In October, an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. was disclosed by the United States government. And as the means was to be a bomb in a Washington restaurant, it is reasonable to assume Americans dining nearby would have been wounded or killed. In November, a new IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program was the most alarming yet: “After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” This month, Iran made various threats to attack American assets and allies, and conducted a series of terrorist attacks on Israeli officials in three world capitals.

With this in mind, the February 16 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Gen. Ron Burgess looks like a careful effort to play down the threat from Iran.

Burgess, for example, stated this: “Iran can close the Straits of Hormuz, at least temporarily and may launch missiles against United States forces and our allies in the region if it is attacked. Iran could also attempt to employ terrorists surrogates worldwide. However, the agency assesses Iran is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict.” How is it possible to say that Iran is “unlikely” to “intentionally provoke” a conflict with the United States if it is willing to undertake an act of terrorism in our capital?

Later in the session, Senator Kelly Ayotte, seemingly unhappy with the unwillingness of the witnesses to describe Iran’s actions accurately, had this exchange with Burgess:

AYOTTE: But they're clearly supporting our enemies and trying to kill our soldiers?

BURGESS: Yes, ma'am.

It is striking that this statement came not in prepared testimony but only when pulled from the witness by a senator.

Then there is the nuclear question. Clapper said, “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

This led to the following exchange with Senator Joseph Lieberman:

LIEBERMAN: Director Clapper, I want to just go back to Iran for a couple of minutes quickly. You said this morning that it's your assessment, or the I.C.'s assessment that Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. But -- but I assume you also believe, based on International Atomic Energy Agency reports and information that the intelligence community has, that Iran has taken steps to put them in a position to make a decision to break out and build a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Yes, sir. That's a good characterization. There also are certain things they have not yet done...


CLAPPER: ... which I'd be happy to discuss in closed session, that would be key indicators that they have made such a decision.

LIEBERMAN: Yeah. And that -- but they have done things, is it fair to say, that are inconsistent with just wanting to have peaceful nuclear energy capacity?

CLAPPER: Well, the -- obviously the -- the issue here is the extent to which they produce a highly enriched uranium.


CLAPPER: And, you know, they've -- had produced small amounts of highly -- of 20 percent highly enriched uranium which ostensibly could be used for legitimate, peaceful purposes. So if they go beyond that, obviously, that would be, you know, not a -- a -- a negative indicator, I'll put it that way.

LIEBERMAN: Right. General Burgess, you want to add to that?

BURGESS: Well, sir I would just -- I would agree with what Director Clapper said, sir. I would agree with your characterization because of the movement from the 3.5 to the 20 percent uranium. That is already a leap. It is not that much of a bigger leap to the bigger, 90 percent that they would need to go to.

It is difficult to read the transcript of the hearing without concluding that there was an effort to downplay the threat posed by Iran. The tougher assessments almost always came from the witnesses only when they were pushed and pulled by members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. What other conclusion is possible when, as noted, some of our own key intelligence officials appear less balanced and concerned in characterizing the Iranian nuclear program than the IAEA?

It’s a matter of emphasis, of course: One can stress the fact that we can’t read the supreme leader’s mind and that Iran can always slow down its nuclear program, as it apparently did in 2003, or one can stress that Iran would not be doing what it is doing unless it had nuclear weapons as the obvious goal. One can try to be factual, in the way the November IAEA report is, or use words that diminish the threat we face. The mystery that emerges from the hearing is not what Iran is up to but what the witnesses were doing. Had the White House asked them to serve as human Prozac doses, calming down what it saw as overly excitable and hawkish senators? Had they decided, within the intelligence community, on that objective? Was this another example of the intel community's reaction to the accusation that it politicized and overplayed the Iraqi nuclear threat, leading it now to underplay the Iranian nuclear threat? Perhaps it was just a desire not to become part of the heated Iran policy debate on the part of a straight shooter and old pro like Burgess of DIA. If it was the latter, it didn't work.

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