Foreign Affairs

Iran NIE: Bureaucratic Coup D’etat

*The following is an excerpt from Newt Gingrich’s weekly Winning the Future newsletter:

A handful of highly partisan State Department bureaucrats wrote a document that is so professionally unworthy, so intellectually indefensible and so fundamentally misleading that it is damaging to our national security.

The NIE appears to be a deliberate attempt to undermine the policies of President Bush by members of his own government by suggesting that Iran no longer poses a serious threat to U.S. national security because we apparently have credible reports that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

As a matter of fact, if you read it carefully, you see that the NIE’s first sentence and subsequent headline around the world — "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program." — is rendered meaningless in its intended importance by much of the rest of the report.

Take, for example, the second sentence of the report, which says, "We also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Teheran, at a minimum, is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

As I explained to an audience at the Institute of World Politics last week, the NIE authors also acknowledge that Iran has a massive domestic program to enrich uranium, which is a key step in the production of fuel for a nuclear weapon and for a civilian nuclear power plant. But the Iranians have no civilian need for such uranium enrichment. The Russians can provide access to all the fuel Iran needs for its nuclear power plant. Nowhere does the NIE analyze the reasons Iran is enriching uranium, how quickly Iran could convert this enriched uranium for nuclear weapons purposes, and why Iran is defying binding United Nations resolutions that call for a halt of its uranium enrichment.

Then there is this additional sentence from the NIE that is cold comfort for those who want to believe Iran is no longer a threat: "We also assess with high confidence that, since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research-and-development projects with commercial and conventional military applications — some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons."

And if the Iranians did indeed halt their formal nuclear weapons program in 2003, is it still halted today? Has it restarted? Is it a permanent halt? The NIE addresses this question: "We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether [Iran] is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program."

In non-bureaucratic language: We don’t know.

Lastly, what about long-term Iranian political intentions? If in fact the formal Iranian nuclear weapons program was halted in 2003, does it represent a change in heart and a fundamental policy shift away from nuclear weapons or simply a smart, temporary tactical shift? The NIE also considered that question, and its response hasn’t been focused on by those who are ready to declare Iran a peaceful nation:

"We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons — and such a decision is inherently reversible."

For a realistic estimation of the Iranian threat, read Michael Ledeen’s The Iranian Time Bomb: The Mullah Zealots’ Quest for Destruction.

The NIE Is the Tip of the Iceberg: A North Korean-Syrian Nuclear Site?

The individuals who wrote the NIE so that it would generate the headline that Iran has halted its secret nuclear weapons program did a fundamental disservice to the American people. Their actions are a sign that the U.S. intelligence community is wildly out of control and in need of fundamental reform.

Sen. John Ensign (R.-Nev.) has called for a commission comprised of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats to investigate the accuracy of the NIE and whether politics play a role in how it was written. I support this idea.

But the NIE is just the tip of the iceberg.

Last summer, you may recall, the Israelis bombed a site in Syria. Today, there is a public rumor that the site was a North Korean-Syrian nuclear site. But the thing is nobody is talking about this. No one in the administration will tell the American people if this is true and, if so, what this means to our national security.

It is a fundamental disservice to us as Americans to have such potentially threatening activity going on and not to be told the truth about it. We need an intelligence community that we can trust to tell us the truth.

Or we need leadership that will insist on this minimal standard from its intelligence bureaucracy.

In either case, we need more than we’re getting.

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