If only the bumblers, blusterers and other bureaucrats in our "intelligence" services could make up their minds.
The estimates of what we know about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, released this week just in time to undercut the U.N. sanctions meant to deter another Islamic bomb, underscores how little the bumblers know.
These are the wiseheads who only four months ago were telling the president and Congress that Iran was hard at work developing their bomb. Now they want the president, Congress and the rest of us to believe that the Iranians actually stopped work, maybe, on their bomb four years ago.
President Bush himself, though blindsided by the National Intelligence Estimate, further added to public confusion with his praise of the "good work" of the men who had betrayed him again. This sounded familiarly like his famous praise for Michael ("You're doing a good job, Brownie") Brown, the FEMA chief who bungled the early recovery efforts in New Orleans. If anybody in town is entitled to his contempt for the intelligence services that misled him about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and now Iranian nuclear research, it's George W. Bush.
Friends of the intelligence services insist they do some things well, though beyond a talent for spending money without adult supervision it's not clear what that might be. James Bond, none of these guys are. Not even Miss Moneypenny. Over the past half-century, the intelligence agencies missed the development of the Soviet bomb, the Chinese bomb, the nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India, and the sudden emergence of the North Korean nuclear threat. Nobody's perfect, and some people suggest, perhaps not entirely in jest, that the new estimate is an attempt to get it right, one way or the other. A stopped clock is correct twice a day.
The bureaucratic backside-covering began yesterday. Donald Kerr, the deputy director of national intelligence, told a House subcommittee that, well, after all, the intelligence report released this week doesn't tell the full picture. Iran still has "the most important" component of its nuclear weapons research, the uranium-enrichment plant, intact. Iran is still working on ballistic missiles. "We did not in any way suggest that Iran was benign for the future. What we had to do was address the evidence we had, that at least part of their program [was] suspended in 2003." Besides, he said, the assessment concluded with "moderate confidence" that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who vows to "wipe Israel off the map," still wants a weapons capability. Mr. Kerr noted that this latest estimate includes a thousand "source notes."
Speaking for a lot of the rest of us, Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, a Republican, told him the work of the intelligence agencies is a puzzle, and suggested that headquarters has got too big, too soft, too comfortable, without enough agents in the field. The congressman wants to trade "source notes" for real people.
The Bush administration is trying to make the best of this latest debacle, with the president's earnest assertion that this is actually "heartening news" because "it's a way to rally our partners." This strikes most of us as a particularly forlorn hope, like Mr. Micawber's confidence that in spite of all evidence "something will turn up."
We might put down intelligence failures to benign incompetence but for the evidence that something more sinister is at work. One U.S. official who has worked with the three chief authors of the National Intelligence Estimate Thomas Fingar, Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill, all one-time officers at the State Department and now in the office of the director of national intelligence calls the intelligence estimate a political exercise to torpedo George W.'s attempt to prevent a new Islamic bomb in Iran. The diplomats want only more teacup diplomacy that doesn't work. The message they read in the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup is clear: We can all go back to sleep.