- The Washington Times - Friday, April 4, 2008

The contested U.S. intelligence conclusion that Iran stopped work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is now being downplayed by the same officials who wrote the much-publicized report in November.

“Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff they appear to be willing to pay for what they are doing now if they did not have, at a minimum, at a minimum, they did not have a desire to keep the option open to develop a nuclear weapon and perhaps even more so that they have already decided to do that?” CIA Director Michael V. Hayden said Sunday.

The four-star Air Force general said it was “hard for me to explain” the intelligence community’s conclusion that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and probably had not restarted it as of the middle of last year.

And his boss, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, said the report was so quickly declassified and poorly focused that it confused people.

“If I had it to do over again, I would be very specific in how I described what was canceled and what continued,” Mr. McConnell told a Senate panel of his community’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran.

Most news coverage of the assessment focused on the first sentence in its summary of key judgments: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

But, the officials now say that sentence referred only to work on a nuclear warhead.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. Hayden now are emphasizing that Iran continues work on the enrichment of uranium, which could be used to make a weapon, and on ballistic missiles, which could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead. The publicly released NIE described Iran’s highly public enrichment efforts but did not mention the missile program, which already gives Iran the capacity to strike targets in Europe.

“The other aspects of the Iranian nuclear effort, beyond the weaponization, the development of fissile material, the development of delivery systems, all continue apace,” Mr. Hayden said this week.

Last month, Mr. Hayden agreed with Mr. McConnell’s characterization.

Mr. Hayden told editors and reporters of The Washington Times on March 11 that at the time the NIE was released in December he insisted there are three key elements of a nuclear weapons program: fissile material, weaponization and delivery systems.

“What came out in a lot of coverage was ‘Iran stops nuclear program,’ ” Mr. Hayden said. “The only thing we claimed had been halted in ‘03 was the weaponization. The development of fissile material, and the development of delivery systems continued. And one can make the case the development of delivery systems make no sense with just conventional warheads on top of them.”

The declassified NIE key judgments, however, made no mention of delivery systems and focused extensively on the halted program.

Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said the shift in tone from the intelligence chieftains has created some uncertainty about Iran’s program.

“There have been mixed signals coming from senior intelligence officials regarding Iran,” Mr. Aftergood said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It helps to remind us that intelligence officials are not omniscient, that they can be mistaken, and that sometimes they change their minds.

“Those are realities that are worth keeping in mind. For my part, I would rather have mixed signals and a vigorous discussion than a blank wall of secrecy.”

Perhaps no single intelligence document has come under as much criticism since the CIA and other agencies issued the 2002 NIE that said Iraq still maintained an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction — when it did not.

Conservative national security analysts roundly condemn the Iran NIE. Among the criticisms: The CIA knows little about the inner workings of Tehran’s hard-line Islamic government and does not know for sure that Iran has or has not resumed work on a warhead.

Critics also say the NIE delivered a public relations victory to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while embarrassing President Bush and eliminating his most powerful option — air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Since the NIE’s declassification, intelligence officials, while not abandoning it, have complained that the news media oversimplified its findings by writing that Iran ended its nuclear weapons research, which it has not.

In public comments, Mr. McConnell emphasizes that a closer reading reveals the NIE said Iran stopped work on only one project — designing the nuclear bomb itself.

He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, “I think the press mischaracterized” the NIE, which reversed an earlier finding.

Mr. McConnell heads the committee of 16 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, which wrote and approved the NIE. He not only blamed the press, but he also criticized himself.

“If I had had the foresight to know I was going to be forced to do unclassified key judgments, because of the circumstances, I would have caused the key judgments to be very clear about what was stopped and what continued,” he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “I’ll take responsibility. That’s an error in judgment on my part. I wasn’t clairvoyant or smart.”

Mr. McConnell then added more complexity to the debate, saying Iran could have restarted work on a nuclear warhead without U.S. intelligence agencies being aware of it.

“If Iran’s nuclear weapons design program … has already been reactivated or will be reactivated, it will be a closely guarded state secret,” he testified.

Mr. Hayden said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that “it’s a very difficult judgment. It’s a complex judgment, too, and it’s one that, unfortunately, tends to get oversimplified in public discourse.”

Asked about Mr. Hayden’s NIE explanation, a senior intelligence official said, “Weaponizing a device is just one aspect of developing a nuclear weapon. The hard part is producing the highly enriched uranium, and that continues apace, as does the testing of delivery systems.”

James Phillips, a Heritage Foundation expert on the Middle East who has criticized the NIE, said Mr. McConnell and Mr. Hayden are “backpedaling.”

“They realize how misleading its conclusions were, especially when taken out of context,” Mr. Phillips said. “There is a growing consensus that the NIE accorded too much weight to the reported halt in weaponization research, which is relatively easy to accomplish, and too little weight to Iran’s acceleration of its uranium enrichment effort, which is a much more difficult hurdle that must be overcome to build a nuclear weapon. Also, the NIE failed to account for Iran’s missile program, which makes little sense.”

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear counterproliferation arm, reported last month that Iran has refused to stop enriching uranium, as demanded by a U.N. resolution.

IAEA officials met in January with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The agency said he stated, “the country’s nuclear program had always been exclusively for peaceful purposes and that there had never been a nuclear weapons development program.”

The new NIE rebuts that statement, saying Iran was working on nuclear warhead designs until 2003, when it secretly stopped because of international pressure.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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