As a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program remains elusive after a round of talks between Tehran and world powers in Geneva, a strong majority of National Journal's National Security Insiders say Congress should avoid slapping new sanctions on Iran as negotiations continue.
"Let the dialogue take its course," one Insider advised. "If the negotiations fail, there will be plenty of time down the road to tighten sanctions and contemplate the use of force. For now, all efforts should focus on facilitating the negotiations, and more sanctions and threats will do the opposite." It's time for the Obama administration to take negotiations seriously, another Insider said, "and ignore the clamor from Congress and the pro-Israel lobby to undercut the talks with new sanctions."
Several Insiders, all polled in the run-up to talks this weekend, argued that the tough raft of sanctions already in place have worked to get the Iranians to the table. "Tougher sanctions aren't required to motivate Iranians to deal. The bigger fear from our friends and allies in the region is that the Obama administration will be too soft and cut a bad deal," one Insider said. "There is little faith that this White House is tough enough to hold out for a strong, game-changing, enforceable deal."
Reserving the option of imposing new sanctions to see at a later date if the Iranians renege on a deal could be helpful in negotiations, Insiders said. "If they don't, that's wonderful and no new sanctions need be imposed. If they do, then we can impose new sanctions legitimately." New sanctions would kill any nascent negotiations, one Insider said. "Unless the Iranians take additional steps on the path to nuclear weapons, let the negotiations play out unhindered by new obstacles."
A minority of 23 percent of Insiders disagreed. "It is completely illogical to argue that increasingly severe sanctions have succeeded in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, so now we need to stop imposing additional sanctions," another Insider said. "The opposite is obviously true. The message to Iran must be that we will continue to tighten the economic noose until they yield to international demands that they end their nuclear-weapons program."
Taking the pressure off now plays right to the Iranian charm offensive, one Insider said, and further ruptures any useful relationships with the Gulf Cooperation Council. "Hard to tell if it's the administration's naivete or a cynical bid to wash hands of the Iranian nuke problem."
Separately, a slim majority of Insiders said the National Security Agency's surveillance tactics, based on public disclosures and leaks to the media, are too far-reaching. Recent allegations against the agency have included eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone. "Vital relationships have been jeopardized by revelations of NSA surveillance," one Insider said. "Better political judgment needs to be exercised."
Some Insiders said the problem with the NSA's spying is not new, however. "The NSA has been out of control since 9/11. Too much power, too much secrecy, too little oversight, and too little results."
Yet 46 percent of Insiders disagreed. "Few would have considered them too far-reaching a decade ago," one Insider said. "We should recognize how much this whole flap says more about the public's changing standards and preferences than it does about an allegedly out-of-control government agency."
The agency's tactics and techniques are appropriate, another Insider said. "The issue is the judgment on when and how to apply them. This is why a civilian leader with political experience ought to head this and the other intelligence agencies," the Insider said. "Military people are trained to be mission-focused and oftentimes lack the political acumen and judgment required to think through political reactions to what they are doing. There should be experienced civilian leaders in all of the intelligence agencies with military deputies."
Or, as one Insider put it, "Give me a break. What did people think they were doing?"
1. Should Congress levy new sanctions against Iran during negotiations over its nuclear program?
"Time to take a breather, and see if the new regime is serious. Could be a turning point."
"Let State Department handle this."
"Give diplomacy a chance. If it fails, do it then."
"Adding still more sanctions to the huge assortment already in place would serve only to give the Iranians more reason to believe that the United States is not interested in concluding a deal and instead just wants to damage Iran in the hopes of getting regime change."
"The whole point of sanctions in the first place was to get Iran to the table. They are at the table. Congress should give our negotiators the couple of months they need to reach the first stage of a deal."
"New sanctions would kill any nascent negotiations. Unless the Iranians take additional steps on the path to nuclear weapons, let the negotiations play out unhindered by new obstacles."
"Unless they drag on."
"If they do, they're making clear that they don't want a diplomatic solution — they want war."
"The only purpose new sanctions would serve would be to signal to the Iranians that Obama is too politically weak to negotiate a deal."
