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Wednesday, December 5

YIKES! Thomas Fingar one of three main authors of NIE report on Iran's nuke program! Start building a bomb shelter!

Just this past February I strenuously warned readers about Thomas Fingar's very limited capacity -- okay, zero capacity -- as a threat assessment analyst. And here he turns up as one of authors -- main authors, no less -- of the National Intelligence Estimate report that exonerates Iran from involvement in a nuclear weapons program.

The Wall Street Journal editorial that mentions this terrifying fact notes that Fingar and the other two main authors of the NIE are anti-Bush. That's neither here nor there. Read the Pundita post on Fingar to understand why he is not cut out for intelligence analysis -- not if it has to do with threat assessment.

And here he was given the task of assessing whether Iran was still a 'near' threat. In light of Fingar's involvement with the NIE analysis, it's doubly troubling that Israel's defense establishment didn't accept the main conclusion of the NIE:
"It's apparently true that in 2003 Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear program for a time. But in our opinion, since then it has apparently continued that program," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio. [...]
Barak uses careful language but it's apparent to me that I'm moving to a cave in the Himalayas unless the intelligence that contributed to the NIE is reconsidered without Fingar's input. Here is the Wall Street Journal editorial.

I hope that Rupert Murdoch will forgive me for publishing the entire thing, given that WSJ is still a subscription site. But this is in the interests of national survival -- and of how many nations, I don't want to consider at this time in the morning:
'High Confidence' Games
December 5, 2007; Page A24

In his press conference yesterday, President Bush went out of his way to praise the "good work" of the intelligence community, whose latest National Intelligence Estimate claims the mullahs of Iran abandoned their nuclear weapons program in 2003. "This is heartening news," Mr. Bush said. "To me, it's a way for us to rally our partners."

We wish we could be as sanguine, both about the quality of U.S. intelligence and its implications for U.S. diplomacy. For years, senior Administration officials, including Condoleezza Rice, have stressed to us how little the government knows about what goes on inside Iran. In 2005, the bipartisan Robb-Silberman report underscored that "Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors." And as our liberal friends used to remind us, you can never trust the CIA. (Only later did they figure out the agency was usually on their side.)

As recently as 2005, the consensus estimate of our spooks was that "Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons" and do so "despite its international obligations and international pressure." This was a "high confidence" judgment. The new NIE says Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 "in response to increasing international scrutiny." This too is a "high confidence" conclusion. One of the two conclusions is wrong, and casts considerable doubt on the entire process by which these "estimates" -- the consensus of 16 intelligence bureaucracies -- are conducted and accorded gospel status.

Our own "confidence" is not heightened by the fact that the NIE's main authors include three former State Department officials with previous reputations as "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials," according to an intelligence source. They are Tom Fingar, formerly of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research; Vann Van Diepen, the National Intelligence Officer for WMD; and Kenneth Brill, the former
U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For a flavor of their political outlook, former Bush Administration anti-proliferation official John Bolton recalls in his recent memoir that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage "described Brill's efforts in Vienna, or lack thereof, as 'bull -- .'"

Mr. Brill was "retired" from the State Department by Colin Powell before being rehired, over considerable internal and public protest, as head of the National Counter-Proliferation Center by then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

No less odd is the NIE's conclusion that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to "international pressure." The only serious pressure we can recall from that year was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of a covert Iranian nuclear program to mill and enrich uranium and produce heavy water at sites previously unknown to U.S. intelligence. The Bush Administration's response was to punt the issue to the Europeans, who in 2003 were just beginning years of fruitless diplomacy before the matter was turned over to the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Bush implied yesterday that the new estimate was based on "some new information," which remains classified. We can only hope so. But the indications that the Bush Administration was surprised by this NIE, and the way it scrambled yesterday to contain its diplomatic consequences, hardly inspire even "medium confidence" that our spooks have achieved some epic breakthrough. The truth could as easily be that the Administration in its waning days has simply lost any control of its bureaucracy -- not that it ever had much.

In any case, the real issue is not Iran's nuclear weapons program, but its nuclear program, period. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran continues to enrich uranium on an industrial scale -- that is, build the capability to make the fuel for a potential bomb. And it is doing so in open defiance of binding U.N. resolutions. No less a source than the IAEA recently confirmed that Iran already has blueprints to cast uranium in the shape of an atomic bomb core.

The U.S. also knows that Iran has extensive technical information on how to fit a warhead atop a ballistic missile. And there is considerable evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps has been developing the detonation devices needed to set off a nuclear explosion at the weapons testing facility in Parchin. Even assuming that Iran is not seeking a bomb right now, it is hardly reassuring that they are developing technologies that could bring them within a screw's twist of one.

Mr. Bush's efforts to further sanction Iran at the U.N. were stalled even before the NIE's release. Those efforts will now be on life support. The NIE's judgments also complicate Treasury's efforts to persuade foreign companies to divest from Iran. Why should they lose out on lucrative business opportunities when even U.S. intelligence absolves the Iranians of evil intent? Calls by Democrats and their media friends to negotiate with Tehran "without preconditions" will surely grow louder.

