Iranian Nuclear Rewrite
February 8, 2008; Page A16
Give Admiral Michael McConnell credit for trying to walk back the cat. Questioned this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Director of National Intelligence defended the "integrity and the professionalism" of the process that produced last December's stunning National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. Yet his testimony amounts to a reversal of the previous judgment.
The December NIE made headlines the world over for its "key judgment" that in 2003 "Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programs" -- programs that previously had been conducted in secret and in violation of Iran's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.
This was a "high confidence" judgment, though the intelligence community had only "moderate confidence" that the program hasn't since been restarted. The NIE also waded into speculative political and policy judgments, such as that "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."
So it was little wonder that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quickly called the NIE a "declaration of victory" for Iran's nuclear programs. Diplomatic efforts to pass a third round of U.N. economic sanctions ground to a crawl, though another weak draft resolution is currently making the rounds. Russia decided to ship nuclear fuel to the reactor it has built for Iran at Bushehr, a move it had previously postponed for months and which has worrisome proliferation risks.
Elsewhere, the NIE complicated U.S. efforts to deploy an antiballistic-missile shield in Central Europe. The Israelis worried that the report signaled the death of American seriousness on Iran, possibly requiring them to act alone. At home, Democrats used the NIE to accuse the Administration of hyping intelligence. "It's absolutely clear and eerily similar to what we saw with Iraq," said John Edwards.
Now Admiral McConnell is clearly trying to repair the damage, even if he can't say so directly. "I think I would change the way that we described [the] nuclear program," he admitted to Evan Bayh (D., Ind.) during the hearing, adding that weapon design and weaponization were "the least significant portion" of a nuclear weapons program.
He expressed some regret that the authors of the NIE had left it to a footnote to explain that the NIE's definition of "nuclear weapons program" meant only its design and weaponization and excluded its uranium enrichment. And he agreed with Mr. Bayh's statement that it would be "very difficult" for the U.S. to know if Iran had recommenced weaponization work, and that "given their industrial and technological capabilities, they are likely to be successful" in building a bomb.
The Admiral went even further in his written statement. Gone is the NIE's palaver about the cost-benefit approach or the sticks-and-carrots by which the mullahs may be induced to behave. Instead, the new assessment stresses that Iran continues to press ahead on enrichment, "the most difficult challenge in nuclear production." It notes that "Iran's efforts to perfect ballistic missiles that can reach North Africa and Europe also continue" -- a key component of a nuclear weapons capability.
Then there is the other side of WMD: "We assess that Tehran maintains dual-use facilities intended to produce CW [Chemical Warfare] agent in times of need and conducts research that may have offensive applications." Ditto for biological weapons, where "Iran has previously conducted offensive BW agent research and development," and "continues to seek dual-use technologies that could be used for biological warfare."
All this merely confirms what has long been obvious about Iran's intentions. No less importantly, his testimony underscores the extent to which the first NIE was at best a PR fiasco, at worst a revolt by intelligence analysts seeking to undermine current U.S. policy. As we reported at the time, the NIE was largely the work of State Department alumni with track records as "hyperpartisan anti-Bush officials," according to an intelligence source. They did their job too well. As Senator Bayh pointed out at the hearing, the NIE "had unintended consequences that, in my own view, are damaging to the national security interests of our country." Mr. Bayh is not a neocon.
Admiral McConnell's belated damage repair ought to refocus world attention on Iran's very real nuclear threat. Too bad his NIE rewrite won't get anywhere near the media attention that the first draft did.
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