Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Bad Intelligence—But in Which Direction?

Since the topic of the day seems to be right-wing anger at insufficiently panicky intelligence assessments on Iran, it might be worth looking at how bad U.S. intelligence on Iran is–and in which direction it’s been wrong.

Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan have helpfully assembled a catalog of intelligence community predictions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program in their excellent book, Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Real and Potential Threat.  Here are just a few assessments:

Late 1991: In congressional reports and CIA assessments, the United States estimates that there is a ‘high degree of certainty that the government of Iran has acquired all or virtually all of the components required for the construction of two to three nuclear weapons.’  A February 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives suggests that these two or three nuclear weapons will be operational between February and April 1992.”

February 24, 1993: CIA director James Woolsey says that Iran is still 8 to 10 years away from being able to produce its own nuclear weapon, but with assistance from abroad it could become a nuclear power earlier.”

January 1995: The director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, John Holum, testifies that Iran could have the bomb by 2003.”

January 5, 1995: U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry says that Iran may be less than five years from building an atomic bomb, although ‘how soon…depends how they go about getting it.’”

April 29, 1996: Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres says ‘he believes that in four years, they [Iran] may reach nuclear weapons.’”

October 21, 1998: General Anthony Zinni, head of U.S. Central Command, says Iran could have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons within five years.  ‘If I were a betting man,’ he said, ‘I would say they are on track within five years, they would have the capability.’”

January 17, 2000: A new CIA assessment on Iran’s nuclear capabilities says that the CIA cannot rule out the possibility that Iran may possess nuclear weapons.  The assessment is based on the CIA’s admission that it cannot monitor Iran’s nuclear activities with any precision and hence cannot exclude the prospect that Iran may have nuclear weapons.”

It goes on for four pages like that, with some realistic predictions sprinkled in for good measure.  But I think we can all agree that we are severely underestimating Iran’s capability.  Just like we have been since 1991, when they were just a year away from a bomb.

Neoconservative Diplomacy: “Capitulate or Die!”

It’s interesting to see Michael Rubin, the former CPA staffer alleged to be the author of a pro-regime change Pentagon memo on Iran, lamenting the decision to allow pragmatic former president of Iran Mohammed Khatami to come to Washington to speak.

In protest, Rubin points to Khatami’s odious remarks in 2000 about Israel and argues that “If Khatami really cared about a dialogue of civilizations, he would go to Jerusalem, not Washington.”

Actually, though, if Khatami–the closest thing to a moderate anywhere near the levers of power in Iran–wanted to completely destroy any chance of having any influence in Iran ever again, the first thing he would do is take Michael Rubin’s advice.

Neoconservative grumbling about diplomacy is nothing new, but this tone has become increasingly common.  Regarding Syria, Iran, anywhere, if diplomacy can’t provide a slam-dunk, total, and complete resolution of all the issues, then it’s held out as a worthless exercise in jaw-jawing.

To some extent the point is well-taken: Diplomacy can be difficult, and can fail, and it always produces temporary, imperfect solutions.  But that’s the point: all foreign policies produce temporary, imperfect solutions.  Crusading in search of silver bullets puts us in predicaments like those of Iraq.

In the course of pooh-poohing talks with the Syrians, for example, we’re regaled with tales of how past dialogues have failed to wean them away from their client Hezbollah, and how the Assad regime is still, well, nasty.  Since Iran hasn’t agreed to capitulate before even coming to the negotiating table, the supposed uselessness of diplomacy is demonstrated.

But the point isn’t to hold diplomacy out as the way to magically eliminate foreign policy problems.  There is no way to eliminate problems in foreign affairs entirely.  But diplomacy is a tool for managing crises, and for finding limited areas to cooperate or compromise.

By setting the standard for diplomacy so high as to demand a nice, neat, tied-up-with-a-ribbon solution in order to prove success, neoconservatives are framing the debate such that diplomacy is always a sure-fire “failure.”  That’s harmful, because it misconstrues the choices and unnecessarily limits our options.

For more on the failure of the “we don’t do diplomacy” policy, see John Judis’ TNR piece from yesterday.

Apocalypse Warning False Alarm; Diplomacy Continues Apace

Since the apocalypse (which Bernard Lewis darkly warned in the Wall Street Journal might be scheduled for today) seems not to be forthcoming, it may be better to focus on more workaday concerns, such as Iran’s decidedly non-apocalyptic response to the Western proposal over its nuclear program. 

Although the full details aren’t out yet, Reuters is reporting what most expected: the Iranians say they’re willing to talk, but not willing to accept American demands that Iran stop enriching uranium as a precondition for talking. Top Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani is quoted as saying that “Iran is prepared to hold serious talks from August 23.” 

The first thing to wonder about is what the European response to this will be. It’s fairly clear that hardliners in the Bush administration are hell-bent on pressing for a UN Security Council vote to impose sanctions, but it’s not at all clear what the more sanguine Europeans will do. The Bush administration would be well-advised to make sure that Iran stays marginalized, and America does not act rashly in a way that turns the tables and marginalizes us. 

