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?