Interviewed by Daniel Horner
Greg Thielmann has spent four decades analyzing national security issues. For 25 years, he was a U.S. Foreign Service officer. In his last position before he left the State Department in 2002, he headed the Office of Analysis for Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Issues in the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He then served as a senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Since 2009 he has been a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and will retire this August.
Thielmann spoke to Daniel Horner on May 10 at the offices of the association, which publishes Arms Control Today. The interview has been edited for clarity.
ACT: Could you start by saying how you get into the field, or fields—arms control, intelligence, and threat assessment?
Thielmann: I think looking back on growing up in the middle of Iowa, I rather improbably developed an interest in foreign affairs at an early age, maybe because my father was born abroad.
ACT: Where was he born?
Thielmann: He was born in Germany. So in college, I remember thinking even then of potential Foreign Service careers, and, as it evolved, I also remember an interest in what I would now call political-military affairs. I don’t know whether that meant playing army or whatever as a little boy. When I did enter the Foreign Service, as do most people who become diplomats in the United States, I started out in consular affairs. But it evolved fairly quickly into a job in the political-military bureau. It just so happened I walked into a job dealing with the arms control policy portions of the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, what eventually became a ratified treaty with the Soviet Union.
I should mention, though, that there was an interval before I joined the Foreign Service and after graduating from college. I had taken a job with the Office of Management and Budget and, as fate would have it, I got a job in the National Security Division and was assigned the naval research and development accounts. One of the interesting things about that was it combined my general interest in things military with some real-world encounters with the navy labs, with operational naval forces. It gave me some exposure to and subsequent credibility in analyzing military issues. So when I did enter the Foreign Service then, and had jobs in the department working on arms control policy, I was able to use some of that previous experience. And then it turned out that most of my jobs in the Foreign Service, and I entered as a political officer, did involve political-military issues. So when I was assigned to Germany in the early 80s, it was a period when the NATO alliance was introducing INF missiles into Europe as leverage to get an arms control agreement, which was subsequently successful.
Partly as a result of the experience gained there, I got a job working for Paul Nitze, who was a special assistant to the president and the secretary of state for arms control. During that period, I also had a chance to serve on the INF [Treaty] delegation at the outset. So that was also very valuable experience with arms control issues, serving someone who had a critical role to play in developing U.S. policies, but also [giving me] a chance early on to actually talk to Soviet diplomats at the time on an issue that was considered very important in Washington.
Following that experience, I ended up serving as a political officer in Moscow at a very sensitive time in developing arms control policies, then went to work back in the intelligence bureau at the State Department, analyzing arms control issues and other military issues for that bureau. So in some sense, one thing led to another. There was an early interest in the subject, but I was lucky enough to have a chance to actually exercise, or realize, those interests in a practical way. And the rest is history (laughs)—my history.
ACT: What were the countries that you served in?
Thielmann: I served twice in Brazil, my first and last assignment; I served in Germany at our embassy in Bonn; and then I served in Moscow. Otherwise, my foreign experiences were brief and episodic. I just served at the outset of the INF [Treaty] negotiations; that was a few weeks in Geneva.
One of the valuable things about serving in these different countries was just exercising the necessity of trying to understand how foreigners perceive the United States. That I think gave me a lot of insights in threat assessments because one of the things one realizes is that one country may interpret something as being very threatening in terms of new weapons development or military actions, but from the other country’s perspective, it is what the U.S. is doing which is threatening. Just to realize that there is no overall objective determination of who is threatening and who is not threatening. We’re dealing with perceptions. And because of that, there is often a [way] in which, through negotiations or realizing the different perspectives, you can actually find a space where the two parties can both reduce the sense of threat that they feel through a negotiated agreement. That’s a very important realization that gets one away from the all-too-common view in not just the United States but in many countries that the way one deals with a threat is to somehow crush [the other side] or force the other side to capitulate and accept the kind of agreement or the kind of world that one demands.
ACT: As we’ve been discussing, you’ve been in the Foreign Service, you were in the State Department here in Washington, you were on Capitol Hill and you were in a nongovernmental organization. What did you learn from that sequence of experiences about how different parts of the government interact with one another and how the government interacts with the public?
