What the NIE Says About U.S. Intelligence Capabilities

The uproar over the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, like so much current discussion in Washington about foreign policy, has been remarkable for its superficiality. Foreign policy has evidently become so politicized in the wake of the Iraq war that serious discussions about the implications of the document are all but impossible.

Our first reaction when reading the new NIE was unease at the apparent uselessness of a document that is supposed to represent the United States’ best unclassified insight into its subject, but we couldn’t quite articulate the source of our unease. Fortunately, writing in Haaretz today (it’s notable that such lucid commentary only appeared in a foreign paper; the domestic op-ed pages are evidently more interested in this kind of pablum), Avner Cohen of the U.S. Institute of Peace gets to the heart of the matter: the NIE demonstrates that U.S. intelligence capabilities, in both collection and analysis, are dangerously poor.

It’s true that what was released to the public was only a classified summary, but Cohen demonstrates why that fact should provide little solace:

. . . this document’s flaws and political naivete are unprecedented. For example, the report notes that Iran suspended or halted the working groups building the bomb, but creates the false impression that this was the main component of Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. The report obfuscates the reality of Iran’s massive nuclear effort, in particular its enrichment program. Instead, it states that since autumn 2003, Iran has made no continuous effort to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Even if the revelation that weaponization was halted in 2003 is genuine (and not intentionally misleading on Iran’s part), the document is puzzling, because it is known that manufacturing and stockpiling fissionable material determine how close a country is to the bomb. Furthermore, the public report does not state how much nuclear engineering progress Iran had made through 2003; the suspension may have been one aspect of some form of coordination between this activity and the production of fissionable material.

In general, the unclassified NIE gives no hint as to how and why American intelligence has decided to ascribe such a high degree of credibility to this finding. The report states with legalistic caution that Iran apparently could amass enough fissionable material to build a nuclear weapon between 2009 and 2015, if it were to decide to do so. To all this is added an (unexplained) note stating that the earlier date is not practical. However, to make such a general statement, it is not necessary to amass costly secret intelligence material; it is enough to read the documents of the International Atomic Energy Commission. As an intelligence assessment, this is a vague statement of no value to decision-makers.

The NIE says nothing about critical matters touching on understanding the Iranian nuclear program. It does not report what the American intelligence community knows or does not know about what motivates Iran’s grandiose nuclear plans, especially the enrichment program; how national decisions in Iran are made about the nuclear program; what the connection is between Iran’s nuclear and missile programs (since the costly missile program has no logical purpose without a connection to nuclear warheads); or how external political pressure can influence Iran’s nuclear activity.

It is understandable that the report reveals nothing directly regarding U.S. intelligence’s capability to quickly pinpoint significant developments and changes in Iran’s nuclear program. But indirectly, it is clear that American capability is feeble in this critical realm. The report itself provides proof of this. If one assumes that the American intelligence community recognized only last summer that some four years ago, Iran suspended or halted its work on weaponization, it is clear that the United States’ aptitude in the realm of intelligence is suboptimal.

If the American intelligence community seeks to provide the public with an understanding of Iran’s nuclear program, this report proved flimsy.