Three Blind Mice
The Untold Story of Bureaucratic Betrayal on Iran
On December 3, 2007, a remarkable event took place that changed the power structure in Washington in fundamental and very damaging ways. At a nondescript office building on K Street in Northwest Washington, reporters were called to take part in a background briefing where senior U.S. intelligence officials planned to announce the results of a new National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE.
NIEs are the U.S. intelligence analytical community’s most prized product. They are supposed to represent the consensus views of hundreds if not thousands of intelligence analysts and collectors. These personnel are spread out among the sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies, which in 2007 had a combined annual budget of $43.5 billion— more money than most countries spend on their entire national defense budgets.
Of course, by 2007, NIEs were no longer considered incontrovertible. First, a dysfunctional U.S. intelligence system had missed the threat and ultimate attacks of September 11, 2001. Then, to compensate for its failure in 2001, it falsely assumed that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, without ever sending any agents of its own to check firsthand. The flawed 2002 NIE on Iraq’s WMD was used as one of the bases for the invasion of Iraq. Five years later, the credibility of the intelligence community lay in tatters.
But this lack of credibility was not much of an obstacle to the intelligence analysts responsible for the report presented at this background briefing. It was an opportunity, in fact.
As the intelligence officials outlined it for reporters on December 3, the NIE dramatically reversed a 2005 estimate that had concluded Iran was secretly building nuclear arms through its development of uranium enrichment capabilities, obtained from the Pakistani nuclear supplier network headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear arms program. Directly contradicting that earlier report, the new estimate said that “we”—meaning all U.S. intelligence analysts—“judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
This conclusion was the lead item on the unclassified sheet of “key judgments” that the intelligence officials passed out at the briefing. Since it did not identify the sources of information used in reaching the judgments, the unclassified summary produced more questions than answers. But the report emphasized that NIEs are the most authoritative written judgments on national security issues, “designed to help U.S. civilian and military leaders develop policies to protect U.S. national security interests.”
It also took pains to distance the intelligence community from the flawed 2002 Iraq estimate—and, notably, from the 2005 NIE on Iran. The unclassified overview stated that a number of steps had been taken over the previous year and a half to improve the NIE process under the newly created Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The new and improved NIE process supposedly was designed to better check “source reporting and technical judgments” and to apply “more rigorous standards.”
But these claims were false.
The real story of the 2007 NIE on Iran has not been told. A close investigation reveals that while NIEs are supposed to reflect the views of the entire intelligence community, this 140-plus-page classified report was essentially the work of three liberal bureaucrats at the top of the intelligence food chain. And far from reflecting “more rigorous standards,” their report was an overtly politicized policy document. The tenets of intelligence analysis prohibit such policymaking.
These three liberal officials, all from the State Department bureaucracy, used the 2007 NIE to try to block what they regarded as an out-of-control president from threatening to use military force against the Iranian regime over its refusal to give up an illegal uranium-enrichment program. After claiming with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, their report made a telling admission: “This NIE does not assume that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons.” Instead they said they had taken “full account of Iran’s dual-use uranium fuel cycle and those nuclear activities that are at least partly civil in nature.”
In other words, these biased analysts accepted at face value the claims of a radical Islamist regime and state sponsor of terrorism. Their goal was to spin the intelligence to cast doubt on Iran’s nuclear weapons development and promote the view of the liberal bureaucrats who argued Iran’s nuclear program was “civil” and not military in nature.
In pursuing their own policy agenda, this cabal of liberal intelligence officials undermined months and even years of international efforts to apply political and diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime to give up an illegal nuclear weapons program. The analysts did so despite the fact that a nuclear-armed Iran would fundamentally change the balance of power in the Middle East and pose a major threat to the United States and its allies.
In the end, the December 3 meeting capped off one of the boldest power plays by unelected bureaucrats in American history. The analysts had sought to prevent an elected president from conducting the foreign policy of the United States. In the past that would have been considered treason.
