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National Intelligence Community: Way Out of Its League on Tehran Policy

December 20, 2007 By:
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National Intelligence Community: Way Out of Its League on Tehran Policy

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes in The Washington Post (washingtonpost.com) on Dec. 13 that spying and policymaking don't mix:

"The extraordinary spectacle of the president's national security adviser obliged to defend the president's Iran policy against a National Intelligence Estimate raises issues: How are we now to judge the nuclear threat posed by Iran? How are we to judge the intelligence community's relationship with the White House and the rest of the government?

"The 'Key Judgments' released by the intelligence community last week begin with a dramatic assertion: 'We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program.' This sentence was widely interpreted as a challenge to the Bush administration policy of mobilizing international pressure against alleged Iranian nuclear programs. It was, in fact, qualified by a footnote whose complex phraseology obfuscated that the suspension really applied to only one aspect of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program (and not even the most significant one): the construction of warheads. That qualification was not restated in the rest of the document, which continued to refer to the 'halt of the weapons program' repeatedly and without qualification.

"The reality is that the concern about Iranian nuclear weapons has had three components: the production of fissile material, the development of missiles and the building of warheads. Heretofore, production of fissile material has been treated as by far the greatest danger, and the pace of Iranian production of fissile material has accelerated since 2006. So has the development of missiles of increasing range. What appears to have been suspended is the engineering aimed at the production of warheads.

"The NIE holds that Iran may be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by the end of 2009 and, with increasing confidence, more warheads by the period 2010 to 2015. That is virtually the same timeline as was suggested in the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate.

"It is therefore doubtful that the evidence supports the dramatic language of the summary and, even less so, the broad conclusions drawn in much of the public commentary.

"The NIE then highlights, without altering, the underlying issue: At what point would the nations that have described an Iranian military nuclear program as 'unacceptable' agree to act on that conviction? Do they wait until Iran starts producing nuclear warheads?

"By stating a conclusion in such categorical terms -- considered excessive even by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the Key Judgments blur the line between estimates and conjecture.

"The estimate concludes that a combination of international scrutiny along with security guarantees might 'prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear-weapons program.' That is a policy, not an intelligence, judgment.

"I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch. When intelligence personnel expect their work to become the subject of public debate, they are tempted into the roles of surrogate policymakers and advocates. The paradoxical result of the trend toward public advocacy is to draw intelligence personnel more deeply than ever into the public maelstrom.

"Intelligence personnel need to return to their traditional anonymity. Policymakers and Congress should once again assume responsibility for their judgments without involving intelligence in their public justifications. To define the proper balance between the user and producer of intelligence is a task that cannot be accomplished at the end of an administration. It is, however, one of the most urgent challenges a newly elected president will face."

After the Dust Settles, Israel Finds Itself Alone Against a Powermonger

Shalem Center Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi writes in The New Republic (www.tnr.com) on Dec. 6 that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was an insult to our intelligence:

"Since the early 1990s, when Israel first began preparing for a possible military strike against Iran's nuclear program, its security establishment has been divided not about the threat Iran posed -- which was almost universally agreed upon to be grave -- but about whether America and the international community would have the will to stop Tehran.

"Optimists noted the near-total Western acceptance of the Israeli intelligence assessment that the goal of the Iranian nuclear program was a bomb. In the last year, they have also pointed to the growing strength of the American-led sanctions effort, along with repeated warnings by American, French and British leaders about a possible military strike if sanctions failed. The pessimists, for their part, insisted that the sanctions were too little too late, that America was in the grip of a new Vietnam-like trauma in Iraq, and that the mullahs' will to attain the bomb was stronger than the West's resolve to stop them.

"Now, with the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the argument apparently has been resolved. If sanctions fail to stop Iran from achieving the potential to produce nuclear weapons, the dirty work will be left to Israel, just as it was left to Israel to stop Saddam Hussein from going nuclear. America, even under George Bush, is hardly likely to go to war to stop a program many Americans now believe doesn't exist.

"Until now, pessimists here could console themselves that a last-resort Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would likely draw wide international sympathy and even gratitude -- very different from the near-total condemnation that greeted Israel's attack on Saddam's reactor in 1981. Now, though, the NIE will ensure that if Israel does attack, it will be widely branded a warmonger, and faulted for the inevitable fallout of rising oil prices and increased terror.

"The sense of betrayal within the Israeli security system is deep. After all, Israel's great achievement in its struggle against Iran was in convincing the international community that the nuclear threat was real; now that victory has been undone -- not by Russia or the European Union, but by Israel's closest ally.

"What makes Israeli security officials especially furious is that the report casts doubt on Iranian determination to attain nuclear weapons. No one [in Israel] believes that professional considerations, such as new intelligence, were decisive in changing the American assessment on Iran. What has been widely hailed in the American media as an expression of intelligence sobriety, even courage, is seen in the Israeli strategic community as precisely the opposite: an expression of political machination and cowardice.

"Ironically, an Israeli reading of the report only confirms the anxiety here, felt across the political spectrum, about Iranian intentions and capabilities.

"That is evident in the highest ranks of the Israeli military. A letter circulated by Eliezer Shkedi, commander of the Israeli air force, to his officers offered a textual comparison between quotes from Hitler threatening Europe's Jews in the 1930s with quotes from Iranian President Ahmadinejad threatening Israel today. An accompanying letter, signed by an officer identified only as 'responsible for the Iranian arena,' noted, 'We can rely only on ourselves.' "

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