Spying the Truth

COMMENTARY Political Process

Spying the Truth

Dec 17th, 2007 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and president of The Heritage Foundation.

It's time to update an old joke.

Journalists discover the Earth will explode in 12 hours. How do they cover it? The New York Times would announce: "World Ends Tomorrow; Women, Minorities Will Suffer Most." USA Today would counter with: "We're Outta Here!" Meanwhile The Washington Post would feature: "Everything's Just Fine, Anonymous CIA Source says."

It's sad but true that our intelligence community is more talented at leaking information than at identifying upcoming threats. So let's consider the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which says Iran halted its nuclear weapons back in 2003.

"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," the NIE says.

But there are big problems with that conclusion. For one thing, the new NIE defines a "nuclear weapons program" as "Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work."

But the main stumbling block to a weapons program is having enough weapons-grade nuclear material to arm a bomb. A country can follow an ostensibly "civilian" path for years and remain just one step shy of possessing "weaponized" uranium.

And Iran appears to be within that one step. It has approximately 3,000 centrifuges enriching uranium that it says will be used for civilian programs. But these same centrifuges also can enrich uranium to the higher levels necessary to arm a bomb. If you trust Iran, there's nothing to worry about.

The NIE also fails to explain why Iran is developing ballistic missiles. Middle East sources report Iran tested a new, long-range ballistic missile last month. There's no reason to have such weapons unless a country plans to put nuclear warheads on them. Without nukes, they're just flying rockets, difficult to aim and unlikely to cause much damage.

Finally, the NIE never explains why Iran would want to use nuclear energy to produce electricity, as Tehran claims. The country has so much natural gas it burns it off at the well to get rid of it. It would be cheaper and easier to use that gas to generate electricity than to run a nuclear power program.

The CIA has crossed a line here. As columnist Jim Hoagland wrote in The Washington Post, "The intelligence community has made itself a separate agency of government, answerable essentially to itself. This NIE makes clear that for better or worse, spy agencies today make the finished product of policy rather than providing the raw materials."

But we leave policymaking to elected officials for good reason: Because they must answer to the people through elections. When President Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003, he knew he was taking his political future in his hands. As the war became unpopular, so did the president. He's paid a big political price for his decision, from the failure of his plan to reform Social Security through his party's loss of both houses of congress.

But what price have CIA bureaucrats ever paid for their misjudgments?

Our country was blindsided on Sept. 11. Yet CIA Director George Tenet remained in charge for years, long enough to (wrongly) declare it a "slam dunk" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He then collected the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The CIA was blithely unaware of A.Q. Khan's nuclear cooperation with Iran for many years. The agency got a clue only when Libya, frightened by the success of American arms in Iraq, publicly announced -- and ended -- its Weapons of Mass Destruction program in 2003. Likewise, the CIA misjudged how quickly the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea would be able to build a nuclear weapon.

Information is nonpartisan. Our intelligence agencies exist to provide information to our elected leaders, who use that information to make policy decisions. But wrong information easily leads to bad decisions. We need better spying from our intelligence agencies, not unwarranted assertions. Until we get that, we won't be as safe as we need to be.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).