Barely 14 months after the intel community concluded that Tehran had suspended efforts to build a nuclear bomb (with significant caveats), the Obama Administration is talking openly about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
As reporter Greg Miller notes, both President Obama and his nominee for Director of the CIA have made it clear in recent days--Iran is working feverishly to develop its first nuclear device:
In his news conference this week, President Obama went so far as to describe Iran's "development of a nuclear weapon" before correcting himself to refer to its "pursuit" of weapons capability.
Obama's nominee to serve as CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, left little doubt about his view last week when he testified on Capitol Hill. "From all the information I've seen," Panetta said, "I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability."
The language reflects the extent to which senior U.S. officials now discount a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 that was instrumental in derailing U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to shut down its nuclear program.
Mr. Obama's comments represent something of a position shift on the issue. John McCormack, deputy editor of the Weekly Standard blog, found this endorsement of the NIE from candidate Obama back in 2007:
"By reporting that Iran halted its nuclear weapon development program four years ago because of international pressure, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy. The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force."
Despite his apparent change-of-heart on the nuclear issue, Mr. Obama still wants diplomatic talks with Tehran. And, intelligence officials contacted by the LA Times said there is "no new evidence" to undercut the findings of the 2007 intelligence estimate. So, to some degree, both the administration and the intel community are maintaining their status quo on Iran.
But it's something of a charade, particularly on the intelligence side. Today, intel officials concede that the infamous NIE presented a "misleading" picture of Iran's nuclear program. Remember, the assessment said that Tehran had halted its work on an actual bomb design, while accelerating efforts on fundamental tasks associated with the nuclear weapons effort, including uranium enrichment and development of delivery platforms.
As for Mr. Obama and his national security team, they are well advised to take a more sober (and realistic view) toward Iran and its nuclear ambitions. But their revised view does raise a couple of questions. First, why the rush to negotiate with a regime that has been discussing the nuclear issue with the EU-3 (Germany, France and Great Britain) for years, with no discernible results. Indeed, the pace of Iran's nuclear program has actually gained momentum during this period, suggesting that Tehran used the talks as nothing more than a stalling tactic.
Secondly, there's the matter of that politicized NIE. From the moment it was released, the real purpose of the estimate was abundantly clear. By reporting that Iran had "halted" its warhead effort, intelligence officials virtually eliminated the possibility of President Bush ordering a military strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
With that mission accomplished, many intelligence officers have been trying to distance themselves from the NIE, pointing out the enrichment and delivery platform caveats that were downplayed in the original report. In fact, one recent intel assessment predicted that Ian will reach crucial bomb-making milestones this year.
This dramatic flip-flop should be a major concern for anyone who cares about the quality and accuracy of U.S. intelligence, including the commander-in-chief. Mr. McCormack accurately summarized the issue with this observation:
If Obama and his advisers now think that the 2007 NIE is a sham, don't they have an interest in firing the people who wrote faulty intelligence? Presumably Obama believes that the role of intelligence agencies is to collect and relay accurate intelligence, and the role of political leaders is to make political decisions.
Democrats in Washington have been recently talking about a "Truth Commission" to investigate government lies and deception during the Bush years. If Mr. Obama's party is genuinely interested in the "truth," an unvarnished look at the 2007 NIE, the authors and their motivations, would be the right place to start.