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Abraham R. Wagner

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A U.S. Intelligence Estimate on Iran?

Posted: 11/07/11 01:42 PM ET

The increasingly likely prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons poses significant problems for the U.S. as well as Israel and other allies. A flood of press reports related to an imminent new report from the IAEA indicates that Iran's efforts are more extensive than previously thought and Iran's development of a nuclear weapon could be a near-term reality. Remarkably the Obama administration and the U.S. Intelligence Community have been silent on the issue, leaving public discussion to the IAEA, leaks from the Israeli intelligence services, and speculation.

It is also remarkable that the last known U.S. intelligence estimate on the Iranian nuclear program was in 2007 -- an estimate that was greatly flawed and sharply criticized by experts from all sides. Indeed, panels of experts at both the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Brookings Institution all pointed to that lack of intelligence on the subject, and to estimates being based on little more than guesses, and having been completed by a group composed of State Department "exiles" sent over the office of the Director of National Intelligence and not career intelligence analysts.

With respect to such important intelligence estimates the Bush administration broke with the long tradition of keeping these critical studies classified, and issued an unclassified summary to better inform public debate. As the AEI and Brookings studies of the 2007 estimate show, this was a wise decision, enabling an open and frank discussion of both the estimate's shortcomings as well as the critical issues relating to Iran's intentions and nuclear ambitions.

Some four years later, two possibilities exist. First, it is possible that a new national intelligence estimate on this critical problem has been done, but is so secret and tightly held that not even its existence has leaked or been mentioned in the press. While highly unlikely, particularly in the current security environment, it would be a bad precedent and reversal of an enlightened policy of informing public debate. If indeed a more recent estimate exists, an unclassified summary which avoids disclosure of sensitive intelligence should be provided as done in the 2007 case. Clearly it is possible to do this without harming U.S. national security. The most likely harm in such a case would be to an administration that lacks any clear or effective policy with respect to Iran -- that being a political issue and not a security one. The second and more likely possibility is that the Obama administration has not directed, and the Intelligence Community has not performed, any more recent national estimate of the Iranian nuclear weapons program than the flawed and outdated one in 2007. Such a situation would be an even bigger outrage.

During the Cold War, for example, the Intelligence Community produced an annual intelligence estimate of Soviet strategic weapons capabilities -- known at the time as NIE 11-3/8. Analysts at the CIA and the other U.S. agencies took new intelligence that was collected and continuously revised their estimate in this most critical area. It was a process that kept decision makers in the White House, the Pentagon; State Department; and elsewhere informed as they engaged in defense planning and negotiations. The process also identified gaps in U.S. knowledge and led to radically improved intelligence collection programs to meet critical needs in this period.

Why does the U.S. deserve any less on the critical topic of Iranian nuclear weapons, and for an intelligence budget approaching $80-billion/year haven't the U.S. taxpayers more than paid for it? One would certainly think so. Just what is taking place on this important issue within the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the White House continues to be largely a mystery. For an administration committed to transparency, there is none here.

If Obama and his advisors are unwilling to act on their own, there is recent historical precedent for urging them to do so. In September 2002, for example, there was serious concern over Iraq and the programs in that country developing weapons of mass destruction -- including nuclear weapons as well as biological and chemical ones. That month, Senators Richard Durban, Bob Graham, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, all on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sent letters to President Bush and the Director of Central Intelligence, requesting both a national intelligence estimate on the subject as well as an unclassified summary for the public.

In response a national intelligence on Iraqi WMD was prepared by the Intelligence Community on a highly compressed time schedule, with the final report approved by the National Foreign Intelligence Board on October 1, 2002 -- less than a month after the tasking for this estimate. In all fairness, there were criticisms of the process and the findings, but it did set out what the U.S. knew and did not know about this critical problem, and was an important element in the decisions then taken about U.S. military actions in Iraq.

While the Iraqi nuclear program and other WMD efforts were ultimately found to have been discontinued, the situation in Iran today is probably the opposite and certainly no less important. The Israeli Government is again seriously considering a major strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities, and some are urging that the U.S. participate in or endorse such a strike.

These are indeed difficult decisions. Conventional strikes on the Iranian facilities, largely at Natanz as well as the covert sites discovered at Qom and more recently at Parchin, even using "bunker buster" munitions, may serious cripple the Iranian program but not eliminate it. At the same time such strikes may serve to provoke another war in the Middle East which nobody needs now. It is equally clear that years of sanctions and other policies have failed miserably to stop the Iranian program and have no prospect of ever doing so. The prospect of an "Arab Spring" and regime change in Iran is another pipe dream and not the basis for a rational foreign policy.

What is clear is that these are most serious issues, and a debate must take place on the basis of the best information possible. What we have is an explosion of media reports based largely on leaks from the Mossad, an impending IAEA report, and released U.S. intelligence that is seriously outdated and inaccurate. What we need is better information from the Obama administration and the Intelligence community, and we need it now. If they don't have anything better to tell the American people, we should know that as well, and they should be held accountable for it. This could be another U.S. intelligence failure that is staring us in the face.