The Corner

Can We Trust the Congressional Research Service?

Paul Kerr, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), is upset that in April, I cited him as an example of the danger of agenda research corrupting the Congressional Research Service, which Congress relies upon for impartial analysis. Congress relies on CRS reports as national-security policymakers once relied on National Intelligence Estimates, before politicization compromised them. It is one of the reasons why it is important that its work not start down a slippery slope, for CRS reports are too valuable to chronicle issues long-after they fade from current memory or Washington limelight or to present them in a nuts-and-bolts, precise manner too often missing from newspapers and print journals.

I have never met Mr. Kerr, nor was I aware of his blog before he challenged a Wall Street Journal op-ed questioning Iran’s sincerity in nuclear negotiations without addressing any analytical point of disagreement, and took a snide potshot at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s report, again without citing any factual or even interpretive complaint. He also cited criticism of my piece by Farideh Farhi, an alumna of the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Ministry think-tank and an advisor to the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group which advocates for U.S. acceptance of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear positions, although Mr. Kerr omitted both these affiliations.

Credibility matters. I stand by my work and always defend it, although I’ll readily acknowledge error when it exists. As I was going to be in Hawaii the following week for my Naval Postgraduate School job, I offered to debate Ms. Farhi on any issues of interpretation or disagreement at the University of Hawaii, where she is an adjunct scholar. She did not accept.

Mr. Kerr is upset that I questioned his impartiality. It was not an arbitrary charge. He is a very good analyst and an expert on non-proliferation issues. Ninety-five percent of his work is straightforward, even if he too often footnotes himself. He is also quite political.

This causes to stand out certain assertions which seek to question or revise policy, and perhaps constitute subtle politicization. Since Mr. Kerr repeatedly asserts that my criticism is unfair even long after I thought we put our debate to bed, I provide this case in point relating to Mr. Kerr’s CRS Report, “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Tehran’s Compliance with International Obligations” (.pdf here). The last sentence on the last page of the report, prior to the appendices, reads:

It is worth noting that the State Department’s arguments appear to rely heavily on the notion that a state’s apparent intentions underlying certain nuclear-related activities can be used to determine violations to Article II [of the Non-Proliferation Treaty]. This interpretation is not shared by all experts.

The assertion is important because it suggests that there is significant disagreement within the international community as to what constitutes violation, and the State Department may be too uncompromising. If true, there should be any number of reproducible statements from experts or officials documenting that “this interpretation is not shared by all experts.” Instead, Mr. Kerr cites only, “Personal communication with Andreas Persbo, Senior Researcher, the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre.” And with Mr. Persbo’s magic wand, the CRS report qualifies a statement about the fairness of the State Department’s interpretation.

Few Congressmen, Executive Branch officials, or even journalists read footnotes. Even if they did, they still would not know that Andreas Persbo receives funds from advocacy foundations, among whose goals are to “Inform and influence decision makers.” No harm, there. But there is greater question when it comes to issue advocacy. The Ploughshares Fund says that by “Combining high-level advocacy, an enhanced grantmaking capacity and our own expertise, we are helping to fundamentally change nuclear weapons policy.” Indeed. The Ploughshares Fund also supports NIAC. Mr. Persbo and Trita Parsi have written together on the subject of diplomacy and Iran’s nuclear program.  One has to assume Mr. Kerr knew this; it is the job of analysts to know. NIAC’s blog subsequently described both Paul Kerr and Farideh Farhi as “our colleagues.” Farhi is a colleague because she serves on NIAC’s board. I am unsure what makes Mr. Kerr NIAC’s colleague.

This is all a bit in the weeds, but weeds matter. Many analysts may agree more with Mr. Kerr than me on any particular issue. So be it. But it is a slippery slope if agendas — or poor sourcing — compromise CRS work. Today it may be the Non-Proliferation Treaty, tomorrow it can be ethanol, the next day it can be Haiti. It is not possible to know what was Mr. Kerr’s intention — having never met him (and only having exchanged one or two polite emails with him after our exchange began, I have no reason to distrust him). I would, however, assume that when describing policy or policy debates, we can expect more precision from the CRS. There is nothing wrong with questioning, but eyebrows rise when footnotes are weak. And certainly, if CRS employees choose to “vent” on blogs, they should accept that their challenges might solicit a response.

Michael Rubin — Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East ...

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