Thielmann: That’s a big question, but I would say that it was very valuable to be on both sides of the foreign policy process—in the executive branch, implementing foreign policy, ultimately directed by the president, and in the legislative branch, which, under the Constitution, also has a role to play in foreign policy. One of the things that brought the contrast in perspective to mind was the kind of reports that Congress requires of the executive branch. When you have a congressional hearing and executive-branch officials testify, they are asked for reactions on the spot to some of the questions, but there are also a lot of questions that are submitted. They are either initiated by the members of Congress themselves or subsequently drafted by their staff and submitted to the executive branch. From the executive-branch perspective, this was a very onerous burden. A lot of time was spent in the State Department and elsewhere in the executive branch generating answers to those questions. It was frustrating because many times, the questions had been answered before. It was as if no one in Congress ever read the previous answers to the question. Sometimes they were asked so frequently, or reports were required every six months, with such a short interval, there was not really an opportunity for things to develop differently. That made it even worse in terms of executive-branch answers because they just used old language and kind of recycled the language. So there are a lot of legitimate complaints the executive branch had about the way Congress would generate questions.
But sitting in the Congress, one could see that it was very frustrating that administration officials often were not responsive to legitimate questions raised by the Congress and were inclined to provide either inadequate answers or superficial answers to very important questions. On the [Senate] Intelligence Committee, one could also see sometimes that the executive branch manipulated the Congress with the presentation of information. For example, I remember the timing of some critical answers to questions on the effect of pending legislation on certain arms control objectives.
ACT: Sorry, what was your position at that time?
Thielmann: Well, my position was on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Without getting too much into the details, I would just say that I saw how the administration, coincidentally or otherwise, provided certain critical information so late in the process that because of its highly classified nature, it could not get to the members of the Senate voting on this critical issue in time for it really to be absorbed.
Because of the way intelligence issues are dealt with in the Congress, there are very few staffers who can actually take that information and present it to members of the Senate. In fact, for 85 members of the Senate, they have no one on their staff, integrated into their staff, who can really absorb this information. That creates some delays and some issues of sensitive information handling that, if the administration wants to exploit it, can actually be used somewhat deviously to keep certain members of Congress in the dark.
ACT: The 85 members being members who are not on the Senate Intelligence Committee?
ACT: You were in the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research during the run-up to the war with Iraq, but you retired in 2002, before the war started [in 2003]. Describe a little bit what happened after you retired from government and how that sequence of events unfolded.
Thielmann: Sometimes my decision to retire from government was linked to the Iraq WMD [weapons of mass destruction] affair, and that would be inaccurate. I had actually decided for personal reasons about a year before, as one often does in the Foreign Service, that I wanted to have more time while my daughter was still around the house before going to college and so forth. It just so happened though that there was a coincidence in that decision to retire with the presentation of the National Intelligence Estimate [NIE] on Iraqi WMD. My office, the Office of Analysis for Strategic, Proliferation, and Military Issues, in the intelligence bureau, was very much involved in assessing Iraq’s WMD capabilities. So over the period of preceding months, I had been very steeped in that issue and supervised the line officers who provided the assessment of sensitive intelligence for State Department leadership. Even though I was not personally involved in the final coordination of that document in September 2002, I was still in the State Department at that time and in the office where the representatives in that coordination process were involved in assessing the estimate.
ACT: So you had read their assessments, you knew what was in the document—
Thielmann: I knew what was happening, and I knew that the intelligence bureau of the State Department had a sort of massive dissent from the key piece of that estimate, which was whether Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons development program. I knew that the State Department was alone in assessing that the evidence did not show that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons program, that it was still pretty effectively under control of the UN.
ACT: Alone within the U.S. government?
Thielmann: Alone within the intelligence community. Some 15 other agencies reached another conclusion to that question. I knew therefore that this dissent was very conspicuous in the information that the president had, that the National Security Council had. As it appears in the documents, it was the assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research who was expressing this dissent. It was not, as [national security adviser] Condi Rice said on “Meet the Press,” someone “in the bowels of the bureaucracy,” referring to something that I had said publicly. It was armed with that knowledge, then, that I had the rather uncomfortable situation in the months preceding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, where I felt that the administration was really representing inaccurately what the intelligence community had told it. Of course, I had my own biases about the conclusions of a majority of the intelligence agencies. This became most relevant, then, in the weeks immediately leading up to the invasion, when the various assessments and arguments made on October 1, 2002, when the estimate was published, started changing significantly when the U.S. and other members of the UN succeeded in getting the UN inspectors back in Iraq. Because once there were people there on the ground, and once the community in the U.S. and the international community had a chance to examine from a closer perspective what the evidence was, it became pretty clear that some of those assessments that one might say were prudent worst case in October 2002 looked to basically be bogus in February of 2003. One of my great frustrations at the time was that I didn’t have any luck persuading people in the press or elsewhere that this issue should be revisited.
