Conservative Colloquium

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Iran, Nukes, and the 2007 NIE

Posted by Tony Listi on December 5, 2007

The Key Question about the NIE’s Key Judgment

By Herbert E. Meyer
December 5, 2007 

In the Intelligence business, you get paid for just one thing: to be right.
So here’s the key question about the Key Judgment of the National Intelligence Council’s new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities: Is this judgment supported by the evidence?
The judgment that’s stirring up all the controversy — and it’s a real shocker — comes in the very first sentence: We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. The judgment is astonishing for two reasons. First, it flies in the face of virtually everything we know – or thought we knew — about the Iranian regime, its capabilities and its intentions. Second, If the new Key Judgment is correct it means that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program fully two years before publication of the National Intelligence Council’s 2005 Estimate on this same subject, which concluded “with high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons.”
Let’s hope that the new Key Judgment is correct, because it would be very good news for world peace — although it would raise the troubling question of how our Intelligence Community could have been so wrong back in 2005. But if the new Key Judgment is incorrect — in other words, if Iran in fact is now building nuclear weapons — the political impact of its publication will be catastrophic. That’s because it will make it virtually impossible for President Bush to stop the Iranians by launching a military attack on their nuclear facilities or by working covertly to overthrow the regime itself. And, of course, it would raise even more troubling questions about the capabilities of our Intelligence Community.
Skepticism is Warranted
Simply put, we need to know for sure whether the new Key Judgment is right or wrong. And, given the long list of failures and reversals that has plagued our Intelligence Community during the last decade, it’s reasonable to be skeptical.
To understand what to do next, keep in mind that all NIEs consist of two parts: the “Key Judgments” and the text itself. It’s the text that includes, or should include, the evidence that our intelligence agencies have gathered relevant to the issue at hand. Obviously, you complete the text before writing the Key Judgments, which emerge from the text itself. And because the Key Judgments are just that – judgments – it sometimes happens that the leaders of our various intelligence agencies will agree on the evidence but disagree about the meaning of the evidence. That’s why there are often dissenting opinions within the Key Judgments.
What was released on Monday is only the Key Judgments. The text itself hasn’t been released — and won’t be, because the text presumably contains highly classified data relating to what we’ve learned about Iran’s nuclear programs from all sources including, of course, our spies and satellites.
But the text is available to leading members of Congress, including members of both the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees. Today — right now, this instant — every one of these individuals should get hold of a copy of the NIE and read it. More precisely, they should cancel whatever appointments and public events are on their calendars, turn off their cell phones, then sit quietly with a pen in hand and work their way, slowly and carefully, through the text of the NIE. And when they’ve done that, each Representative or Senator should step forward to report – without giving details – whether the Key Judgment about Iran’s nuclear weapons program is, or isn’t, supported by the evidence.
Has Congress got the Brains?
Alas, given today’s partisan political atmosphere — and, even more distressing, the limited intellectual abilities of the people we elect — this may not be sufficient to provide the confidence we need. If ever there was a time for a fast-track Presidential commission – this is it. Why not ask a half-dozen or so of the sharpest minds in our country to read through this NIE and to tell us – again, without providing details — whether the Key Judgment is supported by evidence within the NIE’s text. Not all members of this commission need be intelligence experts – or Iran experts, for that matter. In fact, it would be better if most aren’t. The two qualities required are intellectual firepower and credibility. We ought to be able to find six such souls among the nearly 300 million of us. And the whole thing shouldn’t take more than a week’s time, if that.
It is no exaggeration to say that Iran holds the key to whether or not the world is facing a nuclear war. Surely, it’s worth an extra effort to be confident that this time, our Intelligence Community has got it right.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. In these positions, he managed production of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates. He is author of How to Analyze Information.

6 Responses to “Iran, Nukes, and the 2007 NIE”

  1. Alex said

    And what do you think of the very popular view by a leading Israeli analyst Obadiah Shoher? He argues (here, for example, www. ) that the Bush Administration made a deal with Iran: nuclear program in exchange for curtailing the Iranian support for Iraqi terrorists. His story seems plausible, isn’t it?

  2. chris said

    and america should get to keep their nukes…. why exactly?

