Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Long-Delayed Spy Report on Iran's Nuke Program a Humiliating Defeat for Cheney

Bush Denies Report's Finding That Iran Halted its Nuke Weapons Program in '03 Will Alter U.S. Policy, But White House Is Clearly Embarrassed That New NIE Undermines Case -- Pushed Hard by Cheney -- for Going to War Against Iran


President Bush (right), accompanied by his wife, Laura, and Vice President Dick Cheney (second from left), accompanied by his wife, Lynne, flank French President Nicholas Sarkozy (center) at a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington during Sarkozy's November 6 visit to the United States. Cheney's months-long push for a national intelligence estimate report on Iran to support his case for military action against the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program ended in failure this week, with the release of the report that concluded that Iran halted its research toward nuclear weapons development in 2003. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse)

By Skeeter Sanders

President Bush rejected Tuesday any suggestions of a change in U.S. policy toward Iran, despite the release the previous day of a long-awaited U.S. intelligence report that concluded Tehran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Bush denied that the new national intelligence estimate -- the collective judgment of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies -- had undercut his administration's repeated assertions that Iran was building nuclear weapons. The report said Tehran's determination to develop nuclear weapons "is less ... than we have been judging."

“I have said Iran is dangerous,” a grim-faced Bush insisted to reporters at his first White House press conference in nearly seven weeks. "The NIE doesn’t do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world — quite the contrary. Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

The president vowed that the U.S. would continue to work to "isolate" Iran and asserting the NIE was, in spite of its conclusions, a "warning signal" to the international community.

Report a Clear Embarrassment to Bush -- And Cheney

Clearly, however, the report's finding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago is an embarrassment to Bush -- and a humiliating defeat for Vice President Dick Cheney, who had put unrelenting pressure on the intelligence community for months to make the document more supportive of his view on Iran that critics charge are aimed at justifying U.S. military action against Tehran.

As recently as October, Bush was invoking the threat of a third world war if Iran was not prevented from obtaining the necessary knowledge to make a nuclear weapon.

On November 12, The 'Skeeter Bites Report published a story by the Inter-Press Service's Gareth Porter that broke the news that Cheney's pressure on the intelligence analysts who wrote the NIE on Iran had held up its release for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear program.

But now it turns out that those "dissenting judgments" actually reflected the majority opinion of the intelligence community -- which refused to knuckle under to the vice president. Cheney was noticeably tight-lipped Tuesday, declining all media requests for comment about the final report.

The vice president had been sounding increasingly bellicose in his public comments on Iran in recent months. In a speech in October, Cheney warned that if Iran “stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences.”

Bush Claims He Learned of NIE Last Week -- But White House Sat On It for 14 Months

Asked if he had been "hyping" the threat from Iran, the president asserted that he was only made aware of the NIE last week and insisted it had changed nothing. "I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger. I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."

But Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi told the IPS's Porter that the White House had known about the Iran NIE as far back as October 2006 -- and that it pressured intelligence analysts into reviewing and rewriting their findings three times since then.

"The White House wanted a document that it could use as evidence for its Iran policy," said Giraldi. Despite pressures on the analysts to change their dissenting conclusions, however, they refused to go along with White House conclusions they believed were not supported by the evidence.

Giraldi said Cheney's office had objected to the analysts' findings on both the Iranian nuclear program and Iran's role in Iraq. The 2006 draft NIE did not conclude that there was confirming evidence that Iran was arming Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq.

As a result, the White House decided to postpone release of the NIE until after the November 2006 congressional elections. But the infighting continued -- and intensified when the analysts refused to back down, further delaying the report's release.

The White House then decided to keep the NIE secret -- until Porter broke his story on November 7.

Case for Tougher Sanctions -- And Military Action -- Against Iran Now Much Harder to Justify

The new NIE is likely to take the steam out of the Bush White House's efforts to push for further sanctions against Iran at the United Nations. More importantly, however, it makes Cheney's drumbeat for military action against the Islamic Republic much harder to justify -- and seriously undermines the vice president's credibility.

