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Tilting at Windmills

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December 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BEHIND THE NIE....I don't know if you'd call this backlash or irony or something completely different, but can you guess at the ultimate source of last week's NIE concluding that Iran halted work on its nuclear bomb program in 2003? Turns out it was largely the result of a CIA program called "Brain Drain," which sought to persuade Iranian defections from the ranks of its nuclear program, which in turn was part of a "major intelligence push against Iran" ordered by the White House two years ago. Greg Miller has the story in the LA Times today:

Intelligence gathered as part of that campaign provided much of the basis for a U.S. report released last week that concluded the Islamic Republic had halted its nuclear weapons work in 2003.

....The White House ordered the stepped-up effort in hopes of gathering stronger evidence that Tehran was making progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration "wanted better information" on Iran's nuclear programs, said a U.S. official briefed on the expanded collection efforts.

"I can't imagine that they would have ever guessed that the information they got would show that the program was shut down," the official said.

And why did we need a "major intelligence push" in the first place? According to Miller, it's because Bush dismantled the Iran Task Force set up during Bill Clinton's administration in order to focus all his attention on — surprise! — Iraq. "When Bush came in, they were totally disinterested in Iran," said a former CIA official who held a senior position at the time. "It went from being a main focus to everything being switched to Iraq."

Great stuff. Still, once "Brain Drain" produced its unexpected (and unwelcome) results, couldn't Bush simply have buried it? Why release it publicly at all? Via Matt Yglesias, former spook Pat Lang provides his take:

The "jungle telegraph" in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE. I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that "intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary" if the document's gist were not given to the public. Translation? Someone in that group would have gone to the media "on the record" to disclose its contents.

That would have been quite a sight, wouldn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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Hmm, I can't help but wonder where Plame fits in to this. Was she originally assigned to Iran under Clinton, then switched to Iraq? Presumably some of the people and management involved thought this was a bad idea. And of course, this administration would see any such pushback as insubordinate and defiant, worthy of "discipline", which is to say, punishment.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on December 9, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

"That would have been quite a sight, wouldn't it?"

It would have been a beautiful sight indeed. We've needed a lot more heros in all sorts of areas over the past seven years.

Posted by: nepeta on December 9, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

Doctor Jay - I don't think Plame fits into this at all, unless the Plame affair was the straw that broke the camel's back by getting senior CIA officials angry enough at the administration to actually force a showdown with the Cheneyites. Plame was outed because her husband discredited documents that had been carefully planted by someone to give credence to the US claim that Iraq was developing nukes.

Posted by: nepeta on December 9, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

nepeta: "We've needed a lot more heros in all sorts of areas over the past seven years."

We've had a number of high-ranking career public servants who have resigned their offices in principled protest of the Bush administration's radical policy directives.

One who comes immediately to mind (primarily because she's a long-time neighbor, and I know her personally) is Col. Ann Wright, formerly of the U.S. State Department, who had re-opened our embassy in Kabul in Dec. 2001 following the overthrow of the Taliban, and then quit when ordered to re-focus her considerable experience and energies on the forthcoming overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

However, our mainstream media has repeatedly determined that there were any number of far more important topics for the public's consideration, such as, in part:

* Determining the the paternity of Anna Nicole Smith's baby;

* Debating whether or not hotel heiress-cum-celebutard Paris Hilton deserved to be treated like a normal person when breaking the law with reckless impunity;

* Encouraging congressional intervention into the very private and personal affairs of Terry Schiavo's grieving family; and

* Getting its collective panties in a twist over Janet Jackson flashing her tit at the Super Bowl, before deciding whether or not to lend Britney Spears a pair of them prior to yet another night on the town.

Air America's Randi Rhoads is right: Real news has been permanently pre-empted in favor of providing continuous coverage of the profane and publicity-starved.

There are any number of our own generation's Daniel Ellsburgs, whose stories await to be told. Unfortunately, with rare exception such as Ambassador Joe Wilson's damning revelations about the Bush administration's false claims about Iraqi procurement of uranium, we're generally not hearing about them.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 9, 2007 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Something doesn't wash here. Leaving aside that the key judgment section has been publicly disclosed during eight of the last ten years,Why would senior officials be willing to 'go to jail if necessary' to release it?

After all, The NIE says that the weaponization program stopped in 2003, not that the efforts to enrich uranium had ceased.

