Yesterday, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Diane Feinstein, appeared on Fox News Sunday to explain that the Obama administration has solid proof Iran was plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States in Washington. The case, said Feinstein, is “dead bang” and the signals intelligence is among the most “compelling” evidence.
Nonetheless, Feinstein’s statements probably won’t do much to soothe the fevered imagination of those who think there’s something wrong with the story. A number of this country’s most vocal Iran experts, who are former members of the American intelligence community, have expressed their disbelief and apparently won’t be changing their tune anytime soon.
Some, like onetime CIA analyst Flynt Leverett, believe it is “wholly implausible” the Iranians would plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Leverett of course is used to making the Islamic Republic’s case to American audiences. An indefatigable advocate of engagement with a regime that has been at war with America for thirty years, Leverett was recently seen traveling in the entourage of the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, when the Iranian official was hosted last month at a Council on Foreign Relations cocktail reception.
But unlike Leverett, the most notable skeptics among former intelligence officers are not known for carrying Iran’s water, like three onetime CIA employees.
The story of the plot, according to Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran who was also in charge of the Near East and South Asia on the White House NSC staff in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, is "[f]ishy, fishy, fishy.'' Paul Pillar, a former CIA hand who, as Stephen F. Hayes wrote in February 2006, accused the Bush White House of “‘misusing’ intelligence to take the country to war in Iraq,” is now charging another administration with politicizing intelligence. He sees this story as the Obama White House’s ploy to disarm critics who are hawkish on Iran. “They're in a re-election mode and making sure that they sound ... tough on Iran,” said Pillar. “It just gives additional red meat for those who would like to push us toward even more confrontation, especially in the use of military force.”
Robert Baer is yet another onetime CIA officer who thinks it’s unlikely that the Revolutionary Guards and its external operations unit, the Quds Force, were behind the plot. “I don't think it's credible,” said Baer. “This doesn't fit their modus operandi at all. It's completely out of character, they're much better than this. They wouldn't be sending money through an American bank, they wouldn't be going to the cartels in Mexico to do this. It's just not the way they work.”
In effect, these onetime intelligence officers are claiming that their former colleagues in the law enforcement and intelligence communities got this one badly wrong. Because of that misguided work, the president was put in a situation where he presented evidence that the Iranian government at the highest levels must be held accountable. In other words, Riedel, Pillar, and Baer and are saying that their former colleagues risked dragging the U.S. into war on the basis of bad intelligence.
If that is the case, the incompetence of the intelligence and law enforcement communities is breathtaking. Accordingly, it would be useful if these former intelligence officers who doubt the veracity of this account further explain why they have so little confidence in their former colleagues and what steps should be taken to reform the intelligence and law enforcement professions.
On the other hand, it is also possible that Riedel, Pillar, and Baer are simply using their former affiliation with the CIA to advance their civilian careers, and are scarcely concerned with casting doubt on the work of their former colleagues. If that is the case, we can be thankful that the security of the United States and its citizens, as well as its allies, are no longer entrusted to them—but are rather in the hands of the men and women of the DEA, FBI, and CIA who disrupted this plot before American lives were lost.