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Why Congress needs accurate intelligence on the Iran threat

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The airwaves have been full of the pomp and pageantry surrounding President Trump visiting Europe this week. Meanwhile, there has barely been any coverage of hotspots like Iran and North Korea. But as tensions increase in Tehran and fail to abate in Pyongyang, it is incumbent on Congress to carefully assess the existing intelligence on these threats.

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Norway have presented their findings to the United Nations Security Council on recent attacks on their oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the White House is holding off on an address by national security adviser John Bolton to the United Nations Security Council to “prove” that Iran was behind the attacks.

In any case, Congress should follow the briefing carefully and request a thorough national intelligence estimate conducted by our United States intelligence agencies. Fifteen years ago, Congress passed the bipartisan Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. The reforms came in the wake of two harrowing American intelligence failures, which were the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the inaccurate national intelligence estimate on weapons of mass destruction that was then used to justify the Iraq War.

The law addressed these failures by improving leadership, information sharing, and the process for writing national intelligence estimates. The law created a director of national intelligence as the joint commander across our disparate intelligence agencies, and also established the National Counterterrorism Center and National Counterproliferation Center, which allow for much more effective intelligence collaboration.

Requirements for the national intelligence estimate also became more stringent. Leading up to the Iraq War, authors of the national intelligence estimate there relied on a tautology that the failure to prove weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed was proof they still existed. In a rush to answer the request from Congress for the national intelligence estimate, analysts also minimized or overlooked evidence from other intelligence agencies that contradicted their view. Now, with the reforms in place, sources must be vetted, disagreements among the intelligence agencies are clearly highlighted, and the final document is red teamed.

Intelligence is a complicated business. It is not easy to analyze, draw conclusions, or even communicate those conclusions to lawmakers. As the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, I basically had to play “20 Questions” in order to get briefers to share the information we needed. That is why, as 1,500 more American troops are deployed to the Middle East and the Trump administration makes fitful threats of military action, it is not good enough to act based on testimony at the United Nations Security Council, whether by John Bolton or someone else.

Remember Secretary of State Colin Powell doing the same thing? He based his remarks before the United Nations Security Council on flawed intelligence. It is also not enough to have a few Cabinet secretaries go to Congress in closed session. This time, Congress has the right tools and needs to use them. The national intelligence estimate, which Congress reviews, should be paired with a declassified summary that would be quite useful in getting the public up to speed on what is being alleged.

If the intelligence findings hold water, only then does it make sense to begin the process for authorizing military action. Meanwhile, indirect support for a campaign against Iran, such as the one against Yemen, should be opposed. The White House must also build a coalition of allies to support any military action, which could be difficult as Germany and the United Kingdom are skeptical of the American intelligence case.

If there is a useful connection between President Trump visiting Europe and the threat from Iran, it is that this week marks the 75th anniversary of the historic D-Day landings during World War II. Keeping our allies close and remembering the cost of war in blood and treasure should prompt Congress to make absolutely certain the intelligence on Iran is accurate.

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Government Intelligence Iran John Bolton Military

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