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What the NIE Says About U.S. Intelligence Capabilities: Part II

Monday, Dec. 10, 2007

Last week, we highlighted an op-ed by Avner Cohen in Haaretz that argued that the unclassified summary of the latest NIE on Iranian nuclear capabilities demonstrates that U.S. intelligence collection capabilities are "suboptimal" when it comes to Iran and that the NIE analysis and its findings were "methodologically shallow, confusing and unprofessional."

We received Avner's piece enthusiastically b/c it was the first piece we'd seen that examined the implications of the NIE for U.S. intelligence capabilities, rather than what the document said about Iran per se. Writing in the New York Times on Sunday, however, Tim Weiner examines the same question but comes up with a totally different answer.

In arguing that the NIE actually shows that U.S. intelligence has made real progress since it botched analysis about Iraqi WMDs, Weiner calls into question aspects of Cohen's argument. For one, it's clear that Weiner, who has covered the intelligence community extensively, has better sources and thus probably a better grasp of what's really going on inside the intelligence community than Cohen. And, as the author of "Legacy of Ashes," a history of the CIA that does not shy away from chronicling its many failures, Weiner can hardly be accused of being a shill for the intelligence community.

Still, it must be said that not all of Avner's and Weiner's arguments are mutually exclusive. It's possible that, as Weiner argues, new intelligence community rigor and circumspection have succeeded in filtering out faulty intelligence, but that the analysis and explanation of that intelligence for policymakers still leaves a lot to be desired, as Cohen contends. Here's Weiner's take in a nutshell:

The nation paid a terrible price for failing to do that about Iraq five years ago. The C.I.A.'s spies protected their purported sources on Saddam Hussein's presumed weaponry — protected them so well that they shielded crucial data from the C.I.A.'s own analysts, who then failed to ask the right questions.

Changes in American intelligence in the last 18 months are a direct result of that fiasco, and last week they were becoming visible. Some are striking.

The new national intelligence directorate is analyzing information more rigorously. It has, in effect, banned the use of anonymous sources in-house: no more Curveballs (a fraudulent foreign agent had that code name when he convinced the C.I.A. that Iraq had mobile bioweapons labs).

In the old days, analysts often took it on faith that spies' information was sound. Not now.

The C.I.A., no longer first among equals in American intelligence, now holds one of 16 seats at the National Intelligence Council, which produced the new estimate. At the head of the table, as chairman, is Thomas Fingar, America's top intelligence analyst. His background is Army intelligence, academia, and as chief of the State Department's small but savvy intelligence branch.

He demands that spies submit formal assessments highlighting the strengths, weaknesses and credibility of sources. The aim is to make estimates more rigorous, shades of judgment starker, politics and guesswork less prominent.

"Partly it has to do with greater concision," Mr. Fingar said recently. "Partly it has to do with a much more demanding set of requirements to check out the information." He added: "There ought to be much more stock-taking, re-examination of assumptions, scrutinizing of old information in light of things that we have learned subsequently."

Meanwhile, in other intelligence news, the Washington Post reported Sunday that four members of Congress, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), had been briefed about the CIA's use of waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques as early as 2002:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIAprogram designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorismsuspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group,which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detentionsites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to maketheir prisoners talk.

Among the techniques described, said two officials present, waswaterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned astorture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill.But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least twolawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officialssaid.

But what's most interesting about the story are the facts it contains about the scope and duration of the CIA program. Apparently, the CIA says it used waterboarding on just three high-value detainees, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Abu Zabaida, and that the use of the technique continued only until 2003. For those that believe the technique is torture, that is perhaps little consolation, but still it seems the actual scope of the envelope-pushing interrogation program was significantly more limited than many have been led to believe by most news and opinion coverage of the issue.