A word from Mark Falcoff on the NIE

Mark Falcoff is a former professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and, as he mentions below, senior consultant to the 1983 National Bipartisan Commission on Central America chaired by Henry Kissinger. Among other affiliations, he has been a long-time resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This morning he writes:

Although you’ve already posted a valuable item on the NIE on Iran, I’d like to add my two cents worth.
For more than twenty-five years now I’ve worked in Washington, sometimes on the Hill, sometimes in a prominent think tank. During that time I’ve had access to the NIE’s on a number of countries, and at times was contracted by the CIA to look at their work. Without violating any confidences–I had a clearance, obviously–I’d like to make a few observations.
The first is that most Americans don’t understand that the CIA is divided into two different divisions–estimates and operations. Most Americans, and I suppose most foreigners, imagine that the CIA spends all its time on operations. Actually the vast majority of resources are put into estimates. Mover, the two sides of the house, as they call it, have nothing whatever to do with each other. They are kept completely apart.
The other misconception is that the same kinds of people work on both sides of the house. Wrong again. The operations guys conform pretty much to the stereotype of Hollywood films–ex-military or professional spooks. The estimates guys are mostly academic types who couldn’t find a job teaching at a university when they got their Ph.D. Politically and culturally they are absolutely indistinguishable from the career people at the State Department. You can imagine what that means in the present context of Bush-hatred.
My other comment is this. NIE’s are not necessary accurate. Sometimes they are wildly inaccurate. I invite anyone to go to “Foreign Relations of the United States: Cuba, 1958-1960” and read what was said about Fidel Castro before he took power. Another example: a week before Somoza collapsed in Nicaragua, the NIE of the day claimed he was bound to remain in power indefinitely. I haven’t looked at the NIE for Iran the week before the Shah departed, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it said something similar.
Let me add a further note. In 1986 I was working for the Kissinger Commission on Central America and as such I was allowed to see the NIEs on all the relevant countries in the circum-Caribbean. I vividly recall the one on Mexico. Among other things it claimed that the foreign minister of that country was an embittered leftist married to a Soviet citizen. As it happens, I knew the son of the couple (he has since become foreign minister of Mexico in his own right) and I knew for a fact that his mother was not a Soviet citizen. Far from it. She was a nice Jewish lady who lived in New York and grew up in Brooklyn. It is, I suppose, possible that she was brought to the US in the 1920s from the Soviet Union–at age 3. But there is a crucial difference between that and what was in the NIE. The implications for our foreign policy were very different. At the time I wondered, Who checks this things out? I still wonder.
Let me add that with one signal exception–a report on Mexico prepared for President Clinton before he made his state visit there–I have never seen a piece of analysis by the CIA that could not have been written by a bright high school student. And this is what we spend billions of dollars on every year.
Maybe Iran has stopped working on its nuclear project. Maybe the CIA has got it right. After all, every once in a while a blind pig manages to find a truffle. But I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.
Mark Falcoff
American Enterprise Institute

UPDATE: Thomas Joscelyn writes:

It looks to me that the authors of the current NIE on Iran’s nuclear capability have some serious explaining to do. It took only four months for one of the NIE’s authors to completely flip-flop on the issue. Why would anyone trust this type of “analysis”‘?

Joscelyn’s related post at the Worldwide Standard is “NIE: An abrupt about-face.”

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