The Corner

“A Senior U.S. Intelligence Official Assured Me”

The U.S. intelligence report, if true in this version,  suggesting Iran is a long way from getting the bomb is, of course, good news. Beside the real notion that they won’t get a bomb, as feared, in a year or two,  it would allow more freedom of choice for officers in Iraq who don’t have to worry about a shooting war with Iran at precisely the time they are trying to reconcile the Shia.

Still, the latest news is already weakening international efforts to isolate Iran, which are absolutely critical to implementing a policy of containment and avoiding what happened in the 1990s with Pakistan–a now rarely discussed catastrophe in which American diplomacy failed to stop the first “Islamic bomb”, with dire consequences that we see to this day with the open sanctuary given bin Laden.

But the recent criticism is still hard to keep straight.

Is Bush to be blamed for following the now discredited 2005 estimate that suggested the opposite of the present version, but simultaneously for releasing publicly the present version? And what are we to think of intelligence agencies–bad in 2005 for saying A, but suddenly good in 2007 for reversing and saying B?

In a systematic but curious recent Time essay Joe Klein reviews the controversy, but at times reflects these contradictions.The piece starts out with what is now the normal throat-clearing Bush-bashing:

The President looked awful. He stood puffy-eyed, stoop-shouldered, in front of the press corps discussing the stunning new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. He looked as if he’d spent the night throwing chairs around the Situation Room.

But soon the tone changes from sangfroid to unease that he didn’t sit on the report!

Oddly, Bush didn’t seem to ask for a delay in the release of the report. He could easily have requested a few weeks for his Administration to chew over the import of the NIE, discuss it with our allies, organize a new diplomatic initiative to negotiate with the Iranians.

So is it bad or good that the  “puffy-eyed, stoop-shouldered” President chose not to keep mum about the intelligence revisions, but to divulge openly the new information? One wonders how he would have been able to “chew over” the report, and organize a new diplomatic initiative?

Surely the leaks would have appeared in the papers instantaneously, with something like ‘Europeans ‘shocked’ over supposedly new information that Iran is no threat’,  followed by a headline perhaps like ‘Demands grow for Bush to come clean as allies break with administration.’

Klein’s real point I think, however, is that Bush missed an opportunity by sitting on the report while he organized a new diplomatic effort:

The NIE represented another promising opportunity missed. Imagine if the President had said, “This report means we don’t want war. We want to talk, and everything – including lifting of the economic sanctions and our acknowledgment that you are a major regional power – is on the table so long as you put everything on the table too. That means not only your uranium-enrichment program but also your support for terrorist organizations.” How could Iran have said no to that?

Well, as we see from Iranian infiltration into Iraq and its proxy Lebanese war with Israel, it could say no to almost anything it wants, especially with 4 million barrels pumped per day, worth  $90 plus each. So diplomacy with Iran is not easy–or as Klein writes in the same piece:

To be sure, dealing with the Iranians isn’t easy. In 2000, President Bill Clinton tried to stage a handshake at the United Nations with then President of Iran Mohammed Khatami – but at the last minute Khatami was ordered to back down by his superiors in Tehran.

A far poorer government that once went into a panic mode over a mere handshake with a liberal President eager to renew relations might well now, flush with cash, “have said no” to George Bush after his intelligence agencies for the nth time reversed course.

Finally, I think Klein is absolutely right in his own analysis of the development:

The moment certainly seemed historic. This was, quite possibly, the most assertive, surprising and rebellious act in the history of the U.S. intelligence community.

But why the almost giddy reaction to the new landscape?:

Gone were the days when spymasters would come to the White House for morning coffee and whisper the latest intelligence to the President, and the rest of the world would find out decades later, only after numerous Freedom of Information requests had prized the buried treasure from the CIA vault. Now the latest intelligence evaluations were being announced worldwide, nearly in real time. “It’s just mind-boggling,” a former CIA officer told me.

Three worries however, come to mind about this “mind-boggling” revolution:

It is not at all clear, as we learned from the implosion of the agencies in the 1970s that “real time”  and “mind boggling” public releases of intelligence analyses will always be good, especially given their uncertain credibility (e.g., 2005 vs. 2007).  As more comes out about the report, expect more charges of score-settling and partisanship.

Second, it simply is not true in the past that the rest of the world “would find out decades later” about intelligence. Then and now the New York Times or a New York publisher eager for a best seller can find a dissident to divulge almost anything, and as well as the government does–and pretty quickly too. 

And if one were ever to doubt that intelligence officers and high diplomatic officials do  leak and pass along information–with the demand that they are not to be named or held to cross-examination and inquiry about the quality of their leaks– then just examine the methodology of the Time essay itself:

“a senior U.S. intelligence official assured me“, “a former CIA officer told me”, “A senior U.S. intelligence official told me” and “a senior U.S. diplomat told me”.

Isn’t the “whisper” of the opinions of unnamed intelligence officers, in a non-transparent mode,  exactly what this “historic” moment was supposed to mitigate against? I guess when “senior” intelligence agents and officers whisper their spin and analyses to Time and not just in hushed tones to an administration official, it  really is “rebellious” and “assertive”, though perhaps not “surprising.”

So the essay raises more worries than it dispels–who are these unnamed officials that provided the background for the piece, and did Joe Klein transmit accurately and thoroughly and candidly what they said to him off the record about this “historic” moment, and how does all this tired backchanneling lead to a more transparent age of reform? And how in spirit at least is all this different from what Klein’s essay is suggesting was the original problem?

Contrary to popular rumor about “neocons”, I don’t think most in and out of government ever wanted to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But as we see here, we have a national crisis with our intelligence agencies: their analyses are uneven, contradictory, and may well be partisan-driven. And upon their publication, a number of high-ranking intelligence officials will immediately whisper to reporters in anonymous fashion to explain what is ‘really’ going on and shape a story for either personal or political reasons.

I’m sure Iran is delighted with all this.


The Latest