Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bush NIEd

What to make of the NIE report that that the president received November 28 and was made public December 4, suggesting that Iran suspended (not disbanded, although it will often be spun as such) its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003?

Well, if it’s true then it is great news for the world in general and the US in particular. Iran is a nation whose leaders are insane and which has been waging war against the US in various capacities for almost three decades, most recently the hot war in Iraq. Anything that would even temporarily make them less dangerous is a very good thing.

Of course, that’s the rub – if it’s true. The US really has very little intelligence capability left, having seen it weakened by a series of stupid policy decisions ranging from the Church Committee’s work to the Torricelli Principle and post-Cold War budget cuts. Human intelligence in the areas where we most need it is all but nonexistent, leading us to rely on informants (whose motivations and loyalties are often questionable at best) as primary sources. And on our end we get fuzzy analysis of this dubious data by domestic bureaucrats, who we have seen are often driven by their own political agendas. Intelligence gathering is a difficult task even if the employees are loyal to their boss and organization; when rouge agents are openly hostile to a sitting president and official US policy you get a chaotic mess.

Thus the infamous “slam dunk” of stockpiles of Iraqi WMD, which gave ammunition to anti-American demagogues around the globe (and, sadly, at home). And the current state of Iranian nuclear intelligence, where a 2007 report, by all accounts based on the word of a single defector, directly contradicts the 2005 report based on the totality of then-existing fuzzy data and analysis. Pardon me if my confidence in pronouncements which change 180 degrees in two years is not even “moderate,” much less “high.”

Adding to the doubt is a Wall Street Journal report that “the NIE's main authors include three former State Department officials [Tom Fingar, Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill] with previous reputations as ‘hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials.’" CIA officials have in the (very recent) past shown a willingness to undermine US policy and endanger the lives of Americans for nothing more than scoring cheap political points against the president, so it’s not like more sabotage would be out of character.

Others share my skepticism. A senior IAEA official said "To be frank, we are more skeptical. We don't buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran." Israeli is also far from convinced, but then again their very survival probably depends on keeping Iran from going nuclear, so they have a vested interest in erring on the side of caution.

I should probably mention the political spin, which (as usual) reads like something from The Onion. The basic premise is that the president “lied” when he followed past NIE’s, and that he again “lied” because he…uhh, here’s where it gets murky, but apparently because he did not have a clairvoyant vision of what was to come in this one in the months leading up to November 28, when he actually saw the document for the first time. I will give Bush Derangement Syndrome sufferers credit here, they may be fundamentally unserious but they are extremely creative and produce some genuinely hilarious stuff. If only they would channel that creativity into something useful, like trying to figure out how college football could determine their champion by playing football games.

In summary, I fear that we are overcompensating for previous intelligence mistakes by becoming timid and risk-averse, which is even more dangerous. Or that this whole thing is just another attempt by the CIA/State axis to undermine the president. I would dearly love for this report to ultimately be proven correct, especially if the program is still in hiatus today and remains so well into the future. But I’ve heard boy crying wolf so many times that I remain somewhere between anxious and terrified of the Mad Mullahs and their insane figurehead.

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