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.Then there's this from Slate.com:
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."
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.Of course the White House spins it all into near complete confusion. This is from yesterday's press conference:
If you asked yourself, after reading all those words, whether Dana Perino actually answered the question, you'd have to admit that the answer would be a resounding no. Take another look.
Q This is addressed to both of you, if you could answer. My question is based to some extent on the exchanges that the President had with my Fox News colleague, Greta Van Susteren. In your own discussions with the President about the NIE and its central finding that the weaponization aspect of the Iran nuclear program has been suspended, do you find that the President fully accepts this conclusion? Or is there any -- has the President expressed to you, are you aware of any feeling on the President's part that, however sincere the analysts might have been, they might have gotten it wrong? Has he admitted the possibility at all in his mind that the analysts may be wrong about this?
MS. PERINO: I've not heard the President express anything but support for the intelligence community. But I think what he has said, and he has repeated both privately and publicly, is that he does not believe that the NIE that was produced -- was it two months ago -- should provide anyone any comfort that Iran is not a threat. In fact, it underscored for him and for many others, as we've learned from around this region, that they also believe that Iran remains a threat.
And the very fact that they were hiding their weaponization program from the world, that nobody knew about, should not give anyone comfort that all of a sudden now we know that they had one, and that they halted it. What the international community has called on them to do is to halt their enrichment of uranium. And we are united in that, and we are going to continue to press for sanctions.
But there is no doubt that across the world the NIE that was put out by our intelligence community did cause some confusion. And one of the things the President has done at every stop is to tell them that he believes that Iran was a threat, they are a threat, and they will continue to be a threat if they are allowed to have a nuclear weapon. He believes that they have the right to have civilian nuclear power. He has provided, along with his international partners, a way for Iran to come to the table and have a negotiation for civilian nuclear power if they verifiably suspend. And so until we see that, I think that we will remain concerned and skeptical, and continue down the diplomatic path.
Another point that the President has made when this has come up is that he does believe that this problem can be solved diplomatically.
But I also want to underscore for you that it is a mistake to think that these meetings that the President has had across this region have been about Iran. If it has come up, it has been brief. Now, I'm not there, sitting at the President's shoulder, or by his side, when he has one-on-one meetings, but I can tell you, in the meetings that we have been in -- and we have been very fortunate on this trip to have been included in everything except for the one-on-ones -- my observation is that while it has come up, what they were looking for was reassurance from President Bush that he agrees -- that he still believes what he had said before the NIE came out. And the fact is that that is what he believes.
Q But my question was not about perception or misperceptions of the report's findings, or the implications, or whether or not Iran remains a threat. My question to you is whether or not the President admits at all in his own mind of the possibility that the central finding was actually wrong?
MS. PERINO: Again, I said he has complete confidence in the intelligence community. They work very hard to get as much information as they possibly can. They brought this new information to the attention of their superiors back in late August. They said they were going to need some more time to vet it out before they were able to fully understand it. And intelligence is not an exact science and they continue to seek out more information. But the President agreed with the intelligence community that it was important to get this information out so that everyone knows what they're dealing with. And again, the fact that the Iranians had a secret, covert program that they were hiding from the world should not give any of us comfort.
--Does the president think the NIE was wrong?
--The president has full confidence in the intelligence community and Iran is a threat.
That's not an answer.
Back to Slate.com:
Dana Perino is right on one thing, however. None of this should give us any comfort.
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."