Woolsey Misstates the Intelligence in Missile Defense Pitch

By Greg Thielmann

I would like to second Sarah Palin in being “appalled and surprised” in reading the June 7 Foreign Policy article by R. James Woolsey and Rebeccah Heinrichs, “Giving Away the Farm.” But the reason for my reaction is completely different.

(Image Source: C-SPAN Video)

The emergence of a potential Iranian ICBM threat to the United States is one of the foundations on which the authors of this article build their case against the administration’s missile defense policies. It is therefore particularly significant that Mr. Woolsey, a former Director of Central Intelligence, would so egregiously misstate the intelligence community’s view of Iran’s ICBM potential in the year 2015.

That view, as expressed in a congressionally-mandated assessment the Pentagon issued in April 2010 was triple-hedged: “With sufficient foreign assistance [1], Iran could [2] probably [3] develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015.” Mr. Woolsey presumably knows that such weasel-worded constructions leave careful readers far from any conclusion that an Iranian ICBM is likely by 2015. Outside experts give us a clearer understanding of Iran’s probable long-range missile trajectory. An International Institute of Strategic Studies net assessment in May 2010 concluded that: “…a notional Iranian ICBM, based on No-dong and Scud technologies, is more than a decade away from development.”

As a former member of the intelligence community myself, I have previously commented on how little value I believe policy-makers derive from heavily qualified assessments of what “could” happen, unaccompanied by estimates of probability.  However uncomfortable it makes the drafters of intelligence estimates, it is important for policy-makers to hear what experts believe is most likely to happen and on what assumption the unlikely scenarios actually hinge. But my purpose here is not to criticize the intelligence community for its choice of words, nor to challenge the logic of the authors (or of their fan, Sarah Palin) on missile defense – this latter task having been ably performed by Daryl Kimball and Yousaf Butt. Instead, I want to focus on the lack of fidelity of the Foreign Policy article authors to an important fact.

Woolsey and Heinrichs transmogrify an expression of great uncertainty to its opposite by stating: “…the intelligence community continues to estimate that Iran will have an ICBM by 2015.” In so doing, the authors even abandon the subjunctive case they had used in a July 14, 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed version reporting the DIA view: “…by 2015 Iran, with help from North Korea or Russia, could field an [ICBM] capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

Surely Mr. Woolsey has not forgotten how to read intelligence assessments since he directed the intelligence community. I suspect instead he realizes that the “most-likely” timeline for emergence of an Iranian ICBM continues to slip. He has consequently set aside this inconvenient truth in trying to make his case against the administration’s missile defense policies, which are actually structured to adapt to changes in the threat.

This entry was posted in Iran, Middle East, Missile Defense, Nuclear Weapons, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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