- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The nation’s just-retired No. 2 intelligence official Tuesday defended a controversial year-old estimate on Iran, saying he stood by its conclusion that Iran suspended a nuclear-weapons program in 2003.

Thomas Fingar, who stepped down Dec. 1 from the post of deputy director of national intelligence and as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said he also believed that Iran has not diverted low-enriched uranium produced at a facility at Natanz, 160 miles south of Tehran, to weapons use.

“I still stand by the judgments in that estimate,” Mr. Fingar told a small group of reporters, referring to the November 2007 report. “We’ve had other teams look at this. Everyone who has, has affirmed the judgments we made.”

He added, however: “I still regard Iran as a dangerous place.”

The declassified 2007 estimate began by stating that the U.S. intelligence community judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program.”

By program, the authors wrote in a footnote, they meant Iran’s efforts to design a nuclear warhead and to enrich uranium covertly to weapons grade.

Critics said the way the report was written made it seem as though there was less need to worry about Iran’s efforts to master the technology to make fuel for a potential bomb.

Other U.S. intelligence officials, including Mr. Fingar’s boss, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, later backed away from the report. Mr. McConnell told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February that he would have changed the description to focus on Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which has continued.

Iran denies that it is seeking weapons and says that it wants to enrich uranium for civilian power plants.

Mr. Fingar, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence, said a decision to make a bomb is a political one that he does not think the Iranian government has made. “We stick with an estimate until we change it,” he said.

A member of the intelligence community for 38 years, Mr. Fingar was part of a team at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) that doubted whether Iraq had a nuclear program before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“INR got it less wrong” than other U.S. intelligence agencies, he said, but still thought that Iraq had biological and chemical weapons, which have not been found. “The analysis was flawed, the underlying intelligence was bad, and the tradecraft was bad,” he said.

Mr. Fingar said the reorganization of intelligence agencies following that failure had improved the quality of intelligence collection and analysis by highlighting diverse views and improving standards for sourcing.

He said coordination among the nation’s 100,000 intelligence professionals, stretched across 16 agencies, had improved significantly.

“We are not broken, and we don’t need to be fixed,” he said, while conceding that the structure was still “far from perfect.”

With a $48 billion price tag, U.S. intelligence “doesn’t cost much money, it’s not very sexy and we’re mostly right.”

John Diamond, author of the “The CIA and the Culture of Failure,” said, “It’s really difficult for outsiders without clearances to make any judgments on the quality of intelligence. All we get is the tip of the iceberg.”

Mr. Diamond said the Iran estimate showed “a willingness to be contrarian, but that’s not the same thing as saying that the structure is fine and everything is working.”

Mr. Fingar has been advising the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama. He said he plans to lecture next year at Stanford University, where he received a master’s degree and doctorate in political science, and might write a book.

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