Begging the Question on Intelligence

by Jonah Goldberg

While I haven’t figured out what I think of the whole NIE brouhaha, I did find this passage in the Washington Post story troubling:

While intelligence officials say the new conclusion about the Iranian program proved that the reforms were sound, the wide gap between Monday’s report and previous assessments also left the agencies vulnerable to accusations that officials had failed for too long to grasp a fundamental change in course by Iran’s leaders. ….

Huh? How does a specific finding prove that the “reforms” worked? “We found that Bush is wrong, so the system worked” is just as stupid and pernicious as “We found that Bush is right, so the system worked.” The only test of any significance is whether the intelligence is true. And, from what I can tell, there’s no reason to be supremely confident that it is. Again, it might be. I think barring some more compelling evidence, Bush is bound to act as if it is true.  But until it’s confirmed to be true it says nothing about the efficacy of post-Iraq reforms.  The proof that reforms worked is if it turns out that this time the intelligence community is actually right. Period.

Indeed, the Post goes on:

“The new report brings the U.S. intelligence community in line with what the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and several European governments were saying years ago,” said David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

How is this substantially different than Iraq? Yes, the IAEA was to a certain degree off-message about Iraq’s WMD program. But it’s findings also sometimes helped the argument for war. Regardess, “European governments” were often even more convinced of Saddam’s WMD programs and capability than US intelligence was. Now we’re supposed to believe that because US intelligence conforms with European governments again, it’s proof that things are different?

The attitude among many people — like say, John Edwards — is that we dodged a bullet with this NIE. But that’s only  true if this NIE is right. Indeed, as a matter of national security, it seems to me one could make the case that it would be better for the NIE to be wrong the other way. That is to say, if the NIE is wrong, better it be wrong on the side of caution. Which would  you rather: An NIE that says Iran isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons when it really is? Or,  an NIE that says Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons when it really isn’t?  How you answer that question probably says a lot about how you view foreign policy generally. 

The Corner

The one and only.