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Context of 'November 17-18, 2004: Powell Says US Intelligence Shows Iran Constructing Missiles for Nuclear Warheads; Administration Says Powell Misspoke'

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While the Bush administration claims that Iran is risking “World War III” by continuing to pursue nuclear weapons (see October 20, 2007), an array of experts inside and outside the government quoted in a McClatchy News article say that there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is actively pursuing such weapons. The story, and the alleged facts, change depending on which administration official is doing the speaking. President Bush and Vice President Cheney use harsh, bellicose rhetoric reminiscent of the rhetoric used in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, but others, such as Bush’s “point man” on Iran, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, is attempting to tone down the rhetoric. Burns recently told reporters, “Iran is seeking a nuclear capability… that some people fear might lead to a nuclear-weapons capability.” Another US official says more directly, “I don’t think that anyone right today thinks [Iran is] working on a bomb.” Iran has the capability to continue working on producing a nuclear weapon, experts note, and could transform its current uranium-enrichment program into a weapons program if it so desired. But as of now, US experts have an amalgamation of circumstantial evidence and supposition, and no real proof; reporter Jonathan Landay observes, “Bush’s rhetoric seems hyperbolic compared with the measured statements by his senior aides and outside experts.” The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency agrees. With four years of inspections of Iran’s nuclear energy program behind it, the IAEA says it has no information that would show Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. The circumstantial evidence that leads some to assert the reality of Iran’s active nuclear weapons program is extensive, but not always solid. In 2006, the CIA gave the IAEA thousands of pages of computer simulations and documents that it claimed it took from a defector’s laptop; those documents showed that Iranian experts were working on mounting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, and working on developing nuclear “triggers,” or detonators. The CIA calls all of this Project 111. The Iranians denounced the materials as “politically motivated and baseless,” and have promised to cooperate with an IAEA investigation into the matter. Many Western intelligence officials and outside experts believe the materials are genuine—“I wouldn’t go to war over this, but it’s reason for suspicion,” says one—but Dr. Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian defector who has closely monitored Iran’s nuclear program for decades, dismisses the materials as “totally not believable,” observing, “If the laptop did exist, I find it hard to believe that its absence wasn’t noticed for so long that somebody could take it out of Iran.” The IAEA has other questions as well, including a document from the nuclear black-market program of Dr. A. Q. Khan that shows how to form uranium into explosive cores, Iran’s experiments with radioactive materials used primarily in nuclear warheads, Iranian involvement with a uranium mine, and Iran’s claim that it needs large amounts of nuclear energy to feed its energy needs when it sits on such large reserves of oil and gas. Sahimi answers this last point by noting Iran would, in his opinion, do better to sell its petroleum on the global market and rely on nuclear energy for its own needs. [McClatchy News, 11/4/2007] A month after this article is published, the administration will release an intelligence report that concludes Iran stopped work on nuclear weapons in 2003 (see December 3, 2007).

Entity Tags: International Atomic Energy Agency, Bush administration (43), Abdul Qadeer Khan, Central Intelligence Agency, Jonathan Landay, George W. Bush, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Nicholas Burns, Muhammad Sahimi

