An insult to intelligence

Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial finds the Bush administration culpable for the damage done by the key judgments of the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program released this week:

Mr. Bush and his staff have allowed the intelligence bureaucracy to frame a new judgment in a way that has undermined four years of U.S. effort to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I think this is unfair except in the sense that the administration is responsible for some of the appointees who oppose the administration’s foreign policy,as the Journal suggests at the conclusion of the editorial. The administration also badly miscalculated its ability to take the lemon of the NIE and make lemonade with it.
The NIE is one more chapter in the long-running war of the State Department and the CIA on Bush adminstration foreign policy. We’ve been writing about it for a long time here. I sketched out elements of the CIA’s visible efforts to undermine the Bush administration in “Three Years of the Condor.” The administration tried briefly to assert control over the CIA with the apointment of Porter Goss to head the agency, but the permanent bureaucracy overthrew Goss within a year.
To understand this week’s events, it might help to think back to the moment when the adminsitration refused to defend the veracity of “the sixteen words” in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address. In retrospect, it looks like something of a turning point. This week’s NIE represents the culmination of a long struggle in which the administration has largely disarmed itself.
Yossi Klein Halevi provides a sense of the response of Israel’s defense community to the NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. I think the perspective of the Israelis sheds some light on the NIE. Halevi writes:

No one with whom I’ve spoken believes that professional considerations, such as new intelligence, were decisive in changing the American assessment on Iran. What has been widely hailed in the American media as an expression of intelligence sobriety, even courage, is seen in the Israeli strategic community as precisely the opposite: an expression of political machination and cowardice. “The Americans often accuse us of tailoring our intelligence to suit our political needs,” notes a former top security official. “But isn’t this report a case study of doing precisely that?”

There is much more in Halevi’s report, all of it worth reading.
One of the three co-authors of the NIE is the long-time anti-Bush officer Kenneth Brill. John Bolton brings Brill memorably to life in Surrender Is Not an Option. Brill is the American ambassador to the IAEA opposing strong action against Iran’s nuclear program even over the order of his boss Richard Armitage. I won’t go into the details of the issues Bolton covers (at pages 141-143 of the book), but here’s a flavor of the perspective on Brill from within the State Department in 2003 on his efforts regarding the Iranian nuclear program:

Armitage was now sufficiently worried about the colllapse in Vienna that he was making calls to foreign ministries, trying to lobby them to our side. He described Brill’s efforts in Vienna, or lack thereof, as “bullshit,” a pretty accurate assessment in my view.

Bolton concludes the episode with the observation that “Brill had certainly sunk himself in Armitage’s mind, more profoundly than anything I could ever have done.” What is Brill now doing in a position to do what he did this week? It is a question that Frank Gaffney presciently raised regarding Brill (and fellow NIE co-author Thomas Fingar) two years ago in the NRO column “Not a time to be diplomatic.” NRO supplied this subhead to Gaffney’s column: “Wrong man, wrong job.”
JOHN adds: The report’s timing raises one obvious possibility as to a political motivation. The authors may well have intended to run interference for the Democratic Presidential candidates. Until now, the hardest question for any of the Democratic candidates to answer has been, “What do you propose to do about Iran?” The NIE report gives them an easy answer; the candidates can just cite the report and say “Nothing.”
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