Politics & Policy

About That 2007 NIE

The intelligence community misled the nation about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In the least surprising announcement since Solyndra declared bankruptcy, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to release a report this week confirming that the Islamic Republic of Iran has completed all of the steps required to build a nuclear arsenal. With the help of Russian, Pakistani, and North Korean scientists, the report suggests, Iran was able to overcome the technical hurdles involved in developing a detonator that will create the critical mass necessary for a nuclear chain reaction.

For more than a decade it has been obvious that this was Iran’s goal and intention. Yet our intelligence community issued a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in 2007 declaring “with high confidence” that in 2003 Iran had “frozen” its active efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, and adding its “moderate confidence” that Iran had not resumed those efforts thereafter.

Democrats, who believe that the chief threats to world peace are to be found in the Republican party, rejoiced in the report at the time. Sen. John Edwards said, “The new National Intelligence Estimate shows that George Bush and Dick Cheney’s rush to war with Iran is, in fact, a rush to war. The new NIE finds that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that Iran can be dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.” Sen. Barack Obama, already running for president, said, “By reporting that Iran halted its nuclear-weapon development program four years ago because of international pressure, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy.”

Sen. Joseph Biden declared the report “good news” because “it makes it harder for these cowboys [i.e. the Bush administration] to go to war.” The voluble Mr. Biden continued in this vein. After his host, Chris Matthews, complained that “this crowd” was using terms like “weapons of mass destruction,” and “regime change,” and “homeland” as excuses for belligerence, Mr. Biden offered that, while he couldn’t “prove it,” he believed that Bush and Cheney (but principally Cheney) had gone to war in Iraq in order to “dominate that part of the world . . . and to be able to control oil.”

Small minds will make crude uses of available weapons, of course, and the NIE proved a particularly timely cudgel for some Democrats. It’s worth pausing over that 2007 NIE though, because the great story of the first decade of the 21st century, if you listened to Democrats, was that the Bush administration had “politicized” intelligence regarding Iraq. The administration, it was charged, had “cherry picked” the analyses, highlighting only those that supported its a priori conclusion that Iraq possessed WMDs.

This version of history offers a free pass to the intelligence community, which had, in the person of CIA chief George Tenet, assured Bush that it was a “slam-dunk case” that Iraq had WMDs. It was the CIA and associated agencies that briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell about the evidence for Iraq’s WMDs — evidence he presented to the United Nations.

When the intelligence proved to be dead wrong, the CIA appears not to have engaged in any useful after-action evaluations of its own performance. Instead, it chose to swing wildly in the opposite direction, declaring that Iran was no longer pursuing a nuclear arsenal. To reach this conclusion, the NIE ignored evidence supplied in 2007 by the IAEA that Iran had completed construction of 3,000 centrifuges — enough to produce enriched uranium for at least one nuclear weapon per year. Gliding past such reports, the NIE focused on the “intentions” of Iran’s leadership, and arrived at the brilliant conclusion that they no longer yearned to achieve nuclear status.

It’s hard to overstate the effect of that 2007 NIE. President Bush had long maintained that he would not permit Iran to become a nuclear power. But in 2007, the unpopular Iraq War had damaged Bush’s standing and credibility. Still, he might have been willing to consider a series of air strikes against Iran’s nuclear program had that NIE not made this course untenable.

The intelligence community, having misled the nation about WMDs in Iraq, misled it again about WMDs in Iran.

President Obama too has long maintained that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable.” Does that mean anything? His earnest diplomacy has been mocked by the mullahs. Even the UN now declares that Iran is poised to become a nuclear power. The only way for President Obama to salvage any particle of integrity is to do now what Bush should have done in 2008 and Obama should have done in 2009 — take out the nukes by military action. 

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.


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