Saturday, March 28, 2009

Nosophobia and Fear of Invisible Toxins

Nosophobia and Fear of Invisible Toxins. By Jack Dini
ACSH, March 27, 2009

“If it smells bad, it’s bad; if it smells good, it’s bad,” says Aileen Gagney, asthma and environmental health manager with the American Lung Association in Seattle. (1) Obviously then, the key to a healthy life is to have no smells around you. How unfortunate, since we are excellent smellers!

The tongue can detect sweetness at a dilution of one part in 200, saltiness at one in 400, sourness at one in 130,000, and bitterness at one in 2 million. (2) All of this pales when compared with our ability to detect extremely low levels of smells (i.e., in the range of 50 parts per trillion to 800 parts per billion. (3)

If you are inclined to agree with Ms. Gagney, perhaps you have nosophobia, the irrational fear of contracting a disease -- or perhaps I should say nose-ophobia, since we so often hear of people fearful of contracting a disease by smelling. Let’s talk about fragrances and smoking to provide some present-day examples.

Elizabeth Whelan reports, “Fragrances now join a growing list of allegedly harmful products -- plastic bottles, rubber duckies, shower curtains, Astroturf, traditional produce raised with agricultural chemicals, aspartame, acrylamide, etc. The list seems to be growing like…well, ‘toxic mold.’ Nosophobia is causing us to abandon safe, useful products of modern technology to avoid phantom risks while obscuring the real risks around us. While parents are fretting over BPA traces in baby bottles or phthalates in plastic toys, they may well be giving short shrift to the real threats to their children’s health, including failure to use seatbelts, bike helmets, smoke detectors, vaccinations, proper nutrition and exercise.” (4)

When University of Washington professor Anne Steinemann analyzed a variety of fragranced consumer products such as air fresheners, laundry supplies, personal care products and cleaners, she found 100 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) measuring 300 micrograms/m3, or more. (5)

Wow, you say! Sounds scary! But, let’s look at concentrations. VOCs were identified from GC/MS headspace analysis. Only those with a headspace concentration of greater than 300 micrograms/m3 were reported. Average headspace concentrations of VOCs for the six products tested ranged from 1,000 micrograms/m3 to 74,000 micrograms/m3. In Steinemann’s work, 10 of the 100 volatile organic compounds identified qualified under federal rules as toxic or hazardous, and two of those; 1,4-dioxane and acetaldehyde are classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs). (5)

What are OSHA permissible exposure limits for 1,4-dioxane and acetaldehyde? The current OSHA permissible exposure limit for dioxane is 100 ppm (350 milligrams/m3) as an 8-hour time-weighted average. Note: THIS IS 1000 TIMES THE LEVEL reported in Steinemann’s paper. A similar case can be made for acetaldehyde. The OSHA 8-hour time-weighted average for acetaldehyde is 200 ppm (360 milligrams/m3). So, for the fragrance scare we’re talking about the amounts are considerably below allowable regulations. Yet, the comment is made; “Consumers are breathing these chemicals. No one is doing anything about it.” (1) Great scare tactics!

These days scientists can find anything in any thing and as this example shows, it can lead to a problem. The minute that something is found in food, in someone’s blood, in the air, etc., some folks get very concerned and start creating a lot of fuss. The very act of being able to measure something can give the impression that if it’s quantifiable, it’s dangerous. How unfortunate, since scientists are getting more clever all the time. Folks forget the old adage that ‘the dose makes the poison,’ and act on the principle that just the fact that anything is found is cause for alarm.

Here’s another one for nosophobiasts. There is now such a thing as ‘third hand smoke.’ Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, lead author of a recent paper in Pediatrics, says the following, “If the smell of the cigarettes lingers, so does the danger. Your nose isn’t lying. If your body detects it, then it’s there,” he says. Sounds like the opening comments in this article from Aileen Gagney.

What was the scientific study, which incidentally was given great TV coverage by Dr. Nancy Snyderman of the Today Show? Dr. Winickoff and his colleagues surveyed 1,500 households across the US and asked folks if they agreed with the statements:

• Breathing air in a car today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of babies and children.
• Breathing air in a room where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of babies and children.

