He said he didn't know the contents of the December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate until a few days ago. This, he implied, was the reason why he spoke freely and provocatively through the summer and fall about the direness of the international threat posed by Iran. A pardonable error, since he was using the best intelligence available to him at the time.
The NIE seems to have been made public as a result of pressure within the intelligence community. The new findings about Iran, if kept secret and distorted, might deeply affect the future of the United States; and so their release became a patriotic obligation. A similar motive can be heard in some recent court decisions and in public statements by leaders of the armed forces.
The National Intelligence Estimate of December 3 says: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." It adds: "We assess with moderate confidence that Tehran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007." And: "We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon." And finally: "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." There are several other judgments, all in the same vein.
President Bush said in his December 4 press conference: "I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was Mike McConnell came in and said, we have some new information. He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze." Anyone who has ever told a lie or detected a lie, and who heard those words as the president spoke them, could pick out the tell-tale signs: the odd pause, the empty negative ("he didn't tell me"), the needless symmetry ("he did tell me"), the calculated vagueness about an entity already as vague as the month of August ("I think it was"), for which precise words had not been charted. It was not only a lie but a shallow lie, easy to expose, unworthy of him.
Compare the press conference of October 17 at which the president said: "We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously." The deliberate fudging around "the knowledge necessary," and the citation of the Iranian president's repulsive words about Israel as the worst we knew about Iran, together now suggest that on October 17 the president already knew the shape of the actual intelligence. He was doing the most he could with non-incendiary materials; but he didn't yet expect that the NIE would tell the country what he himself had been made to see.
Very likely, he knew of Iran's cutback already when he shot out the major quotation of the day on August 28, in his American Legion address in Reno: "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions. We will confront this danger before it is too late." Note the mention of Israel, conjoined with the ambiguous, exploitative use of the word holocaust (a word, in connection with "nuclear," seldom heard since the 1960s). Bush may have wanted to pique the interest of the American Legion, but his real audience for this part was Israeli politicians and the Israel Lobby. The president, moving our country closer to war, was reassuring a Middle East ally that he was still on course. A hidden indication that he knew of the NIE but thought it would stay a secret may be found in the words "active pursuit." A phrase that carefully says nothing but makes your pulse race anyway; implying, without asserting, that Iran's nuclear program is active.
In August, the president was sure of his cover; all he needed was plausible deniability. In December, he was caught in the open. He had to feign an innocence so ludicrous it amounts to a confession of incompetence in itself.
One set of reactions has been revealing. The power of anger is not in the Democrats. Some essential ingredient of the human passions has passed out of their system. Senator Biden, before the NIE appeared, had threatened to impeach the president if he went to war against Iran without authorization; but here was plain evidence of a four-year instigation toward a war, without authorization: why not now summon Cheney, Hadley, and Bush to testify what they knew and when they knew it before they try a similar experiment by a different route? And, while you are at it, call on Senator Lieberman, the author of two incendiary and (as they now appear) ill-informed resolutions on Iran. Many people would like to know who gave Lieberman his certain knowledge of the state of Iranian nuclear knowledge--a question the more interesting since, evidently, that certainty did not come from the United States.
Harry Reid issued a statement of consummate nervelessness. "I hope this Administration reads this report carefully and appropriately adjusts its rhetoric and policy vis-a-vis Iran. The Administration should begin this process by finally undertaking a diplomatic surge necessary to effectively address the challenges posed by Iran." Hillary Clinton, for her part, implicitly sided with the president when she did not have to, and, saying nothing about the abuse of intelligence, declared that the problem remains how to "stop Iran's nuclear ambitions"--for which she said (steering a middle path against the romantic illusions of the CIA) the cure is "neither saber rattling nor unconditional meetings." She spoke on December 4 as if she knew exactly as much as any of us knew on December 2. Barack Obama, a quarter-shade to the left of Clinton, noted without excitement that the NIE "makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy." Of the leading candidates, only Edwards drew the obvious lesson with some sharpness: the NIE "shows that George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran is, in fact, a rush to war." Edwards implied that stopping the rush would call for continued pressure against Cheney and Bush by a determined opposition.
These local tremors would have ended the story within two days, had it not been re-opened elsewhere. For the president's plea of ignorance was exploded once and for all in a country with a free press: Israel. Amos Harel reported in Haaretz on December 6: "Israel has known about the report for more than a month." Harel specified the Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, as one of those who knew the contents of the NIE; it was also, he said, a subject of discussion at Annapolis between George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert. The Haaretz story incidentally carries a subtext. Israel was surprised by the fact that American intelligence acted in American interests and made the report public, thus rendering questionable the case for a U.S. attack on Iran. One can understand the disappointment. The fears of a Barak may be warranted, as those of a Bolton are not, given the proximity to a hostile power and the danger even of a non-nuclear threat. But maybe these private understandings based on public falsification of the facts, on which Olmert and Bush had relied, are a consolation well lost to the leaders of two professing democracies. They should not be in the business of keeping secrets from their people in order to lead their countries into new wars of aggression. The Israeli analyst Harel keeps his balance more steadily than one can imagine an American doing, were the positions reversed. Israeli estimates differ in degree from those of the NIE, he remarks; so who is right? "It just might possibly be the Americans."
Suppose for experiment's sake the innocent hypothesis. The president ran into Michael McConnell some time in August, and heard there was something radically new in the NIE, but he didn't care to follow-up before the public release of the estimate. This is an old story with him. We heard it about George Tenet and the presidential daily briefing a month before the World Trade Center catastrophe, when the president was told Bin Laden intended to strike within the U.S. and he thought nothing of it. The lack of curiosity alone, in these cases, amounts to a public menace. Combine that with the arrogance, the restless anxiety, the love of vicarious action and the ability to look us in the face and lie -- and it makes a very toxic brew.
This president is a danger-maker, convinced he lives for all of us when he lives on the edge; and his authority must be curbed. Every statement issuing from the White House or its vicinity may now be assumed to be false unless supported by interests that are demonstrably separate from those of the White House. Trust has completely broken down. We are better off recognizing the truth and acting on the recognition than pretending for a moment longer. The pattern, from Iraq to Katrina to Iran, is not accident but character.