National Intelligence Estimate lacks supporting evidence, possibly politicized, intelligence officials say
Published: Wednesday July 25, 2007
Iran may be focus of Hezbollah spotlight
Current and former intelligence officials say the Bush Administration's National Intelligence Estimate regarding terrorist threats to the United States does not provide evidence to support its assertions and may have inflated the domestic threat posed by the Lebanese political and military group Hezbollah, perhaps because it receives financial support from Iran.
According to the report, Hezbollah – a Shi'a Muslim group with ties to Iran that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States – may target the US domestically if the US poses a serious threat to Iran. But sources say the allegations about Hezbollah were simply "thrown in."
Speaking under condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, several intelligence officers asserted that the report was sloppy and lacked supporting evidence. "The NIE seems… fiddled [with]," regarding Hezbollah, one high-ranking CIA official said. "Whether it is or isn't is not really the point. The point is that nobody is ready to believe it."
"As regards to the Hezbollah 'threat,'" the official added, "they just threw that in. "Nobody in CIA talks to Hezbollah, and they're living off their assessments from back in the 80s, which they really never got right anyway."
An individual close to the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research told RAW STORY the document's assertions are not backed up by empirical or external evidence even in the classified version. In addition, this official explained, the information lacks context and does not prioritize threats.
Released last week, the NIE is a consensus view from all sixteen intelligence agencies and departments, compiled by the National Intelligence Council and signed off on by the agencies involved as well as by the Director for National Intelligence. The document represents the "official" intelligence community view on any issue related to national security.
Intelligence officials would not confirm whether the classified version contained dissenting views. However, several expressed concern that parts of the report may have been politicized.
"Perceived threat" or attack?
Sources familiar with the classified document take issue with the general wording regarding what Hezbollah might "perceive" as "posing a direct threat to the group or Iran." Both in its classified and declassified form, sources say, the NIE does not offer support for the assertion of a "perceived threat" and does not mention the possible use of US military force against Iran, which the White House has mulled for several years.
In a conversation with RAW STORY Tuesday, spokeswoman for the Director of National Intelligence Vanee Vines said "the key judgments of the NIE speak for themselves."
"It is a consensus view and a stand-alone document," Vines added.
The main analysis of the report focuses on the rise and resurgence of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Most sources interviewed for this article agreed with the general assertion provided in the analysis – that Pakistan is harboring al Qaeda and has a record of support for terrorism.
However, there are concerns about the way the report has been compiled. One former intelligence official says that the report is sloppy and that it would be "a mistake to read too much into it."
During a July 17 press briefing, Edward Gistaro, key drafter of the NIE and the national intelligence expert for transnational threats at the National Intelligence Council, said that the reason for considering Hezbollah as a potential source of real domestic threats comes "partly out of what we saw last summer in Lebanon where Hezbollah publicly said that they saw a U.S. hand in the conflict there."
But others – both current and former senior intelligence officials and case officers – find the threat of a domestic strike by Hezbollah very unlikely and question the reasoning behind including such a bold assertion in the NIE without context.
Former CIA case officer Robert Baer – a 20-year intelligence professional with expertise in the Middle East on whose book See No Evil the award winning film Syriana was based – is skeptical that Hezbollah will launch domestic attacks on US soil.
"Hezbollah had all the opportunity and motivation to [attack the U.S] during the last 24 years," Baer said in a conversation with RAW STORY last Friday. "Why in god's name would Hezbollah resort to terrorism against the west when it got what it wanted?"
"You'll know there's a Hezbollah domestic threat when the FBI makes a serious arrest" in relation to a terrorist plot.
In addition, the US has posed a "real external threat" to Iran for some time. Last year, RAW STORY revealed that the Bush Administration had begun using proxy groups to commit acts of terrorism within in Iran via a secretive Pentagon office authorized by the Office of the Vice President. Once such group, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), has been responsible for acts of terror against Iranian targets and individuals all over the world.
"They are doing whatever they want, no oversight at all," one intelligence source said at the time.
The response from Hezbollah to these "threats" – including a US naval build up near Iranian waters – has been rather quiet.
Which agency contributed what analysis to the report?
All agencies claim to have contributed equally to the NIE, despite the fact that not all agencies have the same expertise or even the same scope of intelligence collection and analysis.
For example, the National Security Agency would likely have better source materials to back up assertions of cyber-terrorism than the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
RAW STORY asked the CIA to release a declassified raw version of their contribution to the NIE. The agency, which has commented in the past, has not replied.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that there are no declassified versions of each agency's raw report.
Is Hezbollah operating in the Americas?
The NIE does not specifically discuss if or how Hezbollah assets are operating in the Americas. But there have been allegations in the past of Hezbollah-affiliated individuals running "fund-raising" activities in the United States.
In 2000, for example, a grand jury in Charlotte, North Carolina indicted 25 men for various non-violent crimes, including money laundering, racketeering and related fraud charges. Investigators discovered a scheme whereby backers of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini planned to smuggle cigarettes from North Carolina, where taxes are lo, to be sold in Michigan, which has higher taxes.
There have been a number of such cases. Most focus on raising money to support Hezbollah-linked activities in the Middle East.