Those surveyed who stated they agreed or agreed strongly were categorized as believing third hand smoke harmed the health of babies and children. This is the “evidence” that third hand smoke had been “identified” as a health danger. (6)

Think about this for a moment. You could have been called as part of this survey and had your chance to play ‘scientist’ and provide data for this analysis. You may not like third hand smoke, but is a telephone solicitation of non-scientists really scientific evidence that it is bad?

There turned out to be much more to this story. What consumers didn’t hear from reporters was that it was conducted by the National Social Climate Survey of Tobacco Control, a special interest group working to legislate bans on tobacco. The Tobacco Consortium, which sets the group’s agenda, is chaired by Dr. Winickoff of Harvard and the lead author of this paper. Makes one wonder about the review process for papers that appear in the journal Pediatrics.

For that matter, a fair number of scientists debate whether second hand smoke exposure during childhood is harmful to long-term health. Sandy Szwarc reports, “The world’s largest study ever done to examine the association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and lung cancer was conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, and published in 1998 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. (7) It included lung cancer patients up to 74 years of age, and a control group, in 12 centers from seven European countries, looking at cases of lung cancer and exposures to ETS. They found ‘no association between childhood exposure and ETS and lung cancer risk.’” (8)

The authors of the Pediatrics article suggested dangers at exposure levels far below the levels of second hand smoke -- third hand smoke exposures -- even without regard to ventilation, the number of cigarettes parents smoked, or length of exposure.

Szwarc adds, “Any exposure at all, and at levels barely detectable with modern instrumentation, is now being suggested as able to cause cancer and brain damage in children. This turns everything that science knows about toxicology on its head and denies the most fundamental law: that the dose makes the poison. In other words, there is no credible medical evidence to support the suggestion that trace exposures lingering in the air or on clothing are harming children.” (8)

In an entertaining and insightful opinion piece for the Daily Mail, Tom Utley, a smoker described what scare tactics like these, that are such obvious hoaxes, actually undermine the effectiveness of efforts to reduce smoking and exposures to children. No one is arguing that smoking is a healthful habit or would encourage young people to take up smoking, but he ‘most vehemently challenged Dr. Winickoff’s right to dress up this insulting, scaremongering, palpable drivel as science.’ Utley adds, “The very last thing I want is to encourage anybody to take up my disgusting and ruinously expensive habit, which I’m sure will be the death of me. But then I hear the latest hysterical rubbish from the anti-smoking lobby and my determination to remain silent goes the same way as my annual New Year’s resolution to give up the vile weed. Why, when there are so many excellent reasons to quit, do these fanatics feel obliged to keep on inventing new and obviously bogus ones? (9)

Szwarc concludes, “This is one of the most egregious examples of the increasingly common and unethical practice of politicizing science and using a ‘study’ to advance an agenda of a biased media failing to do its job. Neither is in the interest of the facts or truth. The healthiest thing for all of us might be a helpful dose of common sense and respect for other people’s choices. Otherwise, we may next hear about the dangers of fourth hand smoke, a term coined by John Boston of the Santa Clarita Valley Signal: someone sitting next to someone who is thinking about someone else smoking. And someone will believe it and report is as news.” (8)


1. Lisa Stiffler, “Fresh scent may hide toxic secret,”, July 23, 2008
2. Peter Farb amd George Armelagos, Consuming Passions, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), 22
3. Herbert S. Rosenkranz and Albert R. Cunningham, “Environmental odors and health hazards,” The Science of the Total Environment, 313, 15, 2003
4. Elizabeth M. Whelan, “Toxics (from Seattle Post-Intelligencer)”, American Council on Science and Health, July 25, 2008
5. Anne C. Steinemann, “Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients,” Environ. Impact Asses. Rev., (2008), doi;10.1016/j.eiar.2008.05.002
6. Jonathan P Winickoff et al., “Beliefs About the Health Effects of ‘Third hand’ Smoke and Home Smoking Bans,” Pediatrics, 123, e74, January 1, 2009
7. B. P. Agudo et al., “Multicenter case-control study of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer in Europe,” J. Natl. Cancer Inst., 90, 1440, October 7, 1998
8. Sandy Szwarc, “Third hand smoke and chemtrials -- invisible toxin fears,”, January 10, 2009
9. Tom Utley,, January 9, 2009

Jack Dini is a scientist and science writer living in Livermore, CA.

