How Bush and the National Intelligence Estimate got so much wrong – while Iran builds the bomb

It will truly be a miracle if America ever recovers from the heinous corruption and ineptitude of the Bush era. Forget the fact that the regulated businesses on Wall Street became their own regulators – if you could even call it that. And forget the fact that Bush and Cheney bankrupted America by borrowing trillions of dollars from China to pay for the unnecessary war in Iraq.

The scariest negligence by Bush though is by far the way he got off the hook when it came to dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It’s no great secret the religious fanatics who run Iran want the bomb. So I was shocked two years ago when the National Intelligence Estimate’s (NIE) report Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities (November 2007) stated “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”

The NIE was created in 1973. Its reports “are the Intelligence Community’s most authoritative written judgments on national security issues and designed to help US civilian and military leaders develop policies to protect US national security interests.”

The report is full of contradictions and pathetically states: “Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005 (that year the NIE assessed “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable.”)

But according to the 2007 report: “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.” 

Incredulously the report also claims: “We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities—rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.  A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007.”

We are now frighteningly aware of the inaccuracy of this report. As reported by the Associated Press in Diplomats question purpose of Iran nuke plant, msnbc.com, 11-12-09, “Iran’s recently revealed uranium enrichment hall is a highly fortified underground space that appears too small to house a civilian nuclear program, but large enough to serve for military activities, diplomats told The Associated Press on Thursday.”

U.S., British and French leaders denounced Tehran for hiding this facility, located 20 miles outside of the holy city of Qom, the AP reported, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Mohamed ElBaradei is quoted as saying Tehran was “outside the law” and should have told the IAEA about it.

The article also says Iran began building the facility seven years ago and, according to a senior European diplomat “the enrichment hall is too small to house the tens of thousands of centrifuges needed for peaceful industrial nuclear enrichment, but is the right size to contain the few thousand advanced machines that could generate the amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to make nuclear warheads.”

More ominously ElBaradei recently said (see IAEA Chief: Iran Nuclear Inquiry at “dead end,” msnbc.com, 11-26-09) the IAEA’s probe of Tehran’s nuclear program is at “a dead end” and the article notes “ElBaradei cannot confirm that Tehran’s nuclear program is exclusively geared toward peaceful uses, and expressed “serious concern” that Iranian stonewalling of an IAEA probe means “the possibility of military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program” cannot be excluded.”

Oh really Mr. ElBaradei? And whom did you previously work for, the NIE?

And getting back to that now-infamous NIE report Valerie Lincy, editor of Iranwatch.org and Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control rightfully trashed it shortly after it was released with a NY Times Op-Ed piece they wrote: In Iran We Trust? 12-6-07.

“We should be suspicious of any document that suddenly gives the Bush administration a pass on a big national security problem it won’t solve during its remaining year in office. Is the administration just washing its hands of the intractable Iranian nuclear issue by saying, “If we can’t fix it, it ain’t broke”?

They point out the NIE report “contains the same sorts of flaws that we have learned to expect from our intelligence agency offerings. It, like the report in 2002 that set up the invasion of Iraq, is both misleading and dangerous.”

Lincy and Milhollin go on to detail Tehran’s nuclear activities, including the centrifuge work at Natanz and a heavy water reactor at Iran’s research center at Arak “ideal for producing plutonium for nuclear bombs, but is of little use in an energy program like Iran’s, which does not use plutonium for reactor fuel… And why, by the way, does Iran even want a nuclear energy program, when it is sitting on an enormous pool of oil that is now skyrocketing in value? And why is Iran developing long-range Shahab missiles, which make no military sense without nuclear warheads to put on them?”

They note for several years these costly projects were seen as proof of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and ask, “Why aren’t they still?”

As for international pressure on Iran, Lincy and Milhollin write: “The new report has also upended our sanctions policy, which was just beginning to produce results. Banks and energy companies were pulling back from Iran. The United Nations Security Council had frozen the assets of dozens of Iranian companies. That policy now seems dead. If Iran is not going for the bomb, why punish it?”

I urge you to read their article. It’s scary stuff – just like the eventual showdown with Iran will be.

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