Weapons grade

A political scientist explains why WMD intelligence has been so poor.

By Geoff Koch
Photography by Dan Dry

Weapons grade
In Nuclear Energy, Montgomery-Amo sees a responsibility to manage nuclear weapons.

By now most people believe that the U.S. intelligence community got it wrong about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Alexander H. Montgomery-Amo, AB’96, takes a longer view, seeing those missing weapons as part of a decades-old pattern of overestimating nuclear threats. That pattern is dangerous, he says, because it can lead to rash policy decisions.

Speaking this summer at a London conference on intelligence and nuclear proliferation, Montgomery-Amo, an assistant professor of political science at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, summarized his recent research. He looked at U.S. intelligence analyses of 16 countries thought to have pursued nuclear weapons, from Germany in the 1940s to Iraq in the 1990s. In nine cases, including Libya, North Korea, and Iran, the United States overestimated nuclear capabilities. More troubling, he says, many of the botched analyses can be traced to the same case: existing policy often distorts conclusions and interferes with objectivity.

Throughout much of the 1990s, for example, the U.S. intelligence community generally considered North Korea on track to produce a small number of nuclear bombs, likely based on plutonium from the country’s handful of nuclear reactors. And there was at least some level of diplomatic engagement. By the early 2000s, however, relations between the two countries worsened, and the intelligence warnings became more ominous. North Korea, U.S. analysts declared, had ramped up its nuclear efforts via a centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program. Today, that assessment seems dubious, argues Montgomery-Amo, who earned master’s degrees in sociology and energy resources at Stanford and Berkeley and a Stanford PhD in political science. In the late 1990s Pakistan appeared to have passed centrifuge technology to North Korea, but some experts point out that the centrifuges alone cannot prove the existence of a developed enrichment program.

What is clear, Montgomery-Amo says, is that the dire warnings coincided with increasingly aggressive sanctions that categorized the country as a belligerent state. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush declared North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. Later that year Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited North Korea and accused the government of conducting a secret program for enriching uranium. Analyses of North Korea’s nuclear prowess “seem to track policy closely,” Montgomery-Amo wrote in a June 2010 working paper.

Montgomery-Amo started his academic career as a physics major at Chicago—where Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture, commemorating the site of the Manhattan Project’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, made a lasting impression.

For Montgomery-Amo, the sculpture represents “a monumental intellectual and engineering achievement,” he says. “By the virtue of being in the field of physics, we somehow bear some individual and collective responsibility for trying to manage the outcome of that creation.” Although he veered away from physics, his work to understand inaccurate U.S. intelligence estimates of proliferation is important for “broadening public and academic knowledge of intelligence capabilities,” he writes in the June paper, and for preventing unnecessary conflicts.

Many of his conclusions fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, the United States and Israel have expressed concern about Russia’s helping Iran to build a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which began operating in late August. The fear is that providing such technical assistance will speed Iran toward its goal of building a nuclear weapon.

Yet Montgomery-Amo’s research suggests that those fears may be overblown. The “quality of parts given through clandestine nuclear assistance,” he writes in a February 2010 paper, “is even worse than the quality of the vehicles sold by your average used car salesman.” Indeed, Montgomery-Amo argues, help from other countries is often counterproductive. Many of the countries that “tried and failed” to develop nuclear weapons, he says, such as Libya and Iraq, “had a lot of assistance.”

To restrain nuclear proliferation, especially in politically turbulent areas like the Middle East, reliable intelligence is a must. Montgomery-Amo has several suggestions for securing good information: Invest more effort in understanding countries’ internal politics. Guard against obsolete intelligence assumptions, such as the idea “that nuclear powers will inevitably be more belligerent once they get nuclear weapons.” And evaluate the flow of information and technology between nuclear armed and aspiring countries. The most important recommendation, he believes, is to separate intelligence work from the policy environment.

Iraq, meanwhile, offers a cautionary tale about the perils of overzealous, politicized intelligence analysis. In December 2009 President Bush told ABC News that his decision to go to war based on faulty intelligence was the biggest regret of his presidency. Yet American troops have been fighting in Iraq for more than seven years.

“Given the historical record, policy makers ought to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the quality of information they are being offered and calibrate policy accordingly,” Montgomery-Amo says. “The level of hype and panic over Iran and North Korea in the press and in policy far outweighs the empirical evidence.”


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