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Bush Disowns Iran NIE

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Michael Hirsh of Newsweek reports on President Bush’s abandonment of the Iran Intelligence Estimate:

In public, President Bush has been careful to reassure Israel and other allies that he still sees Iran as a threat, while not disavowing his administration’s recent National Intelligence Estimate. That NIE, made public Dec. 3, embarrassed the administration by concluding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003, which seemed to undermine years of bellicose rhetoric from Bush and other senior officials about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But in private conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, the president all but disowned the document, said a senior administration official who accompanied Bush on his six-nation trip to the Mideast. “He 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” about Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, said the official, who would discuss intelligence matters only on the condition of anonymity.

…According to the source, who also refused to be named discussing the issue, Bush told Olmert he was uncomfortable with the findings and seemed almost apologetic.

Fred Kaplan makes the point that intelligence assessments have become a political tool for the White House:

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.

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.

Irancove @ January 15, 2008

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