Wednesday, January 13, 2010

'Unambiguous intelligence' unambiguously wrong

When the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran (pdf) was released, it was a blow to those within the Bush administration agitating for another preemptive war, as it declared that all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had come to believe that Iran halted whatever design work on a nuclear weapon they may have once engaged in back in 2003 -- and most importantly, that there was no sign Iran had restarted weapons program since. At the time, this assessment was welcomed by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, each trying to out do the other in their scathing press statements denouncing the Bush administration’s bellicose rhetoric about a non-existent threat.

Here’s what candidate Obama had to say back in December ’07:
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. The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force.
Come the taste of power, however, and oh my how times change. Funny how that works.

The New York Times, reprising its familiar role as conduit for anonymous White House officials leaking information too authentic and supportable to go on the record about, informed us earlier this month that six of President Obama’s “top advisers say they no longer believe the key finding of a much disputed National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, published a year before President George W. Bush left office, which said that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003.”

According to the Times, that view came after the administration reviewed leaked documents -- presumably the debunked Times of London “nuclear trigger” story -- and information from defectors (comparisons to Ahmed Chalabi are unfair I'm sure). Importantly, the advisers conceded it was ultimately based on “their own analysis”, and not a “new formal intelligence not.” And of course it wasn’t, as I pointed out at the time, because it continues to be the view of the U.S. intelligence community -- which has a bureaucratic interest in playing up the threat of foreign foes -- that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.

That view was reaffirmed yet again today by the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, Lieutenant General Ronal Burgess, who in an interview with Voice of America said there is no evidence Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons.

"The bottom line assessments of the NIE still hold true," he said.  "We have not seen indication that the government has made the decision to move ahead with the program.” In typical Pentagon -- and bureaucratic fashion -- Burgess didn’t rule anything out, though, echoing former boss Donald Rumsfeld. “The fact still remains that we don't know what we don't know,” he noted, adding “man” before presumably passing his bong to the bemused reporter.

Despite Burgess’ inability to know the unknowable, his unequivocal statement that Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has not seen any “indication” -- that is, evidence that would hold up under careful review, not what might fly in a newsroom -- Iran is developing nuclear weapons stands in stark contrast to the dubious leaks from the administration. In September, for instance, ABC News’ Jake Tapper reported an anonymous “senior administration official” as stating on a press call that the enrichment facility in Qom -- the one Iran reported to the IAEA and which Obama and friends later claimed to “reveal” at a dramatic press conference, the Western media dutifully misreporting the timeline of events ever since -- was undoubtedly for weapons purposes.

"‘Primary source intelligence,'" wrote Tapper, “meaning firsthand accounts and/or satellite imaging -- provided ‘unambiguous intelligence’ that this is a facility to enrich weapons-grade uranium, the official said.” Indeed, the facility doesn’t “make sense for commercial use,” said one official, but is the “right size” for enriching weapons-grade uranium. That Iran built it as a contingency enrichment plant should the chief one at Natanz be bombed as some U.S. and Israeli commentators and officials have suggested was apparently given little consideration -- at least that’s the message the officials sought to convey to the press.

The intelligence, as it turns out, isn’t so “unambiguous” if the Pentagon’s own spy agency doesn’t buy it. Anonymous administration officials disseminating sensational and hyped up accounts of foreign threats posed by scary and irrational enemies are what grab the headlines, though, a formula for selling news embraced since probably the earliest days of the printing press. Major outlets like the Times wouldn't dare publish an on-the-record interview with the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency regarding Iran's nuclear program -- why, that's small-market stuff better left to Voice of America and the Penny Pinchers of the world. The appearance of being an insider that comes from quoting "senior White House officials" and relaying the right narrative, not necessarily the most accurate but the one most conducive to establishment desires, is what matters most to your typical major media national security reporter.

With the Obama administration spinning tall tales about non-existent WMD programs to a credulous press, the parallels to the run-up to the Iraq war are obvious, even if the White House's idea of warfare is solely economic (or covert) at this point. Just don't expect to read about it in The New York Times.

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