Thursday, February 05, 2009

Who needs intelligence in Washington?

In his confirmation hearing before thee Senate Intelligence Committee, President Obama's pick to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, said he believed Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons -- contrary to the opinion of the intelligence community he is about to lead -- in this exchange with Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), who had his own problems with the facts (and the views of international inspectors and the U.S. intelligence community):
SEN. BAYH: There was a -- and this involves the National Intelligence Estimates. We had an unfortunate case -- I'm sure you're aware of -- with regard to Iran, where the way in which the National Intelligence Estimate was written highlighted the fact that apparently they suspended the weaponization aspect of their program. Then, in the footnote, it noted that they continued to pace with their attempts to develop fissile material and delivery capabilities and those kind of things, and in fact may have restarted their weaponization efforts. We just don't know.

So I would encourage you -- just a comment -- to look very carefully how these things are written, because that really undermined our diplomatic efforts to gather our allies to put pressure on Iran to stop those kind of activities. So my comment, my question, is, is it your belief that Iran is seeking a nuclear military capability? Or are their interests solely limited to the civilian sphere?

MR. PANETTA: From all the information that I've seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability.
There’s of course several problems with this exchange, but let’s begin with Bayh’s patently false assertion that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (NIE) declared in a footnote that Iran “may have restarted their weaponization efforts. We just don’t know.”

Since Bayh, a member of the Intelligence Committee, can’t recall the actual findings of the NIE, perhaps we should recap for the confused senators that might be reading this: it declares on behalf of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” The footnote to that statement declares:
For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.
So, in fact, the ‘07 NIE (pdf) explicitly states with “high confidence” that Iran has ended its “nuclear weapons program”, defined as its “nuclear weapons design and weaponization work” -- decidedly not, as Bayh asserts, “that they may have restarted their weaponization efforts. We just don't know.” Those findings have been a thorn in the side of hawkish, fear-mongering politicians since it came out -- "an unfortunate case" in Bayh's words -- but it seems to have largely been forgotten or dismissed by America's elite politicians and journalists.

As for Panetta, it would be interesting to hear what information he has seen that the Bush administration’s Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell hasn’t (and why he didn't correct Bayh's distortion of the NIE). Speaking last month with PBS’s Charlie Rose, McConnell declared his belief that “Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon”, but added, “I cannot prove that.”

Meanwhile, in March of last year Bush administration Deputy Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the National Intelligence Council Thomas Fingar stood by the findings of the ’07 NIE in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. “The judgments would be the same,” he said. “[Y]ou don’t have a bomb unless you can produce a device and weaponize it. That’s what’s stopped.”

In its most recent report (pdf), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also declared that “The Agency has been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.”

Nothing in the reports issued by the IAEA or the U.S. intelligence community back the Cheney/Obama/Panetta claim that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, there is a clear pattern of Obama administration officials ignoring these findings, while offering no evidence to justify their claims. 

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