There’s Still Time to Rethink Iran

More than five years have passed since President Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil.” It is imperative that we try to piece together what role U.S. intelligence played in supporting the “axis” idea and the misguided policies and actions that ensued.

For the “axis of evil” sobriquet morphed into axes for grinding by accomplices like then-CIA Director George Tenet, and the pandering was consequential. Here is the “axis” part of Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002:

"North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction…. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons…. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade…. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil … posing a grave and growing danger…. I will not wait on events …”

Nor, apparently, wait on good intelligence, either.

It used to be that presidents made decisions based, at least in part, on the judgments of the intelligence community. It was a shock to see that process stood on its head, with the president asserting a “grave and growing danger” and then telling functionaries like Tenet to conjure up the “intelligence” to support his rhetorical flourishes. We are talking about untruths with tragic consequences.

Iraq: Anyone who has been awake over the past five years is aware of how the intelligence process was corrupted to justify attacking Iraq. No thanks to the corporate media, but many have also learned of the “Downing Street Memorandum,” which provides documentary evidence of lying. That memo, acknowledged by the British to be authentic, contains the minutes of a meeting on July 23, 2002, at which the chief of British intelligence gave Prime Minister Tony Blair an update on Bush’s plans for war.

Based on conversations with Tenet at CIA headquarters three days before, the UK intelligence chief told Blair and his advisors about the evidence that Bush intended to use to “justify” his decision to make war on Iraq. When the British foreign minister observed that the intelligence was “thin,” the intelligence chief famously said, "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

It does not get much clearer than that.

North Korea: It turns out that Bush’s repeated claims, beginning in the fall of 2002, that North Korea was secretly producing highly enriched uranium in addition to its publicly known plutonium program were, well, wrong. We should not be surprised, since that dubious intelligence analysis was brought to us by the same folks who were stretching those Iraqi “aluminum tubes” well beyond their tolerance, and stretching our credulity well beyond the breaking point.

Pyongyang had bought some nuclear equipment from Pakistan and elsewhere but, according to multiple sources of veteran reporter Jonathan Landay, there was never any evidence that the North Koreans were able to assemble that equipment into a functioning uranium enrichment program. This came up at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 27, when a senior intelligence officer announced that the earlier judgment (stated, mind you, with “high confidence”) that North Korea was building an industrial-scale uranium enrichment program has now been downgraded to a “mid-level confidence” judgment.

Was the earlier judgment consequential? Judge for yourself: Bush used the alleged uranium effort to renege in December 2002 on deliveries of heavy fuel oil promised in return for North Korea freezing its plutonium production program under the bilateral agreement of 1994. The following month, North Korea ended its freeze and expelled U.N. inspectors. It has now harvested enough plutonium for about a dozen nuclear weapons and conducted its first test.

Iran: Maybe, just maybe, this consistent record of hyping the nuclear threat from the “axis of evil” will prompt sober minds to look under the hood and kick the tires when it comes to Iran. On Iran the intelligence community at least has been consistent, but in a manner far from reassuring. In 1995 it started saying – every year – that Iran was "within five years” of reaching a nuclear weapons capability. When the last National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was published almost two years ago, the forecast basically was moved out to 10 years. But in a fit of nervous caution the estimators agreed on the expression “early-to-mid-next decade.” Testifying before the Senate on Feb. 27, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell was consistent; he used that same formula.

A fresh NIE on Iran is said to be in final draft, and McConnell surely had been briefed on how it addresses this question. OK, let’s assume the new consistent forecast is correct – that Iran does intend to produce nuclear weapons and could have that capability within that time-frame.

Hello! That would mean there is still time for unconditional U.S.-Iran bilateral talks to address Iran’s intentions even if – especially if – the Iranians are determined to create a “grave and growing danger” of the kind fraudulently posited for Iraq. As Churchill put it, "Better to Jaw-Jaw than War-War.”

This article originally appeared in the Miami Herald. Reprinted with author’s permission.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).