Iran's very bad N-word
and dangerous Cheney
By Ray McGovern
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing ministry of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was a CIA analyst for 27 years and now serves on the Steering
Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
Wednesday 28 February
: how far from the
That was one of the key questions asked of newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell yesterday at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing. McConnell had avoided this front-burner issue in his prepared remarks. But when asked, he repeated the hazy forecast given by his predecessor, John Negroponte [and in the process demonstrated that he has mastered the stilted jargon introduced into national intelligence estimates (NIEs) in recent years].
McConnell had these two sentences committed to memory:
seeks to develop a nuclear
weapon. The information is incomplete, but we assess that
develop a nuclear weapon early-to-mid-next decade.
At that point McConnell received gratuitous reinforcement from Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. With something of a flourish, Maples emphasized that it was "with high confidence" that DIA "assesses that
remains determined to develop
After the judgments in the Oct. 1, 2002 estimate assessing weapons-of-mass-destruction in Iraq-judgments stated with "high confidence"-turned out to be wrong, the National Intelligence Council saw a need to define what is meant by "assess."
The council included a glossary in its recent NIE on
When we use words such as 'we assess,' we are trying to convey an analytical assessment or judgment. These assessments, which are based on incomplete or at times fragmentary information are not a fact, proof, or knowledge. Some analytical judgments are based directly on collected information; others rest on previous judgments, which serve as building blocks. In either type of judgment, we do not have 'evidence' that shows something to be a
So caveat emptor. Beware the verisimilitude conveyed by "we assess." It can have a lemming effect, as evidenced yesterday by the automatic head bobbing that greeted Sen. Lindsay Graham's, R-S.C., clever courtroom-style summary argument at the hearing, "We all agree, then, that the Iranians are trying to get nuclear
Quick, someone, please give Sen. Graham the National Intelligence Council's definition
of "we assess."
Shoddy Record on
difficult intelligence target. Understood. Even so,
intelligence performance "assessing"
's progress toward a nuclear capability does not inspire confidence. The only virtue readily observable is the foolish consistency described by Emerson as "the hobgoblin of little minds."
started consistently "assessing" that
was "within five years" of reaching a nuclear weapons capability. In 2005, however, when the most recent NIE was issued (and then leaked to the Washington Post), the timeline was extended and given still more margin for error. Basically, the timeline was moved 10 years out to 2015, but a fit of caution yielded the words "early-to-mid
Small wonder that the commission picked by President George W. Bush to investigate the intelligence community's performance on weapons of mass destruction complained
"disturbingly little" about
. Shortly after the most recent estimate was completed in June 2005, Robert G. Joseph, the neoconservative who succeeded John Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control, was asked
had a nuclear effort under way.
I don't know quite how to answer that because we don't have perfect information or perfect understanding. But the Iranian record, plus what the Iranian leaders have said...lead us to conclude that we have to be highly
fresh national intelligence estimate on
has been in preparation for several months-far too leisurely a pace in the circumstances, in my opinion. One would have thought that President Bush would await those intelligence findings before sending two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Persian Gulf area and
dispatching Vice President Dick Cheney to throw a scare into folks in
. But it is not at all uncommon in this administration for the intelligence to lag critical decisions. After all, the decision to
was made many months before "intelligence" was ginned up to support it. And the decision to send 21,500
additional troops into
predated the latest NIE on
And so, yesterday's Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing and all the puzzling over
almost seemed divorced from the reality-from the "new history" that Bush's neocon advisers may be preparing to create. Yet, the hearing was extremely well conducted and homed in on some key
issues, should any policymakers wish to listen.
The Good News: There's
If anything leaps out of all this, it is that there is time to address, in a
sensible way, whatever concerns may be driving
to seek nuclear weapons-Cheney's claim of a
"fairly robust new nuclear program" in
, his blustering, and his itchy trigger finger notwithstanding. A year and a half after the 2005 estimate that
was five to 10 years away from building a nuclear weapon, NPR's Robert Siegel did the math and asked former national intelligence director Negroponte, "Sometime between four and 10 years from now you would assume they could achieve a nuclear
"Five to 10 years from now," Negroponte answered. He then gingerly raised the possibility-avoided like the plague by neocons in good standing-that diplomacy might help. A former diplomat, he may have thought he would be forgiven, but he was relieved and sent back to the State Department a few months later. This is
what he dared to say: :I think that the pace of
gives us time, and international diplomacy can work."
