High confidence in low confidence

The Washington Post leads with a story called “Lessons of Iraq Guided Intelligence On Iran.” Though the byline belongs to Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus, the story is so fawning that it might as well have been written by the press office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The burden of the story is that, stung by its failure correctly to assess Iraq’s WMD situation, the intelligence instituted new and improved procedures to dramatically increase the prospects of getting this sort of thing right. The new procedures don’t sound very innovative — e.g., analysts must now challenge existing assumptions when they do not fit new information and analysts now analyze intentions in addition to capabilities. Is it really the case that the CIA hasn’t done these things in the past?
I don’t mean to rule out the possibility that the new assessment is the result of improved methodologies. However, the Post entirely ignores two possibilities that seem at least as plausible. The first is the one Scott discussed this morning — the assessment project came under the control of (or, as the left would say, was “hijacked” by) people with a different ideological bent than those formerly in charge. As Scott notes, the NIE’s main authors include three former State Department officials with reputations as “hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials.” They are Tom Fingar, Vann Van Diepen, and Kenneth Brill.
The second possibility is that the new assessment does stem from “lessons of Iraq,” but not the lessons cited by the Post. A number of commentators, including Paul Pillar, have suggested that the CIA was too quick to conclude that Iraq possessed WMD in 2002 in part because it had underestimated Iraq’s WMD capacity before the first Gulf War. Indeed, it’s probably part of human nature to over-compensate for past misjudgments by tilting towards the opposite conclusion the next time a similar question arises. Thus, it’s not difficult to imagine that the latest assessment is informed (or misinformed) by the fact that the last time the intelligence community said an enemy state possessed WMD, we didn’t find any.
In the end, we have no way to assess why the intelligence community flipped from saying with high confidence in 2005 that Iran is currently determined to develop nuclear weapons, to saying now with high confidence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The only thing we can say with high confidence is that our intelligence community’s assessments do not deserve our high confidence.


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