August 24, 2006

The Conflating of Bad Intelligence and Bad Policy

I was struck fairly hard by a passage from a New York Times article I read today. In it, the tension between U.S. policymakers and legislators on the one hand and the intelligence community on the other is presented. The former seem to feel that the latter are being 'too cautious' in their analyses of the threats posed by Iran. Here is one passage:
The consensus of the intelligence agencies is that Iran is still years away from building a nuclear weapon. Such an assessment angers some in Washington, who say that it ignores the prospect that Iran could be aided by current nuclear powers like North Korea. "When the intelligence community says Iran is 5 to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon, I ask: 'If North Korea were to ship them a nuke tomorrow, how close would they be then?" said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

"The intelligence community is dedicated to predicting the least dangerous world possible," he said.

I'm not sure where to start with this one. Let's start at the top. The first sentence points out that the consensus in question involves how far away Iran is from building a nuclear weapon. The pols apparently feel that that question 'ignores' a potential threat axis. Let's think about that for a second.

If you employ analysts, you have a serious responsibility. You need to ask them the question for which you want the answer. Later in the paragraph, we find that in fact the reason that the pols are angry is that a question which the first sentence indicates was not asked is not being answered - namely, not "what is the threat of Iran building a nuclear weapon?" but "what is the threat of Iran assuming it is given a nuclear weapon?" This is a dramatically different question. Arguably, it is in fact a completely different question from 'the threat posed by Iran' because, realistically, it is 'the threat posed by a nuclear weapons transfer between North Korea and Iran.'

That latter is a much, much more involved set of circumstances. For one thing, you have to assume that North Korea has, in fact, a functional nuclear weapon. Then you have to assume that they are willing to export it (which thus builds in the assumptions that, for example, either they have enough of them to export, or they don't want to keep the one/few they have for their own use). Then you have to assume that North Korea would find an advantage in allying itself with another pariah nation in what would be an incredibly negatively-viewed transaction, for which they gain no defensive advantage and all manner of negative consequences. Then you have to assume that this export would, and could, be done without being detected and forestalled by those who wouldn't want it to happen - namely, most everybody else on the planet.

Now, after all that, you can ask: Is a North Korea/Iran functional nuclear weapon handoff, assuming it happens, a threat to the U.S.?

That is a completely different question from 'is Iran and its domestic attempts to secure nuclear weapons and/or nuclear weapon technology a threat to the U.S., and in what timeframe?' So yelling at the intelligence community because they seem to not be addressing the latter when answering the former seems counterproductive, stupid, fearmongering and just plain ridiculous.

Or, of course, an attempt to run up support (or break down resistance) to adventurism in Iran. Heaven forbid.

By the way, given that a NK/Iran nuclear transaction would, really, represent the ultimate failure of administration foreign policy - whose job it is to cope with such threats to the U.S. as multiple foreign nations maneuvering to present coordinated problems for us - do they really want an answer to that question?

Now, if what they're saying is that the NIE in question explicitly doesn't address the possibility of foreign technical assistance with a domestic nuclear program, I'm a bit confused - Iran's nuclear program has already benefited from a deal of foreign assistance. However, if in fact they are concerned about wholesale NK involvement in Iranian nuclear weapons construction, there are still questions they need to address. For example, one of the salient restrictions on Iranian weapon construction may be a simple bottleneck in fissile material enrichment, given the state of Iranian production facilities. If this is not the case, then do Mr. Gingrich and Co. really want to be yelling about precisely what we know about the Iranian enrichment program? I thought their party liked to call for lynching (politically at least) of people who did stuff like that, such as (heavens to Murgatroyd) release 'sensitive information' about spying on our own citizens, much less information about actual intelligence work on opposing countries' nuclear programs. If it is the case, as has been discussed at length in open literature, then the constraint is not really one of expertise (at least, not solely) but one of engineering resources and material - in which case the delay cited would not be affected by NK assistance short of a large materials transfer. In that case, again, they really should look to their own failure to properly specify the question - and, as well, to formulate policy that addressed this much less likely and more complex opposing maneuver on the world stage.

Posted by jbz at August 24, 2006 1:27 AM | TrackBack

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