Israeli Spymasters Offer No Slam-Dunk on Iran

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By Lisa Beyer

There is considerable interest at the moment in the goings-on within the co-called Security Cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu took the unusual step of breaking off a meeting of the group today.

The prime minister was disturbed that what happened in the group's meeting yesterday found its way into Israel's most popular newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. Although such leaks are common in Israel, in this case, Netanyahu, who's been warning that Israel may take imminent military action to thwart Iran's nuclear program, was particularly sensitive. According to the meeting account in the daily paper, leaders of Israel's intelligence agencies disagreed over the optimal timing of such a strike and its potential effectiveness.

Of course the real story here is not the leak, or the shortened meeting, but the disunity among the Israeli agencies. Is it really such a surprise, though? In the aftermath of the notorious U.S. intelligence failures of recent years -- overestimating Iraq's weaponry and underestimating the potential for Sept. 11 -- it ought to be clear that intelligence is largely guesswork.

Indeed, if spymasters present evidence pointing clearly in one direction, they may well have failed to look the other way. This comes through in a declassified mea culpa from the Central Intelligence Agency just published by Thomas Blanton, head of George Washington University's National Security Archive. The report explains how CIA analysts failed to imagine that Iraq had actually destroyed its weapons of mass destruction prior to the 2003 war.

Consider the assignment of the Israeli intelligence agencies. Calculating the timing and effectiveness of a strike on Iranian nuclear sites entails many factors and unknowns, including how far along the Iranian program actually is, how fortified its facilities are and how the Iranian military would respond.

Intelligence agencies are supposed to provide political and military leaders the best information and the best synthesis of it possible. Yet, some situations are murky and unpredictable and thus produce conflicting assessments. Even if this wasn't one of them, it'll be a long time before any discerning intel chief gives a slam-dunk analysis in a possible run-up to war.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

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-0- Sep/05/2012 21:31 GMT