Intelligence has its limits

Without absolute certainty, Obama will have to make some tough decisions.

Iran Nuclear 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Iran Nuclear 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'The problem with technical intelligence," East German spymaster Markus Wolf once said, "is that it is essentially information without evaluation. Technical intelligence can only record what has happened so far - not what might happen in the future." Perhaps that is why the director of US National Intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last Thursday that "Iran is clearly developing all the components of a deliverable nuclear weapons program," but "whether they take it all the way to nuclear weapons depends a great deal on their internal decisions." Blair is the American government's highest-ranking intelligence official. He released the Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence after being in office just two weeks. The struggle against Islamist terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan absorb the bulk of US intelligence resources, he revealed. No one - perhaps not even the Iranians themselves - knows with absolute certainty whether they will stop just short of a test detonation once they have worked out all the pieces of the nuclear bomb-making puzzle. The mullahs may want to wait for a second-strike capability. But by the time Iranian decision makers grapple with that, it will already be too late. When Israelis think about intelligence it is of the concrete, tactical variety that, for instance, helps the IAF target Kassam launching squads. Over the weekend, the Americans used their tactical intelligence to target an Islamist base along the Pakistan-Afghan border using drone aircraft. The threat assessment, in contrast, while presumably informed by hard intelligence, is largely subjective evaluation. In this respect, it reminds us of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate ("Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities") which told policymakers "with high confidence" that Teheran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Last week, President Barack Obama acknowledged that Iran was pursuing "a nuclear weapon." So did CIA Director Leon Panetta: "There is no question that they are seeking that capability." THE BIGGEST danger facing the US, according to last week's assessment, is not Iran, or North Korea or Islamist terrorism, but the world economic crisis. The prospect of cross-border instability increases when the rising expectations of the masses are dashed by sputtering economies and runaway unemployment. Regimes that feel threatened at home become problems abroad. "The longer it takes for the recovery to begin, the greater the likelihood of serious damage to US strategic interests," said Blair. The assessment also focused on nuclear proliferation, narcotics trafficking, global warming, pandemics, North Korea - even cyber-terror. US intelligence believes that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, though still dangerous, is largely hunkered down, sidelined and finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with adherents worldwide. In addition, many Sunni Muslims, in Iraq for instance, are fed up with the indiscriminate al-Qaida-inspired violence. "We have seen notable progress in Muslim opinion turning against terrorist groups such as al-Qaida," Blair said. At the same time, however, groups nominally loyal to al-Qaida are gaining ground in East Africa and Yemen. Blair acknowledged that the Islamists are ascendant in Afghanistan, and a dangerous threat in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have thrived in an atmosphere of government corruption, insidious drug-related criminality, and a failure to develop the rule of law and rebuild the economy. INTELLIGENCE HAS its limits. It always did. US intelligence could not predict - with certainty - until after December 7, 1941 that Pearl Harbor would be attacked; nor, until after December 25, 1991, that the Soviet Union would implode; nor, until two years after the US-led invasion, that Iraq did not have deployable WMDs. Today's 20th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is another reminder that evaluative intelligence, especially, has its limits. Could anyone then have certified that the mujahadin who had ousted the Soviets would turn their fanaticism against the West? Though the US president has access to the kind of intelligence that goes well beyond what is publicly released in the Annual Threat Assessment, at the end of the day his job is about leadership and decision-making. Barack Obama has declared time and again that Iran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. To make good on that commitment, and in the absence of absolute certainty, he will have to make some tough decisions.