It's the latest sign that Cheney's influence within the administration -- which for most of his seven years in office had been quite formidable -- is rapidly eroding as he approaches his final year as vice president.

Not surprisingly, Iran welcomed the new NIE as proof of its longstanding insistence that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes. In Tehran, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki held his own news conference ahead of Bush's, telling reporters that his government considered the new report as "a move to correct" Washington's previous claims.

"It is natural that we welcome it [the new NIE] when those countries who in the past have questions and ambiguities about this case... now amend their views realistically," Mottaki said in a separate interview with Iranian state radio. "The condition of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities is becoming clear to the world."

Report: Iran Still Up to 10 Years Away From Making Nuke Bomb

The new NIE does acknowledge that Iran is continuing to produce enriched uranium, which could still provide Iran with enough raw material to produce a nuclear weapon in the next eight to ten years -- a timetable essentially unchanged from previous estimates.

Tehran is likely to "keep its options open" with respect to building a nuclear weapon, but that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know whether it currently intends to develop" any, the report said.

Nonetheless, the new report effectively repudiates a 2005 NIE that concluded that Iran was maintaining an active program intended to transform the raw material into a nuclear weapon. The new estimate declares instead with “high confidence” that the military-run program was shut in 2003, and that it remains frozen.

The report cited "increasing international scrutiny and pressure” as the principal reason for Iran's decision to halt the weapons program.

Israel Rejects New NIE's Findings, Won't Rule Out Military Strike

While the new report was welcomed by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog -- as a confirmation of its own findings that "should help to defuse the current crisis," it was flatly rejected by Israel,
which has backed U.S.-led efforts at the U.N. to impose sanctions on Iran.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement saying that the report "only strengthened the need for the international community to tighten sanctions so that Iran will not be able to produce nuclear weapons." Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but that it has since restarted it.

Barak, a former prime minister, told Israeli Army Radio that Jerusalem was "familiar with this American assessment," but there "are differences in the assessments of different organizations in the world about this, and only time will tell who is right."

Israel has refused to rule out taking military action of its own against Iran, but says it prefers a diplomatic solution. Such a strike would be difficult for Israel to pull off, however, for Iran lies beyond the flying range of most Israeli warplanes.

Asked if the new U.S. assessment reduced the likelihood of a U.S. military strike on Iran, Barak would say only that it was "possible."

Bush's Critics Seize on Report, Call for 'Diplomatic Surge' With Tehran

Almost immediately, critics of the Bush policy on Iran seized upon the new NIE report to argue against U.S. military action. "This new report removes, if nothing else, the urgency that we have to attack Iran, or knock out its nuclear facilities," said Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska), the president's most outspoken Capitol Hill Republican critic on the war. "I don't think you can overstate the importance of this."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) urged the White House to adjust its policy and pursue "a diplomatic surge" to engage with Iran. He said the new NIE “directly challenges some of this administration’s alarming rhetoric about the threat posed by Iran.”

A spokesman for the European Union said the new information strengthens the E.U.'s argument for negotiations with Tehran, but he added that sanctions are still an option to compel Iran to be fully transparent about its nuclear program.

E.U. officials insisted that the international community should not walk away from years of talks with an often-defiant Tehran that is openly enriching uranium for uncertain ends.

# # #

Volume II, Number 61
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 03, 2007

Bush: Gimme More Iraq War $$, Or I'll Starve Domestic Anti-Terror Programs

Homeland Security Grants May Be Cut by More Than 50 Percent Under Bush's Fiscal 2009 Budget Plan -- Which Critics Brand 'Budgetary Blackmail' -- as President Ups Pressure on Congress to Approve More Money for Iraq War 'With No Strings Attached'


