI, are working to co-author an op-ed that says there’s a lot we don’t know about Iran.)

Let’s face facts:  six years after 9-11, four years after the invasion of Iraq, US intelligence community is still unable to tell the president most of the things he needs to know about Iran, North Korea and the other nations that pose a danger to American security. That lack of knowledge heightens the danger created by reports such as the new NIE.

Intelligence estimates such as these — and the more detailed classified versions — are the basic tools of national decision-making in this war.  We’ve heard years of Bush-bashing about the — since disproved — allegations of intelligence manipulation to maneuver us into war in Iraq.  But what shall we make of this sudden judgment that overturns so many judgments about Iran’s ambitions, its capabilities and its clandestine works?

This NIE has taken off the table any chance of further diplomatic pressure on Iran to belay its nuclear weapons ambitions.  There will be no more UN sanctions, no further diplomatic pressure.  Iran now has what it hasn’t had in more than a decade:  license to pursue uninhibited whatever its nuclear ambitions may be.  

What are they?  How soon can they achieve them? Don’t ask the intelligence community.  

Speaking of the new NIE, one of its members described it to me thus:  “It’s a piece of crap.”  That person, I must add, is in a position to know.