According to the Washington Post, a footnote in the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran which reports a halt in Iranian nuclear bomb building in 2003, shows that the main conclusions in the document came about as a result of two crucial pieces of intelligence; the now famous design for a bomb casing found in an Iranian document dump to the International Atomic Energy Agency back in 2004 and SIGINT from last summer involving conversations between high ranking Iranian generals that clearly indicated the program had been halted:
Senior officials said the latest conclusions grew out of a stream of information, beginning with a set of Iranian drawings obtained in 2004 and ending with the intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders, that steadily chipped away at the earlier assessment.
In one intercept, a senior Iranian military official was specifically overheard complaining that the nuclear program had been shuttered years earlier, according to a source familiar with the intelligence. The intercept was one of more than 1,000 pieces of information cited in footnotes to the 150-page classified version of the document, an official said.
Several of those involved in preparing the new assessment said that when intelligence officials began briefing senior members of the Bush administration on the intercepts, beginning in July, the policymakers expressed skepticism. Several of the president’s top advisers suggested the intercepts were part of a clever Iranian deception campaign, the officials said.
The fact that the Administration looked in askance at this new information was prudent, wise, and exactly the right thing to do. After all, it represented a 180 degree turnabout in what we thought we knew about the Iranian nuclear program. The intel folks then vetted the information in a unique manner:
Intelligence officers then spent months examining whether the new information was part of a well-orchestrated ruse. Their effort included “Red Team” exercises in which groups of intelligence officers tried to punch holes in the new evidence, substantially delaying publication of the NIE.
I was mistaken (as was half the liberal blogosphere) when I took the Administration to task for “sitting on the report” for a year. In fact, it appears that the White House had the final report for less than a week before they themselves released it:
Last year, Congress required that key judgments from the NIE be declassified. McConnell said in November that he had no plans to issue an unclassified version, but officials said the dramatic shift in the assessment convinced him otherwise. “Since our understanding of Iran’s nuclear capabilities has changed, we felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available,” Donald Kerr, principal deputy director of national intelligence, said in a statement.
This puts the kibosh on some of my conservative friends who were speculating that this was a leak from the anti-Administration cabal at CIA/Defense/State. It was released by the Administration itself – probably to pre-empt the bureaucrats who would have leaked it anyway.
But no matter how it got out in the open, there is great unhappiness on the right. Michael Ledeen:
At this point, one really has to wonder why anyone takes these documents seriously. How can anyone in his (there was no female name on the document, nor was any woman from the IC present at the press briefing yesterday) right mind believe that the mullahs are rational? Has no one told the IC about the cult of the 12th Imam, on which this regime bases its domestic and foreign policies? Does not the constant chant of â€œDeath to Americaâ€ mean anything? I suppose not, at least not to the deep thinkers who wrote this policy document.
And as for Iranâ€™s delicate sensitivity to international pressure, just a few days ago, the European â€˜foreign ministerâ€™ Javier Solana was on the verge of tears when he admitted he had been totally unable to get the Iranians to come clean on their uranium enrichment program, even though he had told them that more sanctions were in the works. Yet, according to the IC, this programâ€“neatly described in a footnote to the â€œEstimateâ€ as â€œIranâ€™s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichmentâ€”really doesnâ€™t have anything to do with nuclear weapons. But if that is so, why are the Iranians so doggedly hiding it from UN inspectors?
Ledeen is a smart guy but he’s either being incredibly disingenuous here or deliberately obtuse. The “12th Imam” clique surrounding Ahmadinejad has been losing influence for a year. Ledeen knows full well that there are other factions in the Iranian hierarchy that are more pragmatic (if not less radical in their hatred of Israel and America) than Ahmadinejad’s true believers who have been stifling his domestic reforms and trying to rein him in on foreign policy.
But Ledeen asks a good question about why the intransigence by the Iranians with IAEA? The reason – and I base this on my reading from a variety of learned sources not any independent thinking of my own – is that Ahmadinejad has made the uranium enrichment issue a national sovereignty issue, thus garnering a tremendous amount of domestic support for continuing the enrichment program. The Iranian president seeks, above all, respect from the international community for Iran’s “achievement” in enriching the tiny amounts of uranium they have been able to process. This is where all his talk about “double standards” on the nuclear issue comes into play. He resists the IAEA because he feels their inspections intrude on what he sees as Iran’s sovereign right to develop what he calls a “peaceful” nuclear program.
Of course, the funny thing about a “peaceful” nuclear program is that the process that enriches uranium to reactor grade level is exactly the same process that enriches the uranium to weapons grade level. As I mentioned yesterday, our intelligence people believe that Iran has suspended work on weapons design, warhead and delivery systems, and other aspects of the nuclear program that could be identified as “single use.” It wouldn’t take much time or effort to get those programs out of mothballs and start them moving again.
It troubles me that both sides in the debate over this document are cherry picking information to buttress their cases. Seen in its totality, I believe this NIE is cautious (perhaps overly so), prudent – in that it takes into consideration what we might not be able to see, – and careful in drawing conclusions. It’s main point – that Iran halted its dual use program in 2003 – appears solid as does its warning that we don’t know if that is still true today. In retrospect, I was too harsh on the Administration yesterday (thanks to my new Watchers Council colleague GW of Wolfs Howling for pointing this out) when I took them to task for their rhetoric. The fact that the White House is still warning the world about possible Iranian nukes is a sound policy that this NIE does nothing to undermine.
This is especially true because the Administration was giving those warnings in the context of trying to get the UN to initiate another round of sanctions. Let’s not forget why these sanctions are in place. The Security Council voted to force Iran to stop enriching uranium until the IAEA could determine the nature of their program. The Iranians refused and sanctions were ordered. And since the Iranians have made no effort to stop since then, more sanctions were applied.
Now the Administration is going for a third round of sanctions. The reason is exactly the same regardless of whether the Iranians have an active weapons program or not; they continue to defy the UN by expanding their enrichment program. Until Iran cooperates fully and the IAEA gives them a clean bill of health (while ensuring compliance through inspections and monitoring), sanctions should continue and be expanded the longer the Iranians refuse. The conclusions drawn by the NIE do not change this situation one iota. It is the enrichment program that poses a danger to the world and must be shut down until there are adequate safeguards in place that the Iranians will not use their knowledge to build a weapon.
One aspect of the NIE wasn’t changed from the 2004 document; the fact that prior to 2003, the Iranians were on track to build a nuclear bomb. Perhaps before the left begins to accuse the Administration of overselling the danger to the world of Iranian nukes, they remember that fact. We can’t read our adversaries minds so what the future aspirations of the Iranians might be with regard to acquiring a nuclear weapon remains hidden. Therefore, prudence dictates we continue our current course (without bombing) until pressure from the Security Council and the rest of the world brings the mullahs to heel and forces them to fully cooperate with the international community in revealing their entire nuclear program and make it available for long term monitoring.