Mar 1 2008

What National Intelligence Estimate?

Good news fails to slow anti-Iran campaign

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Erjkprunczyk

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Erjkprunczyk

For a moment it looked like the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) finding that Iran had halted its alleged nuclear weapons program might put a crimp in the White House’s campaign to portray Iran as a menace to the U.S. and its Mideast neighbors.

The Washington Post (12/4/07) summarized the NIE’s impact:

The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration’s alarming rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but could also throttle Bush’s effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.

CBS News’ Bob Schieffer (12/4/07) called the disclosures “more than an embarrassment” and “very disturbing.” The same day CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told colleague Jack Cafferty the revelations were “pretty embarrassing.” Cafferty agreed, responding, “It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful.”

That was before George Bush embarked on a six nation Mideast tour intended to hype the Iran threat and do NIE damage control. The trip followed by a week a suspicious “incident” in the Strait of Hormuz, where the White House and the Pentagon claimed Iranian speedboats had aggressively approached and threatened U.S. Naval vessels. (See page 12.)

Just a month after the release of the NIE, on January 9, Bush stood next to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem declaring Iran “a threat to world peace,” while privately, according to news reports, disavowing the NIE findings to Olmert.

According to Newsweek (1/13/07), an administration official who accompanied Bush on the trip said Bush “told the Israelis that he can’t control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE’s] conclusions don’t reflect his own views.” A source close to Olmert seemed to confirm the account, saying Bush told the prime minister “he was uncomfortable with the findings”; he “seemed almost apologetic,” the sources said. As Newsweek reasonably concluded, Bush “may be trying to tell his allies something more: that he thinks the document is a dead letter.”

Just how thoroughly the White House was able to turn the intelligence document into a “dead letter,” and press on with its case against Iran almost as if the NIE never happened, is a tale of media complicity going back years.

Losing Exhibit A

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program,” read a declassified summary of the 2007 NIE, released on December 3, 2007. It noted that Iran continues to run a civilian enrichment program, but said this was not considered a weapons program because it was being done at openly declared facilities under international supervision. The assessment explained that even if Iran were to restart its program now, it would not be likely to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single weapon before the middle of the next decade, and expressed doubt about whether Iran “currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.”

Drafted in November 2006 by the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, the assessment cut against a 2005 NIE that found with “high confidence” that Iran was “determined to develop nuclear weapons.”

The new NIE brought the U.S. intelligence community closer in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. group charged with monitoring nuclear energy programs and their compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In five years of inspections, going back to 2002, the IAEA had found no credible evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program.

But hawks, eager to do damage control over the loss of Exhibit A in their case against Iran, wasted little time in countering the effects of the NIE, making use of a media that gave them little resistance.

Leading the way was George W. Bush himself. In a news conference the day after the NIE was published (, 12/4/07), Bush used the words “danger” and “dangerous” two dozen times in describing Iran. “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon,” said Bush.

Besides hyping the Iran menace, Bush’s rhetoric appeared to raise the bar on Iran, to a point where even Iranian “knowledge” of nuclear weapons manufacture—knowledge available in libraries and on the Internet—was presented as a threat. But the change in language had actually begun in August 2007, when Bush first learned Iran had shut down the alleged program (, 12/5/07; ABC News, 12/3/07). In October 2007, Bush charged that such Iranian knowledge was an apocalyptic threat (New York Times, 10/18/07): “I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

When it was revealed that Bush had learned at least as early as August that U.S. intelligence believed Iran had jettisoned its alleged nuclear weapons program, a few journalists asked why, after learning such seemingly good news, Bush would adopt increasingly dark and ominous rhetoric toward Iran (e.g.,, 12/5/07; MSNBC Countdown, 12/6/07).

Army of hawks

But an army of Iran hawks followed Bush into the media with the message that Iran was still a looming menace. Some suggested the NIE made no difference; some, like former Bush official John Bolton, suggested the new NIE was simply wrong.

