How can I be sure that emphasis on trying to divine the psychology of the mullacrats reflects Thomas Fingar's stamp in particular? Plow through yesterday's Pundita post to see why, and give special attention to the David Kaplan report, Hey, Let's Play Ball in the 1:00 PM Update to the post. Fingar wants to turn intelligence work into sort of a university, where the opinions from many academic disciplines, such as psychology, are given much weight.
[...] Consider these flaws in the NIE's "key judgments," which were made public even though approximately 140 pages of analysis, and reams of underlying intelligence, remain classified.
First, the headline finding -- that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- is written in a way that guarantees the totality of the conclusions will be misread. In fact, there is little substantive difference between the conclusions of the 2005 NIE on Iran's nuclear capabilities and the 2007 NIE. Moreover, the distinction between "military" and "civilian" programs is highly artificial, since the enrichment of uranium, which all agree Iran is continuing, is critical to civilian and military uses. Indeed, it has always been Iran's "civilian" program that posed the main risk of a nuclear "breakout."
The real differences between the NIEs are not in the hard data but in the psychological assessment of the mullahs' motives and objectives. The current NIE freely admits to having only moderate confidence that the suspension continues and says that there are significant gaps in our intelligence and that our analysts dissent from their initial judgment on suspension. This alone should give us considerable pause.
Second, the NIE is internally contradictory and insufficiently supported. It implies that Iran is susceptible to diplomatic persuasion and pressure, yet the only event in 2003 that might have affected Iran was our invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not exactly a diplomatic pas de deux. As undersecretary of state for arms control in 2003, I know we were nowhere near exerting any significant diplomatic pressure on Iran. Nowhere does the NIE explain its logic on this critical point. Moreover, the risks and returns of pursuing a diplomatic strategy are policy calculations, not intelligence judgments. The very public rollout in the NIE of a diplomatic strategy exposes the biases at work behind the Potemkin village of "intelligence."
Third, the risks of disinformation by Iran are real. We have lost many fruitful sources inside Iraq in recent years because of increased security and intelligence tradecraft by Iran. The sudden appearance of new sources should be taken with more than a little skepticism. In a background briefing, intelligence officials said they had concluded it was "possible" but not "likely" that the new information they were relying on was deception. These are hardly hard scientific conclusions. One contrary opinion came from -- of all places -- an unnamed International Atomic Energy Agency official, quoted in the New York Times, saying that "we are more skeptical. We don't buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran." When the IAEA is tougher than our analysts, you can bet the farm that someone is pursuing a policy agenda.
Fourth, the NIE suffers from a common problem in government: the overvaluation of the most recent piece of data. In the bureaucracy, where access to information is a source of rank and prestige, ramming home policy changes with the latest hot tidbit is commonplace, and very deleterious. It is a rare piece of intelligence that is so important it can conclusively or even significantly alter the body of already known information. Yet the bias toward the new appears to have exerted a disproportionate effect on intelligence analysis.
Fifth, many involved in drafting and approving the NIE were not intelligence professionals but refugees from the State Department, brought into the new central bureaucracy of the director of national intelligence. These officials had relatively benign views of Iran's nuclear intentions five and six years ago; now they are writing those views as if they were received wisdom from on high. In fact, these are precisely the policy biases they had before, recycled as "intelligence judgments." [...]
But then maybe I shouldn't say I'm sure. How about, "I have high confidence?"
Meanwhile, various unnamed "senior intelligence and government officials" have passed along to The New York Times their explanations for the NIE key judgments:
American intelligence agencies reversed their view about the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program after they obtained notes last summer from the deliberations of Iranian military officials involved in the weapons development program, senior intelligence and government officials said on Wednesday.I'll bet the exchange was vivid. The more details the unnamed officials supply, the more nervous I become. They're talking about notes and laptops, not about investigative work to determine the status of Iran's nuke weapons program.
The notes included conversations and deliberations in which some of the military officials complained bitterly about what they termed a decision by their superiors in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons, including a warhead that could fit atop Iranian missiles.
The newly obtained notes contradicted public assertions by American intelligence officials that the nuclear weapons design effort was still active. But according to the intelligence and government officials, they give no hint of why Iran’s leadership decided to halt the covert effort.
Ultimately, the notes and deliberations were corroborated by other intelligence, the officials said, including intercepted conversations among Iranian officials, collected in recent months. It is not clear if those conversations involved the same officers and others whose deliberations were recounted in the notes, or if they included their superiors.
The American officials who described the highly classified operation, which led to one of the biggest reversals in the history of American nuclear intelligence, declined to describe how the notes were obtained.
But they said that the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies had organized a “red team” to determine if the new information might have been part of an elaborate disinformation campaign mounted by Iran to derail the effort to impose sanctions against it.
In the end, American intelligence officials rejected that theory, though they were challenged to defend that conclusion in a meeting two weeks ago in the White House situation room, in which the notes and deliberations were described to the most senior members of President Bush’s national security team, including Vice President Dick Cheney.
“It was a pretty vivid exchange,” said one participant in the conversation.
The officials said they were confident that the notes confirmed the existence, up to 2003, of a weapons programs that American officials first learned about from a laptop computer, belonging to an Iranian engineer, that came into the hands of the C.I.A. in 2004. [...]
Their reply should not be, 'We can't get such data so we have to assume notes and computer files are right.'