Evidence? What Evidence?

A report published by the House Intelligence Committee is complaining about the effectiveness of intelligence operations against Iran? Why? Because they haven’t uncovered any evidence to back up the White House’s assertions about Iran’s weapons capabilities and intentions.

A key House committee issued a stinging critique of U.S. intelligence on Iran yesterday, charging that the CIA and other agencies lack “the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments” on Tehran’s nuclear program, its intentions or even its ties to terrorism.

The 29-page report, principally written by a Republican staff member on the House intelligence committee who holds a hard-line view on Iran, fully backs the White House position that the Islamic republic is moving forward with a nuclear weapons program and that it poses a significant danger to the United States. But it chides the intelligence community for not providing enough direct evidence to support that assertion.

“American intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran’s nuclear weapons program” to help policymakers at a critical time, the report’s authors say. Information “regarding potential Iranian chemical weapons and biological weapons programs is neither voluminous nor conclusive,” and little evidence has been gathered to tie Iran to al-Qaeda and to the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, they say. [emphasis added]

You can read the report for yourself here. I admit I have not read it in detail yet, but in perusing it the first time, it seems to be a collection of assertions about how dangerous Iran is, followed by complaints that we don’t really have enough evidence to determine how dangerous Iran is. I would certainly agree with the Committee’s conclusion that we ought to have better intelligence about Iran.

One thing that particularly interested me about this report, though, is that it seemed much more focused on Iran’s intentions, rather than their actual capabilities. (And even the intelligence about those intentions was weak, with several splits in opinion being noted.) Look, Iran may intend to produce a nuclear weapon, but that doesn’t mean that they are close to doing it. Iran may intend to develop biological weapons, but that doesn’t mean they have the foggiest idea about how to do it.

The bottom line is that the assertions about how “dangerous” Iran is seem to be largely based on taking Iran’s assertions at face value, without any real corroborating evidence. Given this lack of real information, the increasingly hostile attitude of some quarters towards Iran seems ludicrous to me. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t like the current regime in Iran, and I’d love nothing better than for pro-Western folks out that way to knock out the current government and start a better one. But given that there’s little evidence right now that Iran actually poses a significant threat to the United States, talk of military action seems extraordinarily premature. Given current experience, it seems likely that any such action would backfire and result in even more radicalization of Muslim populations and increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks at home. Moreover, in Iran in particular, the generally pro-Western parts of the country would likely turn against us and rally behind Ahmadinejad, thereby strengthening the Mullahs.

In addition the enormous downsides to military action against Iran, given that we lack any significant intelligence about Iran’s nuclear programs, it’s pretty unlikely that we’d be able to prevent them from developing a weapon using military force, anyway. If you don’t know where your target is, you’re not all that likely to hit it. So we’d be placing the United States at greater risk of terrorist attack without gaining any significant advantage in return. Doesn’t seem like a smart move.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Today’s NYT has a related Editorial entitled, “Wanted: Scarier Intelligence.” The key ‘graphs:

[T]he report seems intended to signal the intelligence community that the Republican leadership wants scarier assessments that would justify a more confrontational approach to Tehran. It was not the work of any intelligence agency, or the full intelligence panel, or even the subcommittee that ostensibly drafted it. The Washington Post reported that it was written primarily by a former C.I.A. official known for his view that the assessments on Iran are not sufficiently dire.

While the report contains no new information, it does dish up dire-sounding innuendo, mostly to leave the impression that Iran is developing nuclear weapons a lot faster than intelligence agencies have the guts to admit. It also tosses in a few conspiracy theories, like the unsupported assertion that Iran engineered the warfare between Israel and Hezbollah. And it complains that America’s spy agencies are too cautious, that they “shy away from provocative conclusions.”

That Iran is Hezbollah’s chief backer is uncontroverted. That it ginned up the recent conflict with Israel is speculative but hardly a leap of epic proportions. It’s also not exactly controversial that intelligence agencies play CYA even moreso than other bureaucracies, preferring to not correctly predict major events than to look foolish by predicting those that do not occur.

