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What Did Bush Know on Iran, and When Did He Know It?

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President Bush continues to insist Iran threatens the United States despite the new National Intelligence Estimate refuting most of his key claims. This week’s consensus report from all sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies concludes Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program more than four years ago. News reports say the White House was briefed on the new intelligence assessment as early as July, but Bush says he didn’t find out the specifics until last week. We speak with investigative journalist Gareth Porter. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush says Iran remains a threat, despite a new National Intelligence Estimate that concluded Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program more than four years ago.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believed before the NIE that Iran was dangerous, and I believe after the NIE that Iran is dangerous. And I believe now is the time for the world to do the hard work necessary to convince the Iranians there is a better way forward.

AMY GOODMAN: The NIE is a consensus assessment from all sixteen US intelligence agencies. It starkly contradicts the Bush administration’s repeated claims Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear bomb. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley announced the findings in Washington on Monday.

    STEPHEN HADLEY: The intelligence community has high confidence that Iran halted its covert nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003, and they have moderate confidence that it had not restarted that program as of mid-2007.

AMY GOODMAN: The NIE goes on to conclude spy agencies do not know whether Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons. It effectively rejects a National Intelligence Estimate two years ago that claimed Iran was pursuing a nuclear bomb through a secret program. The Estimate also stands in stark contrast to recent language from President Bush, who warned as recently as October of a World War III if Iran continued with alleged nuclear activities. At Tuesday’s news conference, Bush was asked by a reporter whether he was ever asked by his intelligence team to scale back his claims.

    REPORTER: I understand what you’re saying about when you were informed about the NIE. Are you saying at no point while the rhetoric was escalating, as World War III was making it into conversation, at no point nobody from your intelligence team or your administration was saying maybe you want to back it down a little bit?

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I’ve never — nobody ever told me that. Having said — having laid that out, I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger. Nothing has changed in this NIE that says, “OK, why don’t we just stop worrying about it?” Quite the contrary. I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn’t changed. And I just explained, Jim, that if you want to avoid a really problematic situation in the Middle East, now is the time to continue to work together. That’s our message to our allies, and it’s an important message for them to hear.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the Washington Post, intelligence officials began briefing senior members of the Bush administration on parts of the new NIE as early as July.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. In October, he broke the story that the NIE on Iran had been held up for more than a year as part of an effort by Vice President Dick Cheney. Gareth Porter joins me now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!

GARETH PORTER: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what you understand the Bush administration understood.

GARETH PORTER: Well, I think it’s clear that the intelligence community had found something very different with regard to the Iranian nuclear program much earlier than this fall. It’s very clear that it was at least last spring when they began to work on a very different conclusion about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, which said that Iran had in fact given that idea up. And it’s not clear, actually, whether this conclusion was being developed, in fact, in some form the previous fall.

My story, based on a couple of sources who were in touch with people participating in the NIE process, said that the NIE had in fact been prepared — NIE on Iran had been prepared as of last fall, was ready to be published and was held up by the White House for political reasons. That is to say, it was not regarded as acceptable, and they wanted them to continue working on it. Now, some of that may well have been at some point during 2007, that there was new information coming in which caused the intelligence community to say, well, let’s strengthen the finding, let’s strengthen our conclusions further. But it’s very clear that a large part of the holdup in this NIE process was indeed the White House and certainly was Dick Cheney personally who was intervening in this, saying that we want you to go back to the drawing board and look at this again, because we don’t think that your conclusion that Iran gave up a nuclear weapons weaponization program makes sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s see. Early November 2006, was that right before the 2006 elections?

GARETH PORTER: Well, it was — as I understand it, it was prepared, it was ready to go, before the elections, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And that Dick Cheney had held it up?

GARETH PORTER: Yes, indeed. And then, even after the elections, I think Cheney still wanted them to work on it further. And we don’t know exactly what pressures were placed on the intelligence community, but we do know that Dick Cheney has in the past made visits to the CIA repeatedly to talk to analysts, has asked them to review their findings and said, you know, that these findings, he believes, are not correct. So, you know, there’s every reason to believe that Cheney was intervening actively in the process.

And another piece of evidence to that effect, reported in the Washington Post yesterday, is that one of the arguments — perhaps the most important argument — being made by the White House, in regard to the finding about Iran’s nuclear program that was being put forward by the intelligence community last spring and summer, was that this might well be a deception campaign by Iran. And that was supposedly being applied even to communications intercepts. The argument was still being made by presumably Cheney and his staff that the evidence that they were gathering reflected an Iranian deception campaign.

