U.S. intelligence agencies reported their consensus last week in a new National Intelligence Estimate that Iran appears to have halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago. This challenges what the White House and its neoconservative allies in the media and elsewhere thought they had already established as incontrovertible fact: that Iran’s nuclear weapons program poses an immediate, existential threat to the United States of America.
The report contradicts a 2005 NIE by stating that Iran is likely “less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging” and “may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.” This, of course, doesn’t square with the thinking of those who desire yet another American attack on yet another Islamic, oil-rich, four-lettered nation beginning with “Ira-”
Those who advocated for military action against Iran swiftly jumped to discredit or downplay the new NIE. First up was President Bush, who has hyped Iran’s nuclear threat to the point of invoking World War III. Bush called a press conference immediately after the report was released to downplay the report’s assessment and insist that he only found out about the report very recently.
Yet it has been widely reported that this NIE has existed for a year already, and according to former CIA agent Larry Johnson, who was the first person to report that a new NIE on Iran existed, Bush himself has known about it since then, including every time he spoke ominously of a nuclear Iran and world wars. Naturally, albeit a bit frighteningly, Time columnist Joe Klein praised Bush’s reaction to the NIA as “an amazing moment of candor by the United States” where Bush “didn’t try to block it.” Really.
Bush’s neoconservative allies in the media have proven far more aggressive than the president. Their criticisms of the NIE took two basic approaches: one set of critics have attacked U.S. intelligence agencies for “politicizing” the report, which is code for reaching conclusions that are inconsistent with neoconservative ambitions; the second set of commentators has ascribed all kinds of Bush-hating psychological motives to the career intelligence officers who created the report.
Norman Podhoretz, a founding father of neoconservatism and a foreign policy advisor to Rudy Giuliani, wrote that “the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.” Right-wing historian and columnist Victor Davis Hanson also accused the intelligence community of “condescending animus toward George Bush” along with “generic arrogance that their genius is not appreciated and so they leak and back stab against their betters to ensure someone out there knows just how brilliant they really are.” Of course, neither man has actually seen any classified intelligence, nor has any intelligence training to back up his analysis, but never mind that. Ideology requires no knowledge of reality.
These ideologues have grown accustomed in recent years to using the intelligence agencies to advance their foreign policy goals. The 2002 NIE on Iraq was sufficiently altered and politicized by bullying from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney that it made Iraq appear much more dangerous than it actually was. The Washington Post reported in June 2003 that Cheney and his Chief of Staff, Scooter Libby, personally visited CIA analysts working on the estimate to get them to re-examine their skepticism on Iraq’s weapons capabilities.
But, as Johnson points out, the tables have now turned. “Senior intelligence officers learned the lesson of 2002 and returned to the tradition of telling the President the truth, no matter how unpopular or unpalatable,” Johnson writes. “This Administration’s days are numbered and the analysts can read the tea leaves. They know there is no percentage in pandering to power by serving up half-truths and wishful thinking.”
Neoconservatives are now attacking the government’s intelligence agencies, something they have had to do for a better part of the last 30 years. At various points since the 1970s, neoconservatives have succeeded in setting up parallel intelligence outfits to counter the analysis of the real ones when they did not like their conclusions.
In the 1970s, CIA director George H.W. Bush was pressured into setting up the infamous “Team B,” a panel of hardliners purposely designed to hype Soviet capabilities and contradict NIE output by regular CIA officers. Their conclusions, which formed the basis for the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, turned out to be even further off the mark than the CIA’s own overestimations of Soviet capabilities.
Again in the 1990s, the Rumsfeld Commission—named after the same fellow who did such a bang-up job in Iraq— managed to come to a series of incorrect conclusions about the ability of third-world countries to obtain long-range missiles. It was used as a defense for Bush’s missile defense plan in the early part of this decade back before the administration was displaying much interest in the problem of terrorism.
So here again, history is repeating itself as a costly farce. Getting the intelligence agencies in line would be nice, but neoconservatives are used to playing against them and are already preparing to do so. Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) already plans to introduce legislation that would create a commission to get a “fresh set of eyes” on the NIE’s findings.
The Wall Street Journal editors meanwhile seem to wish that they could join their ideological comrade Christopher Hitchens in pushing to abolish the agency entirely—or at least get rid of its ability to undertake politically independent analysis. “But the ultimate responsibility for this fiasco lies with Mr. Bush. Too often he has appointed, or tolerated, officials who oppose his agenda, and failed to discipline them even when they have worked against his policies,” they explain. This view was reiterated on Tuesday in an op-ed by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal: “We now have an ‘intelligence community’ that acts as an authority unto itself, and cannot be trusted to obey its political masters, much less keep a secret.” In other words, “Nice little intelligence community you have here, I’d hate to see anything happen to it.”
Let’s hope the intelligence agency does not scare as easily as these neocons apparently do.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.