NIE Madness

2005: Tehran is building a nuclear weapon. 2007: Maybe not. History shows that it’s probably best to take the latest National Intelligence Estimate with a grain of salt.

With the release of the new intelligence estimate debunking the claim that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, the CIA is earning laurels for puncturing the Bush Administration's alarms about Tehran's intentions. But is its new report really any more reliable than its original 2005 estimate, which declared that Iran was marching briskly towards attaining nuclear status? A look at the history of CIA estimates suggests that caution is in order. While estimates are only that-not, as is sometimes assumed, ironclad statements-and the difficulties of assessing clandestine programs are obvious, in no area has American intelligence gotten it wrong more often than when it comes to assessing foreign powers' nuclear prowess.

The CIA's first blunder established the pattern. In 1946, the CIA's Office of Reports and Estimates confidently predicted that Stalin's Soviet Union was years away from producing a bomb: "It is probable that the capability of the USSR to develop weapons based on atomic energy will be limited to the possible development of an atomic bomb to the stage of production at some time between 1950 and 1953. On this assumption, a quantity of such bombs could be produced and stockpiled by 1956." On August 24, 1949, the office again declared that Stalin would most likely not be able to field an atomic bomb until mid-1953. Five days later, the Soviet Union conducted its first atomic test.

The Office of Reports and Estimates was supposed to prevent a repetition of the blunders and failure to organize intelligence that occurred before Pearl Harbor. Instead, its egregious mistakes, including failing to predict the beginning of the Korean War, meant that it was abolished in 1950. According to CIA historian Donald P. Steury, "it had been the object of repeated investigations, all of which condemned its failures without reservation."

In the 1950s, the CIA also failed to anticipate how quickly the Soviet Union would detonate a hydrogen bomb. It began to reverse course, perhaps partly as a result of these embarrassments. Where it had previously downplayed Soviet progress, the agency now exaggerated it. Aware that the Soviets were tapping into the expertise of captured German scientists, the CIA concluded that a missile gap existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev had claimed, in the wake of the 1957 Sputnik success, that the USSR was producing missiles "like sausages." The CIA took him at his word. According to Sidney Graybeal, who was a CIA analyst at the time, "the estimates were based on capabilities rather than hard facts." They were also wrong. After John F. Kennedy became president, satellite photography revealed not only that there wasn't a missile gap, but that the U.S. was far ahead in the arms race, one reason that the Soviets backed down during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

A new round of contention erupted in the mid-1970s. Neoconservatives, led by Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Pipes and other members of the Committee on the Present Danger, charged that the CIA was tailoring its estimates on behalf of détente and soft-pedaling the size of the Soviet missile force. The famous Team B that challenged the CIA's Team A charged, in what critics later claimed was an anticipation of the bogus claims made in the run-up to the Gulf War, that the USSR was on the march and that the CIA was all wet. Who got it right? In retrospect, the hawks wildly exaggerated the power and coherence of the Soviet Union, but it does seem clear that the Soviet Union was pouring vastly more resources into the military than the CIA had realized. (In addition, the CIA had rather amusingly concluded in the 1970s that East Germany was one of the top ten economies in the world. It remains an economic basket-case today.)

If the CIA had difficulties judging the Soviet Union, it also badly bungled its assessment of another country's capabilities. In the 1950s, Israel's Shimon Peres began dickering with France to obtain nuclear technology. In order to weaken Egypt, then supporting an anti-French insurgency in Algeria, Paris began helping Israel develop nuclear technology. It took the CIA until 1960 to realize that Israel was building a bomb in Dimona. John F. Kennedy successfully pressured Ben-Gurion into allowing a team of Americans to inspect the facility there, but they saw what they wanted to see, being unable to find any evidence that it was something other than a peaceful project. The CIA report on the failure to identify the Dimona project earlier has a familiar ring. It stated: "The general feeling that Israel could not achieve this capability without outside aid from the U.S. or its allies . . . led to the tendency to discount rumors of Israeli reactor construction and French collaboration in the nuclear weapons area."

Then there was India. In 1998 New Delhi conducted three nuclear tests. Once again, the CIA was caught napping. According to the May 18, 1998 Washington Post, "six hours before the tests, no CIA warning was issued because the U.S. analysts responsible for tracking the Indian nuclear program had not expected the tests and were not on alert." Congress was apoplectic. "Our failure to detect this shows that India did a good job of concealing their intentions, while we did a dreadfully inadequate job of detecting those intentions", said Senator Richard Shelby, then chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence.  In response, the CIA could only state the obvious: "It is apparent that the Indians went to some lengths to conceal their activities and intentions."