The larger worry here is how little we seem to have learned from our previous intelligence failures. Over the course of a decade, our intelligence services badly underestimated Saddam's nuclear ambitions, then overestimated them. Now they have done a 180-degree turn on Iran, and in such a way that will contribute to a complacency that will make it easier for Iran to build a weapon. Our intelligence services are supposed to inform the policies of elected officials, but increasingly their judgments seem to be setting policy. This is dangerous.
1:00 PM ET Update
Partly in response to a reader suggestion I am tacking on the entire February 3, 2007 Pundita post about Thomas Fingar and the grim implications of his rise to great power in the US intelligence community. This will make the post very long, and I hope it doesn't overshadow my earlier post today about the upcoming Africa-EU summit -- an important meeting on many counts.

But the other part of my reason is that I came across a quote in The Washington Post about the NIE that Zenpundit scooped up from Arms Control Wonk for his mini-roundup of opinion on the NIE:
“Dafna Linzer reports in the Washington Post that a crucial bit of information was an intercepted communication by a senior Iranian military official “complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered.” The intercept - which Linzer notes was one of 1,000 footnotes in a 150 page document - was the final piece in the puzzle, and Linzer reports that the intercepts were briefed to the Bush Administration “beginning in July.” So, that timing would be consistent with Mike McConnell’s reference to “new information collected in late spring that caused a reconsideration of some elements of the assessment.”
See the ACW post or Zenpudit for links to the Washington Post article and McConnell's reference.

The Linzer note doesn't take on full import until you know that Fingar had a heavy hand in the NIE analysis of Iran's nuclear weapons program. If that one intercept was a "final" piece of the puzzle -- has no one in our intelligence agencies heard of counterintelligence? And did no one consider that the Iranians are well aware of SIGINT?

Okay, enough sackcloth and ashes; here is the February Pundita post:

February 3, 2007
Thomas Fingar and the scary new day in US intelligence work

"Happily, the severity of specific threats to our nation, our values, our system of government, and our way of life are low and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future." (1)
-- Thomas Fingar, while Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence And Research, speaking before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on current and projected national security threats to U.S., February 2001

“We get it. We [in the intelligence community] realize we have got to rebuild confidence [in intelligence work].”
-- Thomas Fingar, Chairman, National Intelligence Council and deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 2007

Thomas Fingar is no more suited for US threat analysis work than Miss Beazley. So if Pundita had a really dark sense of humor, she might quip that the DNI was created solely as a desperation measure to dislodge Fingar from State because the man couldn't be fired.

I can dream on but even with the will to fire him, it would have been virtually impossible to do so. Why? Because for decades Fingar's China analyses were very useful to US administrations that wanted to normalize relations with China and downplay intelligence suggesting that China posed any kind of security threat to the US. But about 15 years ago Mr Fingar's intelligence analysis work at the US Department of State began to encompass all countries. I don't believe it's coincidental that during those years State developed a terminal case of Clientitis and was rendered as a blind as a bat.

Yet State's ineptness at assessing security threats and significant political changes in every region on the globe has been held up as a model of effective intelligence analysis. State's INR (Intelligence and Research) bureau has been exempted from DNI (Director of National Intelligence Office) oversight and is deemed the winner in intelligence analysis when compared to the CIA. The comparison is akin to asking whether a tricycle or pogo stick is the fastest means of cross-country transportation.

If that's not enough to give you nightmares, today Mr Fingar is the "keeper of the crown jewels," as one writer termed it. John Negroponte plucked Fingar from State to be the Number Two at DNI:
"The intelligence reorganization legislation gives Fingar responsibility and authority for setting standards and coordinating objectives for U.S. intelligence efforts, although it leaves the analysts at their respective agencies with the goal of allowing them to present independent views. Fingar will also have what a senior intelligence official involved in the process described to reporters yesterday as "governance" over the President's Daily Brief, the summary of most important items given to Bush each day."(2)
Now what is Mr Fingar's idea of "standards" for the US intelligence community? Well, "objectivity" -- meaning intelligence that is not shaped to political ends -- is the buzzword in the new day. How does Fingar plan on bringing in more objectivity? We can glean clues from noting his scholarly background -- he's a China scholar -- and studying a program called SHARP. Watch carefully; don't blink:
Hey, Let's Play Ball
The insular world of intelligence reaches out for a few new ideas
By David E. Kaplan, U.S. News & World Report, October 29, 2006

At a modest office building just outside Boston last July, senior U.S. intelligence officials quietly set in motion an unusual experiment. For four weeks, a handpicked group of 20 outside experts brainstormed, argued, and chewed the fat with 20 top analysts from the CIA and eight other intelligence agencies. Their mission: to understand why people join terrorist organizations and other groups engaged in antisocial activity. The issues went to some of the most basic questions confronting Washington's intelligence mandarins: What's driving the spread of extremism around the globe, and how can it be stopped?

