Say what? McConnell declares there’s "no doubt" Iran is pursuing a nuke

Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker has a new (very long) piece on DNI Mike McConnell, the culmination of an apparently extraordinary level of access and series of intimate interviews. (Wright and McConnell ate together and flew once on the DNI’s private plane.)

While I hate to say the piece didn’t do much to illuminate McConnell’s character, it also may have buried the lead. In the third to last paragraph of the 18-page article, the DNI drops what I consider a mini-bombshell: He thinks that Iran “is on the path to get a nuclear weapon.”

That assessment stands in contrast to the intelligence community’s official, coordinated judgment that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. That was the remarkable turn-about contained in the unclassified key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which McConnell released–after publicly vowing not to–last month.

Now, the NIE was uncertain about whether Iran was restarting its nuclear weapons program, and it certainly left open the possibility, but it seems to me a dramatic public pronouncement for the DNI to say he personally believes there’s no doubt about Iran’s intentions.

Here’s the passage in question from Wright’s article.

When we last spoke, McConnell said, ‘There’s no doubt in this observer’s mind that Iran is on the path to get a nuclear weapon. It will force an arms race in the region.’

As Wright chronicles in his piece, McConnell has recently shown a tendency to say things off-the-cuff that turn out to be not quite accurate, but this statement is rather emphatic. Indeed, the term “no doubt” is a much bolder assertion than the intelligence community’s mark of “high confidence,” used in NIEs to indicate that the assessment is based on high-quality information. One has to presume that, as the nation’s top intelligence official, McConnell has access to the very best information. So what does he know that we don’t after reading the NIE?

For background on the build-up to the NIE’s release, see my story from National Journal last month, “The Other About Face on Iran.”