Many of CIA Director John Brennan’s gaffes over the years have raised eyebrows, but none has suggested the need for a legislative remedy—until the one he launched at Harvard last week.
His past indiscretions have included, in 2010 when he was a counterterrorism adviser at the White House, referring to Jerusalem by its Arabic name, “al Quds”; referring to the “moderate” elements in Hezbollah, the Iran surrogate in Lebanon and a group the U.S. designates a terrorist organization; and insisting that our enemies should not be called “jihadists” because jihad is “a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam.”
There was also the time in 2010 when he derided the notion of a war on terrorism or terror because “terrorism is but a tactic” and “terror is a state of mind.” Given that evidence, one might have had a general concern about his competence to lead a U.S. intelligence organization, but not a focused concern about the damage any one statement could cause.
But then, in an interview last week at Harvard’s Institute for Politics, Mr. Brennan said that anyone who both knew the facts surrounding the Obama administration’s “framework” agreement regarding the Iranian nuclear program, and said that it “provides a pathway for Iran to a bomb,” was being “wholly disingenuous.” That was foolish, insofar as it applied to many serious-minded people in and out of government, but it was also dangerous.
Picture CIA analysts and other officers charged with weighing and interpreting Iran’s nuclear program in relation to the recently concluded negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland; that is, CIA analysts who have families and mortgages. Their solemn charge is to report and analyze facts straight-on—the good, the bad and the ugly.
Evidence of cheating by Iran necessarily would be fragmentary—dual-use technology paid for through opaque transactions; unexplained flight patterns and port calls by aircraft and vessels of dubious registration; intercepted conversations using possibly coded terms; a smattering of human intelligence from sources with questionable access and their own mixed motivations and vulnerabilities.
But the boss has already said that purported concerns about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon are dishonest. Human nature being what it is at Langley as elsewhere, how likely is it that an evaluation suggesting that Iran is up to something would make it beyond operational channels, through reports officers, analysts and CIA managers, up to policy makers?
Not very, unless Congress acts promptly to put in place an alternative team of analysts, much as George H.W. Bush did when he was CIA director in 1976 under President Ford. That was an election year, and détente with the Soviet Union was the overriding administration policy.
During the campaign, the question of whether our military power was falling behind Moscow’s was a charged issue. Mr. Bush commissioned a team of independent experts known as “Team B” to provide analysis of the Soviets’ capabilities and intentions that competed with the CIA’s own internal evaluation. Team B highlighted dangers posed by the U.S.S.R.’s growing strategic nuclear forces, informing President Reagan’s later determination to counteract those capabilities.
Why is a Team B needed today? Even standing alone, the taint of Mr. Brennan’s statement at Harvard would infect all future CIA evaluations of the Iranian nuclear program. But it doesn’t stand alone. It stands alongside the remainder of the Obama administration’s record in intelligence matters, including false statements about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi; misleading the public about the military record of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl; concealment of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan that reportedly portray al Qaeda’s durable relationships with Iran and Pakistan; minimizing terrorist threats that were inconsistent with the 2012 presidential-campaign theme of terrorism defeated; and mistaken portrayals of the rise of Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Africa.
Mr. Brennan’s statement also stands alongside President Obama’s and Secretary of State John Kerry’s eagerness for a deal with Iran that Ben Rhodes, one of the president’s closest foreign-policy advisers, lauded as “the Obamacare of our second term.”
All this is in addition to the president’s own apparent inability to admit the motivation of Islamist terrorists. Recall his memorable description of the murder in Paris of Jews shopping for kosher food earlier this year as the “random” shooting of “a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
Given these facts, House and Senate leaders of both parties should ask former senior national-security officials to study raw intelligence-reporting on Iran, and direct the administration legislatively if necessary to give them the data needed to make an informed judgment.
This “Team B” should then report its findings periodically not only to the administration, but also to congressional leaders and the presidential nominees of both parties once they are chosen. That way, Americans can be assured that all agencies of government are fully informed—and that the vital issues facing the country are being weighed in the forthright way essential to the nation’s security.
Mr. Mukasey served as U.S. attorney general (2007-09) and as a judge for the Southern District of New York (1988-2006). Mr. Carroll served as senior counsel to the House Homeland Security Committee (2011-13) and before that as a CIA case officer.