"A freeze for a freeze will ensure we don't give away too much before we verify Iran is delivering on any promises to roll back their nuclear program."
"Iran will be more likely to respond as sanctions bite further. Relief should come only if and when Iran agrees to meaningful constraints on acquisition of nuclear weapons and capabilities. It is probably too late to prevent Iran from building some nuclear weapons, so diplomacy should also seek restraints on nuclear forces and deployments."
"Sanctions are finally having an impact on Iranian thinking. The president still has to decide how to implement them."
"The answer really is 'maybe.' Negotiations really don't work unless you have either force or sanctions waiting in the wings. Sanctions disconnected to negotiations, however, make no sense."
"They are truly hurt by these sanctions. They are an effective tool to keep them at the negotiating table."
"Only if part of a coordinated strategy with the president, his national security adviser, secretary of State, and congressional leadership; we need to re-create the ability to work across government for strategic issues with the Gang of 4/8. And there is no more important area to exercise this leadership than Iran and the existential threat to Israel and KSA. Iran is going to have nuclear weapons should be our fundamental assumption, now what?"
2. Based on recent public disclosures and media leaks, the National Security Agency's surveillance tactics are too far-reaching.
"Snowden's no hero, but his actions have uncovered agency overreach. Dialing back on these programs is going to be hard."
"The NSA is a bureacracy run wild. There should be a clear chain of command for decisions relating to allied leaders, so that those responsible for stupid errors are dealt with appropriately."
"The NSA's mission is critical to our national security, yet would benefit from greater oversight and in many cases transparency. Need to divorce the domestic issues from the foreign issues."
"Americans feel they've lost privacy, but that the NSA is not competent to make that loss of privacy worth it in terms of counterterrorism success."
"It seems clear that overconfidence in our technical abilities led to a very skewed risk-versus-benefit calculation. What's the payoff from a collection program, versus risk and consequences of exposure? I'm not sure we really answered that at all with some of these programs."
"What the media leaks and stories don't show enough are the stringent guidelines NSA employees must follow when they conduct intelligence-collection operations. But the NSA clearly needs to tighten its enforcement efforts and engage in more-focused collection operations. Just because you can collect, doesn't mean you should "¦. but Angela Merkel's cell phone is still a legitimate intelligence target."
"We must use some precision here: The NSA should not be collecting private information on Americans. As for non-Americans — including officials from friendly countries — they are fair game and should continue to be trusted as such, just as these countries monitor our communications. Those are the rules of the game, e.g., no rules at all!"
"While the cookie pushers may be uncomfortable at cocktail parties in Europe for a while, the NSA is doing what the nation needs it to do."
"The drip, drip of new revelations has damaged the public's confidence in the NSA and oversight of the system."
"Should be more 'threat based' with discipline of what triggers the search for a 'target,' but we are missing the distinction between meta-data and content in the world of Big Data Analytics when your target is working to hide in the 'noise' and you need all the data over time to get enough looks to create a pattern that helps you find the target. Once found, then escalate to content under the rule of law. The public understands the terrorist threat to the U.S. and our allies; may need less focus on allied leadership?"
"It will not be long before new national security surprises emerge. Critics will allege intelligence failure, as after 9/11 and Benghazi. The president will be blamed, even by some who today call for reining in intelligence collection. This said, a few selective cuts are in order, such as eschewing collection against top allied leaders."
"Totally overexaggerated. The NSA and administration failing miserably in defending the program. [NSA Director Keith] Alexander should be fired for creating an environment that could be so vulnerable!"
"Honestly, tactics are hard to gauge from outside government. There are legitimate reasons for allies to collect intelligence on each other. The precise circumstances must be known to determine whether any specific operation is justified. What is at issue for the public should be the oversight of NSA surveillance. Given the NSA's growing power, this is and should be a matter of great political importance in our democracy."
"The NSA is protecting the United States against potential threats. The idea that its surveillance tactics are too far-reaching is utter nonsense. Those nations that complain are merely chagrined that their agencies don't have similar capabilities. Or perhaps they do, and they are merely being hypocritical in their protests."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.