Asked by Siegel to explain why the Israelis have suggested a much shorter timeline for
to acquire a nuclear weapon, Negroponte stated the obvious with bluntness uncommon for a diplomat. "I think that sometimes what the Israelis will do [is] give you the worst-case assessment." At yesterday's hearing, Sen. Graham asked McConnell the same question; did he know why the Israelis had a different view? McConnell appeared
puzzled, noting that
intelligence discusses these
things with the Israelis.
In his introductory remarks Armed Forces Committee Chair, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.,
expressed a desire to "assess the circumstances in which
up its nuclear [weapons] plans." Assuming
has such plans, or at least intends to leave that option open for later decision when it has mastered the enrichment process,
it makes sense to try to figure out what drives
to that course.
McConnell yesterday chose to adopt Negroponte's refreshingly candid approach and reject
the cry-wolf rhetoric of Cheney and the neocons that
's ultimate aim must be to destroy
. McConnell noted that
would like to dominate the Gulf
region and deter potential adversaries. An integral part of
's strategy is to deter and, if necessary,
retaliate against forces in the region-including
Similarly, he indicated that
considers its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its
determination to protect
or Israeli attacks. These sentiments dovetail with those offered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his
confirmation hearing in December. Gates put it this way:
While they [the Iranians] are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons-Pakistan to their east, the
Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the
Deterrence? Both Sen. Levin and ranking member John Warner, R-Va., picked up on this, to the dismay of Sen. Graham, who sounded as if he had just come from a briefing by the Israeli extreme right who, with Cheney, are pushing hard for a U.S. strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Graham said he thought economic sanctions could work and that they were "the only thing left short of military action." For Graham it was very simple. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust
weapons, it could use them against
. The clear implication was that we should bomb the Iranians if sanctions don't bring them to
have I heard an American senator so openly press the
to mount an attack on a major country simply
because it could be perceived as a threat to
was no mention of
's own arsenal of some 200 to 300 nuclear weapons and multiple delivery systems. Nor did anyone allude to French President Jacques Chirac's recent comment that, with one or two nuclear
would pose no
big danger, because launching a nuclear weapon against
would inevitably lay waste
John Warner objected strongly to the notion that, if sanctions against
failed, the next step had to be military action. With support from Levin, Warner alluded time and again to the effectiveness of mutual deterrence after WWII, stressing that deterrence is a far better course than to let slip the dogs of war. He referred to his own role
in ensuring that the
was deterred. It seemed as though he was about to cry out from exasperation, "Why don't we talk to the Iranians! ... like I talked to the Russians," but then he thought better of it and decided to hew to the party line and not even think of
negotiating with "bad guys."
Better to Jaw-Jaw Than
Did you notice? While Cheney was abroad, others persuaded the president to send
representatives next month to a conference in
, in which representatives of
also are expected to participate to discuss
the situation in
. In addition, foreign ministers
of the same countries plan to meet in early April.
If Cheney does not sabotage such talks when he gets home, they could lead to direct
on the nuclear question. It
makes no sense at all to refuse to talk with
, which has as many historical grievances
as vice versa. (Someone please tell the president.) With Cheney playing the heavy, it has not been possible to penetrate the praetorian guard for candid discussions with the president. The sooner that can be done the better. Hurry! Before Cheney gets
ultimate aim, in my view, should be a
free of nuclear weapons. That, I am confident, would stop whatever plans the Iranians have to develop nuclear weapons. And please do not
tell me that, because
would not agree, we cannot
move in this direction. The
and others can provide the necessary
guarantees of the security of
. And Israeli intransigence on this issue is not a viable middle- or long-term strategy that serves
's interest or the interest of
justice and peace.