The latest National Intelligence Estimate is not a startling document just because of the revelation that Iran evidently stopped trying to develop nuclear weapons several years ago. Instead, it is notable for the near certainty all American intelligence organizations have on the subject — and they seem to agree, too, something not seen in the intelligence business in a long time. Shockingly, we have evidently known about this for two years, but it took until just now to develop a finished document with this important information. If it takes that long to come to conclusions of this import, then we are in big trouble.
Part of the problem is that getting raw information about Iran is very hard to do. The existence of moderate Iranian groups notwithstanding, there isn’t a great deal of public debate in the country about anything, and so getting information is painstaking, labor-intensive and thus very slow. We are increasing our sources of information, but it will take quite a while to reverse the decades of neglect and mismanagement of our intelligence apparatus.
Another difficulty is the fragmented nature of our own intelligence system. Every federal agency has an intelligence operation. Some are small, with few assets and not much capability, and they are directed at narrow areas of interest. Others, like the CIA and the Department of Defense, are very large and broad in scope. Before the al-Qaida attacks on 9-11, there was no way to coordinate the activities of all these single-minded agencies.
At the time, the director of the CIA was also called the “director of central intelligence,” but there was no central intelligence to direct and, indeed, there was so much inter-agency paranoia that cooperation didn’t exist and there was even open hostility. Information was almost never shared, much to our peril.
In theory, the creation of the post of director of national intelligence fixed all that. The DNI was supposed to accomplish what the DCI never could. Without his own agency to direct, he could stand above the fray to advise the president with candor and to make sure that all agencies cooperated in producing intelligence of the highest possible quality.
In the beginning, it didn’t work out that way, and that was predictable. As anyone who has experience with the inefficient mechanisms of large government can attest, no problem has ever been solved by creating another layer of bureaucracy, particularly one headed by someone with no inherent authority. If you add the intense political pressure exerted on officials by this, or any, White House, you get bad intelligence, if you get any at all.
In the end, the success represented by the latest National Intelligence Estimate about Iran occurred despite the unwieldy structure we have, and future success will depend wholly upon the leadership by Mike McConnell, the DNI, who is evidently more concerned with getting it right than with being a loyal political operative.
Before we get too euphoric, though, we must remember that Iran will remain a large danger to its neighbors and thus to regional stability. That means Iran is also a threat to our allies and has interests that are inimical to our own. Perhaps it doesn’t need nuclear weapons to foment Islamic revolution in places like Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, North Africa and the Gulf states. After all, many of those countries have governments that are economically and politically undemocratic, repressive or otherwise odious, and destabilizing them, in many cases, would not be difficult for Iran.
So, even if the NIE is wholly accurate today, the accuracy of intelligence is always fleeting, and few areas are more subject to unforeseen change than the Middle East.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.