That said, I agree that pushing the Intel Community to reach specific conclusions that support the preferred policies of the party in power is improper. The role of oversight should be to ensure that monies are spent wisely and that the agencies are not pursuing their own pet agendas. Ideally, intelligence agencies would, in the tradition of Joe Friday, be in the “just the facts” business.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Intelligence, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, World Politics, , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

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  2. Report chastises U.S. intelligence on Iran’s nuclear quest / Authors of House critique also rap agencies’ inability to find a Tehran link to terrorism…

    A key House committee issued a stinging critique of U.S. intelligence on Iran, charging Wednesday th…

  3. anjin-san says:

    The Bush admin is whipping up war flames based on, well, not much? It has happend before. Like the song says, “I get on my knees and pray, we don’t get fooled again”.

  4. Bithead says:

    Iran themselves states they’re moving forward with Nuclear reseach. Why a land awash in oil would need such seems a little strange… until we recall their public statements about wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the globe. THen we have the small matter of their complicity with Hezbolah… (Night vision Goggles, anyone?… plus what funding of them we already know about…)

    So, a Nuclear Iran, who vows to wipe Israel off the face of the map doesn’t bother you two? If their public statements cannot be accepted as evidence, then perhaps you guys are asking too much…. or perhaps you’re looking for an excuse not to respond to the threat.

  5. LJD says:

    Seems to make perfect sense. Until you consider that a guy says he has a gun, and says he wants to kill you. To stand there believing he won’t do it is suicide. It would be nice if the U.N. could work this out. Not holding my breath.

  6. DC Loser says:

    They shot their load in Iraq and now want to reload? Nice try.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    You’re missing the point. The role of the House Intelligence Committee isn’t to assemble actionable intelligence it’s to provide Congressional oversight for the government agencies that do. That’s what this report does and it’s giving the CIA a failing grade: the agency isn’t doing its job i.e. providing intelligence.

    The point of perserverating on the threat posed by Iran is less to make the case for military action against Iran but to make the case that the CIA (and other intelligence agencies) should be paying closer attention and exerting greater effort.

    The CIA is not a policy-making agency (neither is State). The second letter of the acronym stands for “Intelligence” and that’s what they’re supposed to be providing; they haven’t done it.

    The Committee is providing oversight; that’s one of it’s jobs. The progress is glacial but at least it’s a step forward from five years ago.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    Seems to make perfect sense. Until you consider that a guy says he has a gun, and says he wants to kill you.

    Yes, he might say that he has a gun, but what if he’s just pointing his finger at you?

  9. John Poleshek says:

    The definition of intelligence is knowledge,news, and information.What we know about Iran cannot be considered intelligence in the “intelligence community i.e. CIA,FBI etc”.Rather it is public knowledge,which in most cases is really manipulated useless information.On the other hand valuable intelligence is almost always secret and never divulged to the public.So lets not fall victim to being manipulated and debating about us less information.

  10. just me says:

    Yes, he might say that he has a gun, but what if he’s just pointing his finger at you?

    I he is pointing a finger at you, says he is pointing a gun at you, but you don’t know it is a finger, and you shoot him, you would successfully plead self defense.

    If a bank robber puts his finger in his pocket, and says it is a gun, he is still a bank robber.

    Until Iran starts saying “hey it is just a finger” they should be considered a threat.

    Once Iran goes nuclear, the world is going to be in a heep of hurt.

  11. Herb says:

    I see from some comments that some want to keep the “Bush Hater” flames burning bright. It seems they only want to criticize rather than provide something constructive to help their fellow Americans and aid those responsible for keeping our country security intact. It matters not to them that we are fighting the Islamic terrorist that would rather see every American dead.

    In JJ’s post “Are Democrats Traitors” the other day, I stated that “If the shoe fits”. There are not only democrats that find the fit perfectly, but also some who call themselves republicans that also find the fit to be to their liking.

    Neither you, I, or any average citizen, knows the “Real Truth” about our countries intelligence knowledge or capabilities are and those who do know should “keep their big mouths shut” rather than reveal what the actual state of our intelligence actually is. For anyone to unzip their mouths and tell all is nothing short of being a traitor.

    As for the “Bush Haters”, Keep your big mouths shut or try to find another place spread your hate.

  12. legion says:

    There’s another thing here. Iran has been a participant at some level or other in global terrorism for quite a while now. It’s never been a big enough threat (to us, anyway) to even consider something as massive as an Iraq-style invasion (or worse) until now for one reason: Iraq.

