It's Time to Reject the Ideologically Motivated Scare Tactics that Pass as Intelligence
National Intelligence Estimate's, or NIE's, are the major analytical byproducts of the U.S. intelligence community's work. They are produced by the National Intelligence Council under the direction of the Director of National Intelligence, and represent a consensus viewpoint of the 16 intelligence agencies that comprise the United States Intelligence Community. NIE's are produced for the benefit of U.S. policymakers, and are considered the intellectual foundation for the formulation of critical national security policy. According to the National Intelligence Council, a NIE's "key goal is to provide policymakers with the best, unvarnished, and unbiased information -- regardless of whether analytic judgments conform to U.S. policy."
NIE's are, as their title indicates, estimates, and as such represent a "best guess" approach toward answering a given problem. As a former CIA analyst, Ray Cline, noted, "NIE's are the dry bones, almost the archeological remains, of a big debate with real intellectual conflicts and attempts by many hundreds of people to express themselves." A consensus-driven document, dissenting points of view (and there are many) are often contained as footnotes to the document, so as to better inform a reader, not only to the facts of the situation, but also the existence of uncertainty in any given conclusion.
Today, one of the NIE's produced by the intelligence community is taking center stage in a debate on what direction America should take when it comes to the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. The November 2007 NIE, "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," was released with great fanfare, at a time when most assessments attributed to the U.S. government held that Iran had an ongoing and active nuclear weapons program. The new Iran NIE reversed the position held by the CIA as recently as 2005, instead assessing that Iran had ceased all work on a nuclear weapon in 2003, and that there was no evidence that any such work had been restarted since then.
A trio of conservative institutions recently took an adversarial position on the November 2007 Iran NIE. The Committee on the Present Danger, headed by former Reagan-era Secretary of State George Schultz and Clinton-era CIA Director James Woolsey fired the first salvo, releasing a statement which highlighted the findings of a report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) which declared Iran to be four months away from having enough highly-enriched uranium to produce a single nuclear bomb. The CDP announcement was soon followed by events held at two affiliate organizations, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation. Both organizations noted the real and present danger presented by the Iranian nuclear weapons program, which they characterized not only as ongoing, but viable and on the verge of fruition in its goal of producing a nuclear weapon. Some of the attendees, such as Gary Milhollin, head of Iran Watch, a web site which claims to track the proliferation activities of Iran, proposed harsher sanctions as the means of bringing Iran to heel. Others, such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton, advocated active military operations as being the only way to terminate a nuclear weapons program he declared as already a reality. All three organizations articulated against any effort at normalization of relations between the United States and Iran, and their activities were clearly orchestrated in a manner to influence the incoming administration of President-elect Obama.
All three organizations took turns attacking the findings of the November 2007 Iran NIE. They did so by questioning the motivations of those who wrote the NIE (decrying the 'politicization of intelligence'), and attacking the analysis with sweeping judgments already couched as statements of fact, without providing any substantive body of data to either sustain their argument, or refute the findings of the Iran NIE. It is, and has been, a standard tactic for those whose ideological affiliations trump facts and integrity. Sound analysis has always been the byproduct of a balanced investigation, where an entire spectrum of possibilities are considered, assessed, and rated in terms of probability. There is a role for an adversarial approach within any process dedicated to a genuine search for accuracy in analysis. This is why all NIE's incorporate dissenting points of view. However, when a specific finding is a foregone conclusion and the team promoting that finding chooses to confront the analytical product of a national intelligence estimate not as a point of discussion, but rather to dismiss, then the process has shifted from one of intellectual differences of fact to ideological domination of debate.
It is not that NIEs are beyond reproach. I myself confronted the findings of the NIE produced in October 2002 which was used to help sell an invasion of Iraq to the U.S. Congress (directly) and American people (indirectly). My opposition was factually-based, and driven by a search for truth, not promotion of an ideology. The October 2002 Iraq NIE was produced after the fact to support policy options already decided upon. Ordered produced by the Director of the CIA after U.S. Senators began asking for the basis of the Bush administration's case against Iraq concerning weapons of mass destruction, the October 2002 Iraq NIE was never an intellectually-driven piece of analysis, but rather an ideologically-driven document designed to fulfill a cosmetic purpose. In this, the October 2002 Iraq NIE was a deviation from the norm.
The attack by the CDP, AEI and the Heritage Foundation represents the modern incarnation of a historical trend which dates back to the 1950's, when the original CDP was formed in an effort to push for the containment of the Soviet threat, leading to the most confrontational phase of the Cold War. The officials and "experts" who pushed for confrontation a decade later fought to expand the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by exaggerating American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) vulnerability in the face of a hyped-up Soviet threat. In the 1970s and 80s the CDP destroyed U.S.-Soviet détente and ongoing undermined arms control initiatives when it lobbied for the creation of a so-called "Team B," a group of like-minded conservative thinkers who openly challenged the findings of a CIA NIE on Soviet strategic capabilities. Many Team B alumni fulfilled a similar function during the Clinton administration, and in the months prior to President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, by exaggerating and misrepresenting the dangers posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction
The "Team B" approach was wrong on American ICBM vulnerability in the 1960s. It was wrong on Soviet intent in the 1970s and 80s. It was wrong on Iraq in the 90s and prior to the 2003 invasion. And it is wrong on Iran today. In fact, Team B has yet to get it right on any major point of policy and analysis it has embraced. Why America continues to tolerate this dangerous soap opera in prime time is beyond comprehension. Far from simply crying wolf by challenging a given point of view, the current manifestation of Team B seeks to promote sweeping ideologically-driven policies which would fundamentally impact the nature of America's relationship with entire regions, and indeed the entire world.
We as American's should let the past eight years be our guide in deciding whether or not we want to embrace ideologically motivated scare tactics over intellectually driven debate. Given our historical and fundamental commitment to free speech and debate, I do not seek to silence Team B, or any other outlet of dissent that may exist which I disagree with. I merely want to establish the parameters of credibility and credulity and, as such, when I find that Team B is found lacking in integrity and intellectual viability when it comes to contributing to any meaningful debate on how America should proceed in dealing with the problems of the future, I have no choice but give voice to my conclusions.