ACT: Sorry, “at the time” meaning—
Thielmann: “At the time” meaning in the weeks leading up to the invasion when it was pretty clear there was reason to reassess the conclusions of the preceding fall, particularly because of the success of the UN inspectors and even the success of the U.S. demand that the missiles that exceeded the 150-kilometer-range limit be destroyed, which were being destroyed. So we had success in that area, too. It was only, I regret, after the invasion that there was greater receptivity to the question of “How did we go wrong?” So that’s when my period of retirement took an entirely different shift, and I found a lot of interest in the press in talking to me. Because at least at one point, I was one of the only people who had seen the sensitive intelligence who was willing to talk about how this mistake was made.
ACT: Because you had been inside the government at the time, but because of the timing of your retirement, you were able talk about it.
Thielmann: I still had to be very careful, of course, what I talked about because the oaths I had sworn about not revealing [classified information] still applied. It’s just that many of the issues had been, in effect, declassified by the president of the United States, who was citing intelligence estimates and making statements about the information that were in a practical way a declassification of the subject.
ACT: In a speech earlier this year, you talked about a “silver lining” from the Iraq episode with regard to intelligence, namely intelligence reform. Is the intelligence process overall better today than it was 15 years ago?
Thielmann: I hesitate a little bit in [answering that question] because I can’t see the classified product any more. What I can say is that during that four-year period when I was able to see the classified product after the Intelligence Reform [and Terrorism Prevention] Act of 2004—
ACT: When you were on the Senate Intelligence Committee?
Thielmann: —when I was on the Senate Intelligence Committee, I did see improvement in a number of ways. I thought it was very important that as a result of that act, each member of the Senate Intelligence Committee was able to hire a staffer that was both an official staff member of the committee but also directly reporting to the senator who was a member of that committee so therefore integrated into the senator’s personal staff of the committee. That was a very important step to make more effective the participation by the senators on the committee. But there were a host of other things that were done, including creating an overall director of national intelligence that was no longer just the head of the CIA with a second hat on, which is what the previous situation was, with the director of central intelligence. That was very important to end this conflict of interest between the head of the CIA having a natural tendency to represent the interests of the CIA and the judgments of the CIA in sitting over the entire intelligence community process. There were other things that would fall in the area of professional tradecraft, but in a general way, one can just say that the kind of assessments made by the intelligence community in the classified documents became more transparent in terms of where the information came from, more information about the sources. So it would allow the consumers of this intelligence to make better judgments about whether or not there were reasons to doubt the source of the information, whether or not this was someone receiving bribes from the U.S. government or whether that was a disinterested observer in the process, and so forth.
ACT: And this was an issue in the Iraq case?
Thielmann: That’s right.
ACT: You observed the intelligence assessment process on Iraq from the inside and the one on Iran from the outside. Are you able to compare the two processes?
Thielmann: I think in many ways the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program was a great triumph in avoiding so much of what went wrong in the case of Iraq WMD. What one had in the Iran document was the intelligence community basically admitting that previous National Intelligence Estimates had not gotten it right on Iran. For example, the critical determination [on] Iran’s nuclear weapons program—and they did have a nuclear weapons program, but it was essentially halted in the fall of 2003. What was so conspicuously different than the Iraq intelligence estimate was that [this conclusion on Iran] was a very unwelcome conclusion [for] the Bush administration, particularly the Dick Cheney wing of the Bush administration. And yet, the estimate was not tailored, shaped, spun in a way that disguised that. The administration basically allowed it to come out in its all-important, honest bottom line. That made a profound difference. A lot of people have said that without that estimate, we probably would have attacked Iran and gotten into a big war, a bigger war than the one we experienced with Iraq.
ACT: So the Iran assessment was very directly influenced by the Iraq assessment, people were consciously avoiding making what were seen as the errors—
Thielmann. Yeah, I think for one thing, they did a deeper dive into some of the sources of information and [were] very conspicuously thinking of what went wrong. I think to the credit of the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was the most extensive study done in that decade of what did go wrong with [analyzing] Iraq WMD. And this was, in a lot of ways—well, in a lot of ways, it was a very partisan undertaking, but in other ways, it was a nonpartisan undertaking in that the conclusions of what went wrong in the intelligence community actually came out when the Republicans still had the chairmanship of the intelligence committee. There was a controversy later about how the administration, the political leadership used the flawed intelligence, and that was something that the majority of Republicans on the committee were not happy about getting into, some years later. That too was looked at extensively by the intelligence committee. So together, both the flaws of the intelligence community and the ways that the political administration used the information [were] extensively researched by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and it was a good thing.