    Remember the Iran-Iraq war? Or is that Wars? Iran was balanced politically and militarily in the region by Iraq. Now we’ve taken Iraq out of the equation altogether. Anybody who’s ever even been able to find the Middle East on a map, let alone studied it, could have told Bush this would happen. They probably did. Maybe he cared, maybe he didn’t, but to think that trotting out the military solution again and invading Iran is the best way to deal with that is beyond insane – it’s positively rabid. After the a** f*cking we’ve given Iraq – militarily, economically, and socially – it’ll be years, possibly decades, before they’re rebuilt into a nation that can contribute to regional stability. So doing the same thing to Iran will make things better?

    In a word, no.

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  14. LJD says:

    Dave’s comments make a lot of sense. However, I would add that it is difficult to gain intelligence in areas like North Korea or Iran, where they are continually sticking their finger in our eye.

    They not only have no intention of cooperating in any meaningful way (except to stall), they have no intention of succumbing to international will (i.e altering their current course).

    So we are faced with either taking action, using diplomacy (which has been proven innefective time and time again, and incidentally identified by both as an act of war), or doing nothing. All of which are affected by the intelligence we have- good or bad. But what more can we do?

    Apparently, the best policy option touted here is doing nothing, just wait for a mushroom cloud over Israel, or in the U.S.

  15. Anderson says:

    Why a land awash in oil would need such seems a little strange…

    Right, it’s very strange that Iran would want to be able to sell the oil it would otherwise consume.

    Is there an economist in the house?

    –That said, OF COURSE Iran wants nukes. Do you know why? Because the U.S. has declared that it embraces “preventive war” and that it can invade any country it wants, any time, should there be some bogus intel that said country poses some sort of threat.

    Exhibit A – Iraq.

    Now, given that Iraq was one of 3 “axis of evil” countries, and Iran is as well … do the math, folks.

    Honestly–if you were an Islamic mullah running Iran, dedicated to sharia rule, would you be building the Bomb, or not? Damn straight you would.

  16. McGehee says:

    Honestly—if you were an Islamic mullah running Iran, dedicated to sharia rule, would you be building the Bomb, or not? Damn straight you would.

    Anderson, come on now. Do you seriously believe Iran only decided it wanted nuclear capability after George W. Bush made his “Axis of Evil” speech?

    Are you really going to argue such a transparently “blame America first” position here, among your friends?

  17. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    If Herb’s post was the first one, we could see who fits into the catagory of Bush haters. Anjin, DC loser, legion, and last but surely not least, Anderson. These folks would have dismissed the attack on Pearl Harbor as a military exercise gone awry. What part of the Islamic cread “convert of die” is it that you fail to understand? These poor representatives of America, think Mein Kampf was a novel. You boys fail at your own Darwinistic religion. Survival of the fittest.

  18. Bithead says:

    —That said, OF COURSE Iran wants nukes. Do you know why? Because the U.S. has declared that it embraces “preventive war” and that it can invade any country it wants, any time, should there be some bogus intel that said country poses some sort of threat.

    Had you forgotten they were in pursuit of nukes LONG before we took on that policy… and that in fact their pursuit of Nuclear power, and their open statements about what they planned to do with it, is exactly why the pre-emptive policy is now required?

  19. Bithead says:

    That said, I agree that pushing the Intel Community to reach specific conclusions that support the preferred policies of the party in power is improper. The role of oversight should be to ensure that monies are spent wisely and that the agencies are not pursuing their own pet agendas. Ideally, intelligence agencies would, in the tradition of Joe Friday, be in the “just the facts” business.

    May I remind you that these same intel agencies have a habit of reworking data so as to come up with reports that do NOT mesh with the WH, regardless of the facts? (Can you say Joe Wilson?)

    There’s two ways this stuff can be manipulated, and to accept the word of the NYT on which way that’s going seems counter productive to the truth at best.

  20. I agree that the intelligence agencies should be primarily in the “just the facts” business. I say primarily because I do think there is also a role for some one to look at the facts and draw a conclusion about the liklihood of future scenarios.

    But your criticism seems to be more the echoing of the reporter than dealing with the facts.

    ““American intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran’s nuclear weapons program” to help policymakers at a critical time, the report’s authors say. Information “regarding potential Iranian chemical weapons and biological weapons programs is neither voluminous nor conclusive,” ”

    That is a straight forward indictment on the lack of facts. It is not saying that facts inconvenient to the desired conclusion are outweighing facts that match the desired conclusion.

    “Although Iran . . . with active denial and deception efforts, is a difficult target for intelligence analysis and collection, it is imperative that the U.S. Intelligence Community devote significant resources against this vital threat,”

    Again calling for more facts, not just more facts that they want to see.