For instance, Bolton appeared in the first flush of New York Times reporting ( ,12/4/07), suggesting, in the paper’s words, that “the finding that Iran halted a weapons program could just mean that it was better hidden now.” The same piece quoted Bush National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley warning that the NIE “tells us that the risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon remains a very serious problem.”

Bolton also appeared in that day’s Washington Post (12/4/07) belittling the NIE as merely “this week’s intelligence.” Bolton’s post-NIE appearances also included a one-on-one NPR interview (12/8/07) and a column on the Washington Post op-ed page (12/6/07) where he launched an all-out assault on the “flawed,” “contradictory” NIE, even suggesting its authors may have been duped by an Iranian disinformation campaign. “The sudden appearance of new sources,” wrote Bolton, “should be taken with more than a little skepticism.”

Paradoxically, the new NIE was repeatedly used by hawks, including Bush, Hadley and Bolton, to enshrine as fact that Iran had once had a nuclear weapons program (e.g., L.A. Times, 12/5/07; Washington Post, 12/4/07; CNN, 12/4/07). IAEA inspections have never been able to verify this claim, a fact that went virtually unmentioned in corporate media coverage of the claims.

Bolton was not the only hawkish critic of the NIE. Among the many critics who appeared in the wake of the NIE release, Frank Gaffney and Michael Ledeen were also popular (e.g., MSNBC Hardball, 12/5/07; NPR, 12/5/07).

Unnamed sources were also called on. For instance, in its first-day coverage, the New York Times (,12/4/07) cited an unnamed “senior nuclear specialist” suggesting that, in the paper’s words, “Iran had made so much progress in its clandestine work that the 2003 halt might have little practical significance, as long as it can keep working on its open efforts to produce fuel suitable for a weapon.”

In its second day of coverage, the Times (12/5/07) featured a report about how civilian enrichment programs may be converted to produce weapons-grade uranium. A few days later, a similar segment about the convertibility of Iran’s civilian enrichment program ran on NPR (12/8/07).

These stories were not in error. In fact, the same process used to manufacture civilian-grade uranium at 5 percent concentration, if done over and over on a massive scale, may be used to produce weapons-grade uranium at 85 percent purity. But neither report pointed out that there are many civilian enrichment programs around the world— all convertible, with some effort, to weapons use. So the problem isn’t unique to Iran. Furthermore, the fact that Iran’s program has been called a civilian program by the NIE and the IAEA, which found that Iran has never enriched uranium beyond a 4 percent concentration, went unmentioned in these stories.

Missing doves

Critical perspectives, especially ones that challenge government claims, are a key ingredient of good journalism. But post-NIE coverage exhibited a one-sided notion of which critical perspectives are acceptable.

For instance, there are critics of the latest NIE who take the IAEA’s position that no evidence has been presented proving Iran ever had an illicit program. Indeed, IAEA chief Mohammed El Baradei has been demanding the U.S. produce evidence for such charges for years. (According to a recent New York Times article—2/15/07—that evidence may be forthcoming, as the U.S. has reportedly agreed to turn over some evidence to the agency.)

But critics who don’t hold hawkish views were nowhere to be found in the post-NIE coverage. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself many times in U.S. reporting on Bush administration foreign policy. A look at the reporting on three relevant NIEs (2002, 2005, 2007) reveals the lopsided truth: When findings vindicate hawkish views, no critics are necessary; when hawkish views are not appeased, reporting naturally includes hawkish critics. In either case, experts with less belligerent views are largely ignored or downplayed.

This pattern was borne out in the run-up to the Iraq War, including coverage of the 2002 NIE that declared that Iraq had illicit weapons programs and stockpiles of WMD. Even though the 2002 NIE was produced hastily (and, as it would later be learned, under pressure from the Bush administration—Washington Post, 6/5/03), critics of the case for war were exceedingly hard to find in coverage. Indeed, even journalists who clearly debunked the U.S. intelligence at the time were ignored (Extra!, 3=4/06). (By contrast, the current NIE was reportedly produced under a new process designed to bring forward dissenting views—New York Times, 12/5/07.)

