| U.S. Spy Chief Retreats on Iran Estimate |
The director of national intelligence is backing away from his agency's assessment late last year that Iran had halted its nuclear program, saying he wishes he had written the unclassified version of the document in a different manner.
At a hearing yesterday of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the intelligence director, Michael McConnell, said, "If I had 'til now to think about it, I probably would change a few things." He later added, "I would change the way we describe the Iranian nuclear program. I would have included that there are the component parts, that the portion of it, maybe the least significant, had halted."
Mr. McConnell was referring to the specific Iranian program to design potential nuclear warheads, which the December estimate said had halted in 2003. But in his opening testimony, Mr. McConnell noted that two other components of the nuclear program were moving ahead — the enrichment of uranium, which he said was the most difficult part of making a bomb, and the development of long-range missiles capable of hitting North Africa and Europe.
The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program released on December 3 distinguished Iran's enrichment of uranium at Natanz and Arak from its formal nuclear weapons program, which it said had halted in 2003 after the American invasion of Iraq.
Yesterday, Mr. McConnell struck a different tone. "Declared uranium enrichment efforts, which will enable the production of fissile material, continue. This is the most difficult challenge in nuclear production. Iran's efforts to perfect ballistic missiles that can reach North Africa and Europe also continue."
He went on, "We remain concerned about Iran's intentions and assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."
The release of the December 2007 estimate at best delayed American diplomatic efforts to pass a third U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran's uranium enrichment, an activity the mullahs have continued for two years despite warnings from all five permanent members of the security council. The estimate also drew rare rebukes from American allies, including Israel, France, and the United Kingdom who said their intelligence agencies did not concur with the American assessment that Iran had frozen its plan to produce an A-bomb.
The release of the declassified estimate also contradicted Mr. McConnell's own stated policy of keeping intelligence estimates secret. On Tuesday he said that on November 27, when his analysts presented him with the new Iran estimate, he decided he had to make the conclusions public because both he and his predecessor had been on record warning of Iran's nuclear weapons program and the new intelligence in part contradicted that.
The timing of Mr. McConnell's pivot is also significant. On January 22 in Berlin, all five permanent veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council plus the Germans agreed on a draft third resolution against Iran. Mr. McConnell predicted that it would pass the council this month. At the same time, other members of the Security Council, such as South Africa have recently warned against a third resolution. The Russians last month completed a deal to provide Iran with nuclear fuel for a separate reactor in Bushehr.
Tuesday's testimony from Mr. McConnell was part of an annual report from his directorate on threats to America. In his testimony, the national intelligence director warned specifically of potential al Qaeda attacks within America.
He said that America was not immune from the threat of "homegrown" "al Qaeda inspired" cells, similar to those that have sprouted up in Europe. Noting the rise in radical Sunni Islamist Web sites, he said that these cells in America so far have been cruder than the European variety.
"To date, cells detected in the United States have lacked the level of sophistication, experience, and access to resources of terrorist cells overseas," Mr. McConnell said. "Their efforts, when disrupted, largely have been in the nascent phase, and authorities often were able to take advantage of poor operational tradecraft. However, the growing use of the internet to identify and connect with networks throughout the world offers opportunities to build relationships and gain expertise that previously were available only in overseas training camps."
Of interest to Democratic senators at yesterday's hearing was the CIA's stance on coercive interrogation and in particular the practice of simulating drowning in terrorist suspects, a practice known as water boarding. For the first time in public, the CIA named the three people it had subjected to the practice, considered a form of torture by the Geneva conventions.
The three individuals include the main plotter of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri; and another alleged high level al Qaeda operative named Abu Zubaydeh. This last person's significance has been questioned by some journalists and former officials, and he is said by some to have provided bogus information when he was interrogated.