Here's a hot news tip: Intelligence sources both here and in Israel have told me in the last few days that they now believe Iran is 18 months to two years away from having a full-fledged nuclear weapons program. One of Israel's most respected military journalists, Zev Schiff, warns that the United States must take diplomatic steps now to deal with the threat, or soon it will be too late.
I passed this news on to a colleague yesterday morning and his immediate response was to giggle. As in: Where have I heard that before? Or, as another colleague reminded me, "Jim, we're still trying to find the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had. What makes you any more certain about this intelligence information?"
Welcome to the Bush credibility gap. And if you believe that some of my colleagues are skeptical, you should try out this news overseas. By and large the American people don't seemed outraged that the administration seemed to play fast and loose with intelligence information leading up to the attack on Iraq. Overseas it is just another indication that the United States is a superpower out of control and that little if anything that comes from Washington can be trusted.
For a nation that sees itself as the leader of the world, this is a very dangerous position to be in. The United States, with its awesome military power and responsibilities, is on the verge of being treated as the boy who cried wolf by the rest of the world.
I believe the intelligence information coming out about Iran is basically accurate. Maybe 18 to 24 months should be 24 to 36 months. But I believe it's a valid conclusion that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons of its own.
And while the administration seems to have played fast and loose with the intelligence information about Iraq in order to build support for its war plans, I also believe, based on what the weapons inspectors discovered over the years, that Hussein was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. However, I do not necessarily believe what the administration said: that Hussein was ready to use those weapons at any time against the United States.
But that's not the point. If the United States is going to organize an effective diplomatic effort to encourage Iran (or for that matter, North Korea) to stop its nuclear weapons program, it is going to take the cooperation of many different nations. If those nations don't believe there is a problem in the first place, if they do not trust Washington's information, the effort to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is doomed.
One longtime national security expert said recently that the administration appeared to be guilty, at the very least, of using raw intelligence to bolster its Iraq policy. That is a classic no-no in the intelligence world. We all learned in the opening days of the Iraq war that raw data can be incredibly confusing and misleading. Raw intelligence can have the same effect on policymakers, especially if they want to prove a point. Intelligence needs to be analyzed, vetted and put into context.
At the very least there must be congressional hearings to determine if the administration was exaggerating the Iraqi threat and misusing intelligence. This is a classic case of why the branches of government must act as a check on each other.
The hearings must be thorough and non-partisan. Neither of those requirements will be easy to meet. Partisanship is a Washington disease these days. Just recall how the Republicans handled the impeachment of Bill Clinton. And exposing intelligence sources and methods in the middle of the war on terrorism will be tricky, to put it mildly. But sources and methods cannot be used as an excuse. The nation's credibility is at stake.
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