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

Vice President Cheney’s office has been holding up the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran for over a year, while pressuring the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on Iran’s nuclear program, two former CIA officers now reveal. So far the intelligence community has not bowed to Cheney’s pressure, and the White House has apparently decided to release the “unsatisfactory” draft NIE—but not make its key findings public. NIEs are the product of the 16 US intelligence agencies, and usually focus on a single nation or issue. According to one former CIA officer, the Iran NIE was ready to be published a year ago, but was delayed then because the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, wanted the NIE to reflect a consensus on key conclusions, especially on Iran’s nuclear program (see February 20, 2007). The US intelligence community is split on its view of Iran’s nuclear program, with less independent-minded analysts willing to embrace Cheney’s alarmist positions, and others rejecting that view. The first draft was unacceptable to the White House; according to the former CIA officer, “They refused to come out with a version that had dissenting views in it.” Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi agrees with the unnamed officer’s assessment. “The White House wants a document that it can use as evidence for its Iran policy,” Giraldi says. Giraldi wrote in October 2006 that the Iran NIE was being held up by Cheney’s office, which objected to its findings on both Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s putative role in arming Iraq. The White House then chose to delay any decision on the internal release of the NIE until after the November 2006 Congressional elections (see October 2006). In April 2007, Thomas Fingar, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said that the report would be delayed while the intelligence community evaluated “new reporting” from the International Atomic Energy Agency and other sources, as well as “reexamining old evidence.” According to the two former CIA officers, Fingar’s statement sent a powerful signal to the intelligence community that the White House wanted the NIE to be specific, focused, and alarming in its conclusions. In past weeks, officials involved in producing the NIE have been “throwing their hands up in frustration” over the refusal of the administration to allow the estimate to be released, according to the former intelligence officer. [Inter Press Service, 11/10/2007]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Thomas Fingar, Central Intelligence Agency, Mike McConnell, Philip Giraldi

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

According to national security director Stephen Hadley (see December 3, 2007) and President Bush himself (see December 3-4, 2007), Bush will not be informed about the findings of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) showing that Iran stopped work on its nuclear program until November 28. But that may be false. On December 4, journalist Seymour Hersh will tell a CNN reporter, “Israel objects to this report. I’m told that [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert had a private discussion with Bush about it during Annapolis—before Annapolis [where Israel and the US engaged in preliminary peace talks over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. Bush briefed him about it. The Israelis were very upset about the report. They think we’re naive, they don’t think we get it right. And so they have a different point of view.” If Hersh is correct, then Bush discussed the NIE’s findings with Israel’s Olmert on November 26, two days before he supposedly learns of them. [CNN, 12/4/2007] According to the Israeli news outlet Ha’aretz, “Israel has known about the report for more than a month. The first information on it was passed on to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and to Shaul Mofaz, who is the minister responsible for the strategic dialog with the Americans. The issue was also discussed at the Annapolis summit by Barak and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and it seems also between Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.” [Ha'aretz, 12/5/2007]

Entity Tags: Shaul Mofaz, Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, George W. Bush, Stephen J. Hadley, Robert M. Gates, Seymour Hersh

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

The Iran NIE.The Iran NIE. [Source: Office of the Director of National Intelligence]The newly released National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for Iran’s nuclear weapons program concludes that Iran stopped working on nuclear weapons in 2003, and that the program remains on hold today. The Bush administration has repeatedly claimed that Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear arms, and has intimated that it is ready to attack that nation to prevent such an event from happening (see October 20, 2007). Interestingly, the administration has tried to have the NIE rewritten to more suit their view of Iran, an effort spearheaded by Vice President Dick Cheney (see October 2006). The findings of the NIE are expected to have a large impact on the negotiations between Iran and several Western countries, including the US, aimed at pressuring and cajoling Iran into giving up its nuclear energy program. The NIE, an assessment representing the consensus of the US’s 16 inteligence agencies, finds that while Iran’s ultimate ambitions towards becoming a nuclear-armed power remain unclear, Iran’s “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.… Some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” The NIE says that even if Iran were to restart development of its nuclear weapons program today, it would be at least two years at a minimum before it would have enough enriched uranium to produce a single bomb. The report says that Iran is more likely to develop a nuclear weapon by no earlier than 2013, “because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.” The report flatly contradicts the assessment made by a 2005 NIE that concluded Iran had an active nuclear weapons program and was determined to create them as quickly as possible. “We felt that we needed to scrub all the assessments and sources to make sure we weren’t misleading ourselves,” says one senior intelligence official. [New York Times, 12/3/2007; Director of National Intelligence, 12/3/2007 pdf file] There is no official word as to why the NIE has been publicly released by the White House when it so transparently contradicts the stance of the Bush administration, but Cheney implies the decision stems from a fear that it would be leaked anyway: “[T]here was a general belief that we all shared that it was important to put it out—that it was not likely to stay classified for long, anyway.” [Politico, 12/5/2007] The NIE is compiled from information gathered since 2004; one of the key intelligence findings is from intercepted phone calls between Iranian military commanders indicating that the nuclear program has been halted (see July 2007).