According to the NIE, the military effort in Iraq (which constituted the only international effort during 2002-2003) put enough pressure on Iran to cease their riskiest project --weaponizing a ballistic warhead.

Disclosing this wouldn't be worth going to jail, because the information isn't a basis for stopping plans for war in Iran. Enriching uranium well beyond the 2% required for their non-existent reactor is damning enough.

It wouldn't be worth the risk, especially when we note that the key judgment section has been released during eight of the last ten years.

Posted by: QuickJ on December 9, 2007 at 4:11 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps the threat of leaking was a bluff that worked.

Posted by: bigTom on December 9, 2007 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

"The 'jungle telegraph' in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE"

No wonder that nice man Norman Podhoretz has been accusing the CIA of conspiring against President Bush.

Posted by: Ross Best on December 9, 2007 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

Nepeta, you are probably right. On the other hand, we know that Plame worked on nonproliferation issues, in the Mideast, so we're already getting close to the programs in question.

Long before Ambassador Wilsons trip to Nigeria, it's very likely there were analyst groups in the CIA saying to Tenet, and thus to Bush and Cheney, "Nope, Saddam doesn't have nukes, nothing that we have says he does, not even close."

Of course, that's not what Cheney wants to hear, so the people involved go on his "watch" list. Then they really cross him, and he tries to fuck them over. Something like that. It's plausible, anyway.

As for the Plame affair shaping opinion at the CIA, I expect it did and does. I expect that everyone that knows her is incensed about the gag order on her book, too. And everyone who is in a position to know just what damage was done by outing her is probably pretty pissed off, too.

Posted by: Doctor Jay on December 9, 2007 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

QuickJ - We only have the NIE that was published after 'dissent' was allowed to remain in the document. There were two strategies by the Bushies in play here. One was Cheney's insistence over the past year that the document show a unified intelligence judgment on Iran's nuke program, i.e., no mention of the 'Brain Drain' info. We know that Cheney must have his allies within the 16 agencies that formulated the NIE. When 'some' of the senior officials won the argument to allow dissent, then it was decided that this NIE would not be made publicly available; in other words, it would remain classified. I think it was probably at this point that the group of senior intelligence officers favoring inclusion of the 2003 material started threatening exposure. Btw, this is a perfect example of what congresspeople should have done when faced with the knowledge of US torture early on (that is, if the WP article is to be believed). Intelligence officials knew that if the NIE remained classified then their fight to include the info on Iran's stopping its weapons work in 2003 would remain secret and Bush could continue with his war talk. I have a strong feeling that this NIE is a document of compromise as it stands now. In order for the 2003 info to be included, compromises were made that allowed inclusion of some of the less positive findings, e.g., work on nukes could begin at a moment's notice, Iran had in fact been working on nuclear weapons previous to 2003, enrichment capabilities remain a risk, etc. So I personally assume just one 'fact' from this NIE, and that is: Iran is not currently working on the development of nuclear weapons. Iran's weapons program pre-2003 and all other implied 'facts' remain open to question.

Posted by: nepeta on December 9, 2007 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks, Nepta. That's good rational, and I appreciate the perspective.

One crucial point though:

"So I personally assume just one 'fact' from this NIE, and that is: Iran is not currently working on the development of nuclear weapons. Iran's weapons program pre-2003 and all other implied 'facts' remain open to question." - Nepta

It seems that the facts post-2003 are also open to question.

The NIE says that they stopped the weaponizing program in 2003 with a High Confidence Value. It then says that the same sources could not say that the program had not subsequently been re-started.

The NIE only assigns Moderate Confidence to the notion that weaponization hasn't been restarted in the past 5 years. If high is at 90%, Low is at 15%, Moderate Confidence is somewhere close to 50/50.

Obviously, that's worrisome. Unless we go mostly on the basis of our optimism.

Posted by: QuickJ on December 9, 2007 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

Donald - I applaud all those who have resigned over the last seven years due to personal objections to Bush policies. However, a resignation without a letter of protest (or some such device) to make one's objections public doesn't do much to change policy. I do remember Anne Wright's name so it's quite possible that she did publicly discuss her own objections publicly.

