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US Intelligence On Iran Needs Insulation From Political Interference

Iranina President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Nov 03, 2006
The man who ran the CIA's covert activities in Europe during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq says U.S. intelligence needs to be better insulated from political influence if the nation is to avoid another disaster in Iran. "I can see the same thing happening with (intelligence on) Iran," Tyler Drumheller told United Press International in an interview about his just-published book, "On the Brink."

He said there was "a core of intelligence professionals who can do the job if they're allowed to." But there was a real risk of repeating what he said was the two-pronged failure on Iraq: policy-makers brought their preconceptions to the table and senior intelligence officials failed to confront them with uncomfortable truths.

Policy-makers, he said, had to learn that, "When someone doesn't agree with your preconceptions, you can't interpret that as disloyalty or stupidity." But they must also be able to "rely on intelligence officials to tell them things they don't want to hear."

He said that recent reforms of the structure of U.S. intelligence, including the appointment of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, were "an impediment, not an improvement."

"On the Brink," offers a few fresh details about several episodes of the now familiar tale of how U.S. officials ended up making a case for war based on inaccurate statements about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

"The White House took our work and twisted it for its own ends," he writes, accusing then-CIA Director George Tenet of having "set a tone whereby people knew what he and the White House wanted to hear ... The bureaucratic imperative was to prove one's worth by supporting the president's case for war."

CIA Spokesman Mark Mansfield declined to comment on the book beyond saying that Drumheller no longer worked for the agency and was "expressing his own opinion."

One former U.S. intelligence official said many who had worked the issue at the time felt Tenet "had fallen into the trap of believing he was his own best analyst." CIA management was sometimes "very dismissive of (the agency's) own products" when they did not fit what seemed to be the emerging picture.

Colleagues have defended Tenet from similar charges in the past, pointing out that the published reports of two inquiries into the matter have concluded that there was no politicization of the CIA's analysis on his watch, but rather a failure of analytic creativity, and the predominance of so-called "groupthink."

Drumheller's book also echoes the conclusions of the special presidential commission that probed pre-war intelligence failures on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, in placing much of the blame for the errors on the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control center, known as WINPAC.

"The truth is (Tenet) over-empowered WINPAC," he writes.

The presidential commission last year recommended a fundamental overhaul of the center. "We didn't quite say, 'Bulldoze it,' but we came close," a commission official told UPI at the time.

Mansfield praised the center's analysts as "smart, extraordinarily dedicated officers" and said changes had been made there.

"We have improved our analytical tradecraft and our intelligence-sharing (with people working the issue at different agencies)," he said, adding that the center was doing more analysis focused on the research U.S. adversaries are doing on weapons development.

He said a so-called Red Cell, or alternative analysis team, had been put in place at the center. "We are including alternative analysis in many more of our products, and are bolstering (intelligence) efforts to improve interdiction capabilities."

He said WINPAC analysts had predicted both North Korea's missile test in July and its recent effort to detonate a nuclear bomb.

"We have taken the lessons learned from the Iraq episode," he said, "and are applying them every day."

One congressional staffer with access to intelligence products agreed. "I have seen no evidence that the intelligence community is being pushed or is shaping their analysis" on Iran, the staffer told UPI.

"They have in fact learned fairly well the lessons of Iraq," the staffer went on. "They are much clearer about the degree of confidence they have in their judgments, much readier to acknowledge uncertainty, much better at laying out what they don't know."

But Drumheller is not alone in his concerns. Many critics of the administration have discerned a similar tunnel vision on the part of senior officials as was evident in the run up to war with Iraq.

Negroponte has said it is the consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, and is five to 10 years away from developing one.

In August, the GOP Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, released titled, " Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States."

"We lack critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran, and we don't know nearly enough about Iran's nuclear weapons program," read the report.

"I would suspect we do know quite a bit about what's going on in Iran, but it's not what they want to hear, so they say, 'We're blind,'" Drumheller said.

The report was slammed by critics, including the International Atomic Energy Authority, as presenting an overblown and exaggerated picture of the threat.

The authority's former head, Hans Blix recently gave evidence to a congressional panel, and told them that Iran was "not a threat today. It could become (one) later on."

He said U.S. intelligence analysts looking before the war at Iraq's weapons programs had "chose(n) to replace question marks by exclamation marks," and urged against repeating that error on Iran.

He said it was not certain that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. "I think there have been some indications pointing in that direction, but I don't think it is conclusive. And I think that after the experience we have had in Iraq, one should be a little careful to jump to conclusions."

Source: United Press International

Related Links
Tyler Drumheller - On the Brink
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