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Bolton's Sleazy Attack on the NIE

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John Bolton's attack in today's WaPo on the Iran NIE and its unwelcome conclusion that Iran stopped work related to nuclear weapons in fall 2003 makes it clear that the Cheney faction is furious at the intelligence community and still trying to discredit its primary judgment.

Bolton was an integral part of the neoconservative cabal's efforts to promote a policy of military force against Iran before he left the administration a year ago. Unlike the rantings of Norman Podhoretz', his views reflect his continuing contact with the neoconservatives still on Cheney's team.

As we should expect, Bolton's attack is full of dishonest arguments, and it reveals the desperation of the war party.

Bolton leads with the same argument that Bush has chosen to emphasize -- that there is no essential difference between "military" and "civilian" nuclear programs. Bolton thus seeks to deny that he and others in the administration tried to make the alleged evidence of such a weapons program a major issue in the past.

Bolton hopes that people will forget that it was precisely the suspicion of such a program that the Bush administration used to justify its position at the IAEA that Iran is not entitled to exercise its right under the NPT to enrich uranium.

Here's Bolton in June 2004 testimony before a House Committee, Bolton: "The Iranian nuclear weapons program should be referred to the U.N. Security Council as a threat to international peace and security."

And again in an August 2004 speech, Bolton declared that Iran "has concealed a large-scale, covert nuclear weapons program for over eighteen years...."

Significantly, Bolton and other U.S. officials later stopped using such clear-cut language. Instead they talked about legitimate U.S. suspicions of such a program. Bolton's successor as Undersecretary of state for Arms Control, Robert G. Joseph, was asked in June 2005 if Iran had a nuclear weapons program underway. Joseph answered, "I don't know quite how to answer that because we don't have perfect information or perfect understanding. But the Iranian record, plus what the Iranian leaders have said...lead us to conclude that we have to be highly skeptical."

Bolton then attacks the suggestion in the NIE that Iran might forego nuclear weapons if the United States offered security assurances and other political concessions, charging that this analytical point represents a "political bias" on the part of the analysts.

Right. And asserting that Iran would cave in if threatened with war, as Bolton seems to be arguing by suggesting that he only "pressure" on Iran in 2003 was the U.S. invasion of Iraq, presumably represent complete and utter objectivity.

Then Bolton picks up the same argument that was used by Dick Cheney to pressure the intelligence community for several months last spring and summer to back off its conclusion: that the evidence they had produced in support of it was all part of a clever Iranian "deception campaign". The intelligence community was forced to spend many weeks proving to the White House that it was not an Iranian ruse. And at least some intelligence analysts were complaining privately in October that they were still meeting resistance to publishing the estimate that had been drafted.

Cheney failed utterly to break the unity of the analytical community on this point, which is why the language of the estimate was strong and clear.

In the past the neoconservatives have seen intelligence community as a "soft target" which they could both attack with relative impunity and bend to their will. They succeeded in cowing much of the community into submission in 2002, when the Iraq NIE, completed in just nineteen days, said Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs, despite the lack of evidence to support that conclusion. Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin writes in his excellent new book Curveball that the analysts had been given "clear marching orders" and quotes one of them as saying, "The going-in assumption was we were going to war so this NIE was to be written with that in mind".

That represented a humiliating defeat for the professionals at the CIA and other intelligence agencies. That's part of the reason why, when faced with pressure from Cheney's people to back away from a conclusion the White House didn't like this time around, the analytical community held its ground.

The chickens hatched in that ruthless 2002 exercise have now come home to roost. A united intelligence community can have an impact on the political process when it refuses to cave in. The Bolton attack on it underlines the fact that the war party knows that the release of the NIE represents a cataclysmic political defeat for its strategy.