The US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) is small, but it has proven effective and sometimes exasperating to describe. Given the nature of intelligence work, most of what INR does, the results it obtains and any impact it has on homeland security remain hidden.
However, the curtain has been pulled back a few times. In 2004, for example, a Senate Intelligence Committee report lauded INR’s pre-war analysis on the question of the reconstitution of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. INR had dissented from the view of other intelligence organizations, with subsequent events proving the contrary finding correct.
At the time, the State Department’s intelligence shop reportedly only had 165 analysts, a much smaller number than the 1,500 or so then at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Generally, INR analysts are older and more specialized than those in the CIA. They also work from an understandable perspective.
“They serve the purpose of viewing threats through the prism of the State Department’s core function, which is diplomacy, but I think, nevertheless, they contribute in some way to the larger maintenance of homeland security. It’s not a long throw from third, so to speak,” Jonathan Schanzer explained to Homeland Security Today.
Currently vice president for research at the Washington, DC-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, Schanzer interacts with INR from time to time in his present position. He also dealt with its products when he worked at the Treasury Department in an intelligence capacity.
INR is an outward-looking organization. That is, it provides an assessment of global, foreign threats, not domestic ones. As such it aids homeland security from a forward position, often far from US borders.
It does so without using any of its own spies, satellites or electronic eavesdropping equipment. Instead it relies on information supplied by others, doing so for well under $100 million annually.
The snarky shop
Once provided with data, the bureau’s analysts apply years of expertise, often grounded in academic and Foreign Service backgrounds, to interpreting the information. They have a reputation for supporting contrarian views in their final products.
Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University in New York City who has consulted with INR and other intelligence shops, noted that this tendency may be because of the relationship between INR and the much larger CIA. The latter has to cover everything, while the bureau can concentrate on particular areas.
“Often when they come in, they come in as a commentator, basing their remarks on what CIA has done and often dissenting, sometimes with a bit of snarky tone,” he said of INR’s analysts.
Those views, contrary or not, aren’t always correct. In the case of the run-up to the Iraq war, for instance, INR got the question about the regime’s possession of chemical and biological weapons wrong, as did many other intelligence groups. As for the state of Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions, the current analogue to yesterday’s Iraq question, evidence suggests the bureau’s input has been toward a more sanguine view of the situation.
For example, in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, INR judged it unlikely that Iran would achieve the ability to produce highly enriched uranium before 2013. The overall assessment, though, was one of moderate confidence that this would happen in the 2010-2015 time frame.
The 2009 arrival of the Stuxnet worm, experts contend, set back Iran’s progress toward highly enriched uranium, perhaps significantly. Thus, which analysis would eventually have been proven more correct may never be known.
What is clear is that INR is part of a larger intelligence ecosystem. “They’re fully integrated into the system,” the foundation’s Schanzer said.
INR is among 15 other members of the US intelligence community. The group includes offices or bureaus from the departments of State, Defense, Energy, Justice, Treasury and Homeland Security.
As a whole, the community is more connected than it has been in the past, with the various elements communicating more completely and thoroughly now than before. To be sure, the integration is not perfect. There can still be quite a bit of dissenting back-and-forth between the intelligence shops, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“This can be, I think, very productive if done right. It can degenerate to the ‘gotcha!’ game, but I am struck that it really can work very well,” said Columbia’s Jervis.
He added that in order to get the benefit of the arrangement, it needs to be managed properly. If that’s done, INR can help counterbalance or refine the views of CIA and Defense Department analysts and vice versa. What’s more, it isn’t the case that all dealings between thedifferent intelligence elements have to be somewhat antagonistic. For instance, given the long-running connection between the State Department and the CIA, Schanzer said that INR may serve as a bridge between the two.
In discussing INR and its place in the intelligence arena, he noted that the system, either by design or dumb luck, has reached equilibrium. As he put it, “I always got the sense that there was a balance of power that had been created.”