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The Riddle of the NIE

The American Intelligence Community has radically revised its estimate of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, or has it?

The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most authoritative document produced by the American Intelligence Community, begins with a stark sentence: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

A previous NIE in 2005 drew the opposite conclusion, assessing with “high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

The new NIE appears completely to contradict the old one. But one needs to read between the lines; what is striking about this new NIE are some of the uncertainties and ambiguities in which it is couched.

Let us consider some if its “key judgments.”

The NIE states with “high confidence” that until the fall of 2003, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons” before they came to a halt. But the NIE mentions this 2003 halt in the Iranian program with a curious phrase: “the halt lasted at least several years.”

What do those words mean? They appear to leave open the possibility that the halt itself has halted, and work on nuclear weapons has resumed.

Even more curiously, the NIE then notes that, because of “intelligence gaps,” the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council assess only with “moderate confidence” that the “halt to activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear-weapons program.”

What do those words mean? They plainly suggest, first of all, that the Intelligence Community’s understanding of Iranian nuclear-weapons activities is incomplete. They also make clear that two key component agencies of the Intelligence Community have serious doubts about whether the halt is a full or a partial halt. But the NIE then proceeds to downplay that possibility, stating quite categorically: “We assess with moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”

Without access to the underlying intelligence on which these back-and-forth assertions in this committee-produced document are founded, interpreting them involves groping in the dark. But the peculiar language, and the disclosure of dissenting views expressed by the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council, strongly hint that sharp internal divisions exist about the precise nature of the Iranian halt — if it is a halt at all.

Connecting the Dots, which has been highly critical of leaks of classified information, is left in the uncomfortable position of hoping for a leak of classified information that will resolve all the mysteries surrounding this new assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. Only one thing can be said with “high confidence” about this new NIE: when sharp divisions exist within the U.S. Intelligence Community, leaks are on the way.


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