In Iran Reversal, Bureaucrats
Triumphed Over Cheney Team
Play Out in Risk Report;
Bush Issues New Warning
January 14, 2008
As President Bush arrives in Saudi Arabia today, America’s Arab and Israeli allies have been buzzing about the recent sea change in Washington’s perception of Iran. The December report by the U.S.’s top spy office stating Iran had abandoned its effort to build nuclear weapons was one of the biggest U-turns in the recent history of U.S. intelligence.
Behind the scenes in Washington, it marked a reversal of a different sort: After years in which Bush appointees and White House staff won out on foreign-policy matters, career staffers in the intelligence world had scored a big victory.
The authors of the Iran report — career officials in the intelligence and diplomatic corps — are among the same people who were on the losing side of the Iraq and Iran debates during the first Bush term. In 2002, some argued that Iraq didn’t have an active nuclear-weapons program. They were sidelined by the more-hawkish foreign-policy strategists on the Bush team.
Now, the more-cautious intelligence camp is grabbing the reins. The power shift can be seen in other areas where U.S. policy appears to be softening. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is supporting cultural exchanges and direct dialogue with Pyongyang. The White House recently invited a Syrian delegation to a Middle East peace conference. At the same time, longtime government career officials across Washington are taking on important posts once held by Bush loyalists.
In the case of the Iran report, the about-face was made possible in part by a 2004 restructuring that gave intelligence chiefs more autonomy. New procedures for vetting and authenticating reports also helped insulate analysts from White House involvement.
Critics of the report, including European and Arab diplomats and hawkish U.S. legislators and strategists, believe it is politically motivated payback. By focusing on new intelligence which reveals that Iran dismantled its weapons program in response to international pressure, they say, the authors are making a case for diplomacy rather than military action. Less prominent in the report is a second key finding — that Iran is rapidly moving ahead to develop a nuclear-fuel cycle.
“This all smells of policy validation,” says David Wurmser, who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s top Middle East adviser up until this September. “These guys were State Department bureaucrats….It is hardly surprising that they now use their new positions to try to prove they were right.”
The Iran National Intelligence Estimate, as the report is called, has also complicated President Bush’s approach to the Middle East. During the president’s trip to the region this week, one task has been to reassure Arab and Israeli allies that the U.S. has a consistent policy toward Iran.
Yesterday, in Abu Dhabi, Mr. Bush sought to rally Arab states against Tehran, saying in a speech: “Iran’s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere.”
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, meanwhile, announced in Vienna yesterday that Iran had agreed to a new road map to resolve “all remaining verification issues” concerning its nuclear program within the next month.
The Iran intelligence report “really confused many people in the Gulf,” says Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East expert at the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council. “No one could understand what the hell we were doing.”
Senior officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the umbrella organization that coordinates the U.S.’s 16 spy agencies and that oversaw the report, say payback wasn’t a factor. They defend the report as a righting of the ship after the Iraq intelligence failures.
Hundreds of officials were involved and thousands of documents were drawn upon in this report, according to the DNI, making it impossible for any official to overly sway it. Intelligence sources were vetted and questioned in ways they weren’t ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Thomas Fingar, 62 years old, is one of the lead architects of the Iran report. A veteran State Department official, Mr. Fingar helped lead the office that argued in 2002 that evidence of Iraq’s nuclear program was faulty. He is now a senior official at the DNI.
Of the backlash against the report, Mr. Fingar says, “A lot of it is just nonsense. The idea that this thing was written by a bunch of nonprofessional renegades or refugees is just silly.”
Tensions between career intelligence and diplomatic officers on one side, and the White House and Pentagon on the other, trace back decades. The White House and Pentagon have regularly challenged the loyalty and patriotism of the State Department’s diplomats and linguists. State’s focus on persuasion and negotiation, meanwhile, has landed it a reputation for softness and liberalism.
President Richard Nixon approached China behind the back of the State Department. Former Secretary of State George Shultz opposed what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran and diverted the funds to support anticommunist guerrillas in Central America.
The most recent conflict traces back to President Bush’s first term when the development of U.S. policy toward the “axis of evil” — Iraq, Iran and North Korea — was still in its early stages. At the time, Mr. Fingar served as the deputy chief of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, or INR, crafting analysis for Washington’s diplomatic corps.
A China expert and onetime gymnast, Mr. Fingar began his career as an academic at Stanford University and was the director of its U.S.-China Relations Program. His colleagues describe him as enraptured by the East, displaying in his office Asian art and photos of his younger days in East Asia.
He also developed a reputation for being laid back — by State Department standards. When staffers are called to Foggy Bottom’s seventh floor, where the Secretary of State works, they tend to comb their hair and pause in front of the mirror before leaving their office. Mr. Fingar would often ascend jacketless and with his shirtsleeves rolled up.
In 2002, Mr. Fingar vigorously quizzed his analysts’ assumptions on Iraq, according to people who took part in the process. He particularly liked running “red teaming” exercises where competing groups sought to expose flaws in the bureau’s judgments. Mr. Fingar told top State Department officials, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, what his analysts had concluded: Saddam Hussein didn’t have an active nuclear-weapons program. In particular, they disputed evidence cited by the White House relating to Iraq’s purchase of aluminum tubes, purportedly for use in making weapons-grade nuclear fuel.
