Doubting The Iranian NIE

There has been a lot of complaint in conservative circles that the Iranian NIE may very well be wrong. John Bolton, whom I have an enormous amount of respect for, makes that case in The Washington Post today,

All this shows that we not only have a problem interpreting what the mullahs in Tehran are up to, but also a more fundamental problem: Too much of the intelligence community is engaging in policy formulation rather than “intelligence” analysis, and too many in Congress and the media are happy about it. President Bush may not be able to repair his Iran policy (which was not rigorous enough to begin with) in his last year, but he would leave a lasting legacy by returning the intelligence world to its proper function.

Consider these flaws in the NIE’s “key judgments,” which were made public even though approximately 140 pages of analysis, and reams of underlying intelligence, remain classified.

First, the headline finding — that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 — is written in a way that guarantees the totality of the conclusions will be misread. In fact, there is little substantive difference between the conclusions of the 2005 NIE on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the 2007 NIE. Moreover, the distinction between “military” and “civilian” programs is highly artificial, since the enrichment of uranium, which all agree Iran is continuing, is critical to civilian and military uses. Indeed, it has always been Iran’s “civilian” program that posed the main risk of a nuclear “breakout.”

The real differences between the NIEs are not in the hard data but in the psychological assessment of the mullahs’ motives and objectives. The current NIE freely admits to having only moderate confidence that the suspension continues and says that there are significant gaps in our intelligence and that our analysts dissent from their initial judgment on suspension. This alone should give us considerable pause.

Here’s the thing: is it possible that the NIE is absolutely wrong and Iran is still pursuing nuclear weapons?

Yes, it is. Our intelligence agencies have frequently been wrong about the WMD programs of our enemies — and I’m not just talking about Iraq.

Moreover, is it possible that this NIE report is the result of an abundance of caution on the part of our intelligence agencies after they blew the call on Iraq? Yes. Could be.

But, since we’re not allowed to examine the information that went into the report or how much weight was put on each factor, it is impossible to objectively evaluate whether the report was right.

In other words, it is what it is, and we can only hope that it’s right.

Since that’s the case, there are three things conservatives should keep in mind.

1) Because of this report, bombing Iran is off the table unless our intelligence agencies change their assessment.

2) All this complaining about the report, especially since we can’t evaluate the information that went into making it, makes conservatives look bloodthirsty. You know, “They’re hellbent on bombing Iran and don’t really care if they have nukes or not.” That’s not true, that’s not fair, but that’s how it will look to people.

3) The NIE may very well be right. Iran may have been intimidated by Bush’s invasion of Iraq and may have stopped working on nukes as a result. If so, it’s good news that gives us more strategic options.

So, it’s okay to be skeptical about the report, but keep it all in perspective.

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