I certainly agree with you on the frivolity of the media these days. But as both you and I know, MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have filled part of the television media vacuum and the internet has made this vacuum in most print and television media less overwhelming. I don't know what it takes to make people care about what's happening in the country and the world. I have to admit that in my younger years I tended to concentrate on my own personal priorities at the expense of a broader field of vision. My response to Reagan was simply not to get any news at all. It was simply too maddening. My only guess is that starting with the Clinton impeachment and then the 2000 election, I simply couldn't ignore what was happening anymore. From 2000 on it's been criminal.

Posted by: nepeta on December 9, 2007 at 6:59 PM | PERMALINK


"The NIE only assigns Moderate Confidence to the notion that weaponization hasn't been restarted in the past 5 years"

This is a perfect example of the 'compromise' element. I can imagine these people sitting around a big table and the Cheneyites saying, "OK, we'll agree to let you include the 2003 info but only if we get to include the finding that there is a possibility that weapons work has restarted in the past five years." Then the 2003 info supporters say, "Well, OK...if you insist. But you can only apply a moderate confidence level to that."

Perhaps I should have stated my one fact as: Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. But my best guess is that it continues to be inactive.

Posted by: nepeta on December 9, 2007 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

nepeta: "I don't know what it takes to make people care about what's happening in the country and the world."

At this point, I would guess that it will be in the form of an adverse event -- or series of events -- that personally affects them. Examples of that would be $5.00/gal. gasoline that's strictly rationed at 15 gallons per week, and / or a crashing dollar that loses half its value over a three-month period of time, thus impacting people's retirement savings and the overall net value of their tangible assets.

Speaking for myself, I initially became involved in politics during the 1980s almost exclusively because of land-use conflict issues. As a surfer, I was terribly concerned about the local government's emphasis on short-term, high-end real-estate development, i.e., resorts, golf courses and condominiums, at the direct expense of adequate affordable housing, environmental protection and historic preservation policies, and the subsequent loss of both critical habitat and primo surf-spots. My activism branched out from there, and eventually led me to work in both the Hawaii State Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 9, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

"My activism branched out from there, and eventually led me to work in both the Hawaii State Legislature and the U.S. Congress."

That's great, Donald. Also helps explain your defensiveness about Dem spinelessness. I really don't think we have 'any number' of Daniel Ellsbergs waiting in the wings. What made Ellsberg Ellsberg was that he didn't WAIT. If the NYT isn't up to publishing controversial material then there are other journals that will.
Certainly some of the insiders' books published, like Richard Clarke's, are very important and welcomed. But, you're right, we need more Ellsberg shocks. And, coming of age during the Vietnam War, I think we need more activism, more spontaneous dissent in the public arena. But somehow it's sadly a different world now, despite the many good efforts in 2002.

Posted by: nepeta on December 9, 2007 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

This is when the media begin to eat themselves alive. One reporter quoting another reporter making assertions that aren't backed with any data or names.

Well... gotta be true. It sounds to good not to be.

Who was willing to quit? Names? Departments?

Why would they quit over a report that is ambiguous about the existence of an Iranian nuclear program and simply reports that they shut down a "covert nuclear program" but not enrichment or missile development?

And the "Jungle Telegraph?" Read that: "national security leak."

Posted by: G Keith Burgin on December 10, 2007 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

nepeta:,/b> "Also helps explain your defensiveness about Dem spinelessness."

Uh -- where in any of the above did I defend Democratic spinelessness?

If you're so disgusted with "Democratic spinelessness", then I suggest you put your money where your mouth is -- like I did in 1988 -- and either announce your own candidacy for public office, or go and work for your congressman or senator or state legislator.

That way, you can educate yourself about the legislative process, and then maybe you'd realize that some things are indeed far more complicated -- and I'll freely admit, sometimes neddlessly so -- than what you'd otherwise like or tend to believe.

Talk is cheap. If you're really unhappy with the direction things are going, then get out there and do something about it. Don't just bitch and moan about how other people aren't doing everything you think they can, or vent at me because I happened to say something you don't want to hear.


Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 10, 2007 at 3:32 AM | PERMALINK

One more thing, nepeta -- I lost my father in the Vietnam War, so I really don't think I need to be educated about '60s and '70s political activism.

This is a completely different era -- we don't have the military draft, women and minorities in general aren't necessarily being denied the economic and educational opportunities to the vast extent that they were 40 to 50 years ago, and our country's economy is not in any apparent immediate danger of tanking (even if it is noticeably buckling under the weight of GOP excesses).

