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Was Mike McConnell Asleep at the Switch?

The big news story coming out of the testimony of Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence, seems to be the admission that three al Qaeda suspects were indeed subjected to waterboarding in 2002 and 2003. Evidently it hurt. The three men talked.

But far more significant were the DNI’s comments about the Iran National Intelligence Estimate. As summarized by the Washington Post,

McConnell said that, in retrospect, “I probably would have changed a thing or two” in the public presentation two months ago of a National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran had stopped work on the design of a nuclear weapon. The estimate appeared to conflict with Bush administration rhetoric and undermined Washington’s effort to win support for tough sanctions against Iran.

McConnell said yesterday that the halt in the design work was the “least important part” of the program and “the only thing halted.” He said Iran had continued its production of fissile material, although he noted that it faces “significant technical problems” operating centrifuges. He also disclosed differences within the community about when Tehran could get enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, with some saying 2009, others 2010 to 2015, but all recognizing the possibility that it could not come “until after 2015.”

This admission is of course a step in the right direction, but there is something immensely galling about it. The NIE was issued in November. Here we are, two months later, after an immense amount of confusion has set in around the world about America’s policy toward Iran. Why did McConnell wait until now to set the record straight?

What is more, he is correcting the record in the most insouciant and understated manner: “I probably would have changed a thing or two,” hardly addresses the fact that the NIE was so profoundly misleading about the real state of the Iranian nuclear project.

Why is McConnell acting in this way? Connecting the Dots has a theory. When the National Intelligence Council released the declassified summary of the NIE, McConnell was asleep at the switch, unaware of what his subordinates were up to, and gave his approval without realizing its import. But to admit the full gravity of the mistake, and to take corrective action, including in the realm of personnel shifts, would have been a bureaucratic and political shot in his own foot. Far better to soft-pedal things all around.

Of course, Connecting the Dots finds it difficult to believe that McConnell, who has a lifetime of outstanding and highly professional public service behind him, would put the preservation of his own image ahead of the public weal. But perhaps human nature set in and the two became confused in his own mind. If so, it would not be the first time in history that that particular human frailty set in.