ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Keeping Secrets

What the intelligence estimate on Iran reveals-about Iran and intelligence.

In late October 2007, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell issued written guidance about the declassification of key judgments from National Intelligence Estimates, secret documents that present the intelligence agencies' assessment on particular issues. According to McConnell's count, among the hundreds of NIEs written, only a handful of key judgments have been released.

Some of those have come in the past few years, notably about Iraq's suspected weapons programs. That "does not portend that this is going to become a standard practice," McConnell's guidance stated. Key judgments should not be released, nor should they be written with that possibility in mind, nor is the potential of a leak reason enough to declassify them. In McConnell's view, declassification risks revealing sources and methods used to create the NIE, and it injects an air of politics that could skew results.

But less than two months later, the Bush administration released unclassified key judgments from a new NIE on Iran's nuclear weapons program. The estimate declared that Iran had halted a portion of its weapons design work in 2003, a dramatic turnaround from a previous assessment. Administration officials concluded that the explosive judgments would leak despite their efforts to keep them secret, and the president authorized declassification. The Iran NIE provides a textbook example of the inherent tension between transparency and secrecy in the intelligence profession, one that is unlikely to diminish. On the one hand, releasing such information - particularly about important topics that dramatically shape policy-is in the public interest. "At a time when presidential advisers were suggesting the possibility of imminent attack against Iran, it is inconceivable that the [intelligence agencies'] view of the Iranian nuclear program ought to be withheld," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

At the same time, the world now knows what the intelligence community knows about Iran and how American spies obtained this information. Senior officials have revealed in media interviews that intelligence agencies intercepted Iranian phone conversations, captured a laptop with nuclear designs and even purloined a journal documenting various aspects of Iran's efforts. McConnell has said his decision to declassify could well make future intelligence activities against Iran much harder.

One Senate staffer remarked that the Iran NIE "has certainly been sucked into a political debate." A number of weapons experts have said they're worried that if Iran's program gears up again, the intelligence community might not have the sources it needs to find out. And the release led critics to question officials' motivation. Some argued that a liberal band of analysts had tried to pre-empt the Bush administration's potential invasion of Iran by minimizing the nuclear threat.

All this was probably unavoidable, and does nothing to clear the toxic partisan air in which intelligence exists today. NIE drafters surely knew they were going to ignite a conflagration. What they also might have guessed-and, perhaps, secretly desired-was that the key judgments in the Iran NIE would show the world just how messy and uncertain intelligence work really is. The estimate hardly says that Iran poses no threat, but it is inherently uncertain about how grave the threat is. It is full of caveats and circumspection. No policymaker would read it and come away with a clear roadmap about how to deal with Iran.

And that's usually how it goes. Intelligence rarely is perfect. And there is no reason policymakers should expect it to be so. In releasing these key judgments, McConnell has done more than let us in on secrets about Iran. He has shown us how his business runs.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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