Jeffrey LewisDon't Politicize the NIE

Well, the right has begun to push back against the NIE on Iran.

The New York Times and Washington Post — Administration cheerleaders during the run-up to the Iraq War — lent their pages to conservative assaults on the NIE by John Bolton and Gary Milhollin, two guys who were absolutely wrong about Iraq and just as wrong now.

Now, Senator John Ensign, in an interview, told Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler that he “plans to introduce legislation next week to establish a commission modeled on a congressionally mandated group that probed a disputed 1995 intelligence estimate on the emerging missile threat to the United States over the next 15 years.”

Ensign should stop right now. There is a fine line between taking a second look and asking the question until you get the answer you want.

This is on the wrong side of that line.

1. Does anyone believe that Senator Ensign has read the entire 150 page classified-version of the NIE?

Did Wright and Kessler ask him that? Because if he hasn’t, then his reaction is really to the conclusion, rather than the process, isn’t it?

2. Ensign offered a highly selective and misleading account of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, known as the Rumsfeld Commission after its chairman.

According to the Wright and Kessler, Ensign described his proposed Commission as “modeled on” the Rumsfeld Commission and providing “for Senate leaders to put an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on” the panel.

The Rumsfeld Panel, however, was unbalanced — the DCI appointed the panelists based on recommendations from the Senate Majority Leader (3) and Speaker of the House (3) and the House and Senate Minority Leaders together (3). Given that Republicans controlled the House and the Senate, that resulted in six Republican and three Democratic choices. Surprise!

Were we to apply the same formula today with Democrats in control of both chambers — were Ensign’s panel “modeled” on the Rumsfeld Commission — the outcome would be reversed: a Republican-appointed DNI picking nine Commissioners, six nominated by Democrats and three by Republicans.

I suppose that the panel is “modeled” on the Rumsfeld Commission, not so much in form, but rather in substance: A highly partisan attack on an intelligence judgment disliked by Congressional Republicans.

3. Whether a panel has 1, 6 or all Republicans, Congressional Republicans are looking for a certain answer not a “fresh set of eyes.”

Does anyone remember that before the Rumsfeld Commission, then-DCI John Deutch appointed a commission by now-SECDEF Bob Gates to look at the NIE 95-15 Emerging Missile Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years?

Congressional Republicans were angry that the NIE concluded that “no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.”

This, obviously, undercut the rationale for missile defense spending and was the subject of withering criticism.

Much like their tenures as Secretary of Defense, Gates and Rumsfeld performed, uh, rather differently. Gates, ever the professional, noted some flaws in the 1995 NIE, but concluded that the estimate was fundamentally sound:

the intelligence community has a strong case that for sound technical reasons the United States is unlikely to face an indigenously developed and tested intercontinental ballistic missile threat from the third world before 2010, even taking into account the acquisition of foreign hardware and technical assistance, and that case is even stronger than was presented in the estimate.

It didn’t matter that Gates had solid credentials as a conservative, a hawk and an intelligence professional — Congressional Republicans wanted a certain answer and simply found another guy, once-and-future SECDEF Don Rusmfeld, to give it to them. The Rumsfeld Commission duly found that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq “would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability.”

Though politically astute, the judgment was terribly alarmist. “Looking around in the summer of 2003, five years after the Rumsfeld Commission completed its report,” Greg Thielmann noted, “one sees a very different world than the one predicted” by the Comission.

Indeed, I would suggest that twelve years into the fifteen year timeframe in the 95 NIE, we face only future ICBM threats from Iran and, assuming they ever manage to get one to work, North Korea.

Fight Over Policy, Not Intelligence

Congress ought to be arguing over policy, not undermining intelligence judgments that are inconvenient to the preferences of one side or the other. This isn’t a basketball game; you don’t work analysts like coaches work referees.

The legislation that required the NIE also required the President “to provide Congress with an unclassified and classified report on your policy objectives and strategy regarding Iran.” The Bush Administration should comply.

If any Commissions are to be empaneled, Congress should ask them to consider our objectives and strategy, not the intelligence.


  1. Joe Cirincione (History)

    Exactly right, Jeffrey.

    The neocon playbook (Kill the Messengers; Inflate the Threat; Get Official Blessing for New, Hyped Assessment) on how to undermine intelligence estimates goes back further. In the 1970s, during the Ford Administration, they pressured then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush to set up a “Team B” headed by Richard Pipes to produce an alternative estimate of the Soviet threat. They got it completely wrong. Not one “fact” about Soviet capabilities in the alternative assessment proved true, including the claim of a secret nuclear-powered laser facility that turned out to be a rocket engine test site.

    In the 1980s, the Team B crowd became the Department of Defense and produced official estimates (the “Soviet Military Power” reports) that also got it completely wrong, missing the core weaknesses that would bring about the Soviet collapse.

