Thursday, December 13, 2007

Vaïsse on NIE

Justin Vaïsse has a very thorough and interesting analysis of the recent US National Intelligence Estimate concerning the Iranian nuclear program on Rue89. His piece is presented as a series of 7 short questions about the NIE, together with lengthy answers. Following this lead, I present several more questions raised but not answered by Justin's analysis:

1. What does the release of the NIE tell us about the internal workings of the Bush administration?

It is really quite an extraordinary thing for an intelligence estimate to transform so suddenly and completely the tenor of debate on a major issue of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, as Justin lucidly explains, considerable ambiguity remains about Iranian practices and motives, ambiguity deliberately soft-pedaled by an intelligence estimate that seems to have been designed precisely to take the war option off the table. Yet as Justin remarks in his answer to his own question 3, ambiguity has its uses in this kind of situation. So one has to ask why the intelligence community would take such consequential action on its own. Justin mentions the need to redorer le blason of the intelligence community after the Iraq fiasco, as well as a history of veering from pessimism to optimism in its assessments. But one has to ask whether unstated judgments might also be involved. High intelligence officials privy to internal debates are in a position to know when their own doubts and caveats are being ignored by policymakers. Was it alarm that an administration noted for its rashness was about to sin again? Note, too, that the CIA revealed its destruction of interrogation videotapes shortly after the release of the NIE, in effect (if not in intention) availing itself of the positive reaction to its reversal on Iran to soften the anticipated negative reaction to its destruction of self-incriminating evidence.

2. Why did the US intelligence community apparently reveal sources and methods in the latest NIE?

On the day after the release of the NIE, The New York Times published a front page article detailing some of the reasoning on which the stark change of view since the 2005 NIE was based. The article included a discussion of specific sources and methods, including interception of internal Iranian military communications, information that could only have come from US intelligence officials. Yet when questioned about such matters, intelligence officials usually give a ritual answer: "We never discuss sources and methods." Why, in this case (as in Colin Powell's presentation to the UN), were specific sources and methods apparently revealed? Was this done to bolster the credibility of the NIE? Was it disinformation intended to throw Iranian counter-intelligence off the track or to conceal other sources, including a reported defector who fled to Turkey? Or was it to answer critics who have contended that US intelligence has failed to develop necessary capabilities? This follow-up release was at least as extraordinary as the release of the NIE itself.

3. How does Sarkozy interpret the NIE?

In an earlier post I raised the question of Sarkozy's reaction to the release of the NIE. Did Bush tell him it was in the works when they met in August? If not, did he feel misled by Bush? What effect has the release had on his thinking about Iran? In an interview published yesterday in Le Nouvel Obs, Sarkozy made an interesting statement: "I was never for war. The problem for us is not so much the risk that the Americans might undertake a military intervention but rather that the Israelis will consider their security truly threatened." Does he believe that the Israelis have the military capacity to strike Iran on their own? How is France characterizing the NIE in its discussions with European partners about what to do next? Sarkozy's statement here, like his previous statements, can be read as a declaration that both an Iranian bomb and a bombing of Iran, whether by Israel or the US, would be catastrophic for Europe. If so, how does he intend to maintain European pressure on Iran in the face of the NIE, which complicates the effort for the reasons Justin sets forth?

For a few game-theoretic twists on the scenario, see here.


Francisco said...

You should check out Dennis Ross's treatment of the new NIE over at The New Republic. Ross takes it as a given that nobody in Europe was briefed about the planned leak before it took place.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Dennis Ross assumes that the Bush administration itself leaked the NIE and not the intelligence community. His explanation is that they wanted to get ahead of the leaks that were sure to come when Congress was briefed on the NIE. But he misses the point. The NIE was framed by the intelligence community in order to undermine the Bush administration's position. Why? It's almost a coup d'état. What has to be explained is why Mike McConnell, a Bush appointee, chose this route, and how Bush lost the ability to cow subordinates into submission. Incidentally, I think both Ross and Vaïsse go too far in assuming that enrichment and not weaponization is the essence of a nuclear weapons program. Building an explodable device once Highly Enriched Uranium is in hand is still a challenge; building a deliverable device is a formidable challenge, particularly for a state which procures its missile technology elsewhere. Of course there is always the threat of the suitcase bomb--or more realistically, the tractor-trailer bomb, as well as the dirty bomb. But each of these choices implies a different range of threats, policy implications, warning times, and responses. Ross, who probably aspires to be sec'y of state under Hillary Clinton, has reasons for presenting the issue as he does.

Justin said...

Just read the Dennis Ross piece. I agree with you that his statement "weaponizing it is neither particularly difficult nor expensive" is flatly inaccurate, and I don't follow him on this (my metaphor was that of the final design of a car, not an easy feat either). It is, actually, extremely dificult - that's why, for example, terrorists can't dream of weaponizing and miniaturizing a nuke without the help of a state. On the rest of his analysis, I broadly agree, including on the fact that the NIE has made a deal less likely, and on the blindsiding of allies -- very poor statecraft.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Thanks for the clarification. I think one has to be very careful about the distinction between enrichment and the other technologies that go into a nuclear weapon. The Bush administration's public fallback now seems to be that enrichment is tantamount to "knowledge of how to build a bomb" as opposed to an actual "nuclear weapons program," and that such knowledge deserves to be forbidden, to borrow a phrase from the late Roger Shattuck, with no less urgency than a weapon itself. I think rather that adequate account needs to be taken of the time and difficulty involved in proceeding to subsequent stages even after 30 or 40 kgs of HEU are in hand. The delays involved, the need to conduct tests, the possible need to acquire foreign technology, and a host of other factors suggest that a muscular response to Iranian steps toward weaponization could be mounted in stages, as the seriousness of the threat increased. It's the hyping of the urgency of the threat that seems to me problematic, not the assertion that a threat did exist and continues to exist and should both be monitored closely and responded to as warranted by circumstances. So I think that you and I are in broad agreement about this, whereas Dennis Ross seems to me to be pressing in a vague way for a haste that I believe is likely to lead to mistakes, and possibly disastrous mistakes as in Iraq. I also believe that Hillary Clinton intends to use this as a wedge issue against Barack Obama, who, as I see it, favors more cautious assessment and a diminished rhetorical temperature.

Justin said...

On your first question, another hypothesis: news about the tapes (destroyed two years ago) would be payback from the Bush people in the context of a interbureaucratic / political war.