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, says that he does not know of the newly released National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran has long ago shut down its nuclear program (see December 3, 2007), but he does not believe it. “I don’t know where the intelligence is coming from that says that they suspended the program and how credible that is versus the news that they actually are expanding it,” he says. “And then I’ve heard the last two weeks supposed reports that say that they are accelerating and could be having a reactor in a much shorter period of time than originally they thought.” [Chicago Tribune, 12/4/2007] Huckabee made light of his ignorance of foreign policy earlier in the day, joking on a radio talk show that he’s “not an expert… but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.” [National Journal, 12/4/2007] Conservative pundit Byron York attacks Huckabee: “Beyond doing nothing to resolve doubts about his foreign policy qualifications, the exchange underscores the fact that Huckabee doesn’t really have much of a campaign, in the sense that [fellow Republican presidential candidates Rudolph] Giuliani and [Mitt] Romney have campaigns, with teams of advisers and carefully-thought-out policy positions. In important ways, he has been flying by the seat of his pants, relying on his unequaled talents as a retail campaigner. But now that he is leading in Iowa, and moving up nationally as well, the deficiencies of his campaign might come more and more into the spotlight.” [National Review, 12/4/2007]

Entity Tags: Byron York, Mike Huckabee

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

The Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin puts together what he calls a “pattern of deception” in President Bush’s response to the recently released National Intelligence Estimate about Iran (see December 3, 2007). Froomkin writes that, contrary to Bush’s assertions that he knew nothing about the report’s conclusions until late November (see December 3-4, 2007 and December 5-6, 2007), it is evident Bush was told something concrete in August. At that time Bush began to change his rhetoric about Iran, going from explicit assertions about Iran’s nuclear weapons to more vague, yet just as alarming, assertions about Iran’s desire to obtain the knowledge and technology required for building a nuclear weapon. Froomkin writes, “Bush left his listeners with what he likely knew was a fundamentally false impression. And he did so in the pursuit of a more muscular and possibly even military approach to a Middle Eastern country. It’s an oddly familiar pattern of deception.”
Timeline of Deception - Froomkin provides a timeline of Bush’s statements against Iran, from early January 2007, where Bush said Iran “want[s] to have a nuclear weapon” (see January 26, 2007), to late March, when he asserted Iran was actively working on a nuclear bomb (see March 31, 2007). In mid-June, Bush warned that there would be “consequences” towards Iran if it continued working on a nuclear bomb (see June 19, 2007). A month later, Bush tied the Iranian nuclear program into what he called a “broader struggle” in the Middle East (see July 12, 2007). On August 6, Bush said that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a “destabilizing” force in the Middle East (see August 6, 2007). But on August 9, Bush’s rhetoric shifted: while not backing down from his threats and warnings about Iran’s nuclear program, he began talking about Iran’s enrichment of uranium and its “step[s] toward having a nuclear weapons program” (see August 9, 2007). Bush continued with that particular parsing until the NIE was made public in early December. [Washington Post, 12/5/2007]
Olbermann Denounces Bush's Rhetorical Shift - MSNBC host Keith Olbermann uses Froomkin’s carefully constructed timeline of presidential pronouncements about Iran to launch a fiery denunciation of Bush’s deceptions. Olbermann says, “We have either a president who is too dishonest to restrain himself from invoking World War III about Iran at least six weeks after he had to have known that the analogy would be fantastic, irresponsible hyperbole, or we have a president too transcendently stupid not to have asked, at what now appears to have been a series of opportunities to do so, whether the fairy tales he either created or was fed were still even remotely plausible. A pathological presidential liar, or an idiot-in-chief.” Bush’s parsing might be technically true, Olbermann notes: “Legally, it might save you from some war crimes trial, but ethically it is a lie. It is indefensible.… You, Mr. Bush, are a bald-faced liar.… You not only knew all of this about Iran in early August, but you also knew it was accurate. And instead of sharing this good news with the people you have obviously forgotten you represent, you merely fine-tuned your terrorizing of those people, to legally cover your own backside.” [MSNBC, 12/6/2007]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Dan Froomkin, Keith Olbermann

