The Other About-Face on Iran

In releasing a bombshell about Iran’s nuclear program, intelligence director Mike McConnell reversed a vow of secrecy. But he probably had no choice.

“You will be disappointed,” Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, told a gathering of journalists in Washington on November 13. U.S. spy agencies were putting the finishing touches on a National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, which included new leads that the agencies had been vetting since spring. But departing from recent practice, McConnell said, “I do not intend to release unclassified key judgments” of the NIE, those heavily edited yet potentially telling morsels of analysis that might ultimately show how close the United States is to a war with Iran.

“We have probably done a thousand of these” NIEs, he said. “We have done unclassified key judgments for maybe three. So we created an expectation that we do this, because we did it previously.” And that was a bad idea, McConnell said, with some passion.

For starters, even the “sanitized” version of an NIE could compromise vital sources and methods, he said, because the target of the estimate is, of course, going to read the document. Second, “I don’t want to have a situation where the young analysts” — whom McConnell guards with particular devotion because he was once one of them — “are writing something because they know it’s going to be a public debate or political debate. They should be writing it to call it as it is.”

McConnell, whom a longtime colleague describes as having “not a political or manipulative bone in his body,” also stated he would “make every effort” to prosecute anyone who leaked the NIE. Then, he vowed (twice) to resign if the intelligence was “cherry-picked in an inappropriate way” by government officials.

Things changed dramatically in the three weeks after McConnell’s public denunciation of leaks and declassification. On December 3, McConnell and his aides reversed that decision and released the unclassified key judgments of the NIE on Iran. Try as McConnell might to keep the lid on the new estimate, his lieutenants were influenced by the political realities of intelligence these days.

“They thought it would leak and be distorted, and they thought they’d get ahead of that,” said one former senior intelligence official close to the deliberations. “They decided it was better to put out a clean set of key judgments.” Vice President Cheney went so far as to say that officials expected to lose control of some classified material. “There was a general belief — that we all shared — that it was important to put it out, that it was not likely to stay classified for long, anyway,” Cheney told The Politico on December 5. “Everything leaks.”

The leak-prevention strategy was a stark departure from the guidelines that McConnell had set out, both in November and a month earlier, when he issued this official policy: “The possibility that the [key judgments] or other positions of an estimate will be leaked is not a sufficient reason for preparing unclassified [key judgments].” In a briefing with reporters after the NIE was released, a senior intelligence official acknowledged that declassification “obviously represents a departure from [McConnell’s] guidance.”

The banner headline of the key judgments — “that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” — put the intelligence community precisely where McConnell didn’t want it to be: in the middle of a ferocious political and policy debate in which sources and methods of the intelligence on Iran, as well as the analysis, are being openly discussed, exposed, debated, and, yes, cherry-picked to suit a range of agendas. Indeed, even though the NIE does not say that Iran poses no nuclear threat, the key judgments on areas besides the weapons program have had to compete with the dramatic top-line assessment.

Because the new estimate upends its predecessor, made in 2005, and has undercut any nuclear-related pretext for a U.S. bombing of Iran, the political and ideological dispositions of the analysts who wrote the NIE are, predictably, under scrutiny. Within days of the key judgments’ release, former Bush administration officials and neoconservative icons mounted a full-scale attack on McConnell’s lieutenants, some of whom had long careers in the State Department and have, the critics contend, historically underestimated Iran.

These critics characterized the NIE as the lieutenants’ way of cutting off Cheney and the president on their presumed path to war with Iran — a contention that wasn’t refuted by senior intelligence officials’ repeated assertions that Iran’s decision to stop its program in 2003 and to keep it shuttered resulted directly from international pressures and sanctions. Indeed, intelligence officials have been careful not to assert that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the key motivator for Iran’s change of plans. Whether McConnell’s aides meant to pre-empt the White House or not, the conclusion is undeniable: The intelligence community is at odds with President Bush’s forceful rhetoric on Iran.

Since the NIE was released, McConnell has been notably absent from the public fracas. His deputy, Donald Kerr, a veteran nuclear weapons expert, has given the intelligence community’s only two on-the-record statements about the estimate. McConnell was out of the country when the key judgments were released.

Around Washington, rumors persist that McConnell threatened to resign over the issue. It’s not clear, however, whether he staked his tenure on the NIE being released or withheld, or whether he saw any cherry-picking by the White House, but the gossip is one more measure of just how political the release of this document has become. Observers point out that in the month preceding the NIE, Bush warned that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could lead to “World War III,” and Cheney, four days later, gave a bellicose speech reminiscent of the run-up to war with Iraq over its weapons programs. The White House already knew by then, at a minimum, that the intelligence community was vetting potentially groundbreaking intelligence on Iran that could change the NIE.

Perhaps under pressure to back up their bold new claims on Iran, senior officials have gone further, giving on-background press interviews in which they catalog the streams of intelligence that led the analysts to change their nuclear conclusions — purloined laptop computers loaded with weapons diagrams; notebooks and intercepted phone calls from high-ranking officials; and, as reported by the Los Angeles Times this week, a clandestine operation called “Brain Drain,” in which the CIA helped mid- and top-level Iranian nuclear experts flee the country.

Unless officials are trying to affect the Iranian government’s actions through a massive disinformation campaign, it would seem that the intelligence community has set aside McConnell’s concerns about sources and methods. “I’m shocked by the level of public discussion,” said a former senior intelligence official who worked on Iranian issues for many years, adding, “I don’t see much good that comes from releasing NIEs.”

Kerr has said that the release “was coordinated in discussion with senior policy makers,” but that the intelligence community “took responsibility for what portions … were to be declassified.” Officials weighed “the importance of the information to open discussions about our national security” against protecting sources and methods, he said, and “felt it was important to release this information to ensure that an accurate presentation is available.”

Still, only a dramatic turn of events would have led McConnell to abandon his policy of not making NIEs public, several former officials who know him said. One former high-ranking official involved in clandestine operations said that in more than 30 years in the intelligence business, he had never seen a key judgment change so dramatically so fast — indicating that the new intelligence that officials picked up amounted to a veritable “smoking gun.”

“Keep in mind, this thing had been built up, which is somewhat unusual for an NIE,” said another former senior official, who has also worked on Capitol Hill. The document was months behind schedule, widely anticipated, and focused on one of the top foreign-policy issues of the moment. “I think this was an extraordinary circumstance,” the former official said.

Expressing concern over the public airing of sources, a Senate staffer said that the NIE “has certainly been sucked into a political debate,” and that McConnell is clearly concerned about the effect that the fallout might have on analysts. “For that, we will have to wait and see,” the aide said. “I still think that he simply had no choice. There was no way this would stay secret, and he didn’t want to be accused of trying to bury it. I think he held his nose and let it go.”

Many intelligence professionals concur. And in the NIE’s release, they see signs not of an outright insurrection against the Bush administration but of a reassertion by the intelligence community of its ability to influence policy — public or otherwise. McConnell’s team is hardly backing down in the face of the neocon onslaught. Last Saturday, Kerr shot back at the NIE’s critics in an unusual and terse public statement. Labeled “In response to those questioning the analytic work and integrity of the United States intelligence community,” Kerr’s statement said that the agencies’ “task … is to produce objective, ground-truth analysis. We feel confident in our analytic tradecraft and resulting analysis in this estimate.”

So there.

Published in
National Journal.