ACT: So, overall, the intelligence process is better, it’s permanently better, or can we expect to see a series of ups and downs? It will be some other intelligence failure a generation from now and there will be some further reforms?
Thielmann: I’m sure there will be future failures; I’m sure there will be future reforms. There are clearly many who say that some of the reforms did not go far enough, that the new director of national intelligence doesn’t have as much authority over budgets of the entire intelligence community as he should. There are various criticisms of this, and I think there will be more reforms. But I would just say that I was pretty confident in 2009 when I left the intelligence committee and came to the Arms Control Association that significant improvements had been made to the structure and process of intelligence assessment in the U.S.
It’s much harder to judge now, unfortunately, because actually less information is made available to the public. There are [fewer] unclassified summaries of intelligence documents than there were before. I actually see that as representing backsliding in terms of keeping the public informed and the Congress and the public getting some payback to their enormous investment in the intelligence community. And I’m afraid that that is actually partly because the intelligence community got so burned in the public actually being able to assess how they arrived at their conclusions that one of their responses is to clam up and not show the public how they reached the conclusions. They would argue, of course, that it’s just being very responsible in protecting sources and methods. But that’s always the tension, protecting sources and methods and giving the public at least the bottom lines of what the many billions of dollars invested in intelligence community product has delivered in terms of helping us understand an issue.
ACT: When you say getting burned, you mean after the Iraq situation?
Thielmann: The intelligence community really took a hit in some sloppy tradecraft and some bending too far to satisfy what the politicians wanted to receive from the intelligence community. Whether you want to call it institutional trauma or whatever, they really did feel the pain in some of the mistakes that they made. In many ways, of course, this helped fuel the desire to reform, but in some ways, it also made them more leery about sharing any information with the public.
ACT: In one of your interviews on Iraq, you said, “The default setting of the U.S. intelligence community is to over-warn rather than under-warn.” Explain what you mean by that.
Thielmann: I think the intelligence community has a very important warning function. The political leadership makes certain assumptions about the way the world is, and things will continue the way they were. It’s not the political leadership’s job to necessarily be steeped in all the details that give us some clue about new dangers arising and how complicated situations will evolve into something that threatens U.S. national security interests. So warning is the chief function, one might say, of the intelligence community. To talk historically, this is sort of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. How could we possibly be surprised by what happened in Pearl Harbor? What were we thinking? There was information there, but it wasn’t absorbed in a timely fashion. It almost cost us permanent loss of control in the Pacific Ocean. So that was a huge trauma that we haven’t quite gotten over. We are still trying to prevent a Pearl Harbor. So there is that legitimate response of the intelligence community to focus on warning of possible disastrous events. And then there’s the responsibility of the military to do what I call prudent worst-case threat assessments because in times of war, or in trying to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, the consequences of underestimating the threat are very dire. Most people understand that and have only to go back to Pearl Harbor or to the surprise insertion of Chinese military forces in North Korea when we thought the war was almost over there and we were approaching the Yalu River to understand that not being naïve about threats is very important.
The problem is that this often leads us to assuming that a worst-case threat identified is the most likely outcome or that’s the most objective way to predict the future. So that’s why, as an intelligence analyst, I would always look for two different estimates: one, what could happen and what is the probability that that could happen; but secondly, what is most likely to happen, even realizing that judgments about the future are very difficult to make. I think time and again in my career I’ve seen in the military, often for legitimate reasons, for honorable reasons, [an inclination] to exaggerate an enemy’s capabilities in a way which ultimately misleads the people, which diverts resources from causes that are higher on the national priority list and also sometimes prevent[s] us from achieving certain outcomes that otherwise would be available.
That happens, it seems to me, again and again in the negotiating process, that we miss opportunities to lower the threat in a better way by overestimating what the threat is. The examples are legion during the Cold War era in how the United States overestimated Soviet military capabilities. It was obviously a formidable threat, and it was an existential threat potentially, but it was often analyzed in a way that created missile gaps or bomber gaps that did not exist and countless other situations where looking back on it, we know the situation was very different than what was presented at the time.