  3. foospro86 said

    Chris, because there is no moral equivalence between American and Iran. The US has always used its nukes and its possession of nukes in self-defense, as a deterrence mechanism against foreign aggression. That is what we say and that is what we do.
    But Iran, on the other hand, has explicitly expressed its intention to use its nukes to aggressively threaten its neighbors, more specifically Israel. Iran has no qualms about supporting or carrying out terrorism against the US and its allies.
    Can the contrast be in any clearer? Can there be in doubt that not all countries are responsible enough to possess nukes?

  4. chris said

    i really don’t think the contrast is as clear as we might like to think. Considering that the US are the ones to have acted most aggressively most recently and invaded a sovereign nation that posed no threat to America, surely we are also ones not to be trusted with nukes? I feel its blatant hypocrisy to expect Iran to not have nukes, if we have no intention of getting rid of our own.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Iran is a country to be trusted, but it is this kind of arrogance that has lead America to be the most hated nation in the world. It is truely unfortunate.

  5. foospro86 said

    Is it “blatant hypocrisy” that we prohibit felons and people with mental instability from obtaining a firearm? Are law-abiding citizens “arrogant” for thinking such people unfit to be armed in this way? Surely not. Likewise, with Iran and nukes. Do you see what I’m getting at?

    Obviously you are implying that the US invasion of Iraq brought the US to down to the level of Iran or even worse. I reject that.

    On the level of intentions, it seems quite obvious that we intended what we thought was best for Iraq: no Saddam, democracy, freedom, human rights, rebuild the country, etc. We thought it was good for us too: access to Iraqi oil market (not to steal), ally in War on Terror, set an example for the Middle East, deter all state-sponsors of terrorism, etc. Iran has had no such good intentions towards its neighbors.

    On the level of legality, let’s remember that the US (as should the UN) does not recognize the sovereignty and legitimacy of dictators who oppress their own people. Saddam was Iraq, for all intents and purposes. Let’s also remember that Iraq was on national probation for 12 years, so to speak, because it had invaded Kuwait. So its sovereignty was tenuous at best and hinged on compliance with UN demands, which it disregarded and violated repeatedly, esp in 1998 and afterwards. The UN was unwilling to enforce its own resolutions, and the US needs no UN resolution before going to war (that is OUR sovereignty). Iran is now also violating UN resolutions in an attempt to threaten its neighbors in the region.

    Now we can have a whole other discussion about whether Iraq truly was a threat or not, but it is hard to claim that most people in the intelligence community (internationally as well) AT THAT TIME did not think Iraq was a threat, potentially soon if not immediately. Hindsight is 20/20, and we shouldn’t judge these sorts of decisions on what we know today.

    Lastly, all of the above is different from the questions of whether the invasion itself was prudent and whether the aftermath could have been handled better.

    Now, considering all this, I don’t see any American hypocrisy or any reason for the US to shy away from demanding a nuclear-free Iran.

  6. chris said

    some good points raised, but keep in mind that you cannot expect Iran, Iraq or any other country for that matter to keep to UN resolutions, if the US are unwilling to do the same, brings to mind the current controversy surrounding ‘water boarding’ and other forms of torture, and also that the UN did not support an invasion of Iraq.

    re:the nuclear issue, to truly understand this issue you need to at least attempt to step into the shoes of the average Iranian citizen, or for that matter citizen of the ‘rest’ of the world! the US present themselves as the sherrifs of the world, as though we are the ones who can decided who is fit and who is not fit to posses weapons. We then call upon the UN to back our beliefs and convictions, while being unwilling to submit to the UN when they ask us to do the same. (don’t forget the 1997 Ottawa Convention, against anti-personnell mines, which 135 other countries have signed and the US refuses too).

    While I am not 100% sure of the US’s intention in invading Iraq, what I do know is that this had been a Republican agenda since the 80’s and probably before. The US has always wanted a strong presence in the middle east, to control resource (oil). While average US citizens (myself included) we’re in a state of fear following the tragedy of 9/11 the government seized the moment to settle past scores and complete old agendas that has resulted in the deaths of potenially hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. there was never any link between Hussain and BinLaden, while i of course agree that Hussain was a tyrant and a dictator, so are a tonne of other leaders around the world…. unfortunately all in countries we have no vested interest in. if we’re gonna play police and fight for freedom, lets at least be consistent.

    i did enjoy your post, and found you had some good points worth considering

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