NY Times Backpedaling on Iran NIE

The other day a friend who's a distinguished journalist emailed me, "How about the New York Times' FURIOUS backpedaling on the National Intelligence Estimate? They could have done the same analysis when it was released!"

I put the March 3 story on my screen. Its headline read, "Meeting on Arms Data Reignites Iran Debate." At the gathering of ambassadors and arms-control experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency's Vienna headquarters, newly obtained and declassified documents were revealed that are "not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon."

"France's ambassador, François-Xavier Deniau," the Times reported, "said questions raised by the Vienna meeting had opened a 'new chapter' in the West's effort to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear arms." The Times explained:

This confrontation is different from the long-running American-led campaign. Gone are the veiled threats of military action from the White House. The wind largely went out of that effort in December, when American intelligence officials surprised Western allies -- and angered Bush administration hawks -- with a report saying Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

Ah, so this confrontation was different, because the French, with their savoir faire, their joi de vivre, their déja vu all over again, were at last convinced that Iran -- which has a space program whose covert goal is to put into orbit satellites capable of dropping nuclear weapons on any city on earth, such as Paris -- must be subjected to a higher level of inaction, such as the toothless additional sanctions the Security Council authorized this week.

The Times, analyzing the December NIE, wrote:

Yet the estimate's fine print said that basically nothing had changed. Iran, it held, still could in theory make a bomb sometime between 2009 and 2015, the same general range as in previous Iran estimates.

Behind the radical change of tone -- and the headlines -- lay an inconspicuous footnote at the bottom of the first of the unclassified version's three pages. "For the purposes of this estimate," it said, Iran's nuclear weapons program is defined as including warhead design but excluding Iran's "declared civil work" to enrich uranium.

[...]

Publicly, figures like [former national security adviser and secretary of state] Henry A. Kissinger and [former secretary of defense, secretary of energy, and CIA director] James R. Schlesinger railed at the narrow definition.

Okay, I've got a question: Why didn't the New York Times rail at the narrow definition?

The paper did do a bit of railing when the NIE was released, but it wasn't directed at the idiocy of "excluding Iran's 'declared civil work' to enrich uranium" when all informed observers know that Iran can buy as much enriched uranium reactor fuel as it wants -- from Russia, among others -- and that the purpose of Iran's declared civil work is to have control over the entire nuclear fuel cycle so Tehran can manufacture weapons-grade fissile material. Instead, the Times railed at the source of all evil in the universe, George W. Bush.

On December 5 the Times, in an editorial headed "Good and Bad News About Iran," bloviated: "There is a lot of good news in the latest intelligence assessment about Iran. Tehran, we are now told, halted its secret nuclear weapons program in 2003, which means that President Bush has absolutely no excuse for going to war against Iran. We are also relieved that the intelligence community is now willing to question its own assumptions and challenge the White House's fevered rhetoric."

In other words, were it to be proven, to the Times' satisfaction, that Iran currently has a secret nuclear weapons program, the administration would merely have an "excuse" for using military force to cripple that program -- not a plausible argument, let alone a compelling justification, for doing so.

But the NIE says Iran put an end to its secret nuclear weapons program, no?

Well, no.

Virtually all commentators have either misunderstood or misrepresented the NIE's "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program."

The NIE goes on to say, "We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons."

So "Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" doesn't mean "Tehran ended its nuclear weapons program." It means the program was suspended.

It inconceivable to me that the word "halted" wasn't deliberately chosen as an alternative -- misleading because of its ambiguity -- to the unmistakably clear word that should have been used. The intelligence official(s) who signed off on using "halted" instead of "suspended" in that life-and-death sentence should be found and fired.

Moderate confidence -- I wish I had that much confidence in our intelligence agencies.

It was also "good news" to the Times that the intelligence community was "willing to ... challenge the White House's fevered rhetoric." The editorial was referring to a statement by the president at an October 17, 2007, press conference that he'd "told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." According to retired Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, we're already in World War IV. Sean Hannity, not to be outdone by Podhoretz, says we're in World War V. Do I hear VI?

Whoever composed the Times' editorial's fevered rhetoric about the hapless, lame duck, unpopular Bush was evidently under the impression that the function of the intelligence community's permanent bureaucracy is to challenge elected officials, rather than simply to provide decision-makers with the most accurate information obtainable, and leave whatever challenging needs to be done to the press and to darlings of the press, such as Joseph Wilson of Plame game fame.

As to the "inconspicuous footnote at the bottom of the first of the unclassified version's three pages," I link, you decide. To me, what the Times calls an "inconspicuous footnote" looks like what's usually known as -- a footnote.

It could be argued, in fact, that inasmuch as it's the only footnote, it's actually an extremely conspicuous footnote.

It reads, "For the purposes of this estimate, by 'nuclear weapons program' we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment."

Hey, I've got another question. The March 3 Times story said, "Yet the estimate's fine print said that basically nothing had changed. Iran, it held, still could in theory make a bomb sometime between 2009 and 2015, the same general range as in previous Iran estimates."

Earth to New York Times: Where's the estimate's fine print?

I'm sitting here eyeballing the PDF file of the NIE, and all of the text -- with the exception of that pesky footnote -- is exactly the same size.

The Times has found itself in a position where it needs to account for having neglected to report last December that -- as to the intelligence community's assessment of when our most virulent and implacable enemy will be able to make nuclear weapons -- between the 2005 NIE and the 2007 NIE "basically nothing had changed." Is the paper of record now pleading myopia?

They couldn't get, like, a magnifying glass?

Craig Karpel is a journalist in New York.