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: What Went Wrong and Why Today’s Reactors Are Safe

Three Mile Island and Chernobyl: What Went Wrong and Why Today’s Reactors Are Safe. By Jack Spencer and Nicolas Loris
Heritage, WebMemo #2367, March 27, 2009

This Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear reactor. This ofccasion is a good time to consider the advances in nuclear power safety since that time and discuss the misinformation about this incident and the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, which is often associated with TMI.

Three Mile Island: What Happened

On March 28, 1979, a cooling circuit pump in the non-nuclear section of Three Mile Island's second station (TMI-2) malfunctioned, causing the reactor's primary coolant to heat and internal pressure to rise. Within seconds, the automated response mechanism thrust control rods into the reactor and shut down the core. An escape valve opened for 10 seconds to vent steam into a pressurizer, as it was supposed to, but it failed to close. Control room operators only saw that a "close" command was sent to the relief valve, but nothing displayed the valve's actual position.[1] With the valve open, too much steam escaped into the pressurizer, sending misinformation to operators that there was too much pressure in the coolant system. Operators then shut down the water pumps to relieve the "pressure."

Operators allowed coolant levels inside the reactor to fall, leaving the uranium core exposed, dry, and intensely hot. Even though inserting control rods halted the fission process, the TMI-2 reactor core continued to generate about 160 megawatts of "decay" heat, declining over the next three hours to 20 megawatts.[2] Approximately one-third of the TMI-2 reactor was exposed and began to melt.

By the time operators discovered what was happening, superheated and partially radioactive steam built up in auxiliary tanks, which operators then moved to waste tanks through compressors and pipes. The compressors leaked. The steam leakage released a radiation dose equivalent to that of a chest X-ray scan, about one-third of the radiation humans absorb in one year from naturally occurring background radiation.[3] No damage to any person, animal, or plant was ever found.[4]

The Outcome

The local population of 2 million people received an average estimated dose of about 1 millirem--miniscule compared to the 100-125 millirems that each person receives annually from naturally occurring background radiation in the area. Nationally, the average person receives 360 millirems per year.[5]

No significant radiation effects on humans, animals, or plants were found. In fact, thorough investigation and sample testing of air, water, milk, vegetation, and soil found that there were negligible effects and concluded that the radiation was safely contained.[6] The most recent and comprehensive study was a 13-year evaluation of 32,000 people living in the area that found no adverse health effects or links to cancer.[7]

Technological Improvements and Lessons Learned

A number of technological and procedural changes have been implemented by industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to considerably reduce the risk of a meltdown since the 1979 incident. These include:

  • Plant design and equipment upgrades, including fire protection, auxiliary feedwater systems, containment building isolation, and automatic plant shut down capabilities;
  • Enhanced emergency preparedness, including closer coordination between federal, state, and local agencies;
  • Integration of NRC observations, findings, and conclusions about plant performance and management into public reports;
  • Regular plant performance analysis by senior NRC managers who identify plants that require additional regulatory attention;
  • Expansion of NRC's resident inspector program, whereby at least two inspectors live nearby and work exclusively at each plant;
  • Expanded performance- and safety-oriented inspections;
  • Additional accident safety equipment to mitigate and monitor conditions during accidents; and[8]
  • Establishment of the Institute for Nuclear Power Operators, an industry-created non-profit organization that evaluates plants, promotes training and information sharing, and helps individual plants overcome technical issues.