    In the 1990’s, the produced the Rumsfeld Commission that got it completely wrong. In the 2000’s, they once again were in power in the Defense Department and produced the Iraq intelligence that got it completely wrong.

    Now they want to sabotage the Iran NIE. But they are a descending force, not an ascending one. The “Bush Doctrine” is a disaster. The policy pendulum is swinging decisively back towards pragmatism. They are taking on not just intelligence analysts but Mike Hayden and Mike McConnell, two respected professionals who have restored adult supervision to the threat assessment process.

    There is no need for any new panel. This tactic must be rebuffed. To even create a Commission is to admit that something is wrong with the estimate. It is exactly the opposite. The new NIE is a sign that professionalism and integrity are being restored to an assessment process battered by the same bullies who now cry foul.

  2. hass (History)

    What makes you think that the NIE isn’t political to start with?

    Here’s what the NIE boils down to:

    1- Iran had a nuclear weapons program that was stopped in 2003 and so Iran had the intent to build nukes (this is true because our “secret intelligence” says so, and you can’t question it)

    2- The program stopped because of Bush’s successful policies and the war on Iraq, but Iran still has the intent to build nukes

    3- Iran can at any time re-start its weapons program and so it continues to be just as dangerous

    4- Whatever the IAEA says about evidence of Iran’s past nuclear activities is irrelevant because the IAEA can’t see into the future, when Iran can build nukes.

    See? Really convenient political rhetoric – none of it actually supported by evidence, and consisting of speculation – but convenient nonetheless.

    All the NIE is, is a tactical shift in political rhetoric.

  3. Ataune (History)

    I would like to add one point, perhaps a little bit off this thread subject.

    Waht the disclosure of this NIE induces politically may be looked at from another angle, not mentioned anywhere else, as far as I can tell.

    The timing, and the message embedded in the finding, is the most embarrasing for the Russian in particular: So far, in the strategic game played between Russia, Iran, the US and other major and minor powers, Putin has been able to cleverely hide his hand from everybody; He has avoided taking position but at the same time has tried to maintain a line closer to the US side but still ambiguous enough to be open to different interpretations.

    Bush, by interjecting a NIE (which was rumored to be circulating in the Administration since at least 6 moths ago) now, has cleared the political deck a little bit sooner than predicted and is puting everybody in the 5+1 goup in a position to choose; The European being at his side from the begining, the ones the most in predicament are China and specially Russia.

    The US is basically telling Russia: we know believe that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon program, we are against them enriching in their soil, we won’t lay down the anti-missile radar project in Eastern Europe, It is time for you to show your hand.


  4. Andy (History)


    I don’t disagree with anything of substance in your post (except for the NYT and WAPO before Iraq – the majority of their op-ed pieces were actually against the war), however, how about a little fairness? The left is politicizing the crap outta the NIE too.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    The Washington Post endorsed the use of force against Iraq, writing as late as October 2003 that “at this stage we continue to believe that the war was justified and necessary, and that the gains so far have outweighed the costs.”

    The New York Times opposed the war on the narrow point that “any invasion be backed by ‘broad international support'” while asserting that “Saddam Hussein was concealing a large weapons program that could pose a threat to the United States or its allies” and “repeatedly urged the United Nations Security Council to join with Mr. Bush and force Iraq to disarm.” They were for a multilateral invasion.

    This is to say nothing of the role that both papers played in creating a climate of fear that created public support for the war.

    As you say, both sides are politicizing the report. But there is a difference between using an intelligence for partisan ends — distasteful but inevitable — and using partisan pressure to change judgments, as I think was the case with the Rumsfeld Commission.

    I only wish the Dems had that kind of spine.

  6. Mark Gubrud

    Andy, I must agree with what Jeffrey has written in reply to you: Although NYT’s editorials prior to the Iraq invasion were moderately opposed, the Times went along with the assumption that Iraq was lying about WMD, and the Washingon Post’s editorials were unabashedly pro-war. So were the overwhelming majority of op-eds on the subject in both papers, with credible and articulate antiwar voices almost totally excluded. I remember it well.

    As for a Team B job on the NIE, everything it would need to say is already there in the NIE:

    1) Iran could have enough HEU for a bomb by late 2009;

    2) Iran will have the capability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons within 2-7 years;

    3) Iran made “considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop” nuclear weapons, and “only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.”

    4) Iranian political leadership sees “linkage… between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives,” hence further pressure is needed to dissuade Iran from making nuclear weapons and bring about that reversible political decision not to eventually make them.

    This is the other side of the story, overshadowed by the news that Iran made a significant course correction in 2003 and put its military nuclear weapons projects on ice. Since they could be thawed out at any point, making the other side of the case would just be a matter of respinning and repackaging the same information.

  7. Joseph Logan (History)

    Of the four accepted models of decision making—rational, bureaucratic, political, and ad hoc—it seems most on the right are employing the latter three (and especially the third) to retaliate against a decision made using (primarily) the first. The problem is that rationality is less attractive in the sense of public sexiness than the political, and there is no opposing force to create a balance. One can reasonably expect that Iran will continue to be seen as a clear and present danger even in the absence of any logical reason to think so.

