The ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, is “profoundly disappointed” with the way the intelligence community has handled the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, and says he is “not convinced” of their conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in late 2003.
“While the intelligence may have gotten better, it hasn’t improved to the point where we can make this kind of definitive statement, that Iran has stopped their weapons program,” he told Newsmax in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
“The intelligence community has proven over past five to seven years that they can’t get analysis right. They can’t build satellites. They can’t keep a secret. And now they expect us to say, great work? This is dead nuts!” he said.
This latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear weapons program has become a political football, as Republicans and Democrats dispute its findings, the motivations for its release, and the policies it advocates.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the report vindicates Democrats who have been skeptical of claims that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, and has urged the administration to launch a “diplomatic surge” and cut a deal with Tehran.
Republicans are wondering how the intelligence community could reverse itself so thoroughly from its 2005 estimate, and suspect that “shadow warriors” opposed to the president are skewing the intelligence for political ends.
“This is CIA pay-back to the president for having made them, not FBI, take the rap for the failures that led up to 9/11,” one well-informed source told Newsmax.
The sparring over a highly-classified set of facts and conclusions is precisely the reason Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said last month he did not to intend to make the NIE findings public.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Nov. 14, McConnell said he did not want “a situation where the young analysts are writing something because they know it’s going to be a public debate or political debate.”
McConnell reversed course at the insistence of Democrats in Congress and published an unclassified summary of key findings on Monday, with predictable results.
The intermingling of intelligence with politics raises “profound issues” about the role of the intelligence community, said Michelle Van Cleave, who was the nation’s top counter-intelligence officer until last year.
“Should intelligence be contributing to the public debate? Or should it be confined to providing that secret information to national security decision makers that they cannot get anywhere else? If it is that later, we should not be encouraging them to go public with snapshot in time judgments,” she said.
Hoekstra said he received a call for McConnell’s to deputy, Donald Kerr, just hours before the Key Findings were released on Monday.
That last-minute call, and subsequent briefings by intelligence community representatives, were “disappointing,” said Hoekstra.
Citing the 2005 Iran estimate that concluded with “high confidence” that Iran continued to pursue nuclear weapons, Hoekstra said the president should order a “full-depth analysis” to get the intelligence community to “fully explain how they got it so wrong in 2005 and how they now believe they’ve got it so right in 2007.”
Hoekstra didn’t dispute the actual findings of the NIE, which concluded with “high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” His concern was the process that led the intelligence community to so dramatically reverse itself, and whether ongoing “gaps” in U.S. knowledge of Iran shouldn’t prompt analysts to greater prudence in their judgments.
“I get very nervous when they make these kind of definitive statements,” he said.
Representatives from the 16 member agencies of the intelligence community briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, and the House committee on Wednesday.
Hoekstra said that the closed-door presentation was “pathetic.”
“We expect them to be forthright, so you don’t have to ask 50 questions to make sure you ask the right one,” he said. “Members didn’t find them forthcoming, or even well-versed in answering very tough questions that were put to them by Democrats and Republicans.”
Herbert E. Meyer, who helped draft National Intelligence Estimates during the Reagan administration, believes the controversy has become so intense – and so partisan – that the president should appoint a non-partisan commission of experts to sift through the evidence, to determine if it supports the conclusions of the report.
Such a review of the NIE is necessary, he argues, because the main conclusion of the report – that Iran had a nuclear weapons program but shut it down in the fall of 2003 – “flies in the face of virtually everything we know – or thought we knew – about the Iranian regime, its capabilities and its intentions.”
If that key judgment is incorrect, and the Iranians are in fact continuing to build nuclear weapons, “the political impact of its publication will be catastrophic,” Meyer said.
“Simply put, we need to know for sure whether the new Key Judgment is right or wrong,” he said. “And, given the long list of failures and reversals that has plagued our intelligence community during the last decade, it's reasonable to be skeptical.”
Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph believes that Iran’s continued production of fissile material – ostensibly for a civilian power program – shows that “Iran remains a threat.”
He believes that this capability brings Iran closer to a "nuclear weapons capability."
The same equipment and processes that are needed to enrich uranium to 4 percent for use in a civilian power reactor can also be used to enrich uranium to 93 percent to make a weapon, he argued at a State Department conference on Wednesday to commemorate Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, father of the atomic bomb.
“In 2005, we had high confidence that they were pursuing a nuclear weapon,” he told Newsmax. “I just don’t feel good about this NIE,” which reverses that conclusion.
Joseph helped lead the effort to dismantle Libya’s previously undeclared nuclear weapons program in 2003-2004, along with Assistant Secretary of State for Verificatio Paula DeSutter.
“I know what I saw in Libya,” he said. “And I just don’t see that happening in Iran.”
Joseph recalls U.S. nuclear experts flooding into Libya to take away remnants of a turn-key uranium centrifuge plant bought from the Aq Khan network in Pakistan.
“We packed up hundreds of tons of nuclear enrichment equipment and shipped it to Oak Ridge, Tennessee,” he said. “That’s what I call a non-proliferation program – seeing the Libyan nuclear program sitting in Tennessee. I don’t know how things will end up with our Iranian friends, but I suspect it will be something different.”
Adding to his skepticism, he said, were the jubilant reactions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and of
IAEA Secretary General Mohamed ElBaradei.
“I know this report will be used to marshal international support to stop us from putting pressure on Iran,” he said.
Joseph’s predecessor at the top arms control slot at the State Department was John Bolton, whose nomination to become the permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations was derailed by Senate Democrats in May 2005, with help from State Department official Thomas Fingar. Fingar is also the author of this latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. I trace his background and that of other authors of the NIE in my latest book, “Shadow Warriors.”
Just before the NIE was released last week, Bolton told me that his greatest fear was that changing assumptions about Iran’s capabilities would lead the intelligence community to miscalculate.
“If some of these underlying assumptions turn out to be wrong,” he said, “the Iranians can have weapons capability much earlier than the estimates will lead you to believe. And I, for one, do not believe in just-in-time
Bolton noted that the Iranians “are obviously aware of the risk they run” by continuing to enrich uranium, despite international demands that they suspend enrichment activities.
“Every day that goes by gives them more of an opportunity to harden their existing facilities or to build completely alternative facilities of which we have no knowledge. Our
lack of reliable intelligence inside Iran is substantial.”
Bolton believes the Iranians have made significant gains in their nuclear program by gaming the system, and that the State Department should have taken a harder line, instead of allowing protracted negotiations through the Europeans to continue.
“All this long period of time has put Iran in a much more favorable position. It is a classic case study why diplomacy is not cost-free. If we had been working on regime change effectively over the last four years, we would be in a lot different position today,” he said.
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