2007 Iran Nuclear NIE: More of the Story

The 2007 Iran nuclear NIE has been revalidated many times but was extremely controversial at the time. Contrary to the expectations and wishes of the Intelligence Community, the President ordered declassification of the key judgments (3 pages of a 140-page analysis). This article examines the aftermath of that decision, including Congressional praise and criticism, ad hominem attacks seeking to discredit the analysis by attacking individuals, and lasting consequences that strengthen the case for delaying the release of intelligence assessments on controversial subjects.

The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities may be the most widely cited, criticized, and debated estimates ever produced by the National Intelligence Council (NIC). Critics and defenders alike express strong opinions and high confidence about their judgments despite the fact that the full estimate has not been declassified and most commentators have nothing to go on except the three-page redacted key judgments (KJs) and the assertions of others who had not read the supporting evidence or analysis.1 Although one can debate the wisdom of releasing only – or even – an unclassified version of the key judgments, I find it hard to disagree with President Bush’s argument that, having based US Iran policy and diplomatic efforts on Intelligence Community judgments about Tehran’s nuclear program, it was imperative to inform the world that those judgments had changed.2

The intelligence used to support those judgments has been reexamined and supplemented by newer information several times during the twelve years since completion of the 2007 NIE and it is gratifying to know that our key findings have been revalidated. In the world of intelligence analysis, where one is always working with limited and often inconsistent information, reexamination of available ‘facts’ and the assumptions and analogies used to bridge intelligence gaps is imperative. So too is willingness to identify and admit errors and revise assessments in order to provide more accurate and more useful analytic support to policymakers. That our efforts in 2007 have been revalidated multiple times is not a trivial matter and should bolster confidence in the tradecraft and objectivity of all IC analysts.

Although it would be tempting to revisit what we did, how we did it, and why we did it that way with benefit of hindsight, that is not the focus of this essay.3 Instead, I will use the opportunity afforded by this collection of essays about the 2007 Iran NIE to comment briefly on dimensions of intelligence analysis that seldom make it into post-mortems or retrospective appraisals. The examples reflect the high profile and contentious character of the Iran NIE and are more extreme than similar experiences during my career. Nevertheless, I believe that they illustrate common phenomena and, more importantly, that they strengthen the case for delaying the public release of most intelligence assessments and protecting the identity of the analysts who have written them.