Monday, November 12, 2007

New U.S. Spy Report On Iran Held Up By Fierce Resistance to Cheney's Hard Line

Intelligence Analysts' Refusal to Go Along With Vice President's Drumbeat for War Against Iran Has Delayed Release of New National Intelligence Estimate For More Than a Year -- Rice and Gates Also Reportedly Balking


Vice President Dick Cheney places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a Veterans Day ceremony Sunday at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Cheney's increasingly bellicose rhetoric against Iran over its nuclear program in recent weeks is underscoring a bitter battle over a long-delayed National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran, with several analysts from the nation's spy agencies refusing to go along with the vice president's assertions that a military strike against Iran in necessary to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse)

By Gareth Porter
Inter-Press Service

A long-awaited U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear program.

The aim is to make the document more supportive of Vice President Dick Cheney's militarily aggressive views toward Iran, according to accounts provided by participants in the NIE process to two former Central Intelligence Agency officers.

But this pressure on intelligence analysts, apparently instigated by Cheney himself, has not produced a draft estimate without those dissenting views, these sources say, indicating a fierce refusal by the dissenting analysts to buckle to the vice president.

Combined with public statements in recent weeks by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates that also run counter to Cheney's hard line, The White House has now apparently decided to release the "unsatisfactory" draft NIE, but without making its key findings public.

[Rice denied Sunday that the U.S. was bent on war with Iran and renewed an offer of reconciliation talks if the Islamic republic renounces its nuclear drive. Interviewed on ABC's "This Week," Rice was pressed on a Senate resolution passed in September that labeled Iran's Revolutionary Guards a terrorist operation -- a step that critics said had brought war nearer.

["Obviously, it can be the case that he (Bush) will never take his options off the table, but this particular resolution has nothing to do with that from our point of view," Rice said, referring to the prospect of military force on Iran.

[For his part, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while on a visit to China last week, appealed to Beijing for help in curbing Iran's nuclear program, arguing that a stable Persian Gulf was in the interests of Beijing's energy security.

["An Iran that is a destabilizing force in the region is not in anyone's interest, including in China's," Gates told reporters as he toured Beijing's Forbidden City. "If one is interested in long-term energy security, then a stable Persian Gulf, Middle East area is a very high priority."]

McConnell Refused to Release NIE Without Consensus on Iran's Nuke Program

An NIE coordinates the judgments of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies on a specific country or issue. A former CIA intelligence officer who has asked not to be identified told Inter-Press Service that an official involved in the NIE process says the Iran estimate was ready to be published a year ago, but has been delayed because retired Vice Admiral John Michael "Mike" McConnell, the director of national intelligence, wanted a draft reflecting a consensus on key conclusions -- particularly on Iran's nuclear program.

There is sharp division in the intelligence community on how much of a threat the Iranian nuclear program poses, according to the intelligence official's account. Some analysts who are less independent are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the alarmist view coming from Cheney's office, but others have rejected that view.

White House Refused to Accept NIE With Dissenting Views

The draft NIE, first completed a year ago, which had included the dissenting views, was not acceptable to the White House, according to the former intelligence officer. "They refused to come out with a version that had dissenting views in it," he says.

As recently as early October, the official involved in the process was said to be unclear about whether a NIE would be circulated and, if so, what it would say.

Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi provided a similar account, based on his own sources in the intelligence community. He told IPS that intelligence analysts have had to review and rewrite their findings three times, because of pressure from the White House.

"The White House wants a document that it can use as evidence for its Iran policy," says Giraldi. Despite pressures on them to change their dissenting conclusions, however, Giraldi says some analysts have refused to go along with conclusions that they believe are not supported by the evidence.

In October 2006, Giraldi wrote in The American Conservative that the NIE on Iran had already been completed, but that Cheney's office had objected to its findings on both the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's role in Iraq. The draft NIE did not conclude that there was confirming evidence that Iran was arming Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq, according to Giraldi.

Giraldi said the White House had decided to postpone any decision on the internal release of the NIE until after the November 2006 congressional elections.