You and I can complain about public complacency and political apathy all we want, but that's just the way it is. No less an authority than '60s icon Joni Mitchell told us in Big Yellow Taxi, "don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

Until people feel some sense of personal shock to their respective lifestyle system, they're far more inclined to eat potato chips and watch Survivor and American Idol, than to get off their asses to protest the war, etc.

After all, not very many people in the general public paid much heed to the numerous warnings issued by Osama bin Laden and Al Qa'eda during the '90s -- including a declaration of war -- until they managed to bring down the Twin Towers and a section of the Pentagon, and kill nearly 3,000 people.

But then again, 43-45 years ago, the vast majority of the American public paid much attention to the civil rights movement in the South until three young activists -- two of them white -- were executed by the KKK and then buried inside a Mississippi dam, and four schoolgirls were blown up during Sunday School in an Alabama church.

We must therefore show diligence and patience, maintain our fortitude to steel ourselves for the inevitable body blow to our country I feel is coming, and be ready to act when current events finally conflate to reach their collective critical mass.

Good night.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on December 10, 2007 at 4:05 AM | PERMALINK

Did the NIE get it wrong? The Brits think so.

Iran 'hoodwinked' CIA over nuclear plans

British spy chiefs have grave doubts that Iran has mothballed its nuclear weapons programme, as a US intelligence report claimed last week, and believe the CIA has been hoodwinked by Teheran.

Analysts believe that Iranian staff, knowing their phones were tapped, deliberately gave misinformation

The timing of the CIA report has also provoked fury in the British Government, where officials believe it has undermined efforts to impose tough new sanctions on Iran and made an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities more likely.

The security services in London want concrete evidence to allay concerns that the Islamic state has fed disinformation to the CIA.

The report used new evidence - including human sources, wireless intercepts and evidence from an Iranian defector - to conclude that Teheran suspended the bomb-making side of its nuclear programme in 2003. But British intelligence is concerned that US spy chiefs were so determined to avoid giving President Bush a reason to go to war - as their reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes did in Iraq - that they got it wrong this time.


Posted by: ex-liberal on December 10, 2007 at 9:58 AM | PERMALINK

I've known a few spooks, and there are a lot more Constitution-loving patriots in the spy community than you might guess based on how they've been commanded over the last 6 years. I obviously have no clue which ones stood up & said they were willing to go to jail to save the lives of thousands of US soldiers and Iranian civilians, but I salute them all.

Posted by: Tom Veil on December 10, 2007 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

Donald - I'm sorry if my comments offended you personally. I certainly didn't mean them as a vent towards you. My comment on your response to Dem spinelessness was based not so much on this thread but on my general perception from other threads that you tend to give political realities, e.g., getting re-elected, retaining party majority in Congress, etc., more importance than I do in relation to specific instances when I want Dem congresspeople to scream outrage when warranted rather than play political games to stay entrenched firmly in the middle of the road and appeal to the vast American middle. I actually meant to put a 'grin' after that sentence in my comment but didn't. I do have respect for anyone who uses the system to change the system, although in my view that's becoming harder to do. In fact you've touched upon the very reason that I could never become active in politics in a formal way. I simply wouldn't be able to stay 'rational' when faced with the current Repub mentality. I see this era as much more dangerous to America than the sixties. Not only is the US waging an illegal war in Iraq but the whole zeitgeist of fear, surveillance, torture, increased executive power, corporate malfeasance, official propaganda, a broken media etc., does not bode well for a future 'free' America. So my fears are based on dangers coming from within rather than from any sort of terrorist threat from without. Anyway, sorry for any misunderstanding. I really didn't mean to be antagonistic.

Posted by: nepeta on December 10, 2007 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

ex: Did the NIE get it wrong? The Brits think so.

siding against america again?

Posted by: mr. irony on December 10, 2007 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

Wow. That's sort of reminds me of Cheney office insisting on getting more info on the yellowcake/Niger documents [I always thought he knew those forgred documents were out there because he put them out there and was chagrined that they hadn't turned up]to support going to war with Iraq, and ending up with the report from Former Ambassador Wilson, which said exactly the opposite of what Cheney wanted to hear.

Now they've sent out intelligence folks to get more info on the Iranian nuclear weapons programs, and they got instead information that there is no program, not since 2003.

They just can't win.

Posted by: anon on December 10, 2007 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

And what do you think of Obadiah Shoher's arguments against the peace process ( samsonblinded.org/blog/we-need-a-respite-from-peace.htm )?

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