I am, as long-time Mullsters know, a huge fan of the Central Intelligence Agency. More precisely a huge fan of America's intelligence officers who routinely risk their lives, often under dreadful conditions, trying to determine the current state of affairs in states which don't want us to know what their state of affairs might be.
Last week the Bush Administration released a portion of a document known as the National Intelligence Estimate - NIE. Note, it contains the word "Estimate."
It is not titled "National Intelligence Certainty."
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Reps. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mi), and Jane Harmon (D-Ca) - former Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee - pointed out that the current mechanism for measuring information by members of the intelligence community is to note:
What we know
What we don't know
What we think it means
The NIE which is currently in the news had to do with the astonishing revelation that, as the NY Times reported, CIA "analysts found that Iran had suspended its covert nuclear weapons program back in 2003."
Again from the NYT:
The new estimate says - "with high confidence" - that Iran stopped working on nuclear weapons in the fall of 2003. It states "with moderate confidence" that the program has not been rebooted over the past four years. It suggests "the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure."
Huzzahs all around. This is good news for the White House because the Iraqis have bent to its will.
It's good for our European allies because they don't have to do what they hate most: Vote for sanctions in the UN (in spite of the fact that many of them immediately ignore those sanctions).
It is good for China and Russia who are two of Iran's major trading partners.
And it's REALLY good for Iran because Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, can now claim to be a full partner in world affairs.
Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it?
Let's look at the other side.
Iran is still a major sponsor of death and disruption in Iraq and in Lebanon. And if Ahmadinejad has backed away from his stated goal of destroying Israel, I was absent that day.
Further, not everyone actually believes the NIE.
For example, the Brits are way, WAY skeptical. The UK Telegraph begins its coverage of that skepticism thus:
British spy chiefs have grave doubts that Iran has mothballed its nuclear weapons programme, as a US intelligence report claimed last week, and believe the CIA has been hoodwinked by Teheran.
One of ways the US intelligence services determined that Iran had ceased its nuclear weapons program was by intercepting phone messages. Again, from the Telegraph:
British analysts believed that Iranian nuclear staff, knowing their phones were tapped, deliberately gave misinformation …They say things on the phone because they know we are up on the phones.
Intelligence officers have said for centuries that gathering information is one thing. Understanding what you are looking at is much harder. Determining what your adversary's intentions are, based upon that information, is the most difficult of all.
One of the reasons the US and USSR allowed each others' spies to roam around inside their borders was because it was in each country's national interests to have confidence that the other was not about to launch a nuclear strike.
The Iranians have not backed away from enriching uranium for the stated purpose of building nuclear power plants. But, material produced during that process is the precursor of weaponized uranium - that is the stuff of bombs.
Like everyone else, I hope the Iranians have indeed stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon. But as the former Israeli deputy minister of defense told the Telegraph recently:
"No one can rule out with high confidence that somewhere in Iran, 70 times the size of Israel, there is one lab working on the weapons programme."
That's the black hole of the intelligence metric (what we know, what we don't know and what we think it means) as reported by Reps. Hoekstra and Harmon.
There is always the nagging doubt - as a former US Secretary of Defense once famously stated - that "we don't know what we don't know."
And when it comes to Iran, we should be very aware that we don't know a great deal.