The spike, CIA style

In an important Wall Street Journal column last week, retired CIA officer Fred Fleitz reported on the current National Intelligence Estimate regarding Iran’s nuclear program. According to Fleitz, who has read the estimate, the American intelligence community stands by its collective assessment, first made in 2007, that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not restarted it since:

In February, the 17 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community issued a highly classified National Intelligence Estimate updating their 2007 assessment. That estimate had been politicized by several officials who feared how President George W. Bush might respond to a true account of the Iranian threat. It also was affected by the wave of risk aversion that has afflicted U.S. intelligence analysis since the 2003 Iraq War. Intelligence managers since then have discouraged provocative analytic conclusions, and any analysis that could be used to justify military action against rogue states like Iran.

I read the February 2011 Iran NIE while on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee. I believe it was poorly written and little improvement over the 2007 version.

Fleitz baldly states that, in pre-publication review of his column, the intelligence agencies censored his criticisms of the NIE analysis, including his serious concern that it manipulated intelligence evidence. The spike went further:

Censors also tried to prevent me from discussing my most serious objection to the 2011 Iran NIE: its skewed set of outside reviewers. The U.S. intelligence community regularly employs reviewers who tend to endorse anything they review: former senior intelligence officers, liberal professors and scholars from liberal think tanks. These reviewers tend to share the views of senior intelligence analysts, and they also want to maintain their intelligence contacts and high-level security clearances.

I believe that senior intelligence officials tried to block me from naming the NIE’s outside reviewers because the names so strongly suggest that intelligence agencies took no chances of an outside reviewer unraveling the document’s poorly structured arguments and cavalier manipulation of intelligence.

Fleitz was prevented from naming the names of the outside reviewers, but he was permitted to say this:

Two of the four are former CIA analysts who work for the same liberal Washington, D.C., think tank. Neither served under cover, and their former CIA employment is well known. Another reviewer is a liberal university professor and strong critic of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The fourth is a former senior intelligence official. Not surprisingly, the 2011 NIE included short laudatory excerpts from these reviewers that offered only very mild criticism.

Fleitz reminds readers of evidence tending to belie the NIE:

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano said last month that his agency has new information pointing to the military ambitions of Iran’s nuclear program. As of today, Iran has over 4,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium—enough, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, for four nuclear weapons if enriched to weapons grade.

Iran has accelerated its production of low-enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. and IAEA resolutions. It has also announced plans to install advanced centrifuge machines in a facility built deep inside a mountain near the city of Qom. According to several U.S. diplomats and experts, the facility is too small to be part of a peaceful nuclear program and appears specially constructed to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

To top this off, an item recently posted to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps website mused about the day after an Iranian nuclear test (saying, in a kind of taunt, that it would be a “normal day”). That message marked the first time any official Iranian comment suggested the country’s nuclear program is not entirely peaceful.

You can see why the CIA might want to conceal the names of the outside reviewers. They want to protect the guilty.

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