Dubbed the Summer Hard Problems workshop, or SHARP, the program is modeled after a highly successful project by the code-breaking National Security Agency, which for years has brought in top mathematicians to tackle cutting-edge issues in encryption. SHARP similarly threw together leading specialists, but from the social sciences: experts in anthropology, social psychology, insurgency, and Islamic thought, among other fields. But for all the esoteric talk about jihadism, group dynamics, and social networks, the SHARP participants had a second mission: to change the way U.S. intelligence agencies do their job, by opening the notoriously insular espionage community to the rest of the world.

SHARP is the brainchild of the 18-month-old Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is charged with overseeing and reforming the nation's sprawling $44 billion intelligence community. Key to that effort is an organized attack on the kind of "groupthink" that resulted in U.S. intelligence agencies getting dead wrong, among other things, nearly every facet of Saddam Hussein's banned weapons programs. Reformers at the DNI and other agencies hope to answer critics who call the nation's spy agencies obsolete -- a bunch of big bureaucracies so addicted to secrecy that they can't cope in the Internet age. "This culture of secrecy in an information-rich world is totally anachronistic," says Phil Williams, an international security expert at the University of Pittsburgh who often consults with intelligence agencies.

Wiki-spies?
To help change the way the nation's espionage agencies do business, senior DNI officials are pushing an effort unlike any seen since the height of the Vietnam War, nearly 40 years ago. The SHARP workshop is but one of a wide array of outreach projects now underway, involving millions of dollars in contracts, fellowships, conferences -- even wikis and blogs -- directed at scholars and other outside experts. DNI officials are mindful of the past, when Vietnam War-era funding drew loud protests on campus, amid charges that the CIA had skewed academic research on Asian studies and secretly backed groups like the National Student Association.

The new effort has also begun to stir controversy, but for those who respond, the rewards can be considerable, including contracts, lucrative stipends, and a chance to influence analysis at the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies. The scope is broad: A classified DNI survey this year yielded 240 pages of outreach efforts involving virtually every U.S. agency that generates intelligence information. Those interested (and invited) enter a world of exclusive conferences, workshops, studies, sabbaticals, and scholarships. Participants include not only academics but experts at think tanks, international groups, foundations, and businesses, as well as medical doctors and scientists.

"The intelligence community will never be big enough, will never have enough analysts," says Thomas Fingar, the DNI's chief of analysis. "There's an absolute need to go outside."

Fingar's office is spearheading the charge. The DNI's new plan, "A Strategy for Analytic Outreach," reviewed by U.S. News, calls for a major effort at building "communities of interest" with outside experts and revamping security regulations to allow far greater contact with the outside world. Fingar hopes to replicate what he accomplished as head of the State Department's small but respected intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. [...]
There you have it; Mr Fingar wants to do for all US intelligence agencies under DNI's oversight what he did for State. And he wants to inject into the intelligence community a high degree of dependence on scholarly opinion. The latter is another way of saying that Fingar wants more emphasis on forensic-style proofs in intelligence work, which of course is a contradiction in terms.

Set aside troubling questions about a much closer relationship between academia and intelligence work that Fingar's approach suggests, and which the U.S. News report examines in some depth. What are the biggest flaws in the SHARP approach to intelligence work?

Firstly, anyone who has seen the TV FBI drama "Numb3rs" knows that there is a very direct, very close relationship between mathematics and threat analysis. So the NSA mathematics project, on which SHARP is modeled, makes good sense. But where is the direct connection between anthropology and threat analysis? Between social psychology and threat analysis?

Secondly, even if you could develop a sound rationale for the All is Everything school of intelligence analysis, what the hell kind of data filters would you require, in order to make all the cross-discipline analysis useful for timely threat assessment?

You would end up with the same problem that NSA data analysts always face, which is Garbage In, Garbage Out. You would end up with zillions of teeny tiny data mosaics that may or may not add up to anything useful for threat assessment.

Mr Fingar is not stupid. He understands what I'm saying. So what is his real goal? He wants to purify US intelligence work of the dross of threat assessment.

That is another way of describing State's approach to intelligence work since being infected by the Clientitis bug. Over the decades, the mission of the US foreign office devolved from supporting US strategic objectives to "coordinating with the rest of the world," as one writer put it.

Now, after bringing Mr Finger to DNI, John Negroponte is headed back to State; it does not seem likely that Fingar will follow him back there. Keeping Fingar away from State would be a good thing for State, but keeping him at DNI would be very bad news for US intelligence work. Yet there is nothing you and I can do about the situation; Mr Fingar is burrowed too deep in the intelligence community to hope that anything but retirement will dislodge him.

So, taking a page from the cross-discipline approach, Pundita will attempt an assessment of the situation by quoting Tom Colicchio, head judge for the Top Chef competition. When a semi-finalist complained about the behavior of another semi-finalist in the kitchen throughout the weeks of competition, Colicchio replied:

"We're not judging your behavior in the kitchen. We're judging your food. I really don't care what happens in there, to tell you the truth."

By the same token, nobody outside the spy community really cares how spies make good evaluations. We just want the US government to become skilled at threat analysis. The only thing that will rebuild our confidence is if the intelligence community gets threat analysis right on the big stuff.

1) Fingar 2001 testimony

2) The Washington Post
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