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Low confidence

Posted by Richard on December 5, 2007

Democrats and their mouthpieces in the media are having a great time touting the new National Intelligence Estimate's claim that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003. This supposedly proves that the Bush administration lied about Iran just like they lied about Iraq, or something like that.

To some people, an intelligence community report that contradicts their beliefs must be "politicized," while one that confirms their beliefs is automatically judged "honest and objective." Never mind that they have no evidence for (or against) either conclusion.

Those of you inclined to accept the NIE's conclusions might want to pause a moment to consider this incongruous fact — the International Atomic Energy Agency has serious doubts (emphasis added):

"To be frank, we are more skeptical," a senior official close to the agency said. "We don't buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran."

The official called the American assertion that Iran had "halted" its weapons program in 2003 "somewhat surprising."

That the nuclear watchdog agency based in Vienna is sounding a somewhat tougher line than the Bush administration is surprising, given that the administration has long criticized it for not pressuring Iran hard enough to curb its nuclear program.

But the American finding has so unsettled governments, agencies and officials dealing with Iran that it has suddenly upended commonly held assumptions.

There is relief, as one senior French official put it, that "the war option is off the table." There is also criticism and even anger in some quarters that the American intelligence assessment may be too soft on Iran.

The Wall Street Journal found the new NIE rather unconvincing (emphasis added):

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.

Actually, it's possible — perhaps even likely — that both conclusions are wrong. Or at least hopelessly out of date. If the Iranians did suspend their nuclear weapons program in 2003, and it took "our spooks" four years to figure that out, maybe they started the program back up again in 2005 or 2006, but those same spooks won't realize it for another two or three years.

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).

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.

Yep — if you buy the NIE assessment, then shouldn't you acknowledge that Operation Iraqi Freedom may have persuaded not just one country to end its nuclear weapons program (Libya), but two?

But that's assuming you buy the NIE assessment. Regarding that, Paul Mirengoff at Power Line said it best (emphasis added):

In the end, we have no way to assess why the intelligence community flipped from saying with high confidence in 2005 that Iran is currently determined to develop nuclear weapons, to saying now with high confidence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The only thing we can say with high confidence is that our intelligence community's assessments do not deserve our high confidence. 

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5 Responses to “Low confidence”

  1. Hathor said

    Iran may have suspended the program because it had finish the bomb. I believe Iran has the bomb. It has not been that hard for Pakistan or India to make several. The technology is old. Even when the technology was new, the Manhattan Project, it only took two and a half years to actually have three working bombs. Those bombs were not sophisticated, but are enough for destruction of Israel or for terrorist use.

  2. rgcombs said

    Hathor, I hope you’re wrong, but you may be right. I don’t know. I’m guessing that if you were right, the Israelis would already have acted. But maybe not. Is it possible that they’d accept an Iranian government dedicated to eradicating Israel having nukes? Hard to believe, but Olmert seems to be an idiot (IMHO).

  3. mothanskin said

    RG, thanks for the link to my post and your, as always, very well documented and articulate response. You have helped me to see that up until the most recent NIE assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions, the American intelligence community was “politcised” by the Bush neo-cons and war hawks but now the American intelligence community is being “politicised” by the liberal, anti-war opponents of the Bush Administration. It is still a “politicised” agency! Well here is my assessment of the this America-Iran “cold war”. President Bush and President Ahmadinejad are “two of a kind”, they are both undiplomatic, shallow and myopic visioned leaders whose countries and the world will be much better off when they are gone! By the way, who are you voting for in ’08?

  4. rgcombs said

    Mo, I suspect you’re right — to some extent, a bureaucracy’s judgments are almost always (and inevitably) “politicized” to some degree and should always be received with a certain amount of skepticism.

    There are aspects of G.W. Bush’s character that I admire (and disagree with your characterization regarding). But if we could couple his demise with that of Ahm-a-doin-a-jihad, I think I’d go for that trade-off.

    As for the ’08 race, I’d change my registration to Republican and vote for Ron Paul in a heartbeat if I thought he’d be open to rethinking the threat of Islamofascism when he learned more about it (he seems to be sadly ignorant about –and uninterested in — the history of Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.). But I’ve been a registered Libertarian for 24 years (since I moved to Colorado and ”could” register as a Libertarian). I’m not going to change that without a good reason.

    In the general election, unless the LP surprises me (or the polls suggest my vote won’t matter), I’ll probably vote for the Republican nominee — unless it’s Huckabee.

  5. RedPencil said

    Ron Paul? Dennis Kucinich’s proposed running mate? Eww.

    I suppose I can see Ron Paul’s attraction in domestic economic policy (if I really, really squint), but his primary problem isn’t just that he doesn’t see the threat of Wahhabism, it’s that he doesn’t see anything outside of U.S. borders very sanely. His support of any and all Palestinian groups against Israel, would be one example. And maybe some of his domestic views are a tad myopic too, or he would at least consider disowning some of the considerable support (verbal and financial) he gets from

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