NPR reports on the release of the 12/07 NIE report about Iran's nuclear capabilities. Later, some comments from the Washington Post's Dan Froomkin and others about what the White House knew and when.
NPR: It's rare that the US intelligence agencies reverse their judgment. This week they did just that in a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Analysts now say that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, contradicting a judgment two years ago that Iran was working to build a nuclear bomb. ... The deputy director of National Intelligence testifies today on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are sure to ask how confident he is of that Iran report. Past estimates have been wrong. Intelligence analysts are under great pressure this time to get it right. NPR's Tom Djelten reports.
TD: Five years ago the nation's intelligence agencies warned, in a consensus estimate, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. What Americans didn't know was the extent to which analysts actually disagreed on that key point. John McLaughlin was the CIA deputy director at the time.
McLaughlin: "We ought to have had, in that analysis, more expression of uncertainties. We ought to have had more occasions when we said, 'There are differences of view here.'"
TD: Some intelligence officials back then said they felt pressured to come up with an intelligence judgment that supported the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq. In the NIE on Iran, dissenting view are clearly highlighted. Most of the 16 intelligence agencies believe with high confidence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons in 2003. But two agencies said they were only "moderately confident." There's always room for some doubt. And what better example than the willingness to say the last judgment of Iran's weapons program was wrong. John McLaughlin:
McLaughlin: "This is what intelligence is supposed to do. It's supposed to say, 'Time out. We've changed our view for the following two or three reasons. You need to know that.'"
TD: Of course, this heightens the pressure on the nation's intelligence community to show that this time its judgment is correct. Bruce Ridell retired last year after nearly thirty years at the CIA.
Ridell: "In my experience -- thirty years in the intelligence business -- it's almost unprecedented to see intelligence analysts reverse so completely their view in such a short period of time on such a critical issue. That says to me that the information they have is of sufficiently compelling quality to lead then to really rethink the judgment and come out with the new one that they have today."
TD: In the new Estimate, the intelligence community not only concludes that Iran halted its nuclear program four years ago, it says "with high confidence" that it decided to do so in response to international pressure. Those words caught the attention of Robert Hutchings who directed the National Intelligence Council from 2003 to early 2005.
Hutchings: "The part that is making judgments about Iranian intentions -- this is a political judgment, political assessment. I would be surprised that people would have such confidence in it."
TD: Hutchings took over the National Intelligence Council in the aftermath of the estimate of the Iraq weapons program.
Hutchings: "We soon learned how badly wrong we made that call. So we collectively did a lot of work to try to see where we had gone wrong and develop some procedures that would mitigate against further problems."
TD: Senior intelligence officials say analysts this time around made sure there were corroborating sources for the key judgments. In 20o2 the Iraq weapons estimate was rushed to the White House in just a few weeks. This time there was more care to insulate the estimate from the influence of policy makers. The sources were more thoroughly checked for their reliability. And before the draft estimate was delivered to the White House, the analysts had their own conclusions challenged by bringing in groups of experts -- as Bruce Ridell says -- to play the role of devil's advocate.
Ridell: "Argue completely against the judgment that's in there and see if they can come up with a compelling counter argument which will then make the experts rethink their judgments."
TD: The estimate on Iran passed those tests and President Bush this week praised the intelligence analysts, in his words, "for their good work."
NPR: We're joined now by National Security advisor, Stephen Hadley. ... President Bush has said he didn't have all the details of this intelligence report that he's praised -- as we've just heard -- until last week. Though in August, the director of National Intelligence did alert him that there was new information about Iran's nuclear weapons program. And given that Iran is at the top of this administration's concerns, did that conversation end there?
SH: The director of National Intelligence did alert the president that there was some new information. He didn't go into great detail on that information. What he also advised was that this was one of many streams of information, some of which were potentially in conflict. He basically said, "Mr. President, there's something that may be new. It indicates that there was a covert nuclear weapons program. But it may have been suspended. It's too soon to tell. We're going to work the information and come back to you, Mr. President." And then they went off and worked it. That's what you hope your intelligence community would do.
NPR: But didn't the president ask for more information on one of the more important aspects of his foreign policy?
SH: The president has been asking for more information on Iran for the last several years. He's spent a lot of time bringing actually the Iranian analysts in and interacting with them directly, trying to probe, understand what they know. And in that process he's identified additional information that he would like. One of the reasons, of course, I think it was that encouragement of the intelligence community that resulted in the effort to expand their information that indeed resulted in this information coming to light in the last couple of months before the submission of the NIE.
NPR: Given that the president knew that a new, more positive assessment on the Iranian weapons program was in the works, why weeks later was he warning about Iran's nuclear weapons program possibly leading to World War III? That's pretty strong rhetoric!
SH: It's right and it was right at the time and it's right now. Because there are really three things you look at in terms of a country taking out an option, if you will, to have nuclear weapons. One is the acquisition of highly-enriched uranium -- which is the material from which the nuclear weapon is made. Secondly is the technical know-how to turn that material into a bomb. Third is a way of delivering it to a target, like a ballistic missile program...
NPR: ... So that means they've got a lot of knowledge and a lot they could potentially do in the future? ... But given...
SH: ... The problem is that what we have with Iran is they are continuing to pursue what's called "nuclear enrichment" which is a path to getting nuclear material for a weapon and they're continuing to pursue getting ballistic missiles. What this report tells us is that they actually had the third element, a covert nuclear weapons program to take nuclear material and turn it into a weapon. Now the good news is that they halted that program in 2003. The bad news is they had it in the first place and unfortunately could restart it. In the interim they continue to do the hardest thing for getting a nuclear weapon which is they continue to pursue nuclear enrichment which will give them the means of obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material.