Is President Bush trying to blackmail Congress into keeping the Iraq war money spigot flowing? Confronted with a hardening resolve by the Democratic-controlled Congress to invoke its constitutional control over the federal purse and force him to begin the process of bringing U.S. troops home, Bush appears to be retaliating by proposing deep cutbacks in funding for domestic anti-terrorism programs across the country in his final budget proposal for the 2009 fiscal year. The plan -- made public by The Associated Press -- has already sparked widespread bipartisan outrage. (Photo: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse)

By Devlin Barrett, Ben Feller,
Deb Reichmann and Eileen Sullivan
The Associated Press

The Bush administration intends to slash counterterrorism funding for police, firefighters and rescue departments across the country by more than half next year -- even as the president increases his pressure on congressional Democrats to approve new money to fund the war in Iraq "without strings and without delay" before leaving for the Christmas holidays -- according to budget documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The Homeland Security Department has given $23 billion to states and local communities to fight terrorism since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but the administration is not convinced that the money has been well spent and thinks the nation’s highest-risk cities have largely satisfied their security needs.

The department wanted to provide $3.2 billion to help states and cities protect against terrorist attacks in 2009, but the White House said it would ask Congress for less than half — $1.4 billion, according to a November26 document.

Bush has been pushing Congress to approve the war funding -- without a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops -- and finish its debate over rules for government eavesdropping within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

He also wants lawmakers to pass annual government spending bills — but not in "one monstrous piece of legislation" filled with money for special interests. And he wants Congress to send him legislation that keeps middle-class Americans from being hit by the alternative minimum tax.

"Members [of Congress] are coming back [this week from their Thanksgiving recess] to a lot of unfinished business," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. "The clock will be ticking, because they have only a few weeks to get their work done before leaving again for Christmas."

A Constitutional Confrontation: Who Controls the Federal Purse?

[But the timing of Bush's 2008-09 budget plan, coming amid a mounting clash between the White House and Congress over Iraq war funding, can be interpreted by critics of the war as the president resorting to "budgetary blackmail" -- an unsubtle threat to slash funding for domestic anti-terrorism programs if Congress doesn't approve the war money.

[That, in turn, could trigger a full-scale constitutional confrontation with congressional Democrats over who has the last word on controlling the federal purse -- which Article I of the Constitution gives exclusively to Congress.

[The president has requested another $196 billion to fund the war for the current fiscal year, which began on October 1. But Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are taking an increasingly uncompromising hard line, adamantly insisting that any future Iraq war funding must be accompanied by a timetable for a troop withdrawal -- which Bush has vowed he will never accept.]

The House had passed a $50 billion bill that would keep war operations afloat for several more months, but set a goal of bringing most troops home by December 2008. After Bush threatened to veto the measure, Senate Republicans blocked it with a filibuster -- which their Democratic counterparts lack the 60 votes required under Senate rules to overturn.

[Democratic congressional leaders promptly retaliated by refusing to send to Bush any war spending bill this year at all -- sending an unmistakable, if as yet unspoken, message to the White House that they could ultimately invoke Congress' constitutional power to control the federal purse by cutting off funding for the war altogether.

[Now, it appears, by proposing to deeply slash funding for domestic anti-terror programs in the next fiscal year's budget, the president is wielding a new weapon in his determined fight to secure more money for the war.]

Bush's FY '09 Budget Cuts Would Really Stick It to His Successor

The plan, which must be submitted to Congress by mid-February, calls for the outright elimination of programs for port security, transit security, and local emergency management operations in the next budget year.

This is the president's final budget, and Bush's successor would be forced to live with the funding decisions between the time he or she takes office on January 20, 2009 and the time the 2010 fiscal year begins the following October.

The Homeland Security Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is in charge of the administration’s spending plans, would not provide details about the funding cuts because nothing has been finalized.

“It would be premature to speculate on any details that will or will not be a part of the next fiscal year budget,” OMB spokesman Sean Kevelighan said, because negotiations between the White House and the Cabinet departments over the budget are not finished.

Plan At Odds With Bush's Own Security Policies; Boxer Brands It 'D.O.A.'

