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By Ray McGovern
Ray McGovern works for Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared/briefed the President's Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.
Whatever plans Dick Cheney and his neo-conservatives may have had to conjure up a nuclear threat from Iran as "justification" for military action have been sharply undercut by some timely leaks to the Washington Post. In a redux of President George W. Bush's spin on the "grave and growing" danger from Iraq, Cheney protégé and newly appointed U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is on record warning that Iranian "deception" must not be allowed to continue much longer: "It will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons."
Not for ten more years, report sources close to the U.S. intelligence community in yesterday's lead story in the Post. Several government officials with access to the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran have told journalist Dafna Linzer of its main judgments. By doing so, Linzer's sources seem determined not to sit idly by as our country is misled once again into a war favored only by "neo-conservatives" in Washington and their counterparts in the far-right Likud government in Israel who share a vision of remaking the map of the Middle East.
Linzer has shown commendable tenacity on Iran and the nuclear issue -- tenacity highly unusual by today's lax media standards. According to Linzer's sources, the National Intelligence Estimate states that, while there are credible signs that the Iranian military is doing some clandestine work, there is no information to connect that work directly to a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, U.N. inspectors have found no convincing proof that Iran is conducting a nuclear weapons program or that it has a nuclear warhead design.
The NIE concludes that Iran will not be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon until "early to mid-next decade," with general consensus among intelligence analysts that 2015 would actually be the earliest.
Devotees of Preemption
The exposure of these intelligence judgments is extremely well timed. It comes amid rumors that Vice President Cheney's office has ordered up contingency plans for a large-scale air assault on Iran using not only conventional weapons but also tactical nuclear weapons to take out hardened underground nuclear facilities. The action would be framed as a response to a terrorist act -- whether sponsored by Iran or not -- on the United States. According to former CIA operative Philip Giraldi, senior Air Force officers involved in the planning are appalled that Iran is being set up for an unprovoked attack but, sadly, no one wants to jeopardize a career by posing objections.
Indeed, Cheney is once again leading the public charge, just as he did in 2002 in the lead up to invading Iraq. On the morning of Inauguration Day 2005 on MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, Cheney warned that Iran has "a fairly robust new nuclear program." And, he added, it sponsors terrorism. The vice president said Iran's "objective is the destruction of Israel." Imus then brought up the possibility of preempting Iran, asking, "Why don't we make Israel do it?" Cheney responded:
Well, one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant capability, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards.
A few weeks later President Bush elaborated on Cheney's remarkably nonchalant remark:
Clearly, if I was the leader of Israel and I'd listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I'd be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well. And, in that Israel is our ally (sic) -- and in that we've made a very strong commitment to support Israel -- we will support Israel if her security is threatened.
That all fits in with Cheney's personal view of the one time Israel did 'take out' what it perceived as a hostile nuclear weapons program. Despite the official position of the United States (and the unanimous U.N. Security Council vote) condemning the Israeli preemptive attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, Cheney saw fit to refer to the Israel attack approvingly in his speech on Iraq on August 26, 2002. Earlier, as defense secretary in 1991, Cheney reportedly gave Israeli Maj. Gen. David Ivri, then the commander of the Israeli Air Force, a satellite photo of the Iraqi nuclear reactor destroyed by U.S.-built Israeli aircraft. On the photo Cheney penned, "Thanks for the outstanding job on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981."
Will this new, apparently reality-based NIE on Iran influence the actions of the White House? Linzer points out that a number of less ambitious papers on Iran, ordered up during Bush's first term "were rejected by advocates of policies that were inconsistent with the intelligence judgments." In 2002, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley commissioned one such paper on the possibility of "regime change" in Iran. The paper concluded that Iran seemed to be on a slow march to democracy and cautioned against U.S. interference in the process and thus became material for the shredder.
Bush is more likely to take his "intelligence" from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who, according to George H. W. Bush's national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, has George W. Bush "wrapped around his little finger." It went little noticed that on his visit to Crawford last April, Sharon had his senior military aide, Gen. Yoav Galant, present photos and other Israeli intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program, showing it to be at a "very advanced" stage. In July 2003, Sharon and Galant gave a similar performance in the oval office, reportedly showering Bush with data from a thick dossier on Iran's covert program.
As has been abundantly clear in the case of Iraq, Vice President Cheney does not feel at all bound by U.S. intelligence, unless he can put in enough appearances at CIA headquarters to slant the intelligence in the desired direction. This time he is likely to dismiss the new NIE on Iran, harkening back -- as he is fond of doing -- to the less-than-stellar performance of earlier US estimates regarding how far along the Iraqi nuclear program was before the Gulf War in 1991.
And then there is John Bolton. Let us recall that during his confirmation hearings, amid countless credible charges that he had politicized intelligence, he had the chutzpah to write to the committee that he reserves the right to "state his own reading of the intelligence."
A Leak in Time...
You readers out there in the intelligence and policy communities may wish to take those who told Linzer about the NIE as your model. Between multiple sources in London and in Washington finally willing to see it as their patriotic duty to speak out to prevent war, we have a new, very hopeful, truth-driven process going less than a year after the Truth Telling Coalition gave it fresh impetus. This disclosure will make it more difficult for the Bush administration and/or Israel to launch war on Iran. Timing makes all the difference.