Mr. Powell ultimately broke from his analysts’ beliefs, arguing before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 that Mr. Hussein was actively seeking a nuclear weapon.
Mr. Fingar’s department’s Iraq position, a lonely one, infuriated top Bush administration officials, say current and former U.S. officials.
The two sides clashed on other issues. One of Mr. Fingar’s State Department colleagues, Vann Van Diepen, for example, repeatedly battled with John Bolton, the close ally of Vice President Cheney who served as the State Department’s top counter-proliferation official at the time.
One big battle was over the export of technologies from China to Iran and other regimes that could be used in developing nonconventional weapons and ballistic-missile systems. Mr. Bolton considered China’s action government-sponsored proliferation and pushed for sanctions. Mr. Van Diepen disagreed, arguing that Beijing didn’t have the ability to control all the players inside China, say U.S. officials who worked with both men.
Mr. Bolton says the rift grew so wide he designated a subordinate to monitor Mr. Van Diepen’s work. Toward the end of President Bush’s first term, the State Department began to shrink the scope of Mr. Van Diepen’s responsibilities.
Now the National Intelligence Officer for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation for the DNI, Mr. Van Diepen is a co-author of the Iran National Intelligence Estimate.
Mr. Van Diepen declined to comment on the dispute with Mr. Bolton’s office. His former boss at the State Department, John Wolf, says Mr. Van Diepen never sought to undermine Bush administration policy on weapons proliferation.
“Vann Van Diepen wasn’t anti-President Bush, he was anti-John Bolton,” says Mr. Wolf. “He didn’t believe we could do things irrespective of the law and our treaty obligations.”
With the reconfiguration of the intelligence landscape in late 2004, Mr. Fingar moved to the newly created DNI, along with John Negroponte, another career diplomat who became the spy agency’s first director. Mr. Fingar became director of the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates the writing of all National Intelligence Estimates, or NIEs, among the U.S.’s spy agencies.
Mr. Fingar was tasked with implementing many of the reforms called for by Congress. This included putting new safeguards into the system to authenticate reports’ sources and to prevent intelligence being cherry-picked to support previously developed theories. One of the Iraq NIE’s biggest failures was that it drew heavily on an Iraqi defector nicknamed “Curveball” who never met with American intelligence officials and later proved to be a fabricator.
Under these new systems, officials from the U.S.’s principal spy agencies, such as the CIA and the National Security Agency, were required to compare every piece of intelligence they collected with how it was reflected in the report. They signed forms stating that the information from their sources was accurately reflected. Analysts also examined a half-dozen alternate explanations for the facts they had gathered to test their conclusions.
Another significant change, Mr. Fingar says, has been reevaluating “our judgments and the sourcing used in previous estimates,” rather than just trusting the conclusions of the old intelligence reports.
Mr. Van Diepen, as a co-author of the Iran report, drew on thousands of documents and sources in writing the final estimate and cooperated closely with 20 other officials in the last stages, say people involved in the process. Representatives from all 16 spy agencies ultimately had to sign off on this final version. Outside experts, who were expected to challenge its conclusions, were given a day to analyze the report for flaws.
The result was that the White House was essentially locked out of the process. This marked a big change from the years leading up to the Iraq war, when Mr. Cheney and his top aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, made repeated visits to Langley to query analysts about their findings on Iraq’s weapons capabilities.
Through the summer and fall of 2007, as rumors leaked, officials in Mr. Cheney’s office and on Capitol Hill grew increasingly concerned about the report’s possible conclusions, according to people working at the White House and on Capitol Hill. White House and DNI officials say President Bush first got notice from DNI chief Mike McConnell in August that significant new intelligence had emerged on Iran.
DNI officials met with White House staff a week before the report’s release to go over the sources behind their assessment. Intelligence officials involved in this process say it wasn’t a forum to invite changes.
Knowing the report would probably leak, and given the importance of its conclusions, the White House decided to make public the main conclusions. Most of the report is still classified.
People in Vice President Cheney’s office saw the Dec. 3 announcement as a death blow to their Iran policy. The report’s authors “knew how to pull the rug out from under us,” says a long-time aide to the vice president, referring to the way the key judgments were presented.
Few publicly question the underlying intelligence behind the report. But a number of critics are challenging the analysts’ conclusions. Some counterproliferation experts and diplomats see Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear-fuel cycle as a more important assessment than the revelation that Tehran stopped seeking to develop actual weapons. They say once the fuel cycle is accomplished, weapons can be developed in a matter of months.
“The elephant that’s in the room is being ignored,” says Rep. Brad Sherman of California, the Democratic chairman of a House subcommittee on proliferation issues.
“You couldn’t read the key judgments [of the report] and not assume that this was intended to change policy,” says Mr. Bolton. “It shredded the Bush administration policy.”
Mr. Fingar warns against judging the whole report based on the two-and-a-half pages that were declassified. He says it is more than 140 pages long and has nearly 1,500 source notes.
As for Mr. Bolton’s critique, “it didn’t say what he wanted it to say, I guess,” Mr. Fingar says.
via//Wall Street Journal