Chernobyl: What Happened

Seven years after the incident at Three Mile Island, on April 25, 1986, a crew of engineers with little background in reactor physics began an experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear station. They sought to determine how long the plant's turbines' inertia could provide power if the main electrical supply to the station was cut. Operators chose to deactivate automatic shutdown mechanisms to carry out their experiment.[9]

The four Chernobyl reactors were known to become unstable at low power settings,[10] and the engineers' experiment caused the reactors to become exactly that. When the operators cut power and switched to the energy from turbine inertia, the coolant pump system failed, causing heat and extreme steam pressure to build inside the reactor core. The reactor experienced a power surge and exploded, blowing off the cover lid of the reactor building, and spewed radioactive gasses and flames for nine days.

The episode was exacerbated by a second design flaw: The Chernobyl reactors lacked fully enclosed containment buildings, a basic safety installation for commercial reactors in the U.S.[11]

The Outcome

Chernobyl was the result of human error and poor design. Of the approximately 50 fatalities, most were rescue workers who entered contaminated areas without being informed of the danger.

The World Heath Organization says that up to 4,000 fatalities could ultimately result from Chernobyl-related cancers. Though these could still emerge, as yet, they have not. The primary health effect was a spike in thyroid cancer among children, with 4,000-5,000 children diagnosed with the cancer between 1992 and 2002. Of these, 15 children unfortunately died. Though these deaths were unquestionably tragic, no clear evidence indicates any increase in other cancers among the most heavily affected populations.

Interestingly, the World Health Organization has also identified a condition called "paralyzing fatalism," which is caused by "persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation."[12] In other words, the propagation of ignorance by anti-nuclear activists has caused more harm to the affected populations than has the radioactive fallout from the actual accident. Residents of the area assumed a role of "chronic dependency" and developed an entitlement mentality because of the meltdown.[13]

Technology Improvements and Lessons Learned

Comparing the technology of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl to U.S. reactors is not fair. First, the graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor at Chernobyl maintained a high positive void coefficient. While the scientific explanation[14] of this characteristic is not important, its real-life application is. Essentially, it means that under certain conditions, coolant inefficiency can cause heightened reactivity. In other words, its reactivity can rapidly increase as its coolant heats (or is lost) resulting in more fissions, higher temperatures, and ultimately meltdown.[15]

This is in direct contrast to the light-water reactors used in the United States, which would shut down under such conditions. U.S. reactors use water to both cool and moderate the reactor. The coolant keeps the temperature from rising too much, and the moderator is used to sustain the nuclear reaction. As the nuclear reaction occurs, the water heats up and becomes a less efficient moderator (cool water facilitates fission better than hot water), thus causing the reaction to slow down and the reactor to cool. This characteristic makes light water reactors inherently safe and is why a Chernobyl-like reactor could never be licensed in the U.S.

Given the inherent problems with the Chernobyl reactor design, many technological changes and safety regulations were put in place to prevent another Chernobyl-like meltdown from occurring. Designers renovated the reactor to make it more stable at lower power, have the automatic shutdown operations activate quicker, and have automated and other safety mechanisms installed.[16]

Chernobyl also led to the formation of a number of international efforts to promote nuclear power plant safety through better training, coordination, and implantation of best practices. The World Association of Nuclear Operators is one such organization and includes every entity in the world that operates a nuclear power plant.

Myths Persist

The circumstances, causes, and conditions of the Chernobyl meltdown are far removed from the American experience. Important lessons should be taken from both accidents. Thankfully, many improvements in the technology and regulatory safety of nuclear reactors are among them.

Jack Spencer is Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy and Nicolas D. Loris is a Research Assistant in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


