How Dependable is 'Intelligence'?

Posted: Dec 20, 2007 12:01 AM
How Dependable is 'Intelligence'?

Let's pretend for a minute that you are the president of the United States, and that this is 2012. An aide walks into the Oval Office and lays on your desk a memorandum from the CIA. It reports that, according to a trusted agent in Iran, the mullahs have succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. What's more, they have managed to conceal one such weapon in each of three American cities -- Washington, New York and Los Angeles -- and in 12 hours will announce an intention to detonate them simultaneously if the United States interferes with an attack Iran plans to launch against Saudi Arabia 24 hours from right now.

What to do? A phone call to the Iranian embassy elicits a strenuous denial, and it seems clear that the staff there knows nothing about the alleged plot. Similar inquiries by our embassy in Teheran result in similar denials, which of course may or may not be true. It is now -- maybe -- just 23 hours to Armageddon.

Now, the first and foremost obligation of any president of the United States is to defend its more than 300 million people against such an attack. And the only hope of fending off this one -- if the report is true -- is to launch immediately a nuclear counterattack on Iran that would (we hope) destroy those responsible for the plan, and prevent orders from being issued to carry it out.

But is the report true? It is based on the account of a single agent whose reports have been reasonably accurate in the past, but of course there is no assurance that he is right this time. If he is wrong, and the president nonetheless orders a nuclear attack on Iran, the United States will be seen by a horrified world as having gratuitously obliterated a sovereign nation. In such circumstances, impeachment would be only one of the lesser consequences. There would almost certainly be an international trial, before the United Nations, and the miscreant president would be subjected to penalties that can only be imagined.

Now, quarrel all you wish with my hypothesis. By all means substitute your own. But it certainly possible that a president may someday be faced with a crisis in which he or she must choose, on the basis of uncertain information, whether to risk a deadly attack on the United States or to order, pre-emptively, a counterattack with deadly consequences for the nation in question. That is a dilemma that is built into the very nature of the presidency, and there is no avoiding it.

I raise the question because it is clear that, in recent months, President Bush has been confronted with one variety of that dilemma. He had been assured by our intelligence agencies, over many months, that Teheran was working energetically to build a nuclear weapon, and would achieve that goal in a specified (small) number of years. This assumption has been a key factor in developing U.S. policies toward Iran -- as, Lord knows, it ought to have been.

Now, according to The New York Times, these same intelligence agencies state, on the basis of new information, that Iran's leaders decided "in late 2003 to shut down a complex engineering effort to design nuclear weapons." If this is true, the United States has been proceeding, for four years, on dangerously mistaken assumptions about Iran -- assumptions that might well, at any point, have misled a cautious president into a wholly unnecessary war.

What should George W. Bush do now? Kick off his shoes, put his feet up, and say, "Well, now we know the previous intelligence was false."? Or ignore the new information, and play it safe by continuing to act in accordance with the worst-case scenario?

I can see no easy solution to the problem. Bush must decide whether to discount the encouraging reports and keep America focused on the possible danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, or accept the new information as true and let down our guard accordingly. Either way, he will be pilloried by history (never mind the Democrats!) if he guesses wrong.

Aren't you glad you aren't president?