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About that 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran . . .

5:02 PM, Sep 25, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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In November of 2007, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) drafted a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program. In its publicly released "Key Judgments," the IC concluded: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." A footnote at the end of that sentence made it clear just what the IC thought had been "halted" (emphasis added):

For the 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.

As many noted at the time, the language and logic of the NIE were nonsensical. There were transparent flaws in its analysis, including the arbitrary decision to set aside concerns over Iran's overt uranium enrichment and ballistic missile development efforts -- both of which continued apace.

Now, with the Obama administration's revelation this morning that Iran has secretly built a covert uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom, we know just how flat wrong -- and potentially willfully misleading -- that 2007 NIE was.

This morning, standing alongside UK prime minister Gordon Brown and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, President Obama announced that the three nations had discovered a secret Iranian enrichment facility. Obama noted that "the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."

That is, Iran has built a covert uranium enrichment facility that was intended to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. It is this type of facility that the IC considered part of Iran's "nuclear weapons program" in November 2007. At the time, the IC said that the program had been halted. But clearly the Iranians had restarted it. The question is: When?

The answer is at least months prior to when the November 2007 NIE was finalized -- and probably further back in time than that.

In a background session with reporters this afternoon, senior administration officials briefed the press on this latest revelation. One official said that the U.S. and its allies "have been looking for" a secret underground enrichment facility for years. "And not surprisingly, we found one," the official said. This same official explained, "we have known for some time that Iran was building a second underground enrichment facility." (The first is the Natanz facility, which was found out in 2002.)

The official added:

"…we've been aware of this facility for several years; we've been watching the construction, we've been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant."

Later in the background session, an official reiterated, "as my colleagues have made clear, we've been aware of this facility now for several years."

Several years? That would suggest that the IC knew about this facility long before the November 2007 NIE was written. In fact, the senior administration official made it clear that construction on the facility began prior to March 2007 and probably well beforehand.

One of the senior administration officials explained that "in a modern safeguards agreement, which the IAEA has with all countries that have a comprehensive safeguards agreement, countries are obligated to report to the agency as soon as they make a decision, as soon as they begin construction of a nuclear facility." But in March 2007 "Iran unilaterally announced that it no longer considered itself obligated by that provision of its safeguards agreement, which obviously is -- sets off some alarm bells if you suspect that they may be trying to conceal nuclear activities."

The IAEA determined that the Iranians were wrong to think that they could unilaterally back out of the agreement, the administration official explained. Regardless, Iran began construction of the facility prior to March 2007. "Now, no matter what interpretation you put on this [the IAEA's safeguards agreement], Iran began construction of that facility at a time when they were legally bound to declare it," an administration official said.

An official made the same point again later in the session: "this construction began before they attempted to withdraw." That is, the construction began prior to March 2007, which, in turn, was months prior to the November 2007.

The officials' comments regarding the IC's knowing about the facility for "several years," coupled with the fact that construction on the facility began prior to Iran's March 2007 announcement, certainly leads one to believe that the IC knew about this facility in advance of the November 2007 NIE.

And what is it, exactly, that they knew about the secret site? "I think as I indicated, from the very beginning, we had information indicating that the intent of this facility was as a covert centrifuge facility," one official explained.

At a bare minimum then, the November 2007 NIE was simply wrong. The NIE's authors concluded:

We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

Wrong. Construction on a new covert enrichment facility, which the NIE's authors themselves defined as part of Iran's nuclear weapons program, began prior to March 2007. This is before "mid-2007." And if the mullahs have a covert facility that both Obama and his officials say was built to produce weapons-grade uranium, then we certainly do know that "Tehran…intends to develop nuclear weapons." Why else would they build facility for enriching weapons-grade material?The NIE's authors concluded:

Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

Wrong again. The mullahs were simply determined to keep such efforts covert. The NIE's authors should have known that already. And the program wasn't "halted primarily in response to international pressure" because it wasn't halted at all. Moreover, to the extent that anything was halted (one weaponization program), it was probably because of the tens of thousands of American forces on either side of Iran's western and eastern borders -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were always good reasons to think that the 2007 NIE was more of a policy-prescription than a rigorous intelligence analysis. It is well-known that its authors have their own views of Iran's nuclear program and how (not) to deal with it. As the Wall Street Journal wrote at the time, the NIE's three chief authors were "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials" with their own distinct policy preferences. In all likelihood, they wanted to make sure that the Iranian nuclear program wasn't considered a particularly worrisome threat requiring action. There is ample room for public debate about how to deal with Iran's burgeoning nukes, but the NIE's authors apparently wanted to short-circuit such discussion. The NIE achieved that goal, by clearly having a "cooling effect" on such talks.

In fact, the Democrats seized upon the NIE to justify their own policy preferences. The leading Democratic presidential candidates at the time were quick to cite the NIE as justification for their pursuit of engagement with Iran.

"It is absolutely clear that this administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology," then Senator Obama said of the NIE. "They need, now, to aggressively move on the diplomatic front."

"They should have stopped the saber rattling, should never have started it," Obama added. (Of course, talk of "saber rattling" was always overblown.)

Now that the NIE has been debunked, by his own administration, will President Obama "not let facts get in the way of his ideology" -- that is, his belief that he can talk the mullahs out of nukes?