[1]World Nuclear Association, "Three Mile Island: 1979," March 2001, at (March 26, 2009).
[2]Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, "Three Mile Island: The Inside Story," at (March 26, 2009).
[3]American Nuclear Society, "What Happened and What Didn't in the TMI-2 Accident," at (March 26, 2009).
[4]U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Fact Sheet on the Three Mile Island Accident," (March 26, 2009). [5]United States Department of Energy, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, "Facts About Radiation," OCRWM Fact Sheet, January 2005, at (November 6, 2008).
[6]Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Fact Sheet on the Three Mile Island Accident."
[7]World Nuclear Association, "Three Mile Island: 1979."
[8] Fact Sheet on the Three Mile Island Accident" Nuclear Regulatory Commission at (June 24, 2008).
[9]For full description of what caused the accident at Chernobyl, see Richard Rhodes, Nuclear Renewal (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), ch. 5.
[10]World Nuclear Association, "Chernobyl Accident," May 2008, at (March 26, 2009).
[11]Simon Rippon et al., "The Chernobyl Accident," Nuclear News, June 1986, at (March 26, 2009).
[12]Press release, "Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident," World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and U.N. Development Programme, September 5, 2005, at (November 6, 2008).
[13]World Nuclear Association, "Chernobyl Accident."
[14]"Neutron Kinetics of the Chernobyl Accident," ENS News, Summer 2006, at (March 27, 2009).
[15]International Atomic Energy Agency, "The Chernobyl Accident: Updating of INSAG-1," 1992, at (August 27, 2008).

New Global Currency Proposal: Good Diplomatic Theater but Bad Policy

New Global Currency Proposal: Good Diplomatic Theater but Bad Policy. By Ambassador Terry Miller
Heritage WebMemo #2364, March 26, 2009

Recently, both China and Russia have called for the replacement of the dollar as the international reserve currency of choice, suggesting use of IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) instead. Don't rush to sell your greenbacks, however: The proposal has far more to do with the theater of international diplomacy than the workings of the world economy.

Even as he made the proposal, Chinese central banker Zhou Xiaochun acknowledged that it would require "extraordinary political vision and courage." That is diplomatic speak for "We know this is impossible." The fact that Zhou and his Russian counterpart in proposing the idea, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, placed the timeline for the change far in the future--30 years in the case of Kudrin--offers an additional strong clue that the proposal is politically motivated rather than intended to address a real and pressing economic problem.

For both Zhou and Kudrin, an attack on the dollar just before the G-20 economic summit is a great theatrical device with which to express displeasure at U.S. dominance of the international financial system. It is also a marker of their unhappiness with the ineffective U.S. approach to restoring world growth and protecting international trade and financial flows, sending a clear signal that they have no intention of rubber-stamping U.S. proposals at the summit.

The Dollar Works for Everybody

The U.S. dollar is currently the principal international reserve currency, a role it assumed following the collapse of the gold standard and the dissolution of the British Empire in the second half of the 20th century. The U.S. gains significant advantages from the use by others of the dollar as a reserve currency: Worldwide demand for dollars helps keep the value of the dollar high, meaning imported goods--including basic commodities like oil--are cheaper for Americans. The willingness of foreigners to hold dollar stocks (or dollar-denominated assets such as U.S. Treasury securities) makes possible the long-running U.S. trade deficit, to the benefit of American consumers.

Some assert that there is a corresponding cost to U.S. producers, who lose export opportunities or even jobs to foreign producers because of the high value of the dollar--a logical idea that holds true for countries whose currency is not held as a reserve. In most countries, if its currency appreciates in value, its exports become more expensive and demand for them decreases. However, demand for U.S. exports has consistently risen, even as the value of the dollar remained high. The reason is that the value to other countries of the dollar as a reserve currency creates additional demand for the dollar over and above what would be generated by normal trade flows. Thus people are willing to sell Americans more goods than they otherwise would in order to get extra dollars to hold as reserves. But they still want to buy U.S. goods and services, too.

The benefits for other countries are substantial as well. The utility of the reserve currency function--having a stable and readily convertible commodity (the dollar in this case) in which to hold wealth--is self-evident. The dollar provides a readily available medium of exchange; it can be used to pay for almost anything. Furthermore, consumers can also be confident that the dollar will buy about as much tomorrow as it buys today. It is hard to imagine international trade without some medium of exchange like the dollar.

Even more important, however, is the additional demand created in the United States for exports from other countries--a byproduct of strong global desire for dollars. This U.S. consumer demand has served as the primary engine of growth for the world economy. Worldwide, that growth has lifted millions of people out of poverty over the last decade. For China, this export-led growth has fueled job creation that promotes social stability and raises incomes, at least in certain sectors and geographic areas that have been permitted by the authoritarian Chinese government to link to the global economy.