If journalists learned any lessons from Iraq, it wasn’t evident in coverage of the 2005 NIE, which found with “high confidence” that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons. That NIE similarly met with little to no scrutiny in the mainstream press.

As Extra! showed in 2005 (9=10/05), top national media outlets like the New York Times reported as fact that Iran had a nuclear weapons program. For instance, Times reporter Patrick Tyler wrote (6/27/05) of “efforts to bring the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program before the United Nations Security Council,” while the paper’s star military correspondent, Michael Gordon, suggested (10/19/04) that a U.S.-friendly regime in Iraq might pressure “Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program.” This was at a time when, the 2007 NIE now says, the alleged program had been jettisoned, and when IAEA findings that Iran was in compliance with the NPT were largely being ignored.

Praying for bombs

This pattern continued into the months leading up to the 2007 NIE release. In June, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (6/6/07) asserted that “Iran is about to go nuclear.” The Wall Street Journal (,5/30/07) featured a long essay by Norman Podhoretz that compared Iran to Nazi Germany and, citing its non-existent nuclear weapons capacity, called for it to be bombed. The headline and the subhead said it all: “The Case for Bombing Iran: I Hope and Pray That President Bush Will Do It.”

Not to be outdone by Podhoretz, who was an advisor to GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani at the time, Republican candidate John McCain replied to a question about his Iran policy by breaking into a chorus of “Bomb Iran, bomb, bomb Iran,” to the tune of the old Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann” (ABC News, 4/19/07).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (9/25/07), anchor Sean Hannity hosted a segment in which he set out to explain “what a U.S. strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would look like,” outlining its “objective”:

destroy and disable Iran’s top nuclear facilities, impact its ability to process and enrich uranium, delay its ability to manufacture and deploy nuclear weapons, all while crippling the ruling regime.

In a healthier media culture, a less bellicose commentator might have pointed out that what Podhoretz, McCain and Hannity were advocating amounted to war crimes, whether Iran was harboring a covert nuclear weapons program or not. Moreover, in following up on the NIE release, journalists might have grilled each of them about their calls for American air strikes against innocent Iranians.

But these views went unchallenged, in large part because they were not that far out of place in a media culture that had completely swallowed the White House line on Iran.

Lulled by the line

Indeed, so lulled by the White House line were U.S. reporters that no one caught George Bush falsely claiming last August that Iran “has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon.” That job was left to Agence France Presse (8/6/07), which not only declared the Bush claim false in its lead, but explained why the charge was particularly irresponsible: “U.S. President George W. Bush charged Monday that Iran has openly declared that it seeks nuclear weapons—an inaccurate accusation at a time of sharp tensions between Washington and Tehran.”

The fact that Bush was making false charges about a country his administration has been suggesting might require military action received next to no recognition in the U.S. press. This omission presaged the treatment another important story would receive in January.

Following up on Newsweek’s scoop about Bush’s disavowal of the NIE in Israel, Canada’s National Post (1/14/07) reported on the reactions of Israeli officials to the Bush visit. Under the headline, “U.S. Option to Bomb Iran Still on the Table; Bush Gives Israel Hope of Military Action,” the Post’s Matthew Fisher reported that Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Sallai Meridor, said that the two countries were “in sync” on Iran, and that military action was still possible. As Fisher put it:

All options, including a military strike, remained on the table, he said, despite a recent National Intelligence Estimate prepared by an alphabet soup of U.S. intelligence agencies that concluded Iran no longer had a nuclear weapons program and had not had one since 2003.

How did we get from a situation in which the NIE was called an “embarrassment” that would “take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action” to a situation where the estimate is a “dead letter,” and the possibility of attacking Iran still very much alive?

Much of the blame goes to a White House campaign of demonization that recognizes intelligence only when it says what it wants to hear. Direct aid from a press corps that has shown little independence or vigilance when it comes to Iran made that campaign run that much more smoothly.

Research assistance provided by Jamie Cunningham.