Iran NIE and the Hall of Mirrors

(A different take on the NIE – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Crossposted at Invictus

More than one author has described writing about the intelligence world as akin to walking into a hall of mirrors. It’s difficult to know what’s what, who to believe, or even know where you stand. Truths are fungible. Lies are opaque versions of tomorrow’s news.

When the U.S. released its limited version of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the revelation that Iran does not have a working nuclear arms program landed with a thud upon the collective heads of the D.C. pundits. Bush’s pugnacious news conference which followed, wherein he repeated ad nauseaum his intention that Iran never get the “knowledge” to construct a nuclear weapon, signalled no real change in direction from the administration that was only weeks before dangling World War III before the glazed eyes of a fearful electorate.

In discussions with colleagues, I was struck by the fact that the authorship of the new NIE was from the same man who wrote the previous NIE, and the same man who assured the administration that there was a nuclear weapons program in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, CIA stalwart, Robert Walpole, who was (if he in fact is still), according to the Washington Post, “chief CIA officer for nuclear programs”. In other words, I smelled a rat.  

But how to make sense of the CIA’s role, the timing of the release, even what the NIE was intending to say? Was it a fusillade unleashed upon Cheney’s minions? Or was it a clever way to install the “fact” that Iran had conducted covert nuclear weapons research, laying the groundwork for further U.S. interventionist policies? Or yet again, was it a plea for diplomacy over war?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. And they may be the wrong questions.

Arthur Silber wrote a magnificent piece the other day on his blog, Once Upon a Time. It’s worth quoting in some detail, as I believe it provides a set of bearings upon which we can steer through some very confused waters. You may not agree with his assessment of the Democratic Party, but his grip on history is firm and accurate.

It deserves emphasis that this latest NIE tells us nothing — let me repeat that, nothing — that was not entirely obvious to a reasonably intelligent layperson who followed mainstream media reports about Iran for the last several years. As just one example, see my post, “Iran: The Growing Threat that Isn’t,” from close to a year ago. It is true that “official” government recognition of the non-threatening status of Iran, but only in this one respect, is of marginal importance, but it is only that: marginal. It simply means that the warmongers — whether of the Republican or Democratic variety (and please let us not forget the Democratic warmongers, who have been far more resolute and consistent in the pursuit of the glories of war over the last century than the Republicans, with the hugely notable exception of the criminal gang in charge of the executive branch at present) — cannot easily avail themselves of this particular bogeyman for the moment. For those who seek to begin the next phase of this neverending war, there are many other bogeymen available for use to the identical end, as we shall see in a moment.

Let us start with the most crucial point. The reaction from all quarters to the NIE relies on several interrelated central assumptions, ones that are regarded as so unquestionably true that no one thinks they need to be stated: that major policy decisions, including decisions of war and peace, are based on intelligence in the first place; that a decision to go to war is one made only after cool and careful rational deliberation; and that nations go to war for the reasons they announce to the world.


What Silber is saying strikes me as absolutely true. The history of modern warfare, from the assassination of the Austrian Archduke, bringing on the slaughter of World War I, through the “missed” communications about a Japanese raid on the U.S. (stimulated by a U.S. oil boycott), through the Nazi stunt of dressing soldiers in Polish uniforms to prove an “invasion” of Germany by Poland, through the fake Gulf of Tonkin “attack” the U.S. manufactured, all the way to the WMD in Iraq, governments don’t use their intelligence to start or stop wars, they go to war because they want to, and for reasons that have very little to do with purely military considerations.

More Silber:

To repeat: the decision to go to war is one of policy, and the intelligence — whatever it is alleged to show — is irrelevant. Don’t argue in terms of intelligence at all. If you do, you’ll lose. The administration knows that; many of its opponents still haven’t figured it out, even now.

….may it be duly noted that the leading Democrats are just as “hawkish” and “nuts” on this issue: Hillary Clinton, who speaks of our inalienable “right” to take “offensive military action against Iran” ; Barack Obama (“In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people,” which is license to intervene anywhere and everywhere, on any pretext whatsoever, real or imagined); and all the other prominent Democrats, with their endless trash talk of keeping “all options on the table.”

Note how Digby {I’ve added the link so readers can judge for themselves — V.} implicitly relies on the erroneous notion that if the intelligence had been correct on Iraq, a reasonable conclusion might have been reached, and thus the invasion of Iraq might have been forestalled. That is the meaning of, “how the CIA supposedly screwed up the Iraq WMD assessment…” If only the CIA had been allowed to tell the “truth” without political interference, there might have been a better chance that all would have been well. But that only makes sense if one assumes that policy decisions are based on intelligence. Again: they are not….

