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Five Questions Concerning the Latest NIE

5:53 PM, Dec 3, 2007 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The story dominating the news cycle right now is the public release of "Key Judgments" from an NIE on Iran's nuclear program. In particular, the first sentence of the NIE is drawing the press's intention: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…" But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Given the poor performance of the U.S. Intelligence Community ("IC") in drafting previous NIE's, we should review the IC's work with a skeptical eye--no matter what conclusions are drawn. Interestingly, the IC now concedes that it is certain Iran had a nuclear weapons program. But that isn't getting the headlines. And after having read the little that has been made public from this NIE, we are left with substantive questions.

First, what intelligence is this assessment based upon?

Any student, or even casual observer, of the U.S. intelligence community knows that it has done a remarkably poor job of recruiting spies inside unfriendly regimes. For example, we had no meaningful spies inside Saddam's regime. That was at least part of the reason the U.S. intelligence community misjudged Saddam's WMD programs so badly. (Whatever came of Saddam's WMD, U.S. intelligence clearly did not know what was going on since the few sources it had were on the periphery of Saddam's regime.)

Reading the latest NIE does not provide, of course, any clues as to how the IC came to these conclusions. If the IC does have good sources inside the Iranian regime and its putative nuclear program, then quite naturally it would want to protect them. And we wouldn't expect to see any information about sources in a declassified "Key Judgments" such as this.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the IC does not have good intelligence inside Iran. For example, both of the leading members (one Republican, one Democrat) of the House Intelligence Committee explained back in 2006 that we did not really know then what was going on inside Iran. And the Robb-Silberman Commission, which investigated what the IC knew about WMD programs around the world, found in 2005: "Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or ten years ago." Understandably, the Commission refrained from discussing the specifics of the intelligence community's infiltration, or lack thereof, of both the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. But it is a safe bet that the statement cited above applied in both cases.

Thus, we should not be confident, at all, that the IC has the type of intelligence that would allow it to make a definitive assessment one way or another. This is true no matter what conclusions the IC publishes. Who or what are the sources cited by IC? How do we know they are telling the truth? If they are members of the Iranian regime, have their so-called bona fides been established? Are they in a position to know what they claim to know? Do they have any motives to lie, or distort the truth? We should be mindful of all of these questions and more.

Second, what has changed since 2005?

As this latest NIE notes, its conclusions are at odds with what the IC believed in 2005. The last page of the declassified Key Judgments notes significant differences between what the IC believed in 2005 and what it is saying now. In 2005, the IC noted: "[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable." Now the IC says, "…we do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." So, in 2005 the IC was sure that Iran was determined to build a nuclear weapon and now it is not sure at all. This is a profound change in opinion and, at a minimum, does not inspire confidence that the IC can get this story right. After all, if the IC's judgments can change so drastically in two years time, why should we believe any of its pronouncements one way or the other?

What is the basis for this flip-flop? What has been learned in the meantime to warrant such an about-face?

Third, how did the IC draw its line between a "civilian" nuclear program and a military one?