There has been a spate of reports that the U.S. intelligence community is considering rewriting its famous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded that Iran did not have an active program to develop nuclear weapons. These reports raise two serious questions. The first and obvious one is how close Iran may really be to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability than heretofore thought. The second, less obvious but potentially more important, question is whether the intelligence process has become irretrievably corrupted by politics.
The 2007 NIE concluded with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its efforts to develop nuclear weapons back in 2003. The report came out at a time when the Bush Administration was pressing the international community to take a harder line with Iran. It also came as the partisan debate in the United States over Bush’s handling of foreign policy was reaching a fevered pitch in the run up to the 2008 presidential elections. The 2007 report didn’t just take the wind out of the Administration’s sails. It made it appear as if the White House was misusing intelligence in order to fabricate a reason to act aggressively towards Iran. Great shades of the debate over the run up to the invasion of Iraq.
The intelligence community now says that a reassessment is warranted in light of the new information about Iranian nuclear sites. But weren’t we told that the Administration had known about them for years? There were numerous reports back in 2007 and subsequently which indicated that other intelligence services disagreed with the conclusions apparently reached by the intelligence community. The way the conclusions were framed, the NIE focused on the Iranian decision to halt development of nuclear weapons rather than on the remarkable breadth of the Iranian program and the generally low confidence of all other judgments about it. Domestic critics of the report such as Anthony Cordesman have pointed out that it was not a true intelligence product since it failed to reflect dissenting views.
Now, suddenly, as the Obama Administration seeks international support for a tougher line with Teheran and prepares for the possibility of conflict with Iran, the intelligence community is considering revising the 2007 NIE. Unless it can point to clear evidence to support such a reassessment it is hard not to conclude that what has changed is the political situation in Washington and not the quality of our information.
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