“We Were Helping Them to Anticipate and Shape the Future”

Joshua Pollock at ArmsControlWonk.com has pointed today to a lecture by Thomas Fingar, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which was given at Stanford University on October 21 where he provides insights as to how the Intelligence Community, by declassifying minor parts of the classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities (NIE) may have manipulated lawmakers for the sake of drawing the ‘right’ conclusions and act accordingly.

It comes somehow as a surprise (even for Pollock) that “the White House [had] instructed the Intelligence Community to release an unclassified version of the report’s key judgments but declined to take responsibility for ordering its release.” (Emphasis added.)

“Critics on the right and the left denounced or praised the report as a deliberate effort by the Intelligence Community – or, in many of the commentaries, by me – to derail administration plans to attack Iran. That, too, is a story for another day.

“What I want to do here is to take advantage of the fact that a small portion of the estimate was declassified (3 of about 100 pages with none of the almost 1500 source citations) making it possible for me to talk about it in public.”

But an attack of Iran in late 2007 had been imminent. Seymour Hersh has had reported already one year before on the results of C.I.A. activities which were perceived in the White House with hostility. He wrote in The New Yorker on November 27, 2006:

“The Administration’s planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House’s assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The C.I.A. declined to comment on this story.)

“The C.I.A.’s analysis, which has been circulated to other agencies for comment, was based on technical intelligence collected by overhead satellites, and on other empirical evidence, such as measurements of the radioactivity of water samples and smoke plumes from factories and power plants. Additional data have been gathered, intelligence sources told me, by high-tech (and highly classified) radioactivity-detection devices that clandestine American and Israeli agents placed near suspected nuclear-weapons facilities inside Iran in the past year or so. No significant amounts of radioactivity were found.

“A current senior intelligence official confirmed the existence of the C.I.A. analysis, and told me that the White House had been hostile to it.”

It has also been reported that Vice President Dick Cheney had been outrageous when parts of the 2007 NIE were actually declassified and the public learned that Iranian had, with some confidence, not resumed their military nuclear program since 2003.

Most commentators intuitively understood the NIE’s main message that, if Iran had once found it reasonable, under its ‘reform’ president Mohammad Khatami, to halt, in response to international pressure, an existing, nuclear weapons program, diplomacy was still a valid option in 2007. In addition Fingar, in his lecture, makes the point that the NIE had also the timeline in mind, as to when Iran resumes, if it wants, the fabrication of a nuclear weapon. In the NIE, that date had been moved from late 2009 to “sometime during the 2010-2015 timeframe.” (In an updated testimony to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has further postponed the date to “not before 2013.”)

“The declassified portion of the (2007) estimate did not address how long it would take Iran to convert highly enriched uranium into a weapon but the classified text did.”

Who will get the classified version of intelligence information, which might lead to war, and who (lawmakers, the public) is put off with the declassified part is a sensitive issue. The declassified part of the 2007 NIE on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities has, so far, at least prevented another war in the Middle East with most probably disastrous consequences not only for the region which, as everybody knows, is a tinderbox. In that context, those who have decided to release it might have deserved the Nobel Peace Prize more than anybody else.

Fingar closes with an either naïve or cynical, anyway irrational, confidence of serving the good guys in a complicated world, beyond any democracy.

“How those judgments (in the NIE’s declassified portion) could be construed as dismissing the idea that Iranian nuclear activities were a major problem continues to mystify me, but the point I want to make here is that, in addition to many other things, the NIE gave policymakers a timeline, a sense of urgency, and possible alternative ways to address the problem. We were helping them to anticipate and shape the future.”

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