The Hopelessly Stupid Politics of the Iran NIE

The Washington policy establishment is now pulsing with excitement over news that the intelligence community (IC) is revising its 2007 statement that “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” and that this halt “lasted at least several years.”

Funny story: The day the NIE came out, Ted Carpenter and I were arriving in Los Angeles to give at talk at the LA World Affairs Council on Iran.  Immediately on our deplaning, the questions started coming: “What do you think about the NIE?  How does this change things?”  “What NIE?” I asked.

So amid our last minute preparations for the talk, I was scrambling to get hold of a copy, but being the Luddite I am, I couldn’t manage to get my computer to work, or to get the .pdf to open right on my Blackberry.  But I was ultimately able to pull up the first sentence, quoted above, and to look at the first footnote.

That was all anybody needed to do.  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.

Well, this is like saying Iraq had weapons of mass destruction because we found a few degraded mustard gas shells out in the middle of the desert.  That wasn’t what anybody was referring to when “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction” were a topic of conversation, so it proves only that if you redefine things you can change conclusions.  Much of the nuclear infrastructure that is in dispute in Iran is contained in “civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment,” so the new definition does not include much of what people speaking in the vernacular are including when they say “Iran’s nuclear program.”  So at the talk that night in LA, I said this:

the headline splashed all over the newspapers with respect to the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) is that Iran in 2003 suspended, and kept in suspense, its nuclear weapons program; however, it continues to operate facilities like that at Natanz which could at some point in the future be used as part of a nuclear weapons program. So it really becomes a definitional problem in the context of what components of Iran’s industrial infrastructure are included in this nuclear weapons program and which of them are kept outside of it. From my reading of the news reporting I think that it has been at least mildly misleading.

Predictably, American neoconservatives began rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, whipping each other into a frenzy, decrying the “politicized intelligence” at the CIA (do they ever tire of that?).  But really, is it too much to ask of journalists who write about national security (and, to be fair, their headline writers) to read one footnote in a document that contains about three pages of text?  I’m not the smartest guy in the world, and I managed to figure out what the deal was while in a big time crunch, without access to the full document, and without a sizeable rolodex of insiders I could call to help me figure out what was going on.  Still, the American journalistic community splashed headlines like “NIE: Iran halted nuclear weapons program in 2003” and such.  So in a sense, the neocons were right: the inferences people drew from reading the reporting on the NIE were inaccurate.

But this is, more than anything, a critique of the American journalistic establishment than it is the IC.  Writing in the first sentence of a three-page document a provocative claim and then footnoting a definition that dramatically alters the implications of the claim is not really all that tricky.  The people who assemble news stories, who did not exactly cover themselves in glory in scrutinizing government claims before the war in Iraq, were either lazy or stupid in this case as well.  Given the benefits the neocons reaped from the media’s laziness or stupidity in the Iraq case, the spluttering outrage in this case was always a bit much to take.