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.