In the latest attack by the neo-conservatives on the U.S. intelligence community, the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Michael Rubin claims in this week’s Weekly Standard that, in his recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell “backpedaled” both from the December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program “and its claim that, ‘in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.'” But a cursory glance at the wording of the NIE and the evidence marshaled by Rubin in support of his claim shows that McConnell didn’t backpedal at all.
Of course, Rubin’s main purpose in the article, entitled “Unintelligence on Iranian Nukes: Appalling Political Gamesmanship at the CIA” [as opposed to the lack of gamesmanship at AEI, presumably], is to undermine both the credibility of the NIE — which most neo-conservative hawks believe all but destroyed the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear sites before Bush leaves office — and of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with which neo-conservatives have been at war since “Team B” helped derail detente in the mid-1970s. And most of the article is devoted to Rubin’s not-so-novel charge that the NIE’s authors politicized its conclusions in order to affect policy.
But one would think that Rubin could come up with better evidence that McConnell was backing away from the Iran NIE than what he actually presented. Here’s the sum total of his case for “McConnell’s pirouette,” as he refers to the alleged backpedal:
“Not only did McConnell testify that the Islamic Republic was working to master the enrichment of uranium–‘the most difficult challenge in nuclear production’–but he also acknowledged that, ‘because of intelligence gaps,’ the U.S. government could not be certain that the Iranian government had fully suspended its covert nuclear programs. ‘We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons,’ he testified. ‘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.'”
The problem with this evidence is that, with the exception of the first McConnell quotation in the passage about uranium enrichment being “the most difficult challenge in nuclear production”, all of the words quoted by Rubin are found in the NIE itself.
Thus, the first “key judgment” in the NIE states: “We judge with high confidence that the halt [in Iran’s nuclear weapons program] lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program).”
The last “key judgment” states: “We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.”
Finally, the fifth “key judgment” reads: “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.”
So the only piece of evidence mustered by Rubin of a McConnell pirouette is the DNI’s statement that enriching uranium is “the most difficult challenge in nuclear production.” Otherwise, the words are identical to the NIE itself.
As to whether McConnell had backpedaled from the NIE’s claim that, “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” the NIE itself explained in a footnote attached to the assertion: “For purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”
From this recitation of quotations, according to Rubin, we are supposed to conclude that “McConnell’s pirouette does more than confirm the intelligence community’s sloppiness.”
I frankly don’t know whether the NIE’s main authors skewed the document in a way that was designed to reduce the chances for going to war with Iran or, as some have argued, assert the intelligence community’s independence from the policy preferences of neo-conservatives and other hawks who remain in the administration or, like Rubin and his AEI colleagues, circle around it. But what is surprising is the ease with which Rubin’s evidence for McConnell’s alleged dancing away from the NIE — can be rebutted. Is it intellectual laziness, contempt for his readership, or confirmation of “sloppiness” on the part of AEI and/or the Standard?
In fact, there is some evidence that McConnell did distance himself slightly from the NIE (and mostly the way it was interpreted by the mainstream press) in his testimony. But Rubin — whose article goes to some lengths to defend the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, which he refers to as a “policy shop” lest anyone think it might have been involved in collecting or assessing raw intelligence, doesn’t offer any.