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The Politics of Intelligence

Dec 2, 2017
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With more details emerging on the recently-declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program, it seems clear that the assessment–like so many aspects of the intel community–has been affected by partisan politics and individual bias.

To be fair, we should note that the nation’s intel apparatus (like any government bureaucracy) is subject to political influence. And the work of intelligence analysts will always be affected by their personal views and biases. However, in something as important as an NIE, every effort should be made to minimize those influences. Sadly, that wasn’t the case with the Iran estimate.

In our initial post on the NIE, we noted a New York Sun editorial which (rightfully) challenged the objectivity of Vann Van Diepen, one of the principal analysts who authored the assessment. A CIA employee, Mr. Van Diepen has, according to the Sun, “spent the last five years trying to get America to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium.” You don’t need a Top Secret security clearance to understand that Van Diepen’s position represents a minority view in most intelligence circles. So, why was he assigned to the NIE team?

A similar question might be asked about other intel officials who played key roles in producing the assessment. The Iranian document, (indeed, all NIEs) are produced under the auspices of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which leads community efforts in that area. The current chairman of the NIC is none other than Tom Fingar.

Does that name ring a bell? It should. As Ken Timmerman at Newsmax reminds us:

Fingar was a key partner of Senate Democrats in their successful effort to derail the confirmation of John Bolton in the spring of 2005 to become the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

As the head of the NIC, Fingar has gone out of his way to fire analysts “who asked the wrong questions,” and who challenged the politically-correct views held by Fingar and his former State Department colleagues, as revealed in “Shadow Warriors.”

In March 2007, Fingar fired his top Cuba and Venezuela analyst, Norman Bailey, after he warned of the growing alliance between Castro and Chavez.

Mr. Timmerman describes Fingar as part of a “coterie of State Department officials brought over to ODNI by the first director, career State Department official John Negroponte.” Another member of that group was Kenneth Brill, another key contributor to the Iranian estimate.

At one time in his foreign service career, Mr. Brill served as U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It appears that Brill was a good match for the organization, which has never been particularly aggressive–or successful–in discovering nuclear programs among rogue states. As today’s Wall Street Journal notes, Brill’s performance in Vienna was unimpressive, at best:

For a flavor of their political outlook, former Bush Administration antiproliferation official John Bolton recalls in his recent memoir that then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage “described Brill’s efforts in Vienna, or lack thereof, as ‘bull–.'” Mr. Brill was “retired” from the State Department by Colin Powell before being rehired, over considerable internal and public protest, as head of the National Counter-Proliferation Center by then-National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

In his book “Shadow Warriors,” Ken Timmerman describes Brill as a man who steadfastly refused to address the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, despite evidence to the contrary:

“While in Vienna, Brill consistently failed to confront Iran once its clandestine nuclear weapons program was exposed in February 2003, and had to be woken up with the bureaucratic equivalent of a cattle prod to deliver a single speech condemning Iran’s eighteen year history of nuclear cheating.”

Negroponte rehabilitated Brill and brought the man who single-handedly failed to object to Iran’s nuclear weapons program and put him in charge of counter-proliferation efforts for the entire intelligence community.
The collective contributions of Messrs. Van Diepen, Fingar and Brill may explain the NIE’s “diplo-centric” perspective and its optimistic outlook on Iran’s nuclear program. And that brings us to another point. Media coverage of any NIE invariably highlights the assessment as the “consensus” of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies.

Well, almost. One of the dirty little secrets of the NIE process is that some organizations have a greater say (and influence) than others. For example, while representatives of the Coast Guard intelligence and the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity (MICA) may have been invited to the initial meeting on the Iran report, it is virtually certain that no “coasties” or Marines were involved in the final preparation. Iran’s national nuclear program is beyond the purview of many intelligence organizations, so they have no input in the final report.

So, who was actually responsible for the NIE? Well, obviously the NIC (which controlled development of the assessment), along with the CIA, NSA, DIA, NGA, State Department and the Department of Energy. The bulk of the information–and analytical expertise–came from only six of the sixteen intelligence agencies.

The delineation of labor goes something like this: CIA leads community efforts in WMD and counter-proliferation, and they controlled the defector reporting which (reportedly) prompted the revised assessment. NSA provided SIGINT information used in formulating the NIE; DIA analysts offered expertise on links between Iran’s nuclear program and its military, and NGA’s imagery products were used in tracking changes at facilities associated with Iran’s nuclear program. Among the other key players, the State Department furnished analysis on the diplomatic aspects of Tehran’s nuclear effort, while the Energy Department provided critical assessments on Iranian nuclear research, technology and related matters.

While most (if not all) intel agencies were given an opportunity to review–and critique–draft versions of the NIE, most of the actual work on the assessment was done by the “Big 4” intel agencies (CIA, NSA, DIA and NGA), with key assistance from NGA, the State Department and DOE. That isn’t surprising; collectively, the three organizations control much of the nation’s intel analysis, and a good chunk of our collection capabilities.

What’s more surprising is that the document’s preparation was largely entrusted to three individuals who have, to varying degrees, opposed existing U.S. policies in the Middle East and prevailing perspectives within the intelligence community. While honest dissent among intel analysts is welcome–even necessary–we can only wonder if the Iran NIE was influenced more by new information, or by the prevailing biases and political agendas that affect portions of our intelligence community.

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