A day has passed since the release of the new intelligence-community estimate of the Iranian program and the smell of rotting fish is growing stronger. Even the editorial page of the New York Times is wondering if the NIE erred on the side of incaution. It reports that an official “close” to the International Atomic Energy Agency “told the Times yesterday that new American assessment might be too generous to Iran.”
Any careful reading of the NIE makes its obvious that this is true. The report’s stark opening declaration – made with “high confidence” – that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 is blatantly misleading. The only thing that was halted in 2003 was what the intelligence community calls the military side of Iran’s nuclear program.
Leaving the impression that the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran has receded, the NIE omits all mention of the fact that a civilian uranium-enrichment program remains as active as before at Natanz, where 3,000-plus centrifuges are whirring away. This critical point is only referred to obliquely in the single footnote in the declassified version of the NIE. In other words, it is buried. The footnote read: “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”
But as William Broad writes in today’s Times, “[t]he open secret of the nuclear age is that the line between civilian and military programs is extraordinarily thin.” Indeed, in a country like Iran, when it comes to civil and military uranium-enrichment programs, we are dealing with a distinction without a difference. The enriched uranium produced at Natanz could be turned to military purposes tomorrow or the day after if that is what ayatollahs decree.
Even the new NIE implicitly acknowledges this fact. It judges with “moderate confidence” that “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009.” Although it says this is “very unlikely,” it adds that by the following year, i.e., in the 2010 to 2015 time frame, Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon.” These timelines differ only marginally from the timelines offered in the 2005 NIE that is now said by the intelligence community to be incorrect.
The overall impression created by the NIE is that the Iranian nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, and such is the interpretation it is being given all over the world. But we do not have to rely on leaks, or on the differing assessment of allied countries like Israel, to see that this is false. All the evidence we need is contained in the NIE itself, which is framed in a deeply slanted way.
There are so many dots in need of connecting here that we would need a pointillist painter to make sense of what is going on.
1. Why was the public version of the NIE written in this misleading way?
2. How did the two Bush appointees running the intelligence community, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, allow such a flawed product to make its way into the public domain? Is this a case of the fish rotting from the head? Should one or both of them be fired for incompetence, or worse?
3 Why did President Bush, who was only fully briefed on the new “findings” last week, also authorize the NIE’s release? Did he welcome the document as a way of taking the pressure off him to strike Iran? Or, as seems more likely, was he compelled to do so to avoid charges of suppressing intelligence?
Yesterday, I dismissed Norman Podhoretz’s expression of “dark suspicions” that
the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.
I responded to him by noting that leaks were one thing, an NIE produced by a laborious inter-agency process is another, and that “the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit.”
But in dismissing Norman’s dark suspicions, did I treat his claim “a bit too literally,” as Ben Orlanski has written in the comments section in response to my post? Orlanski goes on to explain:
This isn’t a question of cooking the books to produce bogus information to defeat Bush. It is a question of how this was spun. The NIE report chose to lead with the made-for-headline finding about the halt to the program. But this isn’t really the most relevant part of the report, just the part that was pretty clearly intended to grab headlines. Is saying that a conspiracy? I don’t think so. I think the authors wanted to impact the political debate, and did so not by lying or creating bogus conclusions or reasoning, but simply by choosing to emphasize the part of their overall conclusions that played most pointedly into the political environment. [This] suggest[s] certain political canniness [on the part] of our intelligence agencies, and also suggests that they wanted to have an impact on ultimate policy. That is not their role, and there is something disconcerting about their assuming it.
With this I would entirely agree. If that is indeed what happened here, and the evidence that it did so is in front of our eyes, and if it is indeed what Norman was saying, then, like the intelligence-community’s disavowal of its 2005 NIE, I would have to disavow my previous “low confidence” estimate in Norman “dark suspicions” and join him in voicing equally dark suspicions of my own.