And yet these three officials were never taken to task for their policy crimes. Indeed, they remained in their important posts, free to influence U.S. government policy.
It would be fair to ask just how unelected bureaucrats gained enough power to be able to subvert the official policy of the United States. Sadly, this kind of subversion has been going on for years.
The term “bureaucrat” usually conjures the image of a bland paper pusher. There are certainly plenty of those within the federal government, which now has 1.7 million employees (and this figure doesn’t even include the 5 million federal contractors, many of whom are former government bureaucrats, and 1.4 million military personnel). But a relatively small number of activist bureaucrats, perhaps several hundred to several thousand, have real power, despite toiling in relative obscurity. They pose a serious threat to the United States and the world at large.
The biggest danger involves the professional bureaucrats within the national security and foreign policy establishment—especially in such key agencies as the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Justice Department, and on the White House executive staff. Many of them have their own agenda, one that is overwhelmingly dominated by the long-discredited left-liberal policies that came to dominate the worst of the Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s. Political polling data is not available, but experts estimate that the federal bureaucracy is overwhelmingly Democrat—perhaps as much as 90–95 percent Democrat.
Take the example of one newly hired U.S. intelligence analyst, a young woman in her twenties who was asked to describe the Venezuelan movement known as Bolivarism, whose leader is President Hugo Chávez. The analyst responded by saying simply that it was a “social justice movement.” Of course, Chávez is well known for his outspoken anti- Americanism, and his leftist Bolivarism has nothing to do with real social justice and everything to do with advancing Communist subversion throughout the Western Hemisphere. Chávez in 2007 praised the Colombian terrorist group FARC and called for them to be de-listed as international terrorists. All this was apparently lost on the analyst. “She was simply repeating what she had learned in school,” an astonished senior U.S. intelligence official said.
The democratic system is set up to support duly elected officials who are trying to implement policies according to the wishes of the American people, but unelected figures burrowing into the bureaucratic structure have upended this system. “That’s not how we do things” is the bureaucrats’ standard response when ordered to implement a policy by a “political,” as political appointees are called.
As a result, these bureaucrats have blocked or subverted many conservative policies that restored America to greatness during the administration of Ronald Reagan. Their very goal is to thwart these policies, in fact. The Hatch Act, passed it 1939, limits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities, but the federal bureaucracy has nonetheless become incredibly politicized.
The subversive nature of the modern national security bureaucracy took root in the Kennedy administration. As defense secretary, former Ford automotive chairman Robert S. McNamara put in place much of the modern policy analysis and planning system used today by bureaucrats. His use of systems analysis was a quasiscientific approach to making decisions on such elements as force requirements, weapons systems, and other policy issues. The process used mainly civilians instead of military personnel, to avoid what McNamara feared was a bias of the military. Systems analysis basically meant considering every decision as broadly as possible while reducing complex problems to their component parts to make them easier to understand. But far from making objective decisions, McNamara’s aides, who became known as the “whiz kids,” used system analysis to support McNamara’s predetermined and misguided liberal policy goals.
McNamara used his corporate approach to systematize the bureaucracy and to cut off the generally conservative military from major policy analysis and decisions. For example, he developed the complex, long- term budgeting process that is still in use today, including the Five- Year Defense Plan. He also used draft presidential memorandums and other management reports to shape the president’s final decisions, which limited the ability of military leaders to communicate directly with the commander in chief.
The result today is a national security bureaucracy that remains steeped in the left-liberal political mindset when it comes to both formulating policy and planning it. Even those who sought to tame the bureaucracy, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, were unable to do so. Reagan’s conservative revolution brought down the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, but the entrenched bureaucracy remained largely untouched by Reagan’s brand of conservatism.
The problem with George W. Bush’s administration was that it did little to counter the subversion. It was plagued by a combination of bad political appointees and the president’s unwillingness to press officials to support his policies, especially after the 2003 Iraq War and the failures of intelligence related to the September 11 attacks and the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Those failures have proved costly—not only to Bush’s political fortunes but, more important, to U.S. national security.
