Commentary

NIE Report Keeps Spreading Its Influence

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in DefenseNews on January 14, 2008.

Like the Energizer Bunny, the ripples from the Dec. 3 publication of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program just keep going and going and going.

Aside from the obvious fact that the prospect of a U.S. military attack on Iran seems to have been put in deep freeze for the time being, there are other fascinating aspects.

Consider, for example, that the conclusions of the NIE have been known, at least by the top ranks of the executive branch, for quite a long time but were not permitted to be released. So why did President George W. Bush make dire statements like this one on Oct. 17: “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 having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Bear in mind that the standard procedure for the National Intelligence Council, the group that produces the NIE, is that it always briefs the director of central intelligence (now the director of national intelligence) regularly (and early) on deliberations surrounding critical reports, so there is no doubt that the White House was well aware of the NIE’s conclusions many months ago.

In fact, shortly after the release of the NIE, the Washington Post reported the White House had been briefed as early as last July on the new evidence of the Iranian abandonment of weaponization in 2003, but White House officials sharply challenged that evidence.

According to the Post story, “several of the president’s top advisers” had argued that electronic intercepts of Iranian military officers, which were reportedly a key element of the new evidence, were part of a “clever Iranian deception campaign.”

Thus — shades of Iraq — the White House intervention forced the intelligence analysts to go through months of defending their interpretation of the new data.

There is also a “bad news, bad news” aspect to this. The essence of the NIE’s findings would have been part of the President’s Daily Brief, regular and ad hoc CIA intelligence products, as well as those produced by the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau and other agencies. These then would have been shared with the principal administration players in the efforts to claim that Iran had a nuclear weapon program, including even foreign intelligence services, thus informing players among the E3 nations.

So the classic Watergate question of what did the White House know and when did it know it extends to people such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, or possibly even to E3 negotiator Javier Solana.

But if we had been keeping this information from our allies, this will destroy the remaining shreds of trust in the United States as a strategic ally. The fallout for intelligence cooperation will be immense. On top of everything that happened with regard to the intelligence scandals leading up to the invasion of Iraq, what foreign intelligence service will trust the United States in the future?

But if we had been keeping this information from our allies, this will destroy the remaining shreds of trust in the United States as a strategic ally.”

Or recall that Stephen Hadley, national security adviser, noted in his post-NIE publication briefings that the intelligence community concluded “with high confidence” in 2005 that Iran had a covert nuclear program, and that they continued to hold to that position until they received new intelligence in the “last few months” and came to a conclusion only on “Tuesday of last week.”

Yet the latest example that Hadley provided to support this position was a public statement in January 2007. As an attempt at spin control, that is downright pathetic. If he were in the private sector, he would be fired.

Meanwhile, the Israelis are upset that the Americans think a military strike is now “off the table.” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear that Israel is basing its policy on its assessment that Iran would achieve military nuclear capability by 2009 or 2010. Nobody men-tioned that previous Israeli assessments had been declaring Iranian nuclear capability as only a year or two away for about a decade.

With the downgrading of the Iranian threat, the Israeli military has lost its biggest selling point for future funding. And, although it is hardly a deal killer, the rationale for the Bush administration’s $60 billion arms sale package to Persian Gulf states, and more military assistance to Israel and Egypt, just became more difficult.

Finally, for those conservatives who argue the NIE means Iran has paused, but not given up, its ambitions to have nuclear weapons, let us consider whether things have changed enough that it might have rethought its ambitions.

Since the fall of 2003, when the NIE says Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program, Iran has seen Iraq, its major threat, defeated, so the national interest argument for a weapon program was weakened.

And Iran’s nuclear program was compromised by leaks from the Iranian resistance group, National Council of Resistance of Iran, in 2002, resulting in subsequent International Atomic Energy Agency investigations. In turn, this has resulted in economic sanctions, whose detrimental impact had been seen across the Iraqi border.

Given that, is it really so hard to imagine Iran might have decided to stop its program?

David Isenberg is an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute.