Papering the War Against Iran

Perhaps the presence of so many lawyers in government has made inevitable the tendency for the United States to attempt to justify a war on paper even before a single shot is fired.  George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq virtually from the day that he entered office, but the Administration nevertheless dutifully worked its way through the United Nations, basing its case on a parcel of lies and half-truths, to obtain a legal justification in the form of a Security Council resolution to attack Saddam Hussein.

Currently, the search for a piece of paper that will seal the fate of Iran is underway, with considerable pressure from the White House to come up with a document that can be used to justify war.  The battle is being fought out within the intelligence community, not unlike the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, but this time the CIA analysts are pushing back.  Intelligence analysts regularly prepare spot reports on individual issues but their most refined product is the so-called National Intelligence Estimate or NIE.  The NIE is a consensus document reflecting the views of the entire intelligence community, consisting of sixteen different agencies, and is only issued after a line-by-line review by the National Intelligence Board.  It can include dissenting views where there is particular disagreement on a certain issue.  NIEs are normally requested by the intelligence consumers, generally the White House, but also to include Congress or the Department of Defense.  After receiving a request, the National Intelligence Council weighs up the available resources and actually commissions the report. 

The NIE reports themselves can deal with specific countries or they can focus on an issue like proliferation or drug trafficking that is transnational, but they are intended to address "key national security concerns."  The most notorious NIE in recent history was the 2002 NIE on Iraq that essentially gave the green light for military action through its endorsement of the widespread belief that Saddam Hussein was aspiring to weapons of mass destruction and therefore posed a threat to his neighbors and also to the United States. 

Though the process would appear to be somewhat transparent, it is actually highly political in terms of who or what will be the subject of an NIE.  To have an NIE produced about one’s country is in itself a suggestion that there is some kind of problem from the point of view of Washington.  Early in the Obama Administration experienced diplomat Chas Freeman was selected to head the National Intelligence Council, which moderates the process that eventually produces the report.  Freeman was torpedoed when AIPAC decided that his viewpoints were out of the mainstream because he had been critical of the Israeli government and its policies.  For the same reason, there has never been an NIE on Israel both because it would be recognition that Israel presents a problem and because any serious inquiry into settlement policies and the country’s nuclear arsenal would be politically unpalatable.

The most recent NIE on Iran was issued in December 2007.  Its conclusions were released to the public in a heavily redacted nine page summary report "Iran:  Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities."  The key conclusion, one that attracted a great deal of criticism, was that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and had not restarted it subsequently, "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work." 

Critics of the report responded with a form of analysis made famous by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, noting that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  They were, in other words, noting that the general lack of solid information on developments inside Iran might mean that a secret program could easily have been missed.  The intelligence community conceded that that might be the case, but it also noted that it had definitive evidence, high confidence, that the weapons program had been halted and no evidence whatsoever that it had been started up again.

In subsequent testimony before Congress and to the media, the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair has essentially stood by the conclusions of the Iran NIE, confirming that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.  In the February 2010 declassified version of the Annual Threat Assessment delivered to Congress by the office of the DNI, it was reported that "We continue to assess that Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that bring it closer to being able to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.  We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to produce nuclear weapons."  It is believed that the recent Iranian scientist defector Shahram Amiri has provided information that enabled Blair to declare with confidence that the weapons program continues to be suspended.  A March 2010 Congressionally mandated annual DNI report in response to the Intelligence Authorization Act’s requirement to monitor the acquisition of technology to develop weapons of mass destruction concluded that "We do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to produce nuclear weapons."

It is widely believed in intelligence circles in Washington that the office of the Director of National Intelligence has commissioned a new NIE on Iran.  The supposition is that the new NIE "will get it right" and come down on the side of confirming that the Iranians intend to construct a nuclear weapon, thereby justifying the possible exercise of a military option by Washington to preempt that development.  But the evidence is not supporting the case that the White House would like to see made.  There have been reports that the new NIE, which had been expected in the fall of 2009, has already been postponed twice, once in December, and again in March.  This is alleged to be due to the difficulty in establishing a consensus on various issues, but it is more likely reflective of analysts’ resistance to pressure coming from the White House to come up with a report that has language that will permit the President to pursue a full range of options in dealing with Iran, options that would include going to war.  There is understandable concern lest the estimate become something similar to the 2002 Iraq NIE, which greatly exaggerated the level of threat and led to a war that today even Republican Congressmen are describing as a "horrible mistake." 

So why does a Washington Post editorial refer to "the likely eventuality that Iran will continue to pursue a nuclear weapon" when in fact the editorial page editor Fred Hiatt knows no such thing?  Can it be because the neocons at the Post want war with Iran?  The facts about Iran’s nuclear program are well known and they all indicate that there is no weapons development underway.  But a constant barrage from the media about evil Iran coupled with an NIE report providing wiggle room for a military option could come together to bring about another disaster in the Middle East.  An NIE that emphasizes the negative rather than the positive, suggesting that Iran is likely intending to construct a weapon, could easily turn into another Saddam Hussein moment, with Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta sternly addressing the UN Security Council and warning about mushroom clouds.   As one senior intelligence analyst has concluded, all the evidence continues to indicate that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and does not currently have a weapons program, but because the Iranian leadership could change direction at any time, without any debate, without any warning, it is a situation that can easily be exploited by those seeking war.  It seems clear at this point that the friends of Israel in Congress and the media will seek to emphasize that possibility, not for the first time opening the door to conflict based on something that might happen, putting Iran in an impossible position where it has to prove a negative to avoid being attacked.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.