Also, notice that the Iranians brought up the one issue that the Bush administration has assiduously avoided discussing as a part of talks: “security cooperation.” This is international politics-speak for “we’re afraid you’re going to attack us.” Until President Bush makes clear that regime change would come off the table in return for Iran’s cooperation on the nuclear issue, the Iranians are going to be scared to death that Washington has the contingency plans out and is looking at military options. 

But the real lesson is how much was lost as a result of the administration’s foolish decision to try to impose a precondition for talks in the first place. A lot of conspiratorial talk around Washington has insisted that the precondition was put in as a “poison pill” to ensure that the diplomacy could go nowhere. I’m not convinced — I think there’s a simpler answer, and that is that the administration thinks, even after the Iraq debacle, that it has a lot of diplomatic and military weight to throw around, and that it could, to coin a phrase, “create its own reality” on the Iran problem. 

Were it not for the unseemly pettiness of the administration’s approach to this aspect of the problem, we could have spent the last two months talking to the Iranians (admittedly they could have still been enriching uranium), instead of waiting for a response from the Iranians (during which time they have been enriching uranium). If the administration had put a grand bargain on the table back at the beginning of summer, we’d be well on our way to getting an answer from Tehran. Instead, we’ve set in motion a largely pointless round of diplomacy that has little prospect of resolving the issue.

Data Mining or the Fourth Amendment?

Boalt Hall Law Professor and Visiting AEI Scholar John Yoo writes in a short piece on the AEI website that we should consider using data mining to pursue terrorists. He makes at least two errors: one historical and one statistical.

Discussing the recent vogue for making U.S. law more like Britain’s, Yoo writes:

[I]ncreasing detention time or making warrants easier to come by merely extends an old-fashioned approach to catching terrorists. These tools require individualized suspicion and “probable cause”; police must have evidence of criminal activity in hand. Such methods did not prevent 9/11, and stopping terrorists, who may have no criminal record, requires something more.

It’s hard to put aside that the vogue for making U.S. law more like Britain’s would undo part of what the Revolutionary War was fought for. And Yoo’s placement of the phrase “probable cause” in quotes — I hope that’s not to suggest that the language of the Fourth Amendment is quaint.

But putting all that aside, Yoo’s first error has to do with more-recent history. He argues that traditional investigative methods “did not prevent 9/11.” But traditional investigative methods weren’t applied to the problem. 

Operatives like Khalid al Midhar — an individual with jihadist connections known to the United States — entered the country, left in June 2000, and returned July 4, 2001 on a visa the United States gave him. As the 9/11 Commission pithily noted, “No one was looking for him.” Traditional investigative methods can’t be said to have failed when they weren’t being used.

Yoo’s second error is to believe that data mining can help locate terrorists. Data mining cannot be made useful in counterterrorism: The absence of terrorism patterns means that it is impossible to develop useful algorithms. The corresponding statistical likelihood of false positives would cause the results of a data mining operation to waste the time and energy of investigators while threatening civil liberties. 

Data mining does give a “lift” to marketers’ attempts to find people with certain propensities and interests. But the ”failure rate” (if the goal is to find new, willing customers) is typically above 95%. This is with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of patterns to work with. Data mining also helps ferret out credit card fraud — again, using the thousands of instances of this crime that happen each year to develop useful algorithms.

Probability theory teaches that the percentage of false positives a test produces will rise dramatically as the incidence of the sought-after condition drops. If you’re searching American society for left-handed people (8–15% of the population) a data mining operation might work pretty well.  If you’re searching for the 10, 12, or two terrorists in the United States, an imperfect test will be useless, time-wasting, and thus harmful to the national security mission.

No, the Fourth Amendment is good policy as well as a part of the not-old-fashioned Constitution. It is better to focus investigations, not broaden them. The best way to find wrongdoing is to look where there is probable cause to believe something is afoot.

Exporters as Hostage-takers?

I subscribe to a useful digest of farm policy news called FarmPolicy. It’s a great little news service for those interested in agricultural issues.

Today in FarmPolicy, my attention and pique were raised by an article that included a statement from Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Co), who said that farming should be an integral part of national security. According to Salazar:

I would hate to think of a day where the United States of America becomes hostage to other countries (that export food to the U.S.), in a way that we are held hostage over our energy needs

I know of only two other countries that pursue a policy of total self-sufficiency in food(which seems to be what the senator is advocating): North Korea and Zimbabwe.

And we all know how well that’s going…

If you are interested in agricultural policy, Cato will be holding a forum next week to discuss the new Farm Bill. The forum will feature the secretary of agriculture, Mike Johanns, as well as Cal Dooley of the Food Products Association and Robert Thompson, one of America’s most respected experts on U.S. farm policy. Please join us.