Ken Silverstein and I have been pointing for the better part of the year to the very strange goings-on surrounding the preparation and issuance of a vital intelligence report on the state of Iran’s nuclear project. The White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney, has been feverishly attempting to stop its issuance. The Director of National Intelligence, McConnell, has been at odds to oppose its declassification. In sum, something was there and the war party was intensely upset about it.
The report is called a National Intelligence Estimate (“NIE”), it reflects the best assessment available to the U.S. Government based on all intelligence sources. It is considered a state-of-the-art product of the intelligence community. This morning a nine-page summary of the NIE was released. Here are a few of the headlines:
• We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.
• We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.
• We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.
How does the NIE stack up next to the highly dramatized contentions made about the Iranian nuclear “threat” in connection with the roll-out to support a pre-emptive air strike on Iran? The key contention is that Iran is now aggressively trying to make nuclear weapons. The NIE rejects this, “with high confidence.” The next suggestion is that production of nuclear weapons by Iran is on an immediate horizon, within hailing distance of the end of the Bush Administration. Again, the NIE says this is hooey.
The NIE is not saying that analysts are not concerned about Iran’s nuclear aspirations. But it is saying that the threat continues to be out there on a more remote timeline. And that means, to cut to the quick, that a massive aerial strike against Iran before the end of the President’s term can no longer be justified on the basis of the threat emanating from the Iranian nuclear program. There’s still time for diplomacy. In fact, it says that earlier diplomatic efforts did bear fruit.
National Security Advisor Steve Hadley appeared this afternoon to answer questions about the NIE and to offer remarks. Hadley has never been a particularly effective figure at press gatherings of this sort, and today was a very weak showing even by Hadley’s standards. But the key question came right off the bat: What should we think about the fact that as recently as October 17, President Bush was giving public remarks in which he pointed to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran as World War III on the horizon? Indeed, a quick check shows the mushroom cloud analogy, which we all so closely associate with the irrepressibly irresponsible Condoleezza Rice, flowing from the lips of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Rice and Director of National Intelligence McConnell–with increased frequency since the post-Labor Day “roll out.” Hadley responded by saying that the NIE was only completed in the last two weeks and it rests on “new intelligence”–presumably newer than October 17–which pushed the analysts over the line and caused them to close their judgments on the issue.
Is this true? That will be a subject for further study. But one highly reliable intelligence community source I consulted immediately after Hadley spoke answered my question this way: “This is absolutely absurd. The NIE has been in substantially the form in which it was finally submitted for more than six months. The White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney, used every trick in the book to stop it from being finalized and issued. There was no last minute breakthrough that caused the issuance of the assessment.” So what, I asked, if not an intelligence breakthrough, what caused the last-minute change and the sudden issuance of the summary of the NIE? My source had no idea. He speculated, however, that a hardening of attitudes within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the intelligence community, and in Israel against the plans for an air war in Iran had caused Cheney and his team to fold their cards. “But I’d leave that with a final note of caution,” the source added, “Cheney sometimes appears to give up, but he’s a tenacious son-of-a-bitch. He may very well be back at it tomorrow.”