Was Ex-Intelligence Czar Negroponte Fired Over His Public Statements on Iran?

Cheney's desire for a "clean" NIE that could be used to support his aggressive policy toward Iran was apparently a major factor in the replacement of John Negroponte as director of national intelligence last January.

Negroponte, now deputy secretary of state, had angered neoconservatives in the administration by telling the press in April 2006 that the intelligence community believed that it would still be "a number of years off" before Iran would be "likely to have enough fissile material to assemble into or to put into a nuclear weapon, perhaps into the next decade."

Neoconservatives immediately attacked Negroponte for the statement, which merely reflected the existing NIE on Iran issued in spring 2005. Robert Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and an ally of Cheney, contradicted Negroponte the following day. He suggested that Iran's nuclear program was nearing the "point of no return" -- an Israeli concept referring to the mastery of industrial-scale uranium enrichment.

Frank Gaffney, a protege of neoconservative heavyweight Richard Perle, complained that Negroponte was "absurdly declaring the Iranian regime to be years away from having nuclear weapons."

Negroponte Replaced By an Apparent 'Yes Man'

Following the Democrats' takeover of Congress in January, President Bush announced the nomination of McConnell to be the new director of national intelligence. McConnell was approached by Cheney himself about accepting the position, according to Newsweek magazine.

McConnell was far more amenable to White House influence than his predecessor. On February 27, one week after his confirmation, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee he was "comfortable saying it's probable" that the alleged export of explosively formed penetrators to Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq was linked to the highest leadership in Iran.

Cheney had been making that charge, but Rice and Gates, as well as Negroponte, have opposed it.

A public event last spring indicated that the White House had ordered a reconsideration of the draft NIE's conclusion on how many years it would take Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. The previous Iran estimate completed in the spring of 2005 had estimated it at five to 10 years.

Two weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in mid-April that Iran would begin producing nuclear fuel on an industrial scale, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, Thomas Fingar, said in an interview with National Public Radio that the completion of the NIE on Iran had been delayed while the intelligence community determined whether its judgment on the time frame within which Iran might produce a nuclear weapon needed to be amended.

Fingar said the estimate "might change," citing "new reporting" from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, as well as "some other new information we have." And then he added, "We are serious about reexamining old evidence."

As With Prewar Intelligence on Iraq, It's 'Deja Vu' All Over Again -- Or Is It?

That extraordinary revelation about the NIE process, which was apparently ordered by McConnell, was an unsubtle signal to the intelligence community that the White House was determined to obtain a more alarmist conclusion on the Iranian nuclear program.

A decision announced in late October indicated, however, that Cheney did not get the consensus findings on the nuclear program and Iran's role in Iraq that he had wanted. On October 27, David Shedd, a deputy to McConnell, told a congressional briefing that McConnell had issued a directive making it more difficult to declassify the key judgments of national intelligence estimates.

That reversed a Bush administration practice of releasing summaries of key judgments in NIEs that began when the White House made public the key judgments from the controversial 2002 NIE on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction program in July 2003.

The decision to withhold key judgments on Iran from the public was apparently part of a White House strategy for reducing the potential damage of publishing the estimate with the inclusion of dissenting views. As of early October, officials involved in the NIE were "throwing their hands up in frustration" over the refusal of the administration to allow the estimate to be released, according to the former intelligence officer.

But the Iran NIE is now expected to be circulated within the administration in late November, says Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and the founder of the anti-war group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.

The release of the Iran NIE will certainly intensify the bureaucratic political struggle over Iran policy. If the NIE includes both dissenting views on key issues, a campaign of selective leaking to news media of language from the NIE that supports Cheney's line on Iran will soon follow, as well as leaks of the dissenting views by his opponents.

Both sides may be anticipating another effort by Cheney to win Bush's approval of a significant escalation of military pressure on Iran in early 2008.

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(Gareth Porter is a historian and national-security policy analyst. His latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005. Additional reporting for this story was provided by Reuters and Agence France-Presse.)

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Volume II, Number 56
Special Report Copyright 2007, Inter-Press Service.
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