Advancing a Free Society

Being wrong differently this time

Monday, February 27, 2012

The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Friday that Iran has in recent months more than tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium beyond what provides fuel toward that which is only used for weapons, begun enrichment at facilities in Fordow designed to withstand military attack, cannot account for significant amounts of raw uranium, and has refused international inspectors the ability to inspect suspicious facilities or interview scientists working on the nuclear program.

Yet the Director for National Intelligence insisted in Congressional testimony there is no evidence Iran has decided whether to develop a nuclear weapon.  Given that U.S. intelligence agencies are a major source of information for the IAEA and other international organizations (U.S. agencies discovered the Fordow facility in 2009), how is it that our intelligence services come to such a seemingly contradictory conclusion from the IAEA?

As Thomas Sowell so nicely summarized the sub-prime mortgage crisis: only politics can create this problem.  American intelligence services are still so singed from having been wrong about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program that it appears they are emphasizing their skepticism.  The most flagrant example of that phenomenon was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran from 2007, in which it was concluded that Iran had halted its overtly military programs in 2003, the reason a complete mystery but unrelated to our invasion of Iraq.

Intelligence work is difficult and inherently speculative.  Our intelligence professionals have to make judgments based on incomplete information and understanding, and policymakers decide hugely consequential issues on the basis of their information. Accepting that they will be wrong -- perhaps even often wrong -- is surely one of the most difficult responsibilities for both policymakers and intelligence professionals to accept.

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