The Intelligence Community Has Cleaned Up Its Attribution Problem … Has the Press?

James Risen has another article on the evolution of intelligence analysis, this time describing how screwing up the Iraq intelligence so badly now weighs on Iran analysts (for the better, IMO).

I was struck by the description of one way the intelligence community has improved its analysis.

The intelligence community also now requires that analysts be told much more about the sources of the information they receive from the United States’ human and technological spies. Analysts were left in the dark on such basic issues in the past, which helps explain why bogus information from fabricators was included in some prewar intelligence reports on Iraq. And, when they write their reports, they must include better attribution and sourcing for each major assertion.

While I’m skeptical the IC has improved sufficiently on this front (I suspect, for example, that attribution problems are one reason the IC was looking for an AQAP attack in 2009 in Yemen and not on a plane bound for Detroit), I am heartened that at least the IC is trying to give analysts more information on where information comes from and what biases might come with that information. At the very least, it should help avoid the stovepiping of information from people like Curveball.

But reading that passage got me wondering whether the press has gotten any better on this front. This article was published in the NYT, a newspaper that rather famously promised to clean up its anonymous sourcing after the Judy Miller fiasco, but which routinely fails to meet its own guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong–Risen himself meets these guidelines in the story, explaining why around 3 anonymous sources had to remain anonymous.

one former senior intelligence official, who like several others quoted in this article would speak only on the condition of anonymity about internal agency matters

He also includes on-the-record quotes from sources that appear identical to the named anonymous sources he quotes from; leaving little doubt as to who and where his story came from.

one former official who worked with the [CIA] analyst [who had a breakdown after the Iraq intelligence debacle]

Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst who resigned to protest what he considered the Bush administration’s politicization of the prewar Iraq intelligence

Paul Pillar, a former senior C.I.A. analyst on the Middle East

according to the former officials [who worked on the 2007 Iran NIE]

one official [who worked on the 2007 NIE] recalled

Thomas Fingar, who was chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the time of the 2007 assessment on Iran

He even describes John Bolton in such a way as to downplay Bolton’s own role in intelligence as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, presumably making it clear (as if there were any doubt) that Bolton was not among his sources describing the problems with intelligence under Bush.

John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration

So this is not a commentary on Risen. Read more

Thomas Fingar on the Politics of NIE/NIAs

Arms Control Wonk linked to this really fascinating Thomas Fingar speech at Stanford. Fingar, you’ll recall, was one of the people at State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research who judged that Iraq wasn’t getting nukes. He went on to serve as Deputy Director of National Intelligence where, in 2007, he oversaw the Iran NIE that judged Iran had stopped its active nuclear weapons program in 2003.

It’s for Fingar’s comments about the latter that ACW links to his speech–to highlight Fingar’s revelation that the White House ordered declassification of that 2007 NIE.

This example is drawn from the highly contentious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. It became contentious, in part, because the White House instructed the Intelligence Community to release an unclassified version of the report’s key judgments but declined to take responsibility for ordering its release.

Remember, at the time Dick Cheney and Israel were both trying to force a military response to Iran’s nuclear program … but now we learn the White House ordered the NIE be released?

Was Bush (presumably with Condi’s help) playing Cheney’s games against him, releasing classified information without telling Cheney he ordered its release? As ACW notes, Fingar explains the logic behind the release–which was designed to show that there was time, but some urgency, to resolving the Iran situation diplomatically.

In other words, the message it was intended to send to policymakers was, “You do not have a lot of time but you appear to have a diplomatic or non-military option.” Prior to the publication of this Estimate, the judgment of the Intelligence Community—and of many pundits and policymakers—was that there was no chance of deterring Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon and that the only use of force—military options—could prevent Tehran from acquiring the bomb. The estimate also judged, and stated clearly, that Iran at a minimum had retained the option to pursue a weapon and that whether to do so would be a political decision that could be made at any time.

The entire speech is worth reading. Fingar provides an explanation for the crappy 2002 Iraq NIE.

In my experience, most policymakers ask themselves, and often ask their intelligence support team, whether the reported or projected development requires immediate action on their part or can be deferred while they work on more pressing issues or more attractive parts of their policy agendas. That is a natural and rational approach. To compensate for this, intelligence has a built-in, and on some subjects, like terrorism, a recently reinforced propensity to underscore, overstate, or “hype” the findings in order to get people to pay attention, and to fireproof the IC against charges that it failed to provide adequate warning. I note in passing that this propensity was one of the reasons for the errors in the infamous 2002 Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

While the explanation is not a surprise, there are several implications of it–not least that the former Number 2 in DNI is suggesting that estimates about terrorism are overstated, with the possible result that terrorism has remained a larger policy focus than other pressing issues. (Elsewhere, in his discussion about the Global Trends 2025 report, Fingar does note that the results of terrorism will be increasingly dangerous, largely due to bioterrorism.)

Read more

John Bolton and the IC’s New Sourcing Rules

John Bolton–and crazy nutters like him–are complaining that the NIE must be wrong because it was written by people who used to be at State.

Well, I think it’s potentially wrong, but I would also say, many of the people who wrote this are former State Dept employees who during their career at the State Dept never gave much attention to the threat of the Iranian program. Now they are writing as (fingers quote) ‘members of the intelligence community’ the same opinions that they’ve had four and five years ago.

Bolton’s talking about Thomas Fingar, who held one of the top two positions at INR through the period when Bolton was fighting with INR at State. And he’s talking about Christian Westermann, whom Bolton tried to have fired because Westermann wouldn’t approve a Bolton speech on Cuba that made completely undocumented claims.

That in and of itself should warn you that Bolton is rehashing old State Department fights. But when you look at the nature of Bolton’s previous dispute with Westermann, it gets more interesting. Read more