NPR: Given, though, that 16 intelligence agencies have agreed that Iran has shelved this covert nuclear weapons program, is it less likely that the US will launch a military strike against Iran?
SH: They have shelved the covert nuclear weapons program. They continue, of course, to pursue the enrichment program which gives them nuclear material. We're concerned about that. I think what the estimate says, though, is that we have some time to deal with that problem and the basic strategy we have pursued is the right one. That is, pressuring Iran and at the same time opening a negotiating option for them in terms of resolving this issue. So diplomacy has time to work, and that's of course what we're pursuing -- a diplomatic solution.
NPR: So, would you say this is an opportunity for the US to engage more directly with Iran?
SH: We have actually had, I think, the right strategy and the right elements -- which is 1) pressure, but also an offer that if Iran will suspend their nuclear enrichment program then we will come to the table. And what's regrettable is that Iran has not made the strategic decision that it's time to try and negotiate a solution to this problem.
The Washington Post's eagle-eyed Dan Froomkin and some bloggers have noticed how the language of the White House about Iran has changed over a particular period of time, indicating that both the president and vice-president have known for several months that the latest NIE would show Iran's nuclear weapons program had ended years ago. The most significant change comes in August, when the White House first got wind of the upcoming conclusions of the intelligence community.
In an article called "A Pattern of Deception," lays out a series of direct quotes from the White House about Iran. The changes in the rhetoric indicate a change occurring in early August, about the time it became evident that Iran had suspended its weapons program years ago.
The purpose was, Froomkin notices, to change their language sufficiently so that neither Bush nor Cheney could be accused later of having lied, but to continue to try to deceive the American people into believing that war against Iran was imminent and inevitable. Well after the contents of the NIE became available to Bush, "he and the vice president accelerated their rhetorical efforts to persuade the public that the nuclear threat posed by Iran was grave and urgent. Bush even went so far in late August and October as to warn of the potential for a nuclear holocaust."
A survey of Bush's remarks about Iran's nuclear ambitions in 2007 suggests that a shift took place somewhere between August 6 and August 9. There wasn't a change in his overall message, just his carefully chosen words.
Here's Bush on Jan. 26: "As you know, the Iranians, for example, think they want to have a nuclear weapon. And we've convinced other nations to join us to send a clear message, through the United Nations, that that's unacceptable behavior."
On March 31: "Our position is that we would hope that nations would be very careful in dealing with Iran, particularly since Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and a major threat to world peace is if the Iranians had a nuclear weapon. . . .
"We respect the history of Iran, we respect the rich traditions of Iran. We, however, are deeply concerned about an Iranian government that is in violation of international accords in their attempt to develop a nuclear weapon."
On June 5: "The Iranians are a great people who deserve to chart their own future, but they are denied their liberty by a handful of extremists whose pursuit of nuclear weapons prevents their country from taking its rightful place amongst the thriving."
On June 19, Bush spoke of "consequences to the Iranian government if they continue to pursue a nuclear weapon, such as financial sanctions, or economic sanctions. . . .
"Now, whether or not they abandon their nuclear weapons program, we'll see."
On July 12: "[T]he same regime in Iran that is pursuing nuclear weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map is also providing sophisticated IEDs to extremists in Iraq who are using them to kill American soldiers."
On Aug. 6 he said "it's up to Iran to prove to the world that they're a stabilizing force as opposed to a destabilizing force. After all, this is a government that has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon."
From that point on, he started choosing his words more carefully.
Here he is on Aug. 9: "They have expressed their desire to be able to enrich uranium, which we believe is a step toward having a nuclear weapons program. That, in itself, coupled with their stated foreign policy, is very dangerous for world stability. . . . It's a very troubling nation right now."
But it certainly didn't tame the overall message.
Here he is on Aug. 28: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.
"We seek an Iran whose government is accountable to its people -- instead of to leaders who promote terror and pursue the technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons."
Oct. 4: "I have made the commitment that I would continue to work with the world to speak with one voice to the Iranians, to the Iranian government, that we will work in ways that we can to make it clear to you that you should not have the know-how on how to make a weapon, because one of the great threats to peace and the world would be if Iranians showed up with a nuclear weapon."
And, of course, here Bush is at his Oct. 17 press conference:
Q: "But you definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon?"
Bush: "I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace.
"But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."
Bloggers Josh Marshall and Matthew Yglesias are quoted by Froomkin.
Blogger Josh Marshall examines Bush's wording at that press conference and notes: "It's no longer the need to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb. Now it's the necessity of 'preventing them from hav[ing] the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.'
"That's the tell.
"That change is no accident. He wants claims that will survive the eventual revelation of this new intelligence -- while also continuing to hype the imminence of the Iranian nuclear threat that his spy chiefs are telling him likely does not exist."
And here is Cheney a few days later, on Oct. 21, in what is widely considered the height of his saber-rattling, speaking of "the inescapable reality of Iran's nuclear program; a program they claim is strictly for energy purposes, but which they have worked hard to conceal; a program carried out in complete defiance of the international community and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council. Iran is pursuing technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. The world knows this. . . .
"The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences. The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
As Matthew Yglesias blogs for The Atlantic, "the striking thing about this is the extent to which looking back at Cheney's statement he's tried very carefully to avoid directly contradicting the NIE while crafting phrases that are clearly designed to cause the listener to draw the precise wrong conclusion.
"It's not as if Cheney read the NIE and decided he had some reason to believe it was incorrect. Rather, he read it, decided he'd better not contradict it, but also decided that bottom line conclusions about how Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program were inconvenient, and thus decided to talk around that minor point and try to get the American people confused about what's happening. Stunningly cynical and yes I'm resolving once again to never be stunned."