ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Diplomats from the U.S. and other countries are in Baghdad today, meeting with officials from Iran. The international community wants Iran to show that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. The official judgment from the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies is that Iran, for now at least, is not building a nuclear weapon. But some governments are unconvinced.

SIEGEL: The CIA's caution on Iran, in part, reflects lessons learned from its Iraq experience. The agency has been criticized for reporting 10 years ago that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, when in fact it did not. NPR's Tom Gjelten visited CIA headquarters recently, and in a rare on-the-record session, agency analysts discussed new safeguards against jumping to conclusions.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: After being embarrassed by what they'd said incorrectly about Saddam Hussein, CIA officials ordered a full review of their Iraq reporting. They wanted to know where they had gone wrong. The conclusion: There'd been good reasons for thinking Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. He'd had them before - he'd used them against his own people; and the CIA had informants who said Saddam still had them. CIA analysts in fact said if they'd been forced to make the call again, they'd probably say the same thing, that Saddam had WMD. Peter Clement, the CIA's deputy director of intelligence for analysis, says where the agency erred was in not highlighting which of its conclusions were based on assumptions, not hard evidence, and not making clear when they'd relied on informants whose reliability was untested.

PETER CLEMENT: Even if we had a great source who was a senior official in Iraq, and he's telling us what he believes to be the truth, you could easily be misled. And so, to me, there were just so many issues with Iraq.

GJELTEN: But that judgment was wrong.

CLEMENT: Wrong.

GJELTEN: Therefore, it's not all that reassuring to hear that your analysts would have come to the same conclusion if they were to do it over again.

CLEMENT: I can't disagree with that. But I would say, if they had written it with all the appropriate caveats, the readers - perhaps those on Capitol Hill or down at the White House - they would have said, you know, reading this, I'm not getting a really strong feeling about how well founded this estimate is. And the answer to that would be: You're correct. It is not well founded.

GJELTEN: The Iraq experience, Clement says, changed the way analysts characterize their intelligence, especially that coming from human sources - humint in CIA jargon.

CLEMENT: I think we're very - obsessed may be too strong a word, but not entirely. I personally get very obsessed about sourcing. If we make a statement of fact, I want it to be clear where that fact came from. And if we got it from a humint source, how good is the source? Did they have first-hand access, second-hand access? Are they someone we recently got on the payroll?

GJELTEN: These reforms involve CIA analysts, the people who prepare classified reports for the president and other officials, not CIA spies and covert-action types. In 2009, the agency prepared a new tradecraft manual for its analysts. Peter Clement, himself a 35-year agency veteran, oversaw much of the work, and he recently brought together three of his colleagues in a secure room at CIA headquarters to talk about what they do.

CLEMENT: John teaches at the Kent School. Mark is a member of a tradecraft cell, and Maria is the chief of the red cell. And the red cell actually...

GJELTEN: Only their first names are used. It's unusual for CIA officials to talk openly about their work. At the CIA's in-house school, John shows new analysts how their thinking about issues can be affected by the mindsets they bring to their work.

JOHN: Your biases will get you things like - an example would be confirmation bias: Well, I've seen it before, so it must be happening again. Or anchoring Bias: This is my viewpoint. We've come up with that conclusion, and I think it's true, and it's not going to change.

GJELTEN: One new exercise forces CIA analysts to consider alternative explanations for developments they're following. It's the ACH exercise: analysis of competing hypotheses. Iran is developing a new missile. Maybe it's to deliver a nuclear warhead. But could there be another explanation? CIA analysts now have to spell out all the contradictory evidence. Even the bureaucratic organization of the CIA's analytic work has changed. Each department now includes what's called a tradecraft cell. Mark, who's assigned to the CIA's East Asia office, says tradecraft specialists, like himself, monitor their colleagues' work and make sure they're all using the latest analytic techniques.

MARK: We want to try and get analysts to be honest about the uncertainties they face or the gaps in their information.

GJELTEN: Not just go with a judgment they assume to be true. Another change: CIA analysts sometimes push back now on the idea that they should necessarily make a prediction. There's now what's called a red cell at the agency, with the job of explaining all the different ways the future could unfold. Maria is the current red cell chief.

MARIA: There definitely was an emphasis in years past to say: It is most likely going to go this way. It probably will happen this way. And we still have to make those calls. But now, we try to explain what factors would take it in a different direction.

GJELTEN: This exercise requires what Peter Clement calls a cultural change in CIA thinking.

CLEMENT: When I came on board in the late '70s and '80s as a young analyst, I distinctly remember managers telling me, Peter, the reason they pay you the big bucks is make an analytic call. You know, you're the expert. You've studied all this material. Make the call. You know, give me the answer.

GJELTEN: As history shows, the CIA can get in trouble when it's pressured to make the call on an important question, like, does Saddam have WMD or not? Some former CIA officials have said the Bush administration bears some responsibility for the mistaken conclusion about Saddam's weapons. White House officials, they say, including Vice President Dick Cheney, were so determined to go to war in Iraq, that they pressured the agency to find a reason for invading that country.

Now comes another big question for CIA analysts. Is Iran building a nuclear weapon? Peter Clement says the new determination to avoid another Iraq-type mistake was kept in mind when the U.S. intelligence community prepared its 2007 official estimate on Iran. That estimate said Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years earlier and apparently not restarted it. It's been regularly reaffirmed since then.

CLEMENT: In the case of the 2007 estimate, I think because in fact we're now so focused on the shortfalls in the Iraq WMD, we need to be very open about the nature of the evidence, how much evidence. I mean, all those factored into that estimate to say: We just haven't got what it takes to make the call that, yes, they've made a decision to go ahead with the program.

GJELTEN: We now know about the consequences of making a wrong call. The risk with these new exercises is that they could build so much caution into CIA analysis that the agency will be paralyzed, so focused on questioning its conclusions that it can't come up with answers. Professor Robert Jervis, of Columbia University, has written widely about intelligence failures and advised the CIA. He's undecided on whether the new analytic techniques will prove worthwhile.

ROBERT JERVIS: I could see them becoming a substitute for careful, informed thought, a formula that, oh, you don't need to know anything about the country or anything. You just plug these things in. So misapplied, they'd make things worse. Applied well, they will make things better. How much better? Hard to tell.

GJELTEN: What we know about intelligence failures comes only from looking back at how well the CIA anticipated some event or understood something that was otherwise unclear at the time. And it's only in the future that we will know whether the CIA's new approach to analysis has sharpened its insight. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.