  8. FSB

    Andy — Jeffrey is right-on here.

    For more details see Bill Moyer’s “Buying the War” on PBS:

    about how Knight-Ridder was the one lonely voice outside the beltway bubble press corps raising serious questions, but got completely drowned out.

  9. daphne

    can someone explain why Iran, which supposedly had a clandestine nuclear weapons program and then stopped it in late 2003 is such a threat while Libya, which supposedly had a clandestine nuclear weapons program and then stopped it in late 2003 is not?

  10. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Because Libya came clean, dismantled its program under international supervision and has not continued research that keeps open a bomb option.

    Would that Iran were willing to do the same.

  11. FSB

    while I agree with you that it would be great if Iran did all that, the problem is one of justice and fairness.

    Ultimately the flaw is within the NPT — it allows what Iran is doing, especially if 16 US spy agencies concur that they have no evidence of Iran working to weaponise the enriched Uranium.

    The unfairness that Daphne hints at is in the selective application of the law, and is inherent even in the words used eg. by you “came clean”; & by others “international community”…these are all decided by the US/UK/France (and those on whom it leans hard economically) essentially via the UN security council. As there are no muslim countries on the security council what it decides to consider threatening is decidedly one-sided.

    So: the composition of the UN Sec Council is outdated. And the NPT needs revision such that it can be applied less subjectively.

    What is legal and illegal for a given country to do with its nuclear program ought not to depend on whether Mr. Bush & Mr. Sarko feel vaguely threatened.

    There ought to be rigid benchmarks applicable to every nation without bias: if the “international community” has the right to come in and inspect Iranian sites, then accept the converse also. Will it be OK to have a team of, say, Algerian and Iranian physicists checking US sites?

    The real “international community” is bigger than then handful of Western nations, who are sitting on the bulk of the nuclear arms.

    Having said that, it would be great if ALL nations disarmed and if the NPT could be made much more robust such that it could be applied much more objectively, and all these stupid arms outlawed in a clean, transparent, and most importantly, just manner.

    BTW, interesting letter in the FT related to this.

  12. hass (History)

    Libya can’t be compared to Iran because Libya never had a nuclear energy program that was started with the full support, encouragement and participation of the United States – the same United States that now claims Iran’s nuclear program is a cover to make bombs.

  13. Andy (History)


    We are in complete agreement regarding the Rumsfeld commission and this latest attempt by some on the right to change intel via Congressional action. Still, if we’re talking “politicization” of intelligence, I think it’s fair to suggest there is plenty on both sides of the aisle.

    As for pre-war Iraq and the media, I was referring to op-eds, particularly in the NYT, and not the paper’s editorial position. In the five or so months before the war. The “Threats and Responses” series run by the NYT I thought was pretty balanced with two parts of it focusing on negative consequences. Then there were major op-eds by Pres. Carter, Warren Christopher, Michael O’Hanlon, and many others which warned of virtually everything that has since transpired in Iraq.

    As for the NYT itself, here’s what ran on Feb 23. 2003:

    Our own guess, when we calculate the odds in Iraq, is that the war is likely to go well in the short run, but that the long run will be messy, difficult and dangerous. If America acts virtually on its own, it is hard to imagine either the Bush administration or the American people having the staying power to make things right. Washington may be counting on Iraq’s oil revenue to pay for rebuilding the country after the war, but the oil wells could be damaged in the fighting. It seems certain that an administration that will not give up tax cuts to pay for the war itself is not going to inflict economic pain at home to pay for the cleanup. And while Americans have always shown themselves willing to risk anything, even their own children, for a critical cause of high purpose, their support for this particular fight is thin as a wafer and based on misapprehension that Iraq is clearly linked to terrorism.

    Not too far from reality, is it?

    As for politicization on the left, here’s what the influential Juan Cole says:

    The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran says that Iran did have a nuclear weapons research program until early 2003, but then dismantled it.
    There is now a high level of confidence that Iran is no longer seeking nuclear weapons.
    This finding reverses numerous statements of George W. Bush to the effect that Iran is frantically trying to get a nuke.
    So what convinced the US intelligence community that Iran’s weapons program was long ago dismantled?

    Just sayin’

  14. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    As usual we agree in substance, if not in emphasis.

    I agree that Cole is mischaracterizing what the NIE says, from saying Iran “dismantled” the weaponization/clandestine enrichment program (Iran didn’t dismantle anything) to misapplying the “high confidence” judgement to the statement that Iran is “no longer seeking nuclear weapons.” (Indeed, the IC judges with only moderate confidence that the halt continues.)

    I should say something about that.

    I still think, though, that there is a difference between mischaracterizing the NIE for political ends and attempting to emplace structures that politicize the NIE itself.