This is one of the most important and interesting articles I've read in a long time. It's already getting some notice, but given my experience in intelligence, there are a few elements I want to highlight.
The article essentially presents the argument as "intelligence officials downplaying the Iran threat" versus "Republicans mad about this fact." That's a mischaracterization. Iran is simply not an imminent threat, nor is it a threat to vital U.S. interests in ways that would necessitate an aggressive response (supporting anti-U.S. terrorist action, for example). For intelligence analysts to state those facts isn't being "gun shy," as Rep. Holt (D-NJ) unfortunately put it, rather it's a simple reflection of accurate assessments based on the facts available. The House intel committee is right to say that we don't have enough information on Iran, but analysts have to work with what they have, not politicized conjecture. There's a difference between connecting and explaining the dots and creating new ones to reach a preordained conclusion.
Further, despite some assumptions to the contrary, intelligence agencies have a natural (and wholly understandable) predisposition towards warning. Rarely do analysts downplay potential problems because there's generally a much higher price to pay for underestimating a threat than overestimating it. Certainly intelligence agencies got Iraq's WMDs wrong, but the march to war was led by political leadership, not by the agencies and certainly not by analysts. On this note, the Times says,
The criticisms do not appear to be focused on any particular agency, like the C.I.A., the Defense Intelligence Agency or the State DepartmentÂ?s intelligence bureau, which sometimes differ in their views.When CIA, DIA, and INR all agree on something -- which, believe me, is rare -- it's not because they've all decided to become crazy peacenik liberals. I mean, seriously.
And why elected officials are so eager to confront (not engage, but confront) Iran is beyond me. It's backwards decision-making again: the conclusion and then cherry-picking evidence to support it. Good for the analysts for resisting this kind of nonsense.
Several intelligence officials said that American spy agencies had made assessments in recent weeks that despite established ties between Iran and Hezbollah and a well-documented history of Iran arming the organization, there was no credible evidence to suggest either that Iran ordered the Hezbollah raid that touched off the recent fighting or that Iran was directly controlling attacks against Israel.Of course, if you don't like the analysis, you can always come up with a completely and totally absurd counter-argument:
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.That's ludicrous, of course. There's tons of pressure on analysts to predict every kind of possible threat, due to 9/11, and while that has positives and negatives, believe me, nobody in intel is trying to pretend that the world is safer than it is. Added to the obvious fact that there are plenty of people working on the issue of weapons transfer, which is different from development.
The bottom line is, it's not that analysts are trying to downplay the threat of Iran . . . it's that the threat doesn't meet the THEH SCARY!" threshold that these Republicans are hoping for.
As an aside to my broader point, it's worth noting, for pure hilarity, that the House intel report the article cites, aside from being fairly idiotic overall, has an interesting perspective on Iran's missile launch locations. If you scroll down to page 15, you'll see that the report, written by the House committee responsible for intelligence, appears to have the ranges for Iranian missiles (including one that doesn't exist, natch) originating from . . . wait for it . . . Kuwait! Apparently Iran took over Kuwait and nobody even noticed.