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Avoiding Another Intelligence Failure on Iran

Gabriel Schoenfeld

U.S. intelligence has already had two horrendously costly lapses this decade: the failure to interdict the plot of Sept. 11, 2001, and the erroneous assessment that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction. Both brought us into wars. A third failure may now be unfolding, with consequences that might dwarf the preceding two. To avoid this, we need an inquest.

The status of Iran’s nuclear program is the issue. In December 2007, our intelligence agencies put out a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which in its opening sentence baldly declared that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

In a stroke, this authoritative pronouncement eliminated any possibility that President Bush, then entering his final year in office, would order a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Perhaps even more significantly, it undercut White House and international efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran. After all, if the Iranian nuclear program had been halted in 2003, what would be the point?

But the NIE, or at least the unclassified summary around which public discussion revolved, was badly flawed. It relegated to a footnote the all-important fact that the most difficult part of a bomb project—“uranium conversion and enrichment”—was proceeding apace. The only thing that Tehran was said by the NIE to have stopped was “weaponization,” the design of an actual warhead. This is the technically least complex facet of the enterprise.

Behind the scenes, the intelligence services of Germany, Great Britain, France and Israel all took issue with the NIE. It became the subject of fierce criticism in Congress and the press. It is now clear that while the U.S. dithered, Tehran forged ahead.

Evidence has surfaced that the flawed 2007 NIE was the result of political cookery. Paul Pillar, a former top analyst at the CIA, has frankly acknowledged that in downgrading the Iranian nuclear threat analysts may well have had policy implications foremost in mind. The intelligence community was severely burned for its erroneous conclusion about Iraq’s WMD in 2002, which the Bush administration employed to justify going to war with Iraq. As a result, Mr. Pillar stated in a January 2008 NPR interview, “estimators might have shaped [the 2007 Iran] estimate in a way that would take this military option off the table.”

In his book published last year, The Inheritance, David Sanger of the New York Times quotes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a former CIA chief himself) declaring “that in his whole career in intelligence he had never seen ‘an NIE that had such an impact on U.S. diplomacy.’ He did not mean it as a compliment.”

Since late last year, U.S. intelligence has been preparing a new estimate of Iran’s nuclear program. The critical question is whether the forces that led to politicization in 2007 have been eradicated. Will the drafters of the new Iran NIE call the shots as they are, or will they once again use intelligence as a political lever?

Already some hints are emerging. In late June, CIA Director Leon Panetta flatly declared that the Iranians “clearly are developing their nuclear capability.” Regarding “weaponization,” he stated that “they continue to work on designs in that area.” This explicit statement is an unequivocal reversal by our nation’s premier spy agency.

But could this stunning turnabout somehow be every bit as politicized as the 2007 NIE? This troubling possibility cannot be overlooked.

Mr. Panetta, a former congressman and Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, is a political creature to the marrow of his bones. The turnabout on Iran that he apparently has played a role in engineering may owe in part to a paradox: Intelligence that today emphasizes the Iranian nuclear danger is useful for precisely the same political purpose for which it was employed by intelligence analysts back in 2007, namely to take the military option off the table.

Such intelligence bolsters the case for internationally agreed-upon sanctions, the Obama administration’s favored policy toward Tehran and the only course that might obviate the use of force. In pressing ahead, the Obama administration has used the intelligence agencies to provide classified briefings to foreign officials. The stronger the evidence, the stronger the case for action short of war.

And to be even more specific, there are various competing timelines now circulating in the intelligence world for when Iran will have passed the nuclear point of no return. The longer the time frame, the more room is left for sanctions to work their will.

Israel, which may have its own reasons for coloring intelligence, contends that we might only have 12 months left. U.S. intelligence, as is clear from various public statements and congressional testimony by ranking officials, is pushing the timeline further out, to as few as two years and as many as five.

What is the right number? If we and the rest of the world are not to be surprised by an Iranian detonation, it is the critical question. We need absolute confidence that the answer, even if indeterminate, is not once again based on cooked intelligence.

That is why a neutral outside panel should be brought in to scrutinize the discredited 2007 NIE and the entire estimating process in this sensitive arena.

Previous intelligence lapses, like those leading up to 9/11 or with Iraq’s WMDs, have been thoroughly investigated by independent commissions, unleashing potential for corrective action. Who made mistakes and why? Are those same individuals in the process of introducing errors again? The national intelligence officer who oversaw the writing of the 2007 NIE was Vann Van Diepen. Today he is a senior official at the State Department, where he “spearheads efforts to promote international consensus on WMD proliferation.”

As the intelligence community now prepares to walk the cat back from its own 2007 work product, an independent inquest might help us avoid what would be the third in an unholy trinity of hugely consequential 21st-century intelligence blunders.

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