Don’t Lean on the NIE

On the surface, and even below the surface, the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons is good news. The major U.S. intelligence agencies are now saying that the Iranian government abandoned its direct quest for nuclear weapons in 2003. This finding, and the wide publicity it has been given, will make it more difficult for President Bush to justify attacking Iran.

But those of us who don’t want the U.S. government to attack Iran should not base our case too heavily on the NIE finding. This is so for two reasons. First, as many of the neoconservative critics have claimed, the NIE finding could be wrong. Second, the case against attacking Iran does not depend on whether Iran is developing, or even on whether Iran has, nuclear weapons.

Consider the reliability of the NIE finding. I have no idea how reliable it is. And, unless you’re someone with a lot of inside information, much of it classified, neither do you. There’s certainly a temptation to assume that it’s reliable – after all, it makes a great case for not attacking Iran. But it’s always a bad idea to accept questionable information merely because it helps you reach the conclusion you want to reach.

But wasn’t this information produced by U.S. government agencies staffed by experts who have studied and analyzed such information for years? Sure. But what words in that sentence make you confident? The word "government?" The word "experts?" They don’t instill much confidence in me. Government agencies full of experts often make mistakes, many of them huge mistakes with huge consequences. On the editorial page of the Dec. 13 Wall Street Journal, Claude Moniquet, one of the critics of the NIE, writes:

"As a matter of fact, U.S. intelligence services have so far failed to predict the nuclearization of a single foreign nation. They failed to do so with regard to the Soviet Union in 1949, China in 1964, India and Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2002."

I don’t have enough knowledge to vouch for Moniquet’s statement of facts. But I certainly find it plausible. I’ve been around government far too long to put much confidence in estimates by central government agencies. Government workers do not have a strong incentive to get the facts right. And even if they had a strong incentive, they don’t have the means. It’s very hard for people sitting in Washington, with only a few people in the field, to figure out what’s true. A government official, in the field or in Washington, must always ask himself, "Who’s lying to me and who’s telling the truth?" He will often get the answer wrong. Moreover, some sources might not be lying; they might think they know the truth and might state what they "know," but might themselves be misinformed.

As Moniquet puts it:

"The agencies say in the report that they don’t ‘know’ whether Tehran is considering equipping itself with nuclear arms. These super-spies in the suburbs of Washington do not seem to be the least embarrassed by this admission of incompetence. With their multibillion-dollar budget, one might certainly expect the agencies to ‘know’ these sorts of things."

I don’t know if Moniquet is being ironic in his last sentence, but it certainly is possible and even probable for a multi-billion-dollar agency to come up with lousy information. Many other government agencies do this; why should the "intelligence" agencies be any different?

Fortunately, though, the case against attacking Iran does not depend on whether Iran has, or is developing, nuclear weapons. There is a much stronger case against attacking Iran. Ironically, the seeds of that case are in the article by the same Mr. Moniquet quoted above. Recall that he faulted U.S. intelligence agencies for not predicting the "nuclearization" of the Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan, or North Korea. So, that explains why the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which have had governments hostile to the U.S. government, have all used nuclear weapons on the United States, right? Oh, wait, you mean they haven’t? And that’s the point. As I pointed out in a July 2002 article published by the Hoover Institution on the pages of some of the major opinion magazines in the United States, if Saddam Hussein had used nuclear weapons on the United States, he would have been toast(ed), and he knew that. That’s why the case against attacking Iraq did not rest on whether he had nuclear weapons.

The same applies to Iran. If the Iranian government were to use nuclear weapons on the United States, there is a high probability that the U.S. government would retaliate by using nuclear weapons on Iran. The Iranian government, knowing this, is highly unlikely to use weapons on the United States. We coexisted for decades with much nastier governments than that of Iran, governments like that of the Soviet Union and China, which had scores more nuclear weapons than the Iranian government plausibly aspires to have.

I know that various neoconservatives and others think that Iran is a special case because of the "mad mullah" factor or the "mad Ahmadinejad" factor. But I dealt with this argument two articles ago and won’t bother repeating my reasoning here. For those who don’t want to check out that article, suffice it to say that the proponents of this argument have never adduced any evidence for it. The much more plausible reason for the Iranian government to want nuclear weapons, if, indeed, it wants them, is to defend itself against other hostile governments in the Middle East, one of which, Israel, has many nuclear weapons.

Many Americans argue that the Iranian government would want nuclear weapons in order to attack Israel. But in the aforementioned article I dealt with that issue, pointing out that Israel’s government has made clear to the Iranian government that if Israel is attacked with nuclear weapons, then it will retaliate in kind, regardless of the source of the attack. Moreover, an attack on Israel is Israel’s problem and should not be grounds for any action by the United States government. The U.S. government should avoid entangling alliances.

It’s tempting to lean heavily on the latest National Intelligence Estimate to argue that the U.S. government should not attack Iran. If, despite everything I’ve written above, you’re still tempted, then ask yourself two questions. First, if you thought Iran had nuclear weapons, would you want the U.S. government to attack them? If not, then whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons is irrelevant to your case against attacking. Second, what will you do if the intelligence agencies change their minds?

Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at