Jeffrey Lewis writes: On Aug. 9, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that U.S. President Barack Obama has received a new Special National Intelligence Estimate finding that “Iran has made surprising, significant progress toward military nuclear capability.” U.S. officials have refused to confirm that the new estimate exists — either on the record or anonymously — but the administration has asserted that its overall assessment remains unchanged since its last public statement this January, when James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said, “Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons … should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated this view on Tuesday, Aug. 14. Unfortunately, the White House’s concerted campaign to criminalize national security discourse has prevented officials from discussing the estimate with journalists, allowing the most alarmist conjecture to dominate public debate.
The “new” intelligence is probably old news, but that’s hard to see, especially when reporters and officials continue to misstate the judgments of the now famous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions. Unless you have carefully read that report, you are almost certainly misinformed about what it says. Much of the discourse, even among foreign-policy “elites,” includes wildly inaccurate assertions, which in turn makes the entire discourse about Iran much, much dumber.
This is not the time to dumb down the discussion of Iran’s nuclear programs. There is growing support for military action, and we are entering the homestretch of a U.S. presidential election, when sober policy analysis will take a back seat to rhetorical machismo and blatant pandering to any ill-informed prejudice that might swing a few votes. I don’t know if time is drawing short, but my friends and colleagues are clearly wondering about the possibility. Injecting a little realism into this discussions depends, first and foremost, on understanding what the intelligence estimates do, and do not, say.
There have been at least four NIEs on Iran’s weapon-of-mass-destruction programs: in 2001, 2005, 2007, and 2011. (The 2005 document was a “memo to holders,” but for our purposes we can refer to all of them as NIEs.) The defining text is the 2007 NIE. In the popular telling of the story, the 2007 NIE reversed the findings of previous NIEs, revealing that Iran had no nuclear weapons program. This is, depending on your political inclination, a courageous act of dissent by an intelligence community desperate to stop George W. Bush’s warmongering administration from invading yet another country, or a cowardly effort by unelected bureaucrats to subvert the will of the people by undermining Bush’s determination to prevent the most dangerous weapons from falling into the most dangerous hands. Neither of these caricatures is remotely accurate. [Continue reading…]