The proposal to drastically cut Homeland Security grants is at odds with some of the administration’s own policies. For example, the White House recently promised continued funding for state and regional intelligence “fusion centers” — information-sharing centers the administration deems critical to preventing another terrorist attack. Cutting the grants would limit money available for the centers.

The White House’s plan to eliminate the port, transit and other grants, which are popular with state and local officials, would not go into effect until next September 30. Congress is unlikely to support the cuts and will ultimately decide the fate of the programs and the funding levels when it hashes out the department’s 2009 budget next year.

The White House routinely seeks to cut the budget requests of federal departments, but the cuts proposed for 2009 Homeland Security grants are far deeper than the norm. Congress has yet to approve the department’s 2008 plan.

“This budget proposal is dead on arrival,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California). “This administration runs around the country scaring people and then when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they say ’sorry, the bank is closed.”’ California receives a large share of the counterrorism money each year, and could lose more than $200 million under the White House plan.

Boxer was particularly incensed about the proposal to end money for port security — a big concern on the West Coast. “California’s ports carry over 47 percent of all goods imported into the United States,” she said. “A terrorist attack at any of California’s ports could shut down our nation’s port system and result in a mind-boggling loss for our nation’s economy.”

Pentagon Ups Ante, But Murtha Hints at Compromise

Pentagon officials said that if the additional money for the Iraq war is not approved soon, the military will have to take cost-cutting measures. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the Army and Marine Corps to begin planning for a series of expected cutbacks, including civilian layoffs, termination of contracts and reduced operations at bases.

"The funds include money to carry out combat operations against the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq," Bush said. "They include money to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces to take on more responsibility for the defense of their countries. And they include money for intelligence operations to protect our troops on the battlefield."

In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) is holding a press conference today (Monday) to discuss Democrats' efforts to change course in Iraq. "Bush Republicans have indefinitely committed our military to a civil war that has taken a tremendous toll on our troops and our ability to respond to other very real threats around the world," Reid said on Thursday.

For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) argued that while U.S. troops continue to be killed in Iraq, the Bush administration is not placing enough pressure on the Iraqi government to secure the nation and provide necessary services to its citizens.

"In January, the president announced the so-called troop `surge' to give Iraq's government the `breathing space' to achieve political reconciliation," Pelosi said in a statement released Friday. "Eleven months later, Iraqi politicians have failed by every measure to make the necessary political progress.

"Democrats are committed to a new direction in Iraq that holds the president accountable, provides real support to our men and women in uniform and will bring our troops home safely, honorably and soon."

Meanwhile, there was at least a sign of a potential breakthrough. Representative John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania) said Thursday that after talking with President Bush's adviser on the Iraq war, he thinks Congress and the White House might be able to end the showdown on war funding.

After a phone conversation on Wednesday initiated by Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Murtha said he's "more optimistic that there's a possibility now." Murtha, chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, said one possible area where he thinks Democratic leaders could compromise is on a date to end the war. He said Democratic leaders want Bush to "sit down and work out a plan with the Congress so that we work this whole thing out."

Outrage in New York Over Anti-Terror Funding Cuts

Bipartisan opposition to the proposed anti-terror cuts emerged from New York, another state that would be hard hit. “To zero out essential Homeland Security programs which have more to do with protecting Americans and fighting the war on terror than much of the money spent in Iraq shows how warped and out of touch this administration’s priorities are,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York).

The proposal “goes totally in the wrong direction,” said Representative Peter King (R-New York). “This would be a very grave mistake, and I will do all I can to stop it.”

[The plan also drew fire from at least one presidential candidate. In remarks Sunday to NY1, the city's local 24-hour cable news channel, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) called the plan "unconscionable," and vowed that she and other New York leaders will "do everything possible to ensure that our first responders are provided with the funding and resources that are critical to their success on the frontline of our homeland security efforts.”

[There was no immediate comment from Republican presidential candidate and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the proposed cuts.

