Tuesday, 4 December 2007

The NIE And The Media

Today the Mainstream Media (MSM) has been waxing lyrical over the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from the United States Intelligence Community saying that Iran is not and has not been building a nuclear weapon since 2003.

According to the BBC’s Paul Reynolds “the question of sanctions remains active because Iran is still defying Security Council calls for it to suspend uranium enrichment.”

However Justin Webb is his ‘analysis’ said “US hawks are horrified by the report.”

I’m glad Mr Webb in his highly paid job in Washington can add such gravitas to the story, perhaps he could do us a favour and actually clarify who these ‘hawks’ are and why are they 'horrified'?

If you read the BBC report, buried underneath the ‘outstanding reporting’ that is so typical of the BBC, the actual NIE report isn’t as ‘firm’ as the pundits in Television Centre like us to believe.

Before I launch into fisk mode, lets make one thing clear about anything to do with the subject of Intelligence Reporting and Gathering and how to ‘read’ them.

Intelligence reports of this kind,be it from The Director of National Intelligence from the National Intelligence Council or from the Joint Intelligence Committee here in the United Kingdom are couched in a language that is ambiguous and is open to interpretation, reflecting the very real world uncertainties that these people have to operate in. This is why it is called a National Intelligence Estimate.

Often you will see words or phrases like “we judge,”, “we assess”, ” we estimate”, “probably” very likely”,” we cannot dismiss",” we cannot rule out”,"we cannot discount” peppering all these documents to reflect the fact that intelligence gathering and reporting is by its very nature is an ‘art’ and not a 'science'.

Secondly the word “Confidence” is related to the quality of the information that the judgment is based on. “High Confidence” for an example means that the high grade information has also been verified or tested against other sources and as such is ‘reasonable’ to assume it is accurate. However a “High Confidence” judgment is not a fact or a certainty, however, and such judgments still carry a risk of being wrong. “Moderate Confidence” generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible,but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of “confidence”.

Finally it is important to bear in mind that the information that is being sought is often at the heart of an opponents defence planning and is guarded by counter-measures to disguise or mislead. These can range from physical security measures such as guards or placement in a secure environment like an underground bunker, electronic counter measures like firewalls or ‘roaming hackers’ through to counter-intelligence measures being run by the opponents intelligence network using all the tricks in the book like ‘false flag’ operations, ‘agents in place’ and other aspects of Human Intelligence (HUMINT), decoy documentation and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT).

The great military thinker Clausewitz stated as such in his seminal unfinished work On War:

“BY the word "Information," we denote all the knowledge which we have of the enemy and his country; therefore, in fact, the foundation of all our ideas and actions. Let us just consider the nature of this foundation, its want of trustworthiness, its changefulness, and we shall soon feel what a dangerous edifice war is, how easily it may fall to pieces and bury us in its ruins. For although it is a maxim in all books that we should trust only certain information, that we must be always suspicious; that is only a miserable book-comfort, belonging to that description of knowledge in which writers of systems and compendiums take refuge for want of anything better.”

Even in Iraq, today we are still uncertain on the scale and nature of Saddam’s WMD programme therefore when the likes of the BBC start running pieces like this, which totally fits in with their ‘group think’ alarms bells start ringing.

To quote from the Key Findings of NIE Report, it actually points out:

-We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities wereworking under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.

- We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because ofintelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)

- We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

- We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.

- Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determinedto develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

It adds later in the document some important caveats:

We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willingto maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.

We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities—
rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for aweapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007.


We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

So far from the blanket “Tehran has always maintained its nuclear programme is being developed purely for peaceful purposes.” It is far from clear what Iran is trying to do in its nuclear policy.

And the timing of the report is interesting, as I have already stated it was unlikely that the US was going to embark on any military options in 2008, due to the Presidential Elections, however if this NIE is ‘accurate’ then a choice might have to be made in 2009 or 2010. All this report does is default the decision until then.

By that time Hickory Dickory Clinton or Obama might be in charge……

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