The former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Air Force general Michael Hayden is by all accounts a good man and a good officer. He has certainly done yeoman’s work since leaving government in defending controversial Bush administration interrogation and detainee policies. He didn’t have to say one word and speaking out has not benefited him personally in any way—quite the opposite—so he deserves the nation’s thanks on that score and many more.
Nonetheless, his Washington Post piece today on the simmering controversy over the intelligence community’s handling of the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar does not add up.
To recap briefly: About two weeks ago, Bob Woodward published a piece arguing that everyone in the Bush administration had learned the lesson of the disastrously wrong intelligence on Iraq’s supposed WMD. Everyone, that is, except Vice President Dick Cheney, who urged a U.S. strike on the Syrian reactor in the face of what Woodward’s sources insist was uncertain intelligence. The president declined to order a strike and the Israeli military destroyed the reactor in September 2007.
I responded with an analysis of the flaws in Woodward’s account. Four actual participants in the administration’s deliberations gave their account here. Woodward’s attempt to paint Cheney’s view as unreasonable was itself unwarranted.
Hayden now responds to these responses. His overriding concern seems to be to defend the intelligence community from the charge—which Woodward reports approvingly—that it deliberately shaded its analysis to steer policy makers toward a certain conclusion.
Before getting to the Syria case, Hayden makes reference to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. The right, he says, attacked this document unfairly. But his defense is hardly a defense at all. “The information,” he writes, “suggested that Iran had stopped the weaponization of fissile material, work that would be required to design a reliable warhead. The more difficult tasks—creating fissile material and developing missile delivery systems—continued unabated, but there appeared to be good evidence that this one aspect had largely been put on the shelf.”
This is precisely the same point that critics of the NIE cite to demonstrate its flawed nature. As Hayden himself acknowledges, weaponization is the (relatively) easy part. If, as he also acknowledges, Iran continued working on the two more difficult parts, how can stopping work (if indeed that work was stopped) on only one be said to have amounted to stopping the program?
Here’s what the NIE actually said: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” A footnote made Hayden’s caveats plain. This, it was clear to more careful readers of the NIE, “key judgment” was not supported by the actual facts presented in the rest of the document. But that’s not how the NIE was portrayed in the press or characterized by America’s adversaries. The emphasis was all on that first key judgment, the footnote was ignored, and the NIE was cited as evidence that the Iranian nuclear threat had receded.
Hayden later regretted the way the report had been received and acknowledged that the wording contributed to the problem. Here is what he said in the spring of 2008: “Why would the Iranians be willing to pay the international tariff they appear to be willing to pay for what they are doing now if they did not have, at a minimum, at a minimum, they did not have a desire to keep the option open to develop a nuclear weapon and perhaps even more so that they have already decided to do that?” More: “The other aspects of the Iranian nuclear effort, beyond the weaponization, the development of fissile material, the development of delivery systems, all continue apace.” And this: “The only thing we claimed had been halted in ‘03 was the weaponization. The development of fissile material and the development of delivery systems continued. And one can make the case the development of delivery systems make no sense with just conventional warheads on top of them.” Why Hayden now repeats a criticism of the NIE—one that he once shared—as if it were a defense of NIE is puzzling.