[But Giuliani's successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was furious. "It's stunning that the federal government would consider cutting New York City's homeland security funds from the already inadequate level that currently exists,” the mayor said in a written statement.]

This isn't the first time that cuts in funding for domestic anti-terror efforts have drawn controversy. In 2005, the Bush administration cut by 40 percent the counterterrorism funding to New York and Washington, D.C., the two cities hit hardest on September 11.

Then, as now, New York lawmakers vented bipartisan fury -- and the Homeland Security official in charge of the grants program eventually resigned. Since then, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has promised to apply more common sense and less “bean-counting” in grant decisions.

White House Asserts Some Anti-Terror Grants a 'Waste of Money'

The White House plan calls for massive cuts in areas where Homeland Security officials had sought increases. The department requested $900 million for grants to U.S. cities at greatest risk of attack. But the White House only wants to provide $400 million for that program, to be divided among no more than 45 urban areas.

Earlier this year, Congress gave New York City $134 million — about a third of the total amount the White House would give to the highest risk areas in the country in 2009. While very popular in the states and among lawmakers who take credit for getting counterterrorism dollars to their districts, some of the Homeland Security grants have been criticized as wasteful or excessive:

* $345,000 for crashproof barriers and 60 closed-circuit cameras to monitor the University of Arkansas Razorback stadium, which local officials think could be a terrorist target.

* $5 million for the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology to buy a nearly deserted town to use for counterterrorism training.

* $70,000 for Huntsville, Ala. to create a fallout shelter in an abandoned mine where 20,000 people could take cover underground.

* Several South Florida fire departments have used Homeland Security grants to beef up their gyms. Pompano Beach, Fla., spent $220,000 on fitness equipment for a wellness program, training and physical exams.

While the White House would eliminate at least seven current Homeland Security grant programs, it would create two new grants:

* Targeted investment grants, which would fund administration priorities such as the requirement that states create more secure driver’s licenses, secure credentials for transportation employees and state and local planning for catastrophic disasters. The White House would provide $450 million for that.

* A $300 million discretionary grant program for terrorism preparedness, prevention and response, which would fund specific projects instead of sending a set amount to each state.

These grants have long been debated in Congress, particularly whether a certain amount should be guaranteed to each state regardless of its risk of being attacked by terrorists. Rural lawmakers have not wanted the money to be distributed based on risk alone because it would mean their states and districts would see cuts.

In a joint statement, Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut), and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said they “urge the administration to reconsider this wrong-headed strategy.”

FISA Extension Mired in Dispute Over Telco Immunity

On the intelligence legislation, Bush has been pushing Congress to finish its debate over rules for government eavesdropping within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and pass an extension of the 1978 law.

Lawmakers hastily changed the FISA law last summer to allow the government to eavesdrop inside the United States without court permission, so long as one end of the conversation was reasonably believed to be located outside the U.S.

The original law required a court order for any surveillance conducted on U.S. soil, to protect Americans' privacy. The White House argued that the law was obstructing intelligence gathering because, as technology has changed, a growing amount of foreign communications passes through U.S.-based channels.

"This new law expires on February 1 while the threat from our terrorist enemies does not," Bush said.

The most contentious issue is whether to shield telecommunications companies from civil lawsuits for allegedly giving the government access to people's private e-mails and phone calls without a FISA court order between 2001 and 2007.

[Civil libertarians have warned lawmakers that granting the companies immunity would violate their customers' Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable government searches and seizures by allowing the telcos to get away with failing to require the government to obtain court orders to gain access to their customers records.

[Such a requirement is mandated by the FISA statute and by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1988, as well as a unanimous 1972 Supreme Court ruling -- backed up by a 1975 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the nation's second-highest court -- that the Fourth Amendment itself requires such court warrants.]

# # #

(Additional reporting for this article, in brackets, provided by NY1 and by Skeeter Sanders.)

# # #

Volume II, Number 60
Special Report Copyright 2007, The Associated Press.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All Rights Reserved.


Sphere: Related Content