Fingar: Iran Nuclear Assessment Strong, Framing Of Argument Wasn’t

Fingar: Iran Nuclear Assessment Strong, Framing Of Argument Wasn’t

Thomas Fingar, who leads the agency that produced the most recent Iran National Intelligence Estimate, says conclusions about Tehran’s weapons program are sound, but the report’s delivery could have been framed differently.

March 19, 2008 10:17 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) Iran’s nuclear-weapons capabilities has been criticized as inadequate, poorly written, and narrowly focused. But Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which produced the Iran NIE, stands by the document’s conclusions. “This was not orchestrated disinformation” by the Iranians, Fingar says. “It was information on a very wide spectrum of nuclear-related activities—activities and intentions—that had to be checked against what we already knew.” But Fingar says his office never believed the NIE’s conclusions would become public. “If we thought for a minute they would be released, which we didn’t, we would have framed them somewhat differently.” He says he hopes future NIE documents remain classified.

In terms of reforming national intelligence, you’ve talked about outreach and transparency. I wonder if you could explain just a little bit further what you’re doing to get the ball rolling in terms of transparency across the intelligence community.

On transparency, we have my analytic-integrity-and-standards component [which] has had the lead in developing the foremost standards that are used to evaluate community products. Those same standards are now being incorporated into agency-specific evaluation programs. By the end of this year, both the intention and the expectation is that every agency will have its own analytic evaluation program.

Second is directive with respect to sourcing that specifies in some detail how items are to be footnoted. And it’s not just the citation, but some judgments made about the reliability of it: How much confidence do you have in it? Did you consider alternatives? So that it’s there—the homework is there if people want to see them.

Training program: We established a program which we call Analysis 101. It’s intended for all new analysts coming into the community, whatever agency it is, to learn together the common tradecraft techniques that we have.

On outreach, one of the first things that I did was to commission the compilation of all of the contacts programs, contracts that the community has with outside expertise. [We] produced a 142-page compilation. We’ve made that available in the community. We have on websites if somebody is running a conference or there’s a seminar going on so that everybody knows about it, can find out about [whether] it’s open, it’s not open, what you need to do to go there, if papers are written or summaries are done. They’re posted so that the community can take advantage of this.

The use of open-source materials: The open-source center [is meant] to be something like a research library for people, so that the evaluation of a particular journalist, a particular publication, a particular statistical series or whatever, so that once that has been evaluated, that evaluation goes along with the information, so people don’t have to rediscover it over and over.

Let’s use the sourcing analogy to move to a question on the Iran NIE. We’re well aware of the December 2007 conclusion and what has been interpreted by some as being an about-face [by the intelligence community on Iran’s desire to pursue a nuclear weapon]. In July, when you testified before Congress, you made it clear that Iran was still pursuing. What type of intelligence needs to be gathered for such a significant change to be made?

I don’t have a problem calling that an about-face. It’s a different judgment; it’s a judgment based on new information. And what kind of information does it take? Credible information; information that could be corroborated; information that stands up to close scrutiny on: Is this deception? Is this intended deliberately to mislead us? And three different teams ran very rigorous counterintelligence checks on this and all came to the conclusion. I mean, it’s not one source, it’s not [a single] document or anything like that. This was not orchestrated disinformation.

The assumption being that during that five-month chunk of time, between when you testified and when the NIE was made public, something significant came to your attention. Is that an accurate assumption?

Yes, very significant information. It was information not only on the weaponization program, it was information on a very wide spectrum of nuclear-related activities—activities and intentions—that had to be checked against what we already knew. And it substantially increased our confidence in the judgments that we had reached on the basis of information that we had prior to the summer of last year.

There’s been talk that the Iran NIE was narrowly written, excluding the civilian capabilities, excluding ballistic missile testing or capabilities, and I wonder if you can respond to those claims. And to follow, do you think it was poorly written? Would you have done it differently if you could?

No, we dealt at length with the centrifuge enrichment, and dealt with the missile program. It was not a narrowly crafted [document]—people are reacting to a two-and-a-half-page summary of a 140-page document with almost 1,500 source notes. And believe it or not, you can’t fit the whole book on the book jacket. Was it badly written? The [still classified] estimate itself is very well written. The key judgments, knowing what we do now about the way in which they were spun, perceived, used by folks when released—if we thought for a minute they would be released, which we didn’t, we would have framed them somewhat differently. The judgments would be the same. But we would have framed them somewhat differently that says: “Dear readers [not] following this: You can’t have a bomb unless you have fissile material, [and] the Iranians continue to develop fissile material. A weapon is not much good if you can’t deliver it—they have a missile-development program. But you don’t have a bomb unless you can produce a device and weaponize it. That’s what’s stopped.”

Should we expect to see future NIEs released publicly, given the storm of questions and criticism that has surrounded the Iran NIE?

We will continue to produce a great many NIEs. I hope you don’t see them. I hope they stay classified.

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