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, joining the attack (see December 3-6, 2007) on the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program (see December 3, 2007), asks about the likelihood of political gamesmanship inside the administration. Limbaugh tells his listeners, “I guarantee there’s more sabotage coming out of that place regarding the Bush administration.” [Fox News, 12/6/2007]

Entity Tags: Rush Limbaugh, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

As part of the conservative backlash against the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that concluded Iran had halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (see December 3, 2007 and December 3-6, 2007), some Senate Republicans intend to call for a Congressional commission to investigate the conclusions and the intelligence that went into it, with an eye to discrediting the NIE and its producers. John Ensign (R-NV) says he will propose a “bipartisan” commission to review the NIE, saying, “Iran is one of the greatest threats in the world today. Getting the intelligence right is absolutely critical, not only on Iran’s capability but its intent. So now there is a huge question raised, and instead of politicizing that report, let’s have a fresh set of eyes—objective, yes—look at it.… There are a lot of people out there who do question [the NIE]. There is a huge difference between the 2005 and 2007 estimates.” The 2005 NIE concluded, apparently erroneously, that Iran was an imminent threat for developing a nuclear weapon (see August 2, 2005). Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) adds, “If [the NIE is] inaccurate, it could result in very serious damage to legitimate American policy.” As late as July 2007, Sessions notes, intelligence officials testified before Congress that they believed Iran was hard at work developing a nuclear weapon. “We need to update our conclusions,” Sessions says, “but this is a substantial change.” The proposed commission would take its cue from a commission that examined a 1995 NIE on the ballistic missile threat faced by the US. [Washington Post, 12/7/2007]

Entity Tags: Jeff Sessions, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, John Ensign

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

Jon Wolfstahl.Jon Wolfstahl. [Source: Washington Note]Jon Wolfstahl, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaks out in favor of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (see December 3, 2007). Wolfstahl says: “The last thing we need is more political input into intelligence matters. The facts are the facts, and it’s time conservatives began to deal with the facts on the ground.… The days of Doug Feith and Steve Cambone creating intelligence to suit their ideology are thankfully behind us.” [Inter Press Service, 12/9/2006]

Entity Tags: Douglas Feith, Jon Wolfstahl, Stephen A. Cambone, Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

Israel has no “smoking gun” intelligence it can use to force the US to reassess its recent National Intelligence Estimate that concludes Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (see December 3, 2007). But even if it did have such a piece of evidence, a diplomatic official says it would be either “very arrogant” or “naive” to think that all Israel needs to do is provide one piece of information to the US intelligence community and have it “take it all back and follow Israel’s line.” The US knows what Israel knows, the official says, but the two nations’ intelligence communities have different interpretations. “If we had information that we held back, then we have only ourselves to blame for the US report,” the official says. Israel continues to insist that Iran is a major threat to Israel, in large part because of its nuclear weapons program. “Israel can’t take the risk that Iran will be nuclear,” the official adds. [Jerusalem Post, 12/18/2007]

