Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Iran Intell Re-Do

As one who has been extremely critical of U.S. intelligence gathering in recent history, I'm pleased so far by what I read about the methodology that produced the new NIE report on Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Anaylsis pieces like this, and the one by Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus in the Washington Post (firewalled) have heartening details that suggest this is a genuine escape from groupthink, shoddy sourcing, "layering" (whereby tentative conclusions at one stage of an assessment are built upon in later stages as though they were certainties), and over-reliance on third parties and on electronic spyware as opposed to human beings.

This from the NYT piece is good:

In the case of the 2007 Iran report, “red teams” were established to test and find weaknesses in the report’s conclusions. Counterintelligence officials at the C.I.A. also did an extensive analysis to determine whether the new information might have been planted by Tehran to throw the United States off the trail of Iran’s nuclear program.

Considering that, in the few cases they were called in during the Cold War, such red teams usually came up with better predictions and assessments than the official ones -- and subsequently were ignored.

There's an interesting detail buried in the WaPo piece about who started the process in motion that led to a second look at, and a thorough revision of, the Iran assessment:

A pivotal moment occurred in early summer 2005, when President Bush discussed the new Iran NIE with advisers during a routine intelligence briefing. Why, Bush asked, was it so hard to get information about Iran's nuclear program?

The exchange, described by a senior U.S. official who witnessed it, helped instigate the intelligence community's most aggressive attempt to penetrate Iran's highly secretive nuclear program. Over the coming months, the CIA established a new Iran Operations Division that brought analysts and clandestine collectors together to search for hard evidence.

Make of it what you will. As if you needed permission.