An Unrealistic Solution to a Non-Existent Problem

The creation of a new international reserve currency to replace the dollar is a solution looking for a problem. So far, the dollar is working just fine as a reserve currency. The continued strength of the dollar testifies to its continued utility as a reserve currency and the confidence of the markets in its future value. That confidence extends, by the way, to the Russian and Chinese governments, both of which continue to hold large stocks of dollars.

In contrast, there are many reasons why moving to an SDR makes no sense:

  • The SDR has no intrinsic value. The SDR is backed by nothing other than the good faith and credit, if you will, of the IMF. It has no intrinsic value and, at the moment at least, can't be used to purchase anything. It is true that people like to say that the dollar is backed only by the good faith and credit of the U.S. government. In reality, however, the dollar is backed by the goods and services produced by the American people and their willingness to trade those goods and services for dollars. With this willingness to trade real things for dollars extending to people around the world, the value of the dollar becomes backed not just by the U.S. people or the U.S. government but by literally all the world's producers and consumers interconnected through global supply chains: Arab oil traders, Bangladeshi textile producers, Japanese and Korean auto manufacturers, and, yes, even Russian finance ministers and Chinese central bankers. The IMF, by contrast, produces nothing.
  • A one-size-fits-all international currency will not meet diverse world needs. Countries growing at different rates have different monetary policy needs. Faster-growing countries need a more rapidly increasing supply of money. Slower-growing countries must have less in order to prevent inflation. The SDR could not accommodate these differing needs. Its value is set by the policies of the IMF, which in turn are subject to the competing political and economic interests of international diplomats.
  • Embracing the SDR will result in a loss of transparency. The process of setting the supply and value of the dollar is highly transparent. People around the world know exactly what the Federal Reserve is doing as it adds dollars to the system or adjusts interest rates. Even the rationale for the changes is quickly apparent from Fed statements and the open grilling to which the U.S. subjects Fed governors. The IMF is far more opaque: Each country's representative would likely tell a different story about what was done and why.
  • The SDR will create new financial complexities and opportunities for corruption. Use of the SDR would add an additional step to every international transaction. Buyers and sellers would have to convert their local currency into SDRs. Some would have to change first into a convertible currency and then into SDRs. This would create new opportunities for arbitrage and corruption or, at the very least, make the process more expensive with an additional transaction fee. Fans of derivatives will love the SDR: Like derivatives, SDRs are an additional layer away from anything of real value. They will provide wonderful opportunities for manipulation and skimming of value by currency traders and financial speculators. They will also be less transparent and harder for normal people to understand. And they will be controlled by an international organization that has little if any democratic legitimacy or accountability.

A Silly Idea from Serious People

Why would the Russians and Chinese propose such a thing? They are serious people, and serious people do not usually propose silly ideas. The easy answer would be resentment toward the U.S. for its unique and dominant role in the system. This may be an element especially for the Russians. Far more likely, however, is that the Chinese and Russians are motivated instead by fear that the U.S. is not doing a very good job of managing its economy and its international economic role right now. Floating an unrealistic but provocative proposal is precisely the way to diplomatically express that concern without actually threatening the current system on which they depend just as does the rest of the world.

One would have to guess that the U.S. response--categorical defense of the dollar and its role as a reserve currency by both Treasury Secretary Geithner and Fed Chairman Bernanke[1]--was exactly what the Chinese and Russians were trying to inspire. It is a diplomatic coup for them as well as a warning to the U.S. that what this nation does right and what it does wrong has major implications for other nations as well as itself. America should not expect other countries to remain idle if U.S. policies begin hurting their economic growth as well as its own.

Ambassador Terry Miller
is Director of the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.


[1]Geithner, in either a huge mistake or (hopefully) a simple misunderstanding of a reporter's question, initially gave a positive response to the idea of expanding the role of SDRs, but he, the President, and FED Chairman Bernanke quickly set things straight. See "Geithner and Bernanke Reject New Global Currency Idea," Reuters, March 24, 2009, at (March 26, 2009).

