Defending the NIE Report

After years of trying to expose the CIA’s war on the Bush administration, we may be making a little progress. Questions about the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran have become sufficiently widespread that the intelligence community has found it necessary to respond:

The federal agency responsible for national intelligence estimates yesterday defended its report on Iran against charges that it was crafted primarily by former State Department officials who infused their personal politics into the report to undercut the Bush administration.
“It’s not as if there are two or three people who craft this and then it’s just put out there,” said Vanee Vines, spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
Ms. Vines defended the report, saying that each NIE is a “group exercise” involving the “entire intelligence community.”
However, another DNI spokesman said earlier this week that two individuals in particular played a significant role in drafting the report.
“Many analysts worked this issue, but Tom Fingar, our deputy director of national intelligence of analysis, and Vann Van Diepen, national intelligence officer for WMD and proliferation, had a major part in it,” spokesman Ross Feinstein said in an e-mail.
A third DNI official, Kenneth C. Brill, also was reported to be a chief contributor.
Ms. Vines insisted, however, that “to try to characterize these estimates as the product of one or two individuals is just entirely inaccurate.” She pointed out that a NIE is compiled using intelligence from the CIA and the other 17 U.S. intelligence agencies, and then reviewed by the National Intelligence Board, whose chairman is Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.

Apart from the fact that it doesn’t even touch on the merits, this defense is unpersuasive. Every NIE is, by definition, supposed to represent a “consensus” of all of the intelligence agencies. Yet those who actually write the report obviously exercise great influence, and when the “consensus” of seventeen agencies does a 180-degree U-turn, it is reasonable to shine a spotlight on the authors. Moreover, as we have pointed out repeatedly, the liberal, anti-Bush slant of the intelligence community is not a function of a few bad apples; rather, it broadly pervades that community as a whole. So to say that many intelligence officials had a hand in the report is by no means reassuring.
Nor is the fact that the report was reviewed by the National Intelligence Board, chaired by Michael McConnell, a meaningful defense. The Board consists of the heads of the sixteen intelligence agencies, plus McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence. The agency heads are the product of the intelligence community’s liberal culture, not a check on it. And suppose that McConnell did believe that the NIE report was a politically-motivated flip-flop, and and sent it back for more work. Within 24 hours, the report would have been leaked, and excerpts would have appeared in the New York Times under the headline “Bush appointee squelches intelligence report.”
It will be interesting to see whether enough pressure will be mounted to force the intelligence community to offer a more substantive defense of its work.
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