Terror Watch: Iraq Intel: Why U.S. U-Turned

The Bush administration decided to release new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) extracts reporting that Iran terminated its nuclear weapons program in 2003 at least in part because some officials feared leaks and accusations of a cover-up if the material were kept secret, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

The unexpected release of the new NIE on Monday comes just over a month after retired Adm. Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, issued a written order to all agencies under his supervision directing that it would be his office's policy that NIE extracts "should not be published." McConnell's order followed the government's recent publication of declassified extracts of several recent NIEs on contentious issues like the Iraq war and terror threats to the United States. McConnell declared that the "possibility that KJs [key judgments] or other positions [sic] of an estimate will be leaked is not a sufficient reason for preparing unclassified" NIE extracts. The order said that NIE extracts in the future would be declassified only if it could be done in a way that would protect intelligence sources, if the extracts would include a "nearly complete presentation" of the logic behind a declassified intelligence judgment, and if there were "compelling reasons"—such as the need to inform the public or police about looming terror threats—for making the classified analyses public.

As recently as two or three weeks ago intelligence officials were telling members of Congress and the media—including NEWSWEEK—that the conclusions of the new NIE on Iran's nuclear ambitions, which had been in preparation inside the intelligence community for months, were unlikely to be made public. However, just over a week ago, when a final draft of the Iran nuclear NIE was completed and approved by McConnell's office and the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies he supervises, intelligence officials and Bush administration policymakers changed their minds about keeping it secret, several officials said.

Intelligence officials, primarily McConnell's principal deputy intelligence czar, Donald Kerr, consulted with the White House before releasing the declassified version of the NIE on Monday, several officials said, and White House officials agreed that the report should be made public. But a senior intelligence official insisted that intelligence officials alone made the decision as to which parts of the NIE should be made public.

The official reason for making the new NIE's conclusions public is that they represent a change in previous U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran's nuclear ambitions. In public statements over the last two years, senior intelligence officials noted that an NIE produced in 2005 estimated with "high confidence" that Iran was "determined to develop nuclear weapons." (The 2005 NIE text was never declassified.) According to a statement issued earlier this week by Kerr, the administration decided to release extracts from the new NIE because the import of the new analysis is that "our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed."

Other officials said that in deciding to release key portions of the new NIE, the administration also was mindful that if it had tried to keep the new NIE's conclusions secret, they almost certainly would be leaked to the media anyway. Given their political significance, the administration then could have been accused of trying to cover up important intelligence that appeared to sharply contradict its policy statements about Iran. These included claims by President Bush that Tehran's nuclear ambitions could lead to World War III and implicit threats of U.S. military action against Iran. An intelligence official familiar with the views of the intelligence czar's office insisted that concern about leaks was not a principal factor in deciding to make the document public. "We didn't think it was fair to have [the old assessment out there] when that judgment had changed," the official insisted.

Bruce Riedel, a former top Middle East expert at the CIA and National Security Council, noted, however, that the raw intelligence reporting that led McConnell's office to its new, less alarmist, judgments about Iran's nuclear ambitions would have been seen months ago by officials on congressional intelligence committees, who then likely would have "raised a fuss" if this material had been ignored in the new NIE on Iran's nuclear effort. Riedel added, "In 20 years in the American intelligence community, I have never seen a U-turn on a key issue as dramatic as this." 

Declassified extracts from the new Iran nuclear NIE, which can be read on the intelligence czar's Web site, say that U.S. intelligence today believes that Iran once had a secret program to build a nuclear bomb but that U.S. agencies now have "high confidence" that the program was halted in 2003. The document says that the United States assesses with only "moderate confidence" that as of a few months ago Tehran's secret program had not been restarted, but also says that if Iran resumed its nuclear bomb program it would be unlikely to be able to actually produce a bomb until 2010 at the earliest, and more likely not for several years more. The document says U.S. intelligence believes with "moderate-to-high confidence" that Tehran is still "keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

The new NIE on Iranian nukes, requested by Congress about a year ago, was originally supposed to have been completed last spring. However, several months ago intelligence officials told NEWSWEEK that completion of the report had been put on hold while "new information" about Iran's nuclear program was being evaluated. While President Bush said that he had been briefed on some information related to the new NIE at the end of the summer, he apparently was not briefed on the full import and conclusions of the new NIE until a week ago—one day after the final draft of the NIE was completed.

A congressional official familiar with a confidential briefing given about the NIE three weeks ago said that during that briefing, while intelligence officials laid out many elements in the new NIE, they apparently did not make entirely clear how sharply the new NIE's conclusions would diverge from previous U.S. intelligence findings, particularly with regard to the key assertion that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003. A British official familiar with the views of British intelligence said that he had "no prior knowledge" of the new NIE findings before they were published, and said other British intel officials were "somewhat surprised."

Officials familiar with the new intelligence that led to the new NIE's most critical conclusions—that Iran abandoned its nuclear bomb program four years ago and probably hasn't revived it—say the information comes from multiple sources that include both public information, like TV news pictures and reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and highly classified intelligence, including reporting from the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on electronic communications, and the CIA's National Clandestine Service, which collects information from human spies, such as defectors and in-place informants. Both current and former officials said that even though the latest NIE says Iran actually suspended its secret bomb development program in 2003, the intelligence reporting on that development did not reach U.S. agencies until this year. The sources said that there is no indication at this stage that U.S. intelligence agencies, for one reason or another, might have overlooked or dismissed similar reporting about the suspension of the Iranian program that had come in earlier.

Officials declined to discuss the nature of secret human sources from whom the CIA might have collected information for the new NIE estimate. But two officials categorically denied news reports claiming that some of the information came from Ali Reza Asgari, a former senior Iranian defense official who disappeared earlier this year while on a visit to Turkey. (In fact, U.S. officials denied any knowledge of Asgari's whereabouts or the reasons for his disappearance.) Officials contacted by NEWSWEEK declined to comment on allegations that part of the intelligence that went into the new report was an electronic intercept report in which an Iranian scientist was overheard complaining, apparently earlier this year, about how Iran's nuclear weapons program had been shut down in 2003.

Some conservative critics of U.S. intelligence have criticized the new NIE's conclusions, suggesting that U.S. agencies may have fallen victim to an elaborate deception mounted by Iranian intelligence. "The chances that this is Iranian disinformation are real," insisted John Bolton, the former Bush administration hardliner who, before serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, headed the State Department bureau that monitored nuclear proliferation activities by Iran and other countries. Bolton told NEWSWEEK that while he was at the State Department he never saw any intelligence reporting indicating that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons program.

However, U.S. intelligence officials said that while an Iranian disinformation effort was possible, they believe that their conclusions were not influenced by Iranian disinformation. Indeed, officials said, the underlying intelligence information that went into the NIE was carefully vetted by "red teams" of analysts and counterintelligence officers for possible Iranian deceptions, but stood up to this intense vetting. "We did turn it over to our CI [counterintelligence] folks and said, 'What do you think? Could this be a strategic deception?'" one senior intelligence official said, adding, "I think the overall judgment is that is plausible but not likely, and the overall assessment of the community is contained in the words you see in the key judgments: high confidence, high confidence, high confidence."

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