Presidential dissent on the NIE?

President Bush offered fresh evidence in his State of the Union address last night that not all decision-makers share the intelligence community’s view on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Although he was remarkably restrained in his rhetoric–particularly in comparison to years past–Bush homed in on Iran’s uranium enrichment and ballistic missile programs to remind us that the country still poses a mortal threat.

Tehran is also developing ballistic missiles of increasing range and continues to develop its capability to enrich uranium, which could be used to create a nuclear weapon. [Note: The recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t contradict him on this point.] … Our message to the leaders of Iran is also clear: Verifiably suspend your nuclear enrichment, so negotiations can begin. And to rejoin the community of nations, come clean about your nuclear intentions and past actions, stop your oppression at home and cease your support for terror abroad. But above all, know this: America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf.

The NIE concluded that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, but it narrowly defined said program as “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work,” as well as its covert work to convert and enrich uranium. In other words, this assessment does not cover Iran’s civilian enrichment work, which holds so-called “breakout potential” for a weapons program, nor does it cover work on building a missile to deliver a bomb. Still, it seems the community’s view is that a full weapons program cannot come to fruition without the key weaponization piece.

The president, though, clearly thinks otherwise, and he’s not alone. No less than the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, said recently that he thinks–apparently despite the NIE’s findings–that Iran is on the path to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

This all could be evidence of a high-level split between the intelligence community and its customers. But there’s another possibility. Intelligence is a special policy input, but it is, in the end, just one input. It’s usually a mistake to take any single NIE or intelligence stream as dispositive. The president learned that painful lesson in the run-up to war in Iraq. Some might find it refreshing that this administration, even if in its final days, is not once again hanging its policy towards a key Middle Eastern country on inherently murky intelligence. It just may be that this time the country in question actually does have nuclear weapons, despite what the intelligence community believes.