Let's Put Bylines on Our 'National' Intelligence Estimates. Anonymity leads to mediocrity and politicization

Let's Put Bylines on Our 'National' Intelligence Estimates. By Reuel Marc Gerecht
Anonymity leads to mediocrity and politicization.
WSJ, Mar 28, 2009

Charles Freeman's withdrawal from his appointment as the chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) offers an opportunity to assess whether personal views should have any role in intelligence analysis. Mr. Freeman's opinions on Israel, the Middle East and China proved too strong for critics. Yet the NIC's National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) are often politicized and debased precisely because their anonymous authors need take no personal responsibility for their opinions.

No one knows if the upcoming new Iran estimate will be as politicized as was its 2007 predecessor, which damaged the diplomacy of both the U.S. and our European allies. In any case, the Obama administration likely will have one day a politically convulsive NIE that will make the president wonder why these estimates are ever drafted.

Anonymity is the byword of the intelligence profession. In operations, it is usually mandatory. In analysis, however, a collective effort that hides individual authorship is a dubious approach.
In theory, anonymity gives analysts protection from political pressure. And a collective judgment -- NIEs are the most consensual intelligence products that the executive branch puts out -- is supposed to be more reliable and convincing than the views of a particular analyst or agency.

In practice, however, this anonymous, collective approach has guaranteed that mediocre analysis goes unchallenged, and that analysts and senior officials within the NIC go unscarred when they're wrong. No one would want to invest money with a stockbroker who consistently gives bad advice. No one would want to retain a coach who loses more than he wins. Yet obtaining an analytical score card on analysts and their managers within the NIC, the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence or the office of the Director of National Intelligence is nearly impossible.

NIEs rarely offer insights not available elsewhere at far less cost. They have often been egregiously wrong -- my personal favorites were the NIEs written before Iran's Islamic Revolution that predicted the Pahlavi dynasty's survival into the 21st century -- and when right, often unspectacularly so (seeing enmity among the Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosnians in post-Cold War Yugoslavia wasn't particularly perspicacious). Yet where once NIEs attracted little attention, they now can become political footballs even before they are finished.

In part, this is because the nature of Washington has changed. Estimates were once either closely guarded or easily forgotten -- the secrecy of estimates was better kept and no one expected presidents or members of Congress to accept them as guides for foreign policy. Today, Americans have unprecedented access to secret information. And within the State Department and Congress, where partisan policy battles are fierce, members feel no hesitation in using NIEs as political battering rams. At dizzying speeds, politicians and their allied journalists can denigrate an NIE for its "group think," as was the case with the 2003 report on Iraqi WMD. Or they can applaud another for its supposed willingness to speak truth to power -- as we heard with the Iran "no-nuke" NIE of 2007. With the system we have, this isn't going to change.

President George W. Bush missed an enormous opportunity to reassess the CIA's operational and analytical branches -- the vital center of the American intelligence community -- after 9/11. He embraced the status quo, putting it on steroids by increasing its funding, adding more personnel, and canning no one.

Identifying the primary drafters of NIEs -- or any major analytical report requested by Congress -- could significantly improve the quality of these analyses and diminish the potential for politicians, the media and the intelligence community to politically exploit the reports. Senior managers at the CIA, the NIC or in any of America's other intelligence agencies should have their names appended to an assessment if they've had any substantive role in writing its conclusions. Although everyone in the intelligence community likes to get their fingers into an NIE, there are usually just a small number of individuals who do the lion's share of the work. They should all be known, and should be expected to defend their conclusions in front of Congress and senior executive-branch officials.

Contrary to what some journalists suggested about the prelude to the Iraq war, good analysts live to be questioned by senior officials. Intrepid analysts want to get out of their cubicles.
Think tankers can generally run circles around government analysts and managers on substance, and especially in "strategic" vision, because they operate in more open, competitive and intellectually rigorous environments. Anonymous collective official analysis tends to smother talent and parrot the current zeitgeist in Washington. Liberating first-rate analysts from the bureaucratic disciplining and expectations of their own agencies by allowing them to build public reputations is probably the most efficient and inexpensive way to introduce "contrarian views," an oft-stated reason for Mr. Freeman's appointment.

