Being wrong differently this time

Being wrong differently this time

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Friday that Iran has in recent months more than tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond what provides fuel toward that which is only used for weapons, begun enrichment at facilities in Fordow designed to withstand military attack, cannot account for significant amounts of raw uranium, and has refused international inspectors the ability to inspect suspicious facilities or interview scientists working on the nuclear program. 

Yet the Director for National Intelligence insisted in Congressional testimony there is no evidence Iran has decided whether to develop a nuclear weapon.  Given that U.S. intelligence agencies are a major source of information for the IAEA and other international organizations (U.S. agencies discovered the Fordow facility in 2009), how is it that our intelligence services come to such a seemingly contradictory conclusion from the IAEA?

As Thomas Sowell so nicely summarized the sub-prime mortgage crisis: only politics can create this problem.  American intelligence services are still so singed from having been wrong about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program that it appears they are emphasizing their skepticism.  The most flagrant example of that phenomenon was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from 2007, in which it was concluded that Iran had halted its overtly military programs in 2003, the reason a complete mystery but unrelated to our invasion of Iraq.

Intelligence work is difficult and inherently speculative.  Our intelligence professionals have to make judgments based on incomplete information and understanding, and policymakers decide hugely consequential issues on the basis of their information. Accepting that they will be wrong — perhaps even often wrong — is surely one of the most difficult responsibilities for both policymakers and intelligence professionals to accept.

American intelligence services were wrong several times over about Iraq, not just in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. For example, battle damage assessments of the Osirak strike showed Iraq was much further along in its weapons program than we believed they had been, making us less confident we understood the scope of the program. Heightened risk-aversion after the 9/11 attacks shifted somewhat the mindset of policy makers, who wanted less risk of being wrong on a false negative, and in that context skepticism we knew the dimensions of programs from inspections was dispositive.

The pendulum has swung back in the other direction now: eleven years after 9/11 without a successful attack on our homeland, policymakers now want less risk of being wrong on a false positive. What they are pulling out of the intelligence assessments is the reasons to doubt Iran’s progress, the reassurance we have time to manage this problem by political and economic and espionage means rather than having to destroy the Fordow enrichment complex before it becomes inviolable.

So it appears the Obama administration is persuaded to be wrong in a different way this time: instead of pressing intelligence agencies to conclude that a country has a nuclear weapons program on the basis of inconclusive data and a pattern of suspicious behavior, they are pressing intelligence agencies to conclude that a country does not have a nuclear weapons program on the basis of inconclusive data and a pattern of suspicious behavior. But cherry-picking intelligence findings is dangerous no matter which side of the line it is on.

The leadership of Iran is going to an awful lot of trouble and expense, and incurring an awful lot of economic pain, in order to perpetuate the belief that they have a nuclear weapons program. They have been lying to the IAEA for decades. Perhaps they are seeking to show that although Saddam Hussein couldn’t pull off the ruse, Persian subtlety can achieve the dual aims of regional hegemony without provoking American intervention. Perhaps they are rightly reading our war weariness and pushing ahead before we are willing to act. Perhaps it has nothing to do with us but instead plays into their internal power struggles. Perhaps nuclear weapons have a precious iconic value for a country that ought to be prosperous but is not. Perhaps it helps a government holding power by force to intimidate its citizens. Perhaps they are seeking to provoke a military attack at a politically significant time to unite Iranians when their government otherwise cannot inspire loyalty. 

One thing our intelligence agencies should be absolutely clear about is that we don’t know why Iran is making the choices they are. Motivations are the most difficult part of intelligence analysis to get right. Rather than provide policy makers a confident but unreliable assertion that Iran isn’t building a bomb, intelligence agencies should be analyzing the possible motives for Iran making the choices we are observing and providing policymakers with the means to judge the discriminating data: what will prove the case one way or the other? How would we know if we are wrong? Anything else and they are once again politicizing their intelligence findings.