Let’s use our intelligence

It’s getting harder and harder to keep track of the bad guys.

On Monday, the director of national intelligence released declassified portions of a new National Intelligence Estimate, which summarizes the collective wisdom of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies. (Yes! Because we are a great and powerful nation, we have 16 intelligence agencies.) And it turns out, according to the new NIE, the Iranians won’t be starting World War III after all because, wouldn’t you know it, they stopped trying to make nuclear weapons in 2003.

To quote the NIE: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. ... We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

This is confusing. In 2005, the NIE asserted, “with high confidence,” that Iran was “currently determined to develop nuclear weapons.” Well, whatever! One day you think the Iranians are making nuclear weapons, the next day you realize they’re actually manufacturing fuzzy pink bedroom slippers.


But that’s what it’s like in the post-WMD-in-Iraq-fiasco intelligence community. Groupthink has now been banished in favor of a subversive, happy-go-lucky spirit, characterized by the introduction of new technical terms into the NIE, such as “we do not know” and “we do not have sufficient intelligence to judge,” which is code for “we really don’t have a clue.”

What startling revelations will future NIEs contain? Maybe “Osama bin Laden: Just a Peaceful Shepherd,” or “China: Not Actually in Asia Anymore”?

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful to the intelligence community (though it has never invited me to any of its barbecues), and really, I’m thrilled to hear that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons. But it would be nice to feel that the answers to our most pressing intelligence questions aren’t just blowing in the wind. Remember those unfortunate pictures, back during the 2004 presidential election, of John Kerry windsurfing? Over the last six years or so, our intelligence has had a similar look and feel.

WMD in Iraq! Whoops, sorry, no WMD in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein in cahoots with Al Qaeda! No, strike that ... captured terrorists will say just about any old thing when you waterboard them.

Iran is making nuclear weapons! Uh, never mind.

But if tracking the ever-shifting intel gives you whiplash, you can always recover by contemplating the Bush administration’s national security policies, which are frozen in place for all eternity. Just as the breakdown in prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq never led the administration to seriously reconsider its war plans, the intelligence community’s about-face on Iran appears only to have hardened Bush’s determination to proceed exactly as previously planned.

To most of humanity, the NIE contains extremely good news: If international pressure led Iran to stop trying to make nuclear weapons in 2003, it means that the Iranian regime is less dangerously crazy than it occasionally seems. As the NIE notes, it appears that “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.” In other words: We can probably cut some deals with these people.

But to Bush, the NIE isn’t good news, it’s “a warning signal.” The report shows that “they had the program. They halted the program. And the reason why it’s a warning signal is that they could restart it.” So full speed ahead with bellicose rhetoric and punitive sanctions.

We can now say (with “high confidence”) that this administration really knows how to screw up a good thing.

The latest NIE is a warning signal all right. It’s a warning that sometimes what we think we know turns out to be wrong, and implicitly, it’s a warning that we may have only a short time in which to take advantage of our somewhat improved understanding of reality.

Iran, U.S. Enemy No. 1, has been insisting for years that it’s not trying to develop nuclear weapons, despite the Bush administration’s claims to the contrary. Over the last few years, Iran has made several overtures to the U.S., which the Bush administration has rebuffed. The NIE gives us an excellent -- and fleeting -- opportunity to extend an olive branch of our own and open direct and wide-ranging talks with Iran.

Such a strategy could benefit everyone. As Iran experts Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr argue in the upcoming edition of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. and Iran have “similar objectives: Both want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq and prevent the civil war there from engulfing the Middle East. ... If Iran enjoyed favorable security and commercial ties with the United States and was at ease in its region, it might restrain its nuclear ambitions.”

Instead of cutting off our nose to spite our face, isn’t it time to try cutting some deals?