Mr. Freeman's strongly held personal views proved to be his appointment's stumbling block. If Dennis Blair, the director of National Intelligence, believes that views such as those held by Mr. Freeman would help the intellectual mix at the NIC, then he should allow these views to be heard and argued in an open environment.

In an environment where analysts have publicly tracked reputations, we are likely to see people take their tasks more seriously instead of hiding behind their agencies. Those who are confident in their assessments won't fear change. But those who are fence-sitters, more concerned about melding their views into what is bureaucratically palatable and politically acceptable, will likely drift to the rear as they grope for what is accepted orthodoxy.

A more open system still may not make the intelligence community's product competitive with the best from the outside on the big issues ("Whither China, Russia and Iran?"). But it will certainly make estimates more interesting to read than what we have now. Denied the imprimatur of saying "the intelligence community believes," estimates will come down to earth. And from that angle, it will be much harder for anyone again to use an NIE to damage their political opponents.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

President Obama's plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan is ambitious and expensive. It is also hard-headed.

The Price of Realism. WaPo Editorial
President Obama's plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan is ambitious and expensive. It is also hard-headed.
Saturday, March 28, 2009; page A12

THE STRATEGY for Afghanistan and Pakistan announced by President Obama yesterday is conservative as well as bold. It is conservative because Mr. Obama chose to embrace many of the recommendations of U.S. military commanders and the Bush administration, based on the hard lessons of seven years of war. Yet it is bold -- and politically brave -- because, at a time of economic crisis and war-weariness at home, Mr. Obama is ordering not just a major increase in U.S. troops, but also an ambitious effort at nation-building in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is right to do it.

Few Americans would dispute Mr. Obama's description yesterday of the continuing threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas. "Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan," he said. "And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban -- or allows al-Qaeda to go unchallenged -- that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can." The goal he stated was similarly simple and clear: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future."

What distinguishes the president's plan -- and opens him to criticism from some liberals as well as conservatives -- is its recognition that U.S. goals cannot be achieved without a major effort to strengthen the economies and political institutions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Bush administration tried to combat the al-Qaeda threat with limited numbers of U.S. and NATO troops, targeted strikes against militants, and broad, mostly ineffective, aid programs. It provided large sums of money to the Pakistani army, with few strings attached, in the hope that action would be taken against terrorist camps near the Afghan border. The strategy failed: The Taliban has only grown stronger, and both the Afghan and Pakistani governments are dangerously weak.

The lesson is that only a strategy that aims at protecting and winning over the populations where the enemy operates, and at strengthening the armies, judiciaries, and police and political institutions of Afghanistan, can reverse the momentum of the war and, eventually, allow a safe and honorable exit for U.S. and NATO troops. This means more soldiers, more civilian experts and much higher costs in the short term: Mr. Obama has approved a total of 21,000 more U.S. troops and several hundred additional civilians for Afghanistan, and yesterday he endorsed two pieces of legislation that would provide Pakistan with billions of dollars in nonmilitary aid as well as trade incentives for investment in the border areas. More is likely to be needed: U.S. commanders in Afghanistan hope to obtain another brigade of troops and a division headquarters in 2010, and to double the Afghan army again after the expansion now underway is completed in 2011. Mr. Obama should support those plans.

Such initiatives are not the product of starry-eyed idealism or an attempt to convert either country into "the 51st state" but of a realistic appreciation of what has worked -- and failed -- during the past seven years. As Mr. Obama put it, "It's far cheaper to train a policeman to secure his or her own village or to help a farmer seed a crop than it is to send our troops to fight tour after tour of duty with no transition to Afghan responsibility." That effort will be expensive and will require years of steadiness. But it offers the best chance for minimizing the threat of Islamic jihadism -- to this country and to the world.