The reported White House resistance to the National
Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran had abandoned a nuclear weapons
program in 2003 was an effort to save a political tactic the George W. Bush
administration had been using since early 2004, despite the absence of an intelligence
analysis to support it.
The charge that Iran had a secret weapons program was originally devised to
build international support for sanctions and even potential use of force
against Iran at a time when Iran was not enriching uranium.
But in 2006, the hawks added the allegation of a secret Iranian uranium enrichment
program paralleling the publicly acknowledged program to bolster the argument
that Iran must not be allowed to have any enrichment, even if carefully limited
to far below a weapon-related level and intrusively monitored.
The original Bush administration argument was that Iranian uranium enrichment
at Natanz was prima facie evidence of a "nuclear weapons program."
On Feb. 23, 2003, the State Department charged that Iran had exhibited "an
ambitious rush to develop a nuclear fuel cycle, whose true purpose can only
be to produce fissile material for its nuclear weapons program."
That line took advantage of the widespread impression that the Natanz facility
was illegal when it was revealed by the anti-regime National Council of Resistance
in mid-2002, even though its construction was in compliance with Iran's safeguards
agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
When Iran voluntarily suspended its program of uranium enrichment as part of
its agreement with Britain, France and Germany in October 2003, however, it
forced the Bush administration to come up with the idea of a secret Iranian
nuclear weapons program.
It was John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control, who articulated
the new charge. He told a press conference on March 3, 2004, "We think
the Iranians are still trying to conceal a clandestine weapons program
Bolton repeated the charge before the House International Relations Committee
on May 24, 2004, declaring, "The United States strongly believes that Iran
has a clandestine program to produce nuclear weapons."
After the Iranian enrichment suspension was extended under a new agreement
with Britain, France, and Germany in November 2004, U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA
Gregory Schulte reaffirmed the U.S. charge that Iran had a clandestine nuclear
But the Bush administration's charge was not backed by any intelligence assessment.
That was a major issue at stake when the National Intelligence Council commissioned
a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran in January 2005.
Significantly, while the 2005 Iran NIE was being developed, the public charges
of a covert weapons program stopped, apparently on orders from Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice.
The new intelligence estimate, produced in May 2005, concluded, "It is
the judgment of the intelligence community that, left to its own devices, Iran
is determined to build nuclear weapons." But it remained uncertain about
whether the evidence of "clandestine work" by the military amounted
to a "nuclear weapons program," as reported by Dafna Linzer in the
Washington Post Aug. 2, 2005.
Equally important was the NIE's conclusion that Iran would not have enough
fissile material for a nuclear weapon until 2010 to 2015. That timeline, as
Linzer reported, reflected "fading suspicions that Iran's military has
been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort."
Administration hardliners wanted the NIE to support their allegation of a secret
enrichment program to back up their pressure on Britain, France, and Germany
to reject Iran's 2005 proposal to the European three for an agreement under
which it would limit uranium enrichment to the low levels appropriate to nuclear
energy and submit to an inspection regime proposed by the Europeans. A key administration
argument against such an agreement was that the experience gained from even
a very limited enrichment program could be diverted into the alleged underground
The key findings of the NIE were never made public a decision which
set that NIE apart from others covering politically sensitive subjects. Keeping
them secret gave greater credibility to allegations of a secret enrichment program
by Israel's Mossad. Israeli intelligence officials told a number of journalists,
including Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, that there was a second nuclear
program in Iran run secretly by the military and the revolutionary guards that
included both enrichment and weaponization activities. Israel used the parallel
enrichment program charge to support its claim that Iran was much closer to
having the capability to make a nuclear weapon than had been suggested by U.S.
When work on a new NIE on the Iranian nuclear program began in the second half
of 2006, the alleged covert nuclear weapons program was again the top issue.
By November 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency had already circulated an
assessment within the intelligence community that rejected the covert weapons
program thesis, as Hersh reported in late November. However, Vice President
Dick Cheney and his aides were trying to exclude the CIA's assessment from the
NIE, a senior intelligence official told Hersh.
The CIA had found no evidence for such a program, but Cheney and the White
House were insisting, according to Hersh's story, that the failure to find a
secret nuclear weapons program in Iran was merely evidence of the skill with
which the Iranians were hiding it.
Another tactic used by Cheney was to cite a new claim by Israeli intelligence
that its spies inside Iran had learned that Iran had developed and tested a
trigger device for a nuclear bomb. Conveniently, the alleged tests would not
leave any trace of radioactivity, thus explaining why the sophisticated radiation
monitoring devices placed in Iran by the United States and Israel had not detected
The CIA did not regard the report as reliable, especially in the absence of
details that would allow verification. But Cheney asked for the original raw
Israeli intelligence report, according to Hersh the same thing Cheney and
top Pentagon officials had done in constructing their case for the invasion
of Iraq in 2002.
Cheney's tactics bottled up the NIE until early 2007. Last spring, however,
the intelligence community came up with much more compelling evidence that no
secret nuclear weapons program including covert enrichment-related activities
had existed after fall 2003.
The White House responded by arguing that the new evidence might be based on
an Iranian disinformation campaign, which forced a long process of proving that
it was not information deliberately planted by Iran. That held up the acceptance
of the NIE for several more months.
Recent briefings by intelligence officials have carefully refrained from naming
any particular White House official who pushed the disinformation theory, but
it was Cheney who was in charge of managing intelligence issues in order to
protect the existing policy line.
(Inter Press Service)