    “The report says Negroponte needs to “clearly identify his goals for improving Iran-related collection and analysis so members of the Community know what they are supposed to achieve.””

    They are calling for how the intelligence committee is going to solve this problem of a lack of facts.

    “”We think it’s important for the American people to understand the kinds of pressures that we are facing and to increase the American public’s understanding of Iran as a threat.””

    Can you disagree with that statement. If the facts show Iran isn’t a threat or is a major threat, it is good for the American public to understand this. We elect people to take care of problems like Iran. Trying to do that job with insufficient information is definately pressure.

    In short, the only specific information, the quotes in the article seems very reasonable to me. The rest seems to be more MSM spin which I personally take with a very large grain of salt.

    “The bottom line is that the assertions about how “dangerous” Iran is seem to be largely based on taking Iran’s assertions at face value, without any real corroborating evidence. Given this lack of real information, the increasingly hostile attitude of some quarters towards Iran seems ludicrous to me.”

    In the absence of concrete evdience one way or another, is it better to honor the threat or ignore it? Maybe this is one of those philosophical questions that seperate liberals from conservatives, but I believe when faced with a threat of this magnitude it is better to honor the threat.

    Now that said, the best way to honor the threat, the question of having enough hard data to successfully carry out a military operation to elminate the threat, secondary consequences, etc all are good fodder for discussions about how to honor the threat.

  21. DC Loser says:

    Funny, I hear crickets from the HPSCI concerning the lack of IC intelligence about the North Korean nuclear program. Hey guys, they ALREADY have nukes! What, me worry? Nahhhhhh!

  22. Anderson says:

    I’m sure that Iran was seeking nukes before 9/11. I’m also sure that the desire to protect themselves against U.S./Israeli threats was a big element of that strategy. Which we confirmed several times over after 9/11.

    Diplomacy is about assuring a country that it has more to gain than to lose by concurring with your desired course of events. We can’t effectivly wield the stick against Iran, b/c that only encourages the conduct we are trying to deter.

    I’ll say it again: if Iran’s mullahs are rational, then they want nukes. The only hope for averting their going nuclear is to realize that fact and then quell those reasons.

  23. LJD says:

    Great hypothetical arguments here.

    Assuming, of course, the other party is not hell bent on ours and our allies’ destruction.

  24. legion says:

    Lots of countries want nukes. As Anderson points out, we’ve established a policy of ‘shoot first, negotiate later’ regarding such things. But another side to that argument is that Bush’s policies twards NK, India, and Pakistan have shown the world that you can do pretty much whatever you want if you’ve got nukes, and we’ll just let you.

    We let India ignore the non-proliferation pact. We let Pakistan (or at least their senior nuke tech) sell the knowledge to make nukes to whoever would pay. And you remember that missile test from NK awhile back? How it was sooooo threatening that people were seriously advocating bombing the platform & even invading before they could launch it? Well, they launched it. The looked us square in the eyes, did what we told ’em not to, and we blinked. We did nothing.

    _Of course_ they want nukes. Nukes make George Bush your bitch.

  25. Herb says:

    It sure is reassuring to know that so many commenters here “know so much” about what, and how much intelligence we have in Iran. Perhaps they should apply for the “Chief Intelligence Officer” position so we can all have the benefit of their expertise and knowledge.

    To solve the intelligence problem, we should start a e-mail and letter writing campaign to inform the CIA, DSA, FBI, DOD and Congress that some here on OTB have all the foreign intelligence that is needed for the several years to come.

    Com,on folks, tell us how you acquired all of this foreign intelligence as well as your methods and sources.

    No doubt about it:

    Some here on OTB have all the “answers” on foreign intelligence.

  26. McGehee says:

    HPSCI

    The what-now?

  27. DC Loser says:

    McGehee,

    That’s wonk speak for one of the two congressional intelligence commmittees.

    HPSCI (pronounced “hip-see”) – House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

    SSCI (pronounced “sissy”) – Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

  28. Bithead says:

    Lots of countries want nukes

    Sure.

    But how many of them do you propose trusting when their leaders are screaming ‘death to infidels’?

  29. […] Evidence? What Evidence? Outside Beltway – Information regarding potential Iranian chemical weapons and biological weapons programs is neither voluminous nor Maybe this is one of those philosophical questions that seperate liberals from conservatives, but I believe when faced with a […]