Now, interestingly, that is the same argument that was used by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration in 2001 to try to refute the evidence being presented to the White House by George Tenet, then-CIA director, that al-Qaeda was indeed a very serious threat and that they were getting indications that there could be an attack on the US homeland by the summer of 2001. The neoconservatives — Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz — were arguing that this could be a deception campaign by al-Qaeda, and therefore we should not accept that as a legitimate reading of the al-Qaeda threat.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you make of — well, among others — National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley arguing it suggests the President has had the right strategy: intensified international pressure, along with a willingness to negotiate a solution.

GARETH PORTER: Well, this is very interesting. You know, Hadley was able to cite some language in the NIE key findings that were published on Monday, which referred to international pressure. And I think there’s every reason to believe that there was pressure put on the intelligence community to include some language in there suggesting that.

But in any case, if you read very carefully the full text of the paragraph in which that reference to international appears, it is a reference to what was happening in the fall of 2003. And what is most interesting about that paragraph is that it suggests that there was in fact a process within the Iranian regime of making an important choice of strategy on what to do about its nuclear program. There was — we know from a speech given by the senior advisor to the National Security Council of Iran, Rowhani, Hassan Rowhani, in the fall of 2004 that there were very serious debates within the Iranian leadership during the fall of 2003, in which the most conservative elements were arguing that they should not agree with the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, on an additional protocol, which would involve more stringent international inspection of their nuclear sites, and they should not negotiate with the European three — Britain, France and Germany — on a possible agreement that could result in a prolonged suspension of their uranium enrichment program.

But the moderates in the national security elite of Iran and the leadership decided instead to go with a more open approach to their nuclear program. They decided to agree to carry out an additional protocol and to begin ratification of it, and they agreed to negotiate with the European three on a new agreement, which could result in a permanent suspension of the uranium enrichment, but also would involve serious negotiation on Iran’s security interest and political interest in the Middle East.

So this represented a fundamental shift in Iranian policy toward their nuclear program, and there’s every reason to believe that whatever was involved in this dropping of certain programs, it was part of a much broader shift, which involved openness and the desire to reach an agreement with the Europeans and, I think, indirectly with the United States. So I think the real lesson of the — which the NIE reflects about Iranian policy is that they were indeed serious about making the shift. They were telling the truth, in fact, about their policy from fall 2003 on.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what about the director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell? Bush saying this in the news conference yesterday, that he told him in the summer, in July, that he had some new information, but not being briefed until last week — the question of why President Bush wouldn’t press him further, considering he was talking about war with Iran. How credible is it that Bush only knew last week, despite the fact that he, McConnell, had alerted him as early as July?

GARETH PORTER: I think that’s absolutely incredible. And certainly, we cannot have any doubt at all that Dick Cheney was fully briefed, fully informed on the progress of the NIE at every stage. We know that Cheney’s staff is constantly keeping in touch with the intelligence community, following the current progress on the NIE, whatever it might be at that stage, and indeed trying to influence it. So the only question really is whether Cheney tried to keep Bush in the dark. That is conceivable, but certainly not very likely.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about Fallon?

GARETH PORTER: Well, I mean, there’s no doubt that Admiral William Fallon, the commander of CENTCOM, has played an active role within the administration in trying to push back on the Cheney policy of trying to ramp up the tensions with Iran and looking for an opportunity, frankly, for a potential use of force against the Iranian regime. Fallon has made it clear privately, as early as last February, at the time that he was being — having his confirmation hearings in the Senate, that there would be no war against Iran on his watch as CENTCOM commander. And he indicated privately again to one of my sources that he was working with others in the military leadership to make sure that that didn’t happen.

There is evidence that Fallon has pushed back on Iraq, as best he could, to try to limit the surge, to try to move faster on troop withdrawal, and there’s no question that he has opposed the use of military force. He has used, for example, an interview with Al Jazeera, which I understand he personally asked for — he approached Al Jazeera himself and asked to be interviewed, so that he could make a statement that the talk about war, which had been coming from, of course, Cheney and the White House, was not useful. So there’s very little reason to doubt that Commander Fallon — that Admiral Fallon has been playing a role behind the scenes in trying to work against the Cheney strategy on Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter, I want to thank you for being with us, investigative historian and journalist. He writes on the Huntington Post, a blog, and often writes for Inter Press Service.

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