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McLaughlin: NIE is not as decisive as it may seem

By John McLaughlin
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John McLaughlin is a former deputy director of the CIA and a former acting director of the CIA. He is CNN's national security adviser.

Now that the furor over the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has died down a bit, it's worth reflecting on the significance of this episode -- what it tells us about the intelligence community, about the arcane world of "national estimates," and about their impact on national policy.

CNN analyst John McLaughlin says National Intelligence Estimates are a widely misunderstood art form.

Although the estimate had many things to say, nearly all of the attention has focused on its "high confidence" conclusion that Iran's military had been directed in 2003 to put its nuclear weapons program on hold.

National estimates are a widely misunderstood art form. When they become public, as this one did, they are always heralded as the "most authoritative" documents the intelligence agencies produce. Perhaps because they so rarely appear in public, estimates are treated by critics and proponents alike as though what they say is chiseled in stone - "facts" that can be established like evidence in a courtroom trial.

As the arguments rage, everyone seems to forget that these are not facts but judgments. In the best of cases, they are judgments based on a sizeable body of fact - seemingly the case in the latest Iran estimate - but the facts are never so complete as to remove all uncertainty from the judgment. With that in mind, Sherman Kent -- the legendary CIA analyst who more or less invented this art form in the late 1940s -- once cautioned that "Estimating is what you do when you don't know."

What does this mean for the impact of estimates on national policy? Because of their inherent uncertainties, estimates should not be seen as in any sense making policy, as many have assumed to be the case during the public furor over this one. What they can do is to narrow the range of uncertainty when difficult policy decisions have to be made. Particularly when they remain secret, estimates - like other forms of intelligence - should allow policymakers to be a couple moves ahead on the international chessboard when dealing with contentious issues.

Only rarely do estimates have a direct impact. In the case of this Iran estimate it is certainly fair to say, as many commentators have, that for the moment it is likely to put consideration of U.S. military action on the back burner and bolster the view that there is at least a temporary opening to be exploited through diplomacy.

But anyone who reads this estimate as a sign of complacency or overconfidence on the part of the intelligence community is misreading it. I'm convinced that the drafters, despite the "high confidence" they have in their key conclusion about Iran putting its nuclear weapons program on hold, would be the first to acknowledge that this could change quickly.

They would also point to parts of the estimate that most headline writers overlooked -- parts that note Iran continues to enrich uranium in its civil program, is keeping the nuclear weapons option open, and has technical work underway that could facilitate nuclear weapons development. The estimate adds that the U.S. will face a hard sell when it argues that Tehran should keep the moratorium in place. I'm equally sure the drafters would say these factors need to weigh as heavily in policy deliberations as does the reported Iranian freeze on its weapons program.

There is much to be gained from an open debate over national estimates, but making the estimate public also forfeits some of the benefits intelligence confers and ultimately makes the intelligence job harder. Ideally, intelligence like this should be the "hidden advantage" our government has in international bargaining. Had it been possible to hold this latest conclusion close, our government would have had a powerful advantage in calibrating a "carrots and sticks" policy toward Tehran. Now that it is out in the open, Tehran knows many of the cards we hold and will exploit that knowledge.

And regarding the impact on U.S. intelligence, the public discussion ensures that every reporter worth his or her salt will be probing for the sources behind the estimate's conclusions -- and some will succeed. Tehran, for its part, will have underway a vigorous counterintelligence investigation aimed at closing the now-exposed vulnerabilities in its system.

To the degree Tehran succeeds, it will mean U.S. intelligence will have more trouble determining whether Iran has restarted its nuclear weapons program. Intelligence officers must therefore worry whether the public discussion, despite its positive contribution to an important national debate, will have sown the seeds of the next intelligence failure.

At this point, some readers will no doubt say there is no way a conclusion like this could have been kept secret. Agreed, but it is worth asking why. The answer is complicated. In all likelihood the estimate was declassified based on a conviction that in today's toxic political climate it would have been seen as a useful weapon by people with a variety of motives -- it would therefore have gone "out the door" in record time. In such circumstances, a case can be made for getting ahead of the curve by declassifying an estimate and thus having some control over how it is presented and perceived.

That is a reality, but it is not the way a mature political system, particularly not the world's sole superpower, should develop and use intelligence. It is the ultimate symptom of what happens when those who receive intelligence lose the discipline to hold it close and come to see it as a domestic political weapon more than an instrument of national policy -- a trend that confronts the intelligence community with the kind of dilemma it faced in this case. This is something the next administration and the congress need to work on.

The good news is that the intelligence community with this estimate, clearly made without political influence, has shown that it can remain above politics, even if others in Washington cannot. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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