Some, however, appear more closely related to organized crime than to any Middle Eastern agenda. In a 2006 case, for example, an Israeli and a Lebanese were caught selling "Generation 3" night vision goggles to an undercover FBI agent. Although both pleaded guilty, an Israeli citizen working with a Lebanese national would suggest the motive was financial, not political.
Other profit-making scams and activities linked to Hezbollah have included drug trafficking, credit card fraud and counterfeit Viagra. These activities, however, mostly take place in Canada, Mexico and South America. None are known to have been violent, despite ample opportunity and "perceived" motive.
Professor of International Relations at Boston University Augustus Richard Norton, the author of a new book on Hezbollah titled Hezbollah: A Short Story, does not believe a Hezbollah-based attack on US soil is likely as long as the US does not attack Iran.
"The NIE language about the threat of an Hezbollah attack on the U.S. homeland basically states that it is conceivable that the group would attack in the US if the US attacked it or its sponsor, Iran," Dr. Norton wrote in an email to RAW STORY over the weekend.
"In contrast, al-Qaeda is accurately depicted as aggressively seeking to bring terrorism home to Americans," Norton added. "We may conceive of many unwelcome events, but the question is how likely is this to happen? Following the language of the NIE, I would argue that so long as the US does not pose an existential threat to Hezbollah, or to Iran, the likelihood of an attack by Hezbollah on U.S. soil is low."
Dr. Norton noted that, unlike Al Qaeda, Hezbollah is a group that does not act impulsively, focusing on the strategic rather than on the immediate.
"All in all, this is a rational group that does not flail blindly, and which clearly understands what a ladder of escalation implies," he said. "Personally, I will lose a lot more sleep worrying about what al-Qaeda might try to do in the USA than what Hezbollah might do under highly contingent circumstances. We need to keep our eye on the ball and not get diverted by relatively unlikely scenarios."
Is Intelligence politicized or just sloppy?
US foreign policy and its approach to terrorism are based on political decisions, which then trickle down inadvertently, or in some cases surreptitiously, into intelligence analysis.
According to the US State Department, only five countries are listed as sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. Countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, and the Philippines – which have also supported terrorism – are not on the list.
According to a 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service, the CIA has no proof of Cuba sponsoring terrorism.
"We have no credible evidence, however, that the Cuban government has engaged in or directly supported international terrorist operations in the past decade, although our information is insufficient to say beyond a doubt that no collaboration has occurred," the report says, citing a 2003 CIA statement.
The same report – while listing Iran, North Korea and Syria – puts priority on Pakistan, but provides sourcing and evidence for its assertions.
"In Pakistan, repeated assassination attempts on President Musharraf, allegations and admissions of nuclear assistance to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, and a continuous battle with terrorist elements within the country, have made Pakistan the most crucial node of the nexus of terrorism and WMD proliferation," the report says.
Pakistan is not on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Moreover, Pakistan receives US funding and is considered an ally in the US-led war on terror, which thus far has targeted Iraq, Afghanistan and, covertly, Iran.
Sources familiar with the information contained in the NIE have described what appears to be a myriad of allegations with little evidence to back up specific claims, including the assertions that Al Qaeda has regrouped and that it has spawned a sub-group called Al Qaeda in Iraq. While none claim the report is patently wrong, they take umbrage with the way the document was compiled.
During a Sunday television appearance, Department of Homeland Security Advisor to the President Frances Townsend claimed that, according to CIA Director General Hayden, nearly half of all of the sourcing in the classified version of the NIE came from interrogations.
"Look at the NIE, which you were just talking about, General Hayden tells me that nearly half of the references, what people might call footnotes in the NIE, came from detainee interrogation," Townsend remarked. "Nearly 100 people who have been through that program, only a third of them had had interrogation-enhanced techniques against them, and they generated 8500 terrorism intelligence reports."
Detainee interrogations have been broadly criticized. Information used at several military tribunals has been revealed as the product of finger-pointing by other detainees trying to curry favor with their US captors.
Is there a focus on terrorism funding?
Sources interviewed for this article would not comment on whether Saudi Arabia was discussed or if terrorism funding was addressed in the classified version of the report.
One former high-ranking CIA official believes that the funding of terrorism should be seen as a priority target. The official said, however, that instead of "following the money," law enforcement and counter-terrorism efforts should be aimed at "following the heroin," the single largest currency for the terrorist market.
According to the US Department of Justice, as of 2005, Afghanistan was the leading supplier of heroin in the world. Its rise to that position followed the US-Afghanistan War, after which the US largely abandoned Afghanistan to focus on Iraq.
Table 6. Potential Worldwide Heroin Production, in Metric Tons, 2001-2005
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
Mexico 10.7 6.8 11.9 8.6 8.0
Colombia 11.4 8.5 7.8 3.8 *
Afghanistan 7.0 150.0 337.0 582.0 526.0
Burma 82.0 60.0 46.0 32.0 36.0
Laos 19.0 17.0 19.0 5.0 3.0
Pakistan 1.0 1.0 5.0 NA 4.0
Thailand 1.0 1.0 NA NA NA
Vietnam 1.0 1.0 NA NA NA
Guatemala NA NA NA 1.4 0.4
Total 133.1 245.3 426.7 632.8 577.4