Bush and the Iran NIE: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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George W. Bush has some adjustments to make.

At a news conference on October 17, President George W. Bush dropped a rhetorical bomb: “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them (Iran) from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Now that bomb has turned into a rotten egg, for the U.S. intelligence community yesterday released a National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that Iran halted a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, that Tehran is “less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005,” and that Iran probably could not produce enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon until the 2010-2015 timeframe. That is, it seems there is no immediate reason to fret about Iran going nuclear and triggering World War III. This NIE may well make it impossible for hawks in and outside the administration to pull the trigger on any military action against Iran.

At a press conference this morning, Bush, looking comfortable, tried to deal with this new reality. He repeated a mantra: Iran was dangerous before the new NIE, and it’s dangerous now. Nothing has changed, he insisted. He said over and over that if Iran transferred knowledge it has about enriching uranium to a “hidden” nuclear weapons program, that would pose a danger to the rest of the world. If. He was pressed by White House reporters asking whether his credibility–whatever existed of it following the Iraq WMD fiasco–was tarnished by the NIE? Of course, he refused to concede any such thing.

The issue is not just that his saber-rattling was not in sync with the intelligence but that Bush did not take care to vet his hyperbole before displaying it in public. At the press conference today, NBC News’ David Gregory referred to Bush’s World War III comment, noted that the Iranian program had apparently long been suspended before Bush uttered that remark, and asked Bush, “Can’t you be accused of hyping this threat.”

Bush replied by noting he had only been made aware of the NIE last week. But Bush went on to explain that intelligence czar Mike McConnell had told him in August that the intelligence community had developed “new information” on Iran. (This was obviously intelligence indicating that Iran was not operating an active nuclear weapons program.) McConnell, though, didn’t tell Bush what this “new information” was. According to Bush, McConnell said it would take time to analyze the data.

But Bush did not do two things.

He did not ask McConnell what this “new information” indicated. Nor did he ask McConnell whether it might support or undermine the administration’s current policy and talking points on Iran. Moreover, if Bush’s account is the full story, McConnell did not come back to Bush after the World War III comment and suggest that he tone down the tough talk.

Think of it this way: if the intelligence committee had uncovered intelligence demonstrating that Iran was furiously developing a nuclear weapon, wouldn’t that information had been quickly brought to the attention of the president? At least, Bush probably would have been informed that the analysts were working intensively on hot stuff that might back up his claims about Iran. But with new material contradicting the president, it took several months before he was made aware of its significance. Throughout that time, Bush apparently never asked what the new-but-not-fully-analyzed information might mean for his policy.

After the Iraq war intelligence mess, it was clear there needed to be some professional distance between the White House and the intelligence community so intelligence analysts could render judgments without worrying about how their conclusions would be received at the White House. But certainly not this much distance.

At the press conference, the questions, though, focused on the blunt matter of how much of a setback the NIE was for Bush. One reporter, referring to Bush’s halting replies and seemingly uptight mood, asked if he was “dispirited” now that the “facts have failed you” regarding Iraq and Iran and if he was feeling “troubled” about a possible credibility gap. Bush replied, “I’m feeling pretty good about life.” Maybe he likes surprises.

UPDATE: Talking Points Memo points out that The Washington Post reported yesterday that National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters that Bush in August or September was informed there was intelligence indicating Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. So there’s a discrepancy. Bush said he didn’t know what the new Iran intelligence was; his chief national security aide (according to the Post) said Bush was told the basics. Anyone in Congress–how about Democrats on the intelligence committees–care to sort this out?

UPDATE II: Actually, in the transcript of Hadley’s briefing, Hadley says that he believed Bush was first told about the new intelligence in August or September and that “when the President was told that we had some additional information, he was basically told: stand down; needs to be evaluated; we’ll come to you and tell you what we think it means. So this was basically — as we said, this is information that came in the last few months, and the intelligence community spent a lot time to get on top of it.” Stand down? Hadley clarified: “The President was told, we have some information, we have some new information not to stand down — said, we have some new information; give us some time to analyze it, and we will come to you and tell you what we think it means.” It turns out there may not be such a contradiction between Bush’s statements and Hadley’s. But the old question returns: what did the president know and when did he know it?


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