In the most critical sense, I don’t care about this latest assessment, just as I did not care about the earlier ones, about Iran or on any other subject at all — for in addition to the rather important fact that such assessments are invariably wrong, I recognize that policy decisions are made on different grounds altogether. Moreover, in terms of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t care if Iran does get nuclear weapons. As I have noted before, I do not view it as a remotely good thing that any nation has nuclear weapons, including the U.S. — and I remind you once again that it is only the U.S. that has used them, when it did not have any legitimate reason for doing so and when it lied about every aspect of its actions and their consequences. But in terms of an Iran with nuclear weapons five or ten years in the future: “So Iran Gets Nukes. So What?” But the bipartisan commitment to American world hegemony has not altered in the slightest degree. The criminal catastrophe of Iraq is irrelevant to our ruling class, and it has not caused them to alter any of their most crucial goals.

As I said above, this latest NIE makes it considerably more difficult for the administration to use this particular argument to justify a criminal act of aggression against a non-existent threat. But if the administration is determined to attack Iran, they have plenty of other arguments to use, and many of those arguments have the full and enthusiastic support of the Democrats.

But where does this lead us? Down a hall of mirrors of our own making, of hope and fear, of misplaced faith, and an attachment to a political wilderness that promises nothing good. Silber doesn’t say, at least in this article, what is needed.

But in a world led by a militaristic empire who sees it as their destiny to control the power of states internationally, what’s needed is nothing less than an overturn of power, of political and economic relations. I don’t wish for such a cataclysm of world events, but they come in the train of failed empires. The leaders of the U.S., no less than the varied leaderships of Europe, China, Russia and the Third World and of the assorted insurgencies, including all sorts of liberal and conservative nationalists, revanchists, and religious fundamentalists, will unleash a real World War III unless humanity can find a way to rise to the consciousness of the seriousness of the situation. And then act upon it.


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  1. First, thanks for bringing the post from Silber to our attention.  I went and read it and it’s very interesting.

    Second, according to this story in today’s Guardian, the “principle author” or the Iran NIE is Thomas Fingar.  Could you say something about Robert Walpole, and what these two guys’ relationship is?

    Third, and my third and fourth points are related, so take them together, Silber misunderstands Digby and the “supposedly left” blogosphere.  He writes as if Digby and others doesn’t know the stuff he’s pointing out: that intelligence is usually wrong, that intelligence is used, if at all, to promote war, and that decisions to go to war are policy judgements, not caused by intelligence findings.  Digby knows that perfectly well.  So do a lot of other people.  Digby has made the tactical decision to engage at a level of discourse from which she can engage Washington power-players.  To deny this, to assert that this is not a tactical decision but just proof that Silber is really that much more perceptive than everyone else . . . is silly.  

    Fourth, and as I said this is a continuation of the third point, good on Silber for not choosing to engage at that level of discourse, for not making that tactical decision.  I think he’s quite possible correct: that engaging, as many of us do, at that level of discourse, the one that takes the rules of the establishment game seriously, is already to have lost.  But disengaging, as Silber does, requires what seems, at least, seems like a scary self-disenfranchisement.  You can expect only irrelevency if you make it.  I think that this fear and expectation are ill-founded, but this requires discussion and argument, not mere pot-shots at Kos and Digby and others.

    • TheRef on December 8, 2007 at 16:54

    my response would be: one cannot know what is unknowable about the failure or success of historical intelligence findings. Likewise, one cannot know whether or not future intelligence findings will have a useful impact on policy and remedial actions. A look into the future, no matter the crystal ball used, is fraught with errors of probability, wishful thinking, judgment, etc. Without question, intelligence failures abound, but are failures pervasive throughout all intelligence operations? I surmise that there are some of each …the percentage of successes [in this secretive discipline] is impossible for the layperson to determine.

    On use of a nuclear weapon, I suspect [during WWII] that many of those fighting, in the Pacific with a prospect of having to fight the Japanese [a military, suicidally fighting for their sense of honor, their culture, their families, their homeland, their emperor], could easily rationalize the use of the BOMB. In war, an often used military strategy, is the trade-off of sacrifice a few for the lives of the many. Is that immoral? I don’t believe it is, especially, in such tragic human events as war.  

    • robodd on December 8, 2007 at 17:06

    has an extraordinary history of belligerence. The national emblem has an eagle with dove feathers in one talon and arrows in the other.  Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that dictates our war-happy nature, yet it seems we are always at war. Somewhere our forefathers, or some of them, had the idea, not necessarily clearly expressed, that it should be part of our fundamental nature that we be a belligerent nation.

    I think this is not found in our tradition of liberty and natural rights based in the Constitution, but in our commitment to enterprise, mercantilism, economic control and soft imperialism.  Which is no part of our Constitution, but seems to dominate our country’s policy more thoroughly than the Constitution does.  

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