President George W. Bush hasn’t accomplished much on his voyage to the Middle East, but he did take the time to inflict another wound on the entire U.S. intelligence community—and on the credibility of anything he might ever again say about the world.
In the latest Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that, during a private conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush “all but disowned” the agencies’ Dec. 3 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. A “senior administration official who accompanied Bush” on the trip confided to Hirsh that 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.”
The NIE—which was signed by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—concluded “with high confidence” that Iran had “halted its nuclear weapons program” back in the fall of 2003. The estimate, released to the public in sanitized form, seriously undercut efforts by the Bush-Cheney White House to portray Iran’s nuclear ambitions as an imminent threat—and left the world either relieved or (especially in Israel’s case) alarmed that the option of a U.S. airstrike on Iran was pretty much off the table.
There were some odd and regrettable things about the NIE’s phrasing and presentation (a point made by not only champions but several critics of Bush’s policies, including me). However, the estimate’s basic findings—its facts—are not in dispute. For the president of the United States to wave away the whole document—which, in its classified form, is more than 140 pages and has nearly 1,500 source notes, according to an enlightening story in today’s Wall Street Journal—is gratuitous and self-destructive.
Then again, such behavior is of a piece with the pattern of relations between President Bush and his intelligence agencies. In September 2004, when he was asked about a pessimistic CIA report on the course of the occupation in Iraq, Bush replied that the agency was “just guessing.”
This remark “was a death knell,” Tim Weiner wrote in Legacy of Ashes, his award-winning history of the CIA. Weiner then quoted a line from a speech that former CIA director Richard Helms gave before the Council on Foreign Relations in 1967: “If we are not believed, we have no purpose.” The CIA reprinted that speech on the occasion of Helms’ death in October 2002, around the time that the agency was having a battle of credibility with the White House and the Pentagon over its doubts that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or an alliance with al-Qaida.
And therein lies the irony of the present situation. In decades past, the CIA has often lost credibility as a result of its own failures and scandals. Now President Bush is splashing doubt not just on the CIA, but on all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, simply because their judgments are out of synch with his policies.
There are two further ironies. First, this NIE is the product of reforms that President Bush himself signed into law—the creation of a director of national intelligence and various other procedural changes—designed to keep intelligence analysis free of political interference.
Second, the NIE contains plenty of passages that could legitimately justify a less-than-optimistic appraisal of Iran’s intentions and capabilities. For instance, the estimate found that Iran is still enriching uranium and that it “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decided to do so.” The authors allowed that they “do not know” whether Iran might want to resume its nuclear-weapons program in the future. Finally, they concluded that Iran stopped the program “primarily in response to increasing international security and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.” Therefore, Bush could have argued, the pressure needs to be kept up—or else Iran will rev up its clandestine program once again.
Secretary of Defense (and former CIA Director) Robert Gates has taken this approach when talking about the NIE to international audiences. Gates has said Iran and the rest of the world shouldn’t cherry-pick the findings—that if they buy the agency’s conclusion that Iran has stopped its nuclear-weapons program, they should buy the less-rosy conclusions, too. For a while, Bush displayed the opposite tendency: He played up the NIE’s more sobering conclusions while dismissing the main finding. Now, in a private conversation with Israel’s prime minister, he’s rejected the whole package and says its conclusions “don’t reflect his own views” (wherever he gets them from).
This remark has three baleful consequences. First, it can’t help but demoralize the intelligence community. NIEs are meant, ultimately, for only one reader, the president; and here’s the president telling another world leader that he doesn’t believe it because, well, he doesn’t agree with it.
Second, it reinforces the widespread view that the president views intelligence strictly as a political tool: When it backs up his policies, it’s as good as gold; when it doesn’t, it’s “just guessing.” This result is that all intelligence is degraded and devalued, at home and abroad. Let’s say that six months from now Bush publicizes an NIE concluding that Iran has resumed its nuclear-weapons program or that, say, North Korea is reprocessing more plutonium. Given that he pooh-poohed an NIE that rubbed against his own views, why should anyone take him seriously for embracing an NIE that confirms them?
Third, by telling Olmert that it’s all right to ignore the NIE, Bush is in effect telling him that Israel should go ahead and behave as if its findings had never been published. Hirsh reports that, when Olmert was asked whether he felt reassured by Bush’s words, he replied, “I am very happy.” ABC News reported Monday that, at a closed hearing of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, Olmert testified, “All options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter.”
It is increasingly unlikely, for many reasons, that the United States will bomb Iran before the year is out. But, wittingly or not, did Bush just flash a green light to Olmert?