The “Game Preserve”
The backstage story of the 2007 NIE on Iran reflects the extraordinary power unelected bureaucrats have grabbed for themselves, and the Bush administration’s inability (or refusal) to address the problem.
According to current and former intelligence and policy officials I spoke with, the three senior bureaucrats responsible for the estimate were Vann Van Diepen, a former State Department arms official who in 2006 became the National Intelligence Officer for Weapons of Mass Destruction; Thomas Fingar, who served in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and as chairman of the National Intelligence Council; and Kenneth Brill, another liberal State Department bureaucrat who was removed from his post as U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but landed in the plum post of head of the newly formed National Counterproliferation Center, an interagency center.
The officials told me that the principal Iran NIE author was Van Diepen, who had last worked in an intelligence role in the 1980s, when he served in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Van Diepen had repeatedly tried to block conservative efforts within the U.S. government to get tough on international arms proliferators like China and Russia, despite the fact that he was director of the State Department’s Office of Chemical, Biological, and Missile Nonproliferation for fourteen years.
In short, he resisted opportunities to prevent illegal weapons proliferation even though such prevention was his primary responsibility for a decade and a half.
Van Diepen was, like many others in the national security bureaucracy, devoted to toothless arms-control policies like the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This put him at odds with the Bush administration’s national security policies. The administration rejected the ABM Treaty because it hindered the development of needed defenses against missile attack (and also because one of the two parties to the treaty, the Soviet Union, was now defunct). Thus Van Diepen clashed with hard-headed conservative realists, who believed that action was needed to prevent the spread of dangerous weapons.
Van Diepen’s perspective was not particularly surprising, given that he earned a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Defense and Arms Control Studies Program in 1983. The MIT program is known in conservative policy circles as a bastion of muddleheaded liberalism for the arms-control advocates who almost venerate the 1972 ABM Treaty.
Once ensconced in the State Department Nonproliferation Bureau, Van Diepen became the champion of what State arms-control bureaucrats called the “Game Preserve” approach to international arms control. Through his office he controlled sanctions against those who violated U.S. laws in spreading dangerous arms and technologies to rogue states. But he pointedly chose not to employ this vital tool for dealing with weapons proliferators.
Instead, the word went out that nations considered key strategic states were not to be punished under any circumstances. “We don’t hunt on the game preserve,” he told a coworker.
Those on Van Diepen’s “game preserve” included Russia and China, the most egregious violators of arms-proliferation norms. These countries would sell just about any weapon to anybody. Beijing, for example, supplied an endless stream of technology to Pakistan throughout the 1980s that ended up creating a new and highly unstable nuclear state. Van Diepen repeatedly let the Chinese off the hook for their arms sales to such rogue states as Iran, Syria, and North Korea by claiming that the Beijing government could not control the main exporters in China. But the fact is that the vast majority of all Chinese businesses are state-run and that the Communist system still in place has extensive controls on all arms and arms-related technology.
Russia, meanwhile, supplied large amounts of nuclear technology to Iran. But according to Van Diepen, Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful. This was not a conclusion he reached only after studying all the evidence in assembling the 2007 NIE. For years Van Diepen was a leading proponent of the false and misleading view that Iran’s nuclear effort was not aimed at building weapons, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.
According to officials who worked with them at State, Van Diepen and his boss—Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf, another entrenched liberal bureaucrat who worshiped at the altar of arms-control treaties— vigorously subverted U.S. counterproliferation law. The law required the State Department to implement legal sanctions on states and companies caught engaging in transfers of WMD and missiles, but “their preference was to continue the Clinton-era policies where the State Department dragged its feet and looked the other way on WMD sanctions cases,” one official told me.
One of the most flagrant examples of Van Diepen’s sabotage nearly got him removed from his post within the State Department’s Nonproliferation Bureau. It occurred early in Bush’s first term, as he defied an order from John Bolton, at the time undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Excerpted from The Failure Factory by Bill Gertz. Copyright © 2009 by Bill Gertz. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.