What else don’t we know?
By: By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — It boggles the mind that it has taken U.S. intelligence four years to realize that Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003. What else are they missing out there, and why? The revelation reached by the U.S. intelligence community that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago sent shockwaves throughout the political world, at home and abroad. President Bush’s insistence that he only learned of the new conclusion two weeks ago raises questions about his credibility, but amazingly enough, he may be telling the truth. Aside from being notably incurious, Bush may have been the victim of the reforms he helped put in place after the debacle over whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
During the run-up to the Iraq invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were guilty of cherry-picking tidbits of intelligence to support their view that Saddam Hussein was harboring WMD and must be taken down before he could arm al-Qaeda. To avoid such a selective reading of classified information in the future, intelligence officials are now required to keep raw intelligence out of the hands of senior officials until it has been thoroughly vetted. Bush was evidently tipped off months ago, in August, and probably knew enough that he should have tempered his bellicose rhetoric toward Iran, but he chose to stick to his tough talk regardless of the facts.
This latest break reportedly came largely as the result of intercepted conversations between Iranians.
That’s all well and good, but it suggests an over-reliance on technology to penetrate the wall of secrecy around a regime like the one in Iran. Successive administrations in Washington have let human intelligence deteriorate at a time when we should be cultivating informants and not counting on America’s superior technological ability to deliver the goods. It is the most important lesson to come from this disclosure.
The conclusion reached in this latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) brings the administration back from what appeared to be the brink of war with Iran. The president invoked the specter of World War III should Iran go nuclear, raising the stakes of a possible bombing attack before he leaves office. Given what we know now, we should be grateful that a prospective attack on Iran has been averted. Just as Saddam Hussein kept up the pretense that he had a weapons program as means of boosting his status in a tough neighborhood, Iran chose to keep the world guessing about its intentions.
In his press conference, Bush tried to claim credit for Iran’s reversal, saying that his administration’s pressure caused them to suspend their nuclear program.
In 2003, when Iran ended the program, there were no U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran. But there were two intervening factors: Bush labeling Iran part of the “axis of evil” and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Iran evidently made a risk-benefit analysis of its nuclear program and concluded the risk of U.S. military action was too high. If you accept that analysis, Bush can fairly claim some measure of success in getting Iran to back off its nuclear quest, but at what cost? Even without nuclear capability, Iran has been empowered in the region by U.S. policy, an outcome that should have been anticipated, but that no one in the administration could have wanted.
Bush is in the twilight of his presidency and the cost of challenging him is not what it would have been in the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Intelligence officials then were too eager to tell Bush what he wanted to believe, and to target a single enemy in the person of Saddam Hussein. Now we are witnessing the resurgence of an apolitical intelligence service, and that is a very good thing despite any embarrassment it may cause in the short term.
Published in The Messenger 12.11.07
Douglas Cohn, Eleanor Clift editorial