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

PBS political commentator Bill Moyers hosts a wide-ranging discussion of the media’s role in legitimizing the Bush administration’s military interventionism in the Middle East (see June 6, 2008). Joining Moyers are John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy News; McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay; and Greg Mitchell, the purveyor of the media watchdog site Editor & Publisher. The four spend a good part of their time discussing the US’s attempt to “sell” a war with Iran. Moyers says the administration is having trouble pushing such a war because the American public is leery of more dire administration warnings, “given how we were misled about Iraq.” Walcott points out that Iran is a more imminent threat than Iraq, “a much tougher problem than Iraq ever was,” and notes that while Iraq never supported terrorists or had WMD, Iran supports terrorist groups “with a fair amount of enthusiasm” and has a nuclear energy program with the potential to cause grave harm. Landay notes that one big difference in the way the administration is handling Iran as opposed to how it handled Iraq is the fact that the administration is now working with the UN Security Council and even the International Atomic Energy Agency, whereas with Iraq the administration displayed a belligerent, “go it alone” attitude.
They're a Bunch of Crazy Shi'ites - Walcott notes that he finds one argument about Iran particularly disturbing: “[T]hat’s the one that says the Iranians would use nuclear weapons against us or against Israel. Well, both Israel and the United States have the capability to turn Iran into a skating rink. When you explode a nuclear weapon over sand, it turns into glass. And the counter to that from some quarters has been as crazy as anything I’ve heard, which is, well, that we can’t deter the Iranians because they’re Shi’ites and they’re all eager to commit suicide to hasten the arrival of the 12th Imam. So deterrents won’t work against Iran because they’re a bunch of crazy Shi’ites. That to me is as crazy as anything we heard about Saddam [Hussein] and his ties to al-Qaeda. That one, the fact that that one’s out there concerns me.”
Military Strike against Iran? - Walcott says he knows for a fact that there is a large and influential faction within the Bush administration that is determined to force a military strike against Iraq before Bush’s term of office ends. This faction has the support of influential Israeli government officials, even hints of support from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “[T]hat issue’s gonna be on the table until January 20th [2009, when the next US president is inaugurated] because one of the things we’ve learned is these people don’t go away,” Walcott says. “They’re still out there. They’re still advocating.” Landay notes that many of the same people who advocated for the invasion of Iraq are the ones pushing for a strike against Iran, “[a]nd yet they keep being brought on television and quoted in newspaper stories, when their, you know, now, after this horrendous track record they had in Iraq. So you wonder how it is that there are people who have been fanning the flames for going after Iran. Some of them the very same people.” Mitchell notes that the questions that should have been asked and re-asked by the media before the Iraq invasion—will military force neutralize the threats, what will be the aftereffects and ramifications of military strikes, how many will die—are not yet being asked about Iran. Walcott notes how easily Iran could retaliate for US strikes: “sink one oil tanker in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz, just one, and the insurance rates will take care of the rest. And you’ll have $200, $250 a barrel oil. So that’s one thing to think about.”
Iran and the NIE - Moyers asks why it was so easy for President Bush to simply disavow the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons (see December 3, 2007) just by saying that, in essence, “the NIE’s conclusions don’t reflect his own views, that there is an ongoing threat.” Moyers says that Bush does not care “what the facts are, this is [his] reality.” Mitchell notes that NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw called it more of a matter of “theology” (see May 29, 2008). But Landay says that just as interesting is the fact that, if Iran indeed is building nuclear weapons, which it well may be, “the administration’s having a really hard time getting traction for its case. Why? Because it’s lost its credibility on Iraq.” Mitchell adds, “And the media has lost credibility.” [PBS, 6/6/2008]

Entity Tags: John Walcott, Jonathan Landay, McClatchy News, Public Broadcasting System, Bill Moyers, Editor & Publisher, Greg Mitchell

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate for Iran, and its conclusion that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003, is still valid (see December 3, 2007). Administration officials have issued contradictory opinions in the days before Blair’s testimony (see March 1, 2009 and March 1, 2009). Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) asks Blair: “In 2007, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran said that ‘the intelligence community judges with high confidence that in the fall of 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.’ Is the position of the intelligence community the same as it was back in October of ‘07? Has that changed?” Blair answers: “Mr. Chairman, the nuclear weapons program is one of the three components required for deliverable system, including the delivery system and the uranium. But as for the nuclear weapons program, the current position is the same, that Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities in 2003 and did not—has not started them again, at least as of mid-2007.” [Think Progress, 3/10/2009]

Entity Tags: Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, Dennis C. Blair

Timeline Tags: US confrontation with Iran

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