OpinionIran in the World PressThe limits of intelligence

The limits of intelligence


Wall Street Journal: On one of our several trips together to Iraq, a senior intelligence official told us how she wrote her assessments — on one page, with three sections: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think it means. Sound simple? Actually, it’s very hard. The Wall Street Journal



On one of our several trips together to Iraq, a senior intelligence official told us how she wrote her assessments — on one page, with three sections: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think it means.

Sound simple? Actually, it’s very hard.

The limitations of the intelligence community are unfortunately well known to us. As past leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, we both saw the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD in the run-up to the war, as well as the failure to detect the 9/11 plot or predict India’s rise to the ranks of nuclear-armed nations. As a result, we coauthored, along with Sens. Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, the 2004 Intelligence Reform & Terrorism Prevention Act.

Since then, we have monitored the intelligence community as it tries to reinvent itself and become a strong, world-class organization. And we have worked, on a bipartisan basis, to strengthen the capability of the intelligence community to penetrate targets. Those efforts are moving forward, but we still have work to do. We are not convinced we have the necessary access to form definitive conclusions on Iran’s future plans, or the plans and intentions of other hard targets. As lawmakers on homeland security and intelligence, we want hard information on what is actually happening on the ground.

Moreover, the only way Congress can have faith in the intelligence we receive is for the administration and intelligence community to follow the law by keeping the congressional intelligence committees “fully and currently” informed on intelligence matters. The controversy over the recording and destruction of interrogation tapes by the Central Intelligence Agency underscores this point, and the negative consequences when they don’t.

Still, intelligence is in many ways an art, not an exact science. The complete reversal from the 2005 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program to the latest NIE serves as its own caution in this regard. The information we receive from the intelligence community is but one piece of the puzzle in a rapidly changing world. It is not a substitute for policy, and the challenge for policy makers is to use good intelligence wisely to fashion good policy.

In fact, the new NIE on Iran comes closest to the three-part model our intelligence community strives for: It carefully describes sources and the analysts’ assessment of their reliability, what gaps remain in their understanding of Iran’s intentions and capabilities, and how confident they are of their conclusions. Yet it ignores some key questions. Most importantly, it does not explain why the 2005 NIE came to the opposite conclusion, or what factors could drive Iran to “restart” its nuclear-weapons program.

We were among the loudest voices in 2006 demanding more intelligence on the status of Iran’s program and its intent to construct nuclear weapons. In a joint television interview, we raised serious concerns about the quality and extent of our intelligence community’s penetration of Iran. We were concerned that some of the conclusions being reached were based on scant reporting. Our view is that there were more gaps in our coverage of Iran than many were willing to admit at the time.

Intelligence is essential in countering proliferation challenges from state and nonstate actors. And national-security issues should be bipartisan and debated in a constructive manner, recognizing that sometimes, based on the information available, what we believe in good faith to be true may turn out to be wrong.

Lawmakers have a constitutional obligation to understand and investigate these issues. This is why we have traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan to assess the situation firsthand, and why we both recently signed a letter responding to a request from Iranian parliamentarians to meet with them. The purpose of the meeting would not be foreign policy, but to learn and hopefully fill in some of the gaps in information we receive from the intelligence community.

Though the new NIE may be taken as positive news, Iran clearly remains dangerous. The combination of international pressure, economic sanctions and the presence of U.S. troops on Iran’s borders may have indeed convinced Tehran to abandon its nuclear-weapons program, as the NIE states with “high confidence.” Nevertheless, Congress must engage in vigorous oversight — to challenge those who do intelligence work, and to make site visits to see for ourselves.

Intelligence is an investment — in people and technology. It requires sustained focus, funding and leadership. It also requires agency heads that prioritize their constitutional duty to keep the intelligence committees informed. Good intelligence will not guarantee good policy, but it can spare us some huge policy mistakes.

Mr. Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2004-2006. Ms. Harman, a California Democrat, was on the Intelligence Committee for eight years ending in 2006, the final four as ranking member.

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