Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Few intelligence assessments have proved more controversial than the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” which stated that Iran’s nuclear weapons program had been halted in 2003.

Mostly because of this conclusion, the NIE was received with incredulity and suspicion. Those on the right viewed the NIE as an effort by Bush administration opponents within the intelligence community to undermine the administration’s credibility and policy efforts. Having finally succeeded at getting the Iran nuclear issue referred to the United Nations Security Council from the International Atomic Energy Agency after a five-year effort, the Bush administration was trying to bring additional pressure on Iran, including the possible threat of force under U.N. auspices.

Those on the left also saw the NIE as part of a political plot. They suspected that Bush administration political appointees had manipulated the intelligence so the assessment would promote the administration’s feckless efforts to rein in the Iranian nuclear program. These Bush detractors believed the NIE was an effort to turn the failure of Bush policies on Iran and nonproliferation into a success.

My view on the NIE was that it reflected not political motivations in either direction, but arrogance that allowed the U.S. intelligence community to be victim to a likely Iranian denial and deception program.

On Sept. 25, in both a statement by President Obama and a background briefing by senior administration officials, the public was first informed about a covert Iranian nuclear facility. Senior administration officials said the U.S. intelligence community had “been aware of this facility for several years; we’ve been watching the construction, we’ve been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant.” We learned that Mr. Obama, as president-elect, was briefed on the matter during the transition but that the intelligence oversight committees were not briefed on the facility until Sept. 23. The Obama administration asserted that the Sept. 23 briefings met the requirement that the intelligence community keep Congress “currently and fully informed.”

The senior administration briefers, moreover, refused to answer several questions regarding how the newly revealed information could be reconciled with the 2007 Iran NIE. To revisit the salience of those questions, recall that the NIE stated: “We judge with high-confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Though a now infamous footnote defined the Iranian nuclear weapons program to exclude the once covert but by then publicly exposed elements of the Iranian program, even the 2007 NIE defined “nuclear weapons program” to include “covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.”

By any reasonable standard, construction of a covert uranium enrichment facility such as the one near Qom constitutes “uranium enrichment-related work.” Yet the NIE states that “we assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”

According to the definition the intelligence community used in the 2007 NIE, only covert enrichment facilities can be part of a nuclear weapons program. This has lent support to false assertions by Iran and others that once a facility is known and visited by the International Atomic Energy Agency, it can be considered part of a “peaceful” program even if Iran tried to keep it covert, as it did with Natanz and the facility it destroyed and bulldozed to keep the IAEA from taking samples.

Now the Qom facility has been “outed.” The 2007 NIE definition may now be used to support acceding to Iran’s request that we agree to Russia or France providing assistance to Iran’s “peaceful program,” which could include that nuclear facility at Qom as well as Natanz. This is dangerous business.

The ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, has proposed an excellent way to sort out this mess. He has called for bipartisan support for the establishment of an Independent Red Team of outside experts to examine the recent revelations about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Given that the 2007 NIE was completed during the Bush administration, Democrats should be able to put aside concerns regarding an independent outside review. Since the Democrats control both the Senate and House, they certainly could ensure that the Democratic perspective gets a majority voice in any outside panel.

This call for support and assistance for congressional oversight is both timely and essential. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, and Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, should urgently support the call for the Independent Red Team.

Paula A. DeSutter is former assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance and implementation and is a former professional staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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