WASHINGTON (IPS) — A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear program, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s militarily aggressive policy toward Iran, according to accounts of the process provided by participants to two former Central Intelligence Agency officers.
But this pressure on intelligence analysts, obviously instigated by Cheney himself, has not produced a draft estimate without those dissenting views, these sources say. The White House has now apparently decided to release the unsatisfactory draft NIE, but without making its key findings public.
A former CIA intelligence officer who has asked not to be identified told IPS that an official involved in the NIE process says the Iran estimate was ready to be published a year ago but has been delayed because the director of national intelligence wanted a draft reflecting a consensus on key conclusions — particularly on Iran’s nuclear program.
The NIE coordinates the judgments of 16 intelligence agencies on a specific country or issue.
There is a split in the intelligence community on how much of a threat the Iranian nuclear program poses, according to the intelligence official’s account. Some analysts who are less independent are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the alarmist view coming from Cheney’s office, but others have rejected that view.
The draft NIE first completed a year ago, which had included the dissenting views, was not acceptable to the White House, according to the former intelligence officer. “They refused to come out with a version that had dissenting views in it,” he says.
As recently as early October, the official involved in the process was said to be unclear about whether an NIE would be circulated and, if so, what it would say.
Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi provided a similar account, based on his own sources in the intelligence community. He told IPS that intelligence analysts have had to review and rewrite their findings three times, because of pressure from the White House.
“The White House wants a document that it can use as evidence for its Iran policy,” says Giraldi. Despite pressures on them to change their dissenting conclusions, however, Giraldi says some analysts have refused to go along with conclusions that they believe are not supported by the evidence.
In October 2006, Giraldi wrote in The American Conservative that the NIE on Iran had already been completed, but that Cheney’s office had objected to its findings on both the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s role in Iraq. The draft NIE did not conclude that there was confirming evidence that Iran was arming the Shi’a insurgents in Iraq, according to Giraldi.
Giraldi said the White House had decided to postpone any decision on the internal release of the NIE until after the November 2006 elections.
Cheney’s desire for a “clean” NIE that could be used to support his aggressive policy toward Iran was apparently a major factor in the replacement of John Negroponte as director of national intelligence in early 2007.
Negroponte had angered the neoconservatives in the administration by telling the press in April 2006 that the intelligence community believed that it would still be “a number of years off” before Iran would be “likely to have enough fissile material to assemble into or to put into a nuclear weapon, perhaps into the next decade.”
Neoconservatives immediately attacked Negroponte for the statement, which merely reflected the existing NIE on Iran issued in spring 2005. Robert G. Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and an ally of Cheney, contradicted Negroponte the following day. He suggested that Iran’s nuclear program was nearing the “point of no return” — an Israeli concept referring to the mastery of industrial-scale uranium enrichment.
Frank J. Gaffney, a protégé of neoconservative heavyweight Richard Perle, complained that Negroponte was “absurdly declaring the Iranian regime to be years away from having nuclear weapons.”
On Jan. 5, 2007, Pres. George W. Bush announced the nomination of retired Vice Admiral John Michael “Mike” McConnell to be director of national intelligence. McConnell was approached by Cheney himself about accepting the position, according to Newsweek.
McConnell was far more amenable to White House influence than his predecessor. On Feb. 27, one week after his confirmation, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee he was “comfortable saying it’s probable” that the alleged export of explosively formed penetrators to Shi’a insurgents in Iraq was linked to the highest leadership in Iran.
Cheney had been making that charge, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, as well as Negroponte, had opposed it.
A public event last spring indicated that White House had ordered a reconsideration of the draft NIE’s conclusion on how many years it would take Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. The previous Iran estimate completed in spring 2005 had estimated it as 2010 to 2015.
Two weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in mid-April that Iran would begin producing nuclear fuel on an industrial scale, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Thomas Fingar, said in an interview with National Public Radio that the completion of the NIE on Iran had been delayed while the intelligence community determined whether its judgment on the time frame within which Iran might produce a nuclear weapon needed to be amended.
Fingar said the estimate “might change,” citing “new reporting” from the International Atomic Energy Agency as well as “some other new information we have.” And then he added, “We are serious about reexamining old evidence.”
That extraordinary revelation about the NIE process, which was obviously ordered by McConnell, was an unsubtle signal to the intelligence community that the White House was determined to obtain a more alarmist conclusion on the Iranian nuclear program.
A decision announced in late October indicated, however, that Cheney did not get the consensus findings on the nuclear program and Iran’s role in Iraq that he had wanted. On Oct. 27, David Shedd, a deputy to McConnell, told a congressional briefing that McConnell had issued a directive making it more difficult to declassify the key judgments of national intelligence estimates.
That reversed a Bush administration practice of releasing summaries of “key judgments” in NIEs that began when the White House made public the key judgments from the controversial 2002 NIE on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction program in July 2003.
The decision to withhold key judgments on Iran from the public was apparently part of a White House strategy for reducing the potential damage of publishing the estimate with the inclusion of dissenting views.
As of early October, officials involved in the NIE were “throwing their hands up in frustration” over the refusal of the administration to allow the estimate to be released, according to the former intelligence officer. But the Iran NIE is now expected to be circulated within the administration in late November, says Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst and founder of the anti-war group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
The release of the Iran NIE would certainly intensify the bureaucratic political struggle over Iran policy. If the NIE includes both dissenting views on key issues, a campaign of selective leaking to news media of language from the NIE that supports Cheney’s line on Iran will soon follow, as well as leaks of the dissenting views by his opponents.
Both sides may be anticipating another effort by Cheney to win Bush’s approval of a significant escalation of military pressure on Iran in early 2008.