ACT: So for all the political and institutional reasons you just were describing, how do you prevent that? Given all those reasons, how do you prevent that?
Thielmann: One of the ways you prevent it is to make sure that your judgments are labeled for what they are. That means it’s okay and sometimes mandatory to remind people what could happen. But it’s also necessary to remind them what is likely to happen. Or if we are wrong about identifying something that could happen one way or another, whether it’s good news or bad news, why might we be wrong? On what assumptions does this conclusion hinge? And that’s just part of, it seems to me, responsible intelligence tradecraft.
Some of this needs to translate also to the public discussion of issues in the military realm. That’s one of the reasons why working for the Arms Control Association excites me because this is a specialist issue but it’s also something that’s extremely important to simplify for the members of the public that are not specialists because we want everyone to vote and we particularly want the elected representatives of the people to understand enough about the issues [that] they can make intelligent decisions that serve the nation’s interests. Being able to both understand this at an expert level and, as importantly, to translate that into something that the public can understand and act on, I think is a high calling.
ACT: So this is what you’re trying to do with the Realistic Threat Assessment and Response Project?
Thielmann: That’s exactly what the goal is. There are a lot of issues. It extends from analyzing the Iran nuclear threat to the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea to many issues about how the Chinese threat is evolving, which very much get into the kind of things I’ve been discussing. Understanding what motivates the actions—in the case of China, it’s very funny to read the public analysis of China, which in so many cases, appears to make no mention of what’s going on in the United States and elsewhere as if China had suddenly decided that it needs to create multiple warheads for itself and to develop new missiles and to start shooting down satellites. The idea that China has a military establishment which is much smaller than that of the United States and less sophisticated than the United States and might actually be reacting to some of the things the United States does doesn’t seem to often be part of the discussion. And it needs to be in order to really understand it.
ACT: I’ll ask about one other country and then we’ll wrap it up. As you mentioned, you were involved in the negotiations on the INF Treaty. You already described some of that. Today the treaty seems to be in trouble. Do you see a way out of the current situation?
Thielmann: It’s difficult to be confident of finding a way out of that for a number of reasons. But one of the things that a group that I’m a part of, the so-called Deep Cuts Project, has been exploring is: What can be done, given the political realities in Russia today with President [Vladimir] Putin, given the political realities in the United States with a Congress that is very skeptical about arms control in general and specifically arms control with the Russian Federation. Given all that, what can be done? And one of the things, as someone who was involved in the whole INF Treaty negotiation and implementation, we’re not seeing, in my mind, adequate attention to some of the treaty mechanisms that were developed. For example, there was a special verification commission established as a part of the treaty, which would get experts together on both sides and conduct site visits and conduct technical talks when you had compliance concerns. This mechanism was used frequently when we were actually eliminating all of these systems, but then, once that was done, it has not met for more than a decade even though some very important compliance concerns have arisen. So one of the things that [the Deep Cuts Project has] suggested is one way or another, you need to get experts together, not just senior political leaders together but the military experts, the operators of systems, the people working in research and development, and you need to have site visits and so forth. The Russians have complained about the missile defense system we’re deploying in Romania. They believe this system could launch missiles that are banned by the treaty. We assure them that that’s not the case, and yet we don’t want to show them the launchers and explain technically why that’s so. Russia says they don’t know what we’re talking about when we say they’ve tested treaty-banned ground-launched missiles, but as far as I know, they have not invited us into Russia to inspect anything or to look at anything. So, it just seems to me that this is an obvious way for both countries to try harder to resolve these compliance concerns if in fact both countries, as both countries say, are committed to the INF Treaty. The good news is that neither country has rejected the treaty. The bad news is that if we cannot get resolution on this one issue, this is going to poison U.S.-Russian nuclear forces arms control across the board, including on the strategic side. So I think it’s imperative that more be done. I see at least a direction in which we have to move, but I’m discouraged that it hasn’t taken place yet.
ACT: Anything else you want to say by way of wrap-up about the arc of your career or the way things are now or anything we didn’t touch on that you think is important?
Thielmann: I would just say, to try to explain my optimism or continued enthusiasm about working in such a discouraging field, that I guess I have some instinctive—or inclination to assume that the arc of history bends toward reason and the survival of humanity. But I’m not sure I’m willing to assign a probability there. It’s just that that’s my hope and that’s what fuels my continued interest in the field.
ACT: That’s a great place to end. Thank you.