Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell took careful steps to reconsider key portions of a controversial National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons program on Tuesday under sharp questions from members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
McConnell was grilled on the NIE’s disputed conclusion that Iran had shut down its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 under international pressure by both Democrats and Republicans.
Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the committee, chided McConnell for allowing the NIE to be used as a “political football,” and pointed out that the real revelation of the NIE was just the opposite of how it has been portrayed in news accounts at home and abroad.
“The main news of the NIE was the confirmation that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, not that it had halted it temporarily,” he said.
Even the presumed, temporary halt was open to question, Bond added. “The French defense minister said publicly that he believes the program has restarted. Now if our government comes to that assessment, then we have set ourselves up to release another NIE or leak intelligence, because this last one has given us a false sense of security.”
John Bolton, the former undersecretary of state for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, blasted McConnell and the NIE on the morning of the hearing in a sharply-worded oped appearing in The Wall Street Journal.
“Few seriously doubt that the NIE gravely damaged the Bush administration’s diplomatic strategy,” Bolton wrote.
The NIE was driven by policy considerations, not actual intelligence, and put the community’s credibility and impartiality on the line, Bolton argued.
“Mr. McConnell should commit the intelligence community to stick to its knitting — intelligence — and return its policy enthusiasts to agencies where policy is made,” Bolton added. He called for the reassignment of the three State Department policy-makers who had authored the NIE.
McConnell tried to dismiss Bolton’s comments, then began to seriously back-pedal.
Once he realized that the intelligence community had turned up information that directly contradicted public statements he and his predecessor, John Negroponte, had made about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, McConnell said he was in a bind.
“So now my dilemma was, I could not not make this unclassified,” he said, even though his preference had been to keep the entire 140 page estimate out of the public eye.
Senior Bush administration officials who have read the entire classified NIE have told Newsmax they were “appalled” at the thin sourcing and shoddy analysis.
A former career CIA analyst commented, “I have never seen an intelligence analysis this bad. It is misleading, politicized, and poorly written.”
In a column entitled “Stupid Intelligence on Iran,” the former defense secretary, James Schlesinger, wrote, “Clearly, the key judgments in the NIE were overstated . . . and thus incautiously phrased.”
Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger warned (in a Dec. 13, 2007 Op-Ed in The Washington Post) that the authors of the NIE saw themselves as “a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch,” and excoriated them for seeking to become “surrogate policy-makers and advocates.”
Newsmax first revealed that the NIE’s main author, Vann Van Diepen, fled the State Department for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence after he was investigated for insubordination.
Van Diepen’s superior at State, none other than John Bolton, had to bring in an attorney to force Van Diepen to implement sanctions on countries that were engaged in WMD-related technology transfers; that is, to ensure that Van Diepen followed the law after he refused to do so.
I identified Van Diepen as a key “shadow warrior” within McConnell’s Directorate of National Intelligence in my recent book of the same title.
McConnell pleaded lack of time for what he acknowledged was careless wording in the unclassified version of the NIE that was ultimately released to the public on Dec. 3, 2007.
“So now we’re in a horse race. I’ve got to notify the committee. I’ve got to notify allies. I’ve got to get unclassified out the door,” he said. “So if I’d had until now to think about it, I probably would have changed a thing or two.”
Asked what specifically he would have changed, McConnell said he “would change the way that we described the nuclear program.”
For a bureaucrat, such wording amounts to “a significant walk back,” a congressional source who followed the hearing told Newsmax.
The opening sentence of the NIE set the tone for the controversy. It states: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
McConnell acknowledged that the decision to relegate the explanation of what his analysts meant by “nuclear weapons program” to a footnote was misleading.
“I think I would change the way that we described the nuclear program,” he said. “I would argue, maybe even the least significant portion — was halted and there are other parts that continue.”
Armed with McConnell’s admission, Democrat Evan Bayh then rephrased the key conclusions of the NIE as stating that the Iranians could recommence their nuclear program “at any point in time” and “ultimately they’re likely to be successful.”
When McConnell agreed, Bayh then blasted him for releasing a document to the public that was misleading, contradictory, and had “unintended consequences that, in my own view, are damaging to the national security interests of our country.”
McConnell will face renewed grilling on the NIE on Thursday when he faces the House intelligence panel for a similar hearing.
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