WASHINGTON – The new National Intelligence Estimate — which says Iran had a nuclear weapons development program, but halted it in 2003 — made President Bush's week play out like a sad country song.
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was smiling and called the report a victory. Rush Limbaugh blasted the report as a product of administration sabotage. And Democrats were accusing the president of being a flip-flopper.
The NIE drew fire from nearly all sides, including anti-war Democrats in Congress, foreign leaders the administration needs to hold the line against Iran, and conservatives usually supportive of the administration.
The root issue for many critics comes down to credibility: Credibility of the estimate, credibility of the intelligence community that developed it and the credibility of the administration for whom those agencies work. Bridging that credibility gap might prove difficult for an administration heading into its final months.
The administration remains resolute in its position that policy toward Iran shouldn’t change. This is because while the NIE said with "high confidence" that the program halted in 2003, the estimate only says with "moderate confidence" that it had not started up again earlier this year, and "moderate-to-high" confidence that it remained off-line as the report was being released.
Because the report also says Tehran maintains a civilian nuclear program, and the estimate is silent on whether Iran intends to start up its nuclear weapons program again, U.S. officials say this means the United States and other countries must be ever-vigilant against the possibility.
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But convincing people here and abroad of that argument now appears to be more difficult.
U.S. hardliners on Iran are saying the intelligence document is too ridden with internal political squabbles to be credible.
"That such a flawed product could emerge after a drawn-out bureaucratic struggle is extremely troubling," John Bolton, one of the chief proponents of sanctions to stop the Iranian weapons program, wrote Thursday's Washington Post.
Republican presidential contender Fred Thompson drew his line in the sand, issuing a statement saying: "The accuracy of the latest NIE on Iran should be received with a good deal of skepticism. Our intelligence community has often underestimated the intentions of adversaries, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq and North Korea."
Saying the report is "awfully convenient for a lot of people," Thompson continued, "the administration gets to say its policies worked; the Democrats get to claim we should have eased up on Iran a long time ago: and Russia and China can claim sanctions on Iran are not necessary. Who benefits from all this? Iran."
The Wall Street Journal editorial page — one of many conservative opinion-makers to question the report authors' credibility — wrote Wednesday: "Our own 'confidence' is not heightened by the fact that the NIE's main authors include three former State Department officials with previous reputations as 'hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials.' "The Journal named former State Department officials Tom Fingar, Vann Van Diepin and Kenneth Brill.
Conservative talk radio, which is widely credited with helping destroy support for the immigration reform bill supported by the president last year, is also less than glowing toward the report. "I guarantee there's more sabotage coming out of that place regarding the Bush administration," Rush Limbaugh said of the State Department.
International troubles were just as quick to appear.
The Associated Press quotes a top Czech official saying it is now harder to do his job explaining the need for a U.S. missile defense system, which U.S. officials say is needed to ward off attack from Iran.
"Czech newspapers are full of headlines saying there is no longer a need for missile defense. ... It is hard for complex arguments to win against simple headlines," said Tomas Klvana, according to the AP.
The administration has dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others to try to allay European allies over the meaning of the report — chiefly Russia, which already his highly suspicious of the U.S. missile program, and other top allies France, Germany and the U.K.
Israel — constantly in the bull's eye of Iran's militaristic rhetoric — was no more heartened by the report.
"We cannot allow ourselves to rest just because of an intelligence report from the other side of the Earth, even if it is from our greatest friend," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday, according to the AP. A statement from Israeli President Simon Peres' office said intelligence assessments from around the world have later proved faulty — but did not specifically mention the 2002 U.S. NIE on Iraq, which has since been almost entirely discredited.
Democrats who are always on the lookout for a good shot at Bush took no time in using the new NIE as their latest talking point to show the administration doesn't know which way is up.
At Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama said: "I think Iran continues to be a threat to some of its neighbors in the region. ... But it is absolutely clear that this administration and President Bush continues to not let facts get in the way of his ideology. "
Sen. Hillary Clinton said: "I'm relieved that the intelligence community has reached this conclusion, but I vehemently disagree with the president that nothing's changed and therefore nothing in American policy has to change."
And former senator John Edwards: "What I believe is that this president, who just a few weeks ago was talking about World War III, he, the vice president, the neocons have been on a march to possible war with Iran for a long time. ... It's absolutely clear and eerily similar to what we saw with Iraq, where they were headed."
Capitol Hill Democrats were no less sympathetic, and several complained that Bush was speaking out of turn in October when he suggested Iran was still a threat. Opponents say he was first told about a possible reversal in August and should not have been ratcheting up the rhetoric between then and now.
"I am growing increasingly concerned about the White Houses inconsistent explanations of when the president was told about important new intelligence information regarding Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday. "It appears the president and vice president were briefed in August on this information, before both the president and vice president began to ratchet up their increasingly-heated rhetoric on the threat of Iran."
And House Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday the report just proves that "The last seven years in the Mideast by this administration have been the lost seven years when you see on every front a reversal."
Defending the Report
For its part, the administration is standing firmly behind the document's findings.
"I appreciate the work of our intelligence community in helping us better understand Iran's past and present nuclear activities. Their information is critical in increasing our understanding and helping us develop a sound policy," Bush said, speaking to reporters in Omaha, Neb., on Wednesday.
Bush said the NIE shows Iran "has more to explain" about its nuclear program, and called on Tehran to "come clean with the international community."
On Thursday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino continued to take on critics, saying the president has been consistent, both with the threat posed by Iran and his responses to questions about that threat in the facing of new intelligence.
"We just found out that Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program. It proved that we were right and that international pressure is what caused them to halt it," Perino told FOX News. "The criticism (of Bush) is completely misplaced. The liar is (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. He's the one who has hidden the program."
A number of observers say the report's intentions are true, and it is credible enough to use in determining U.S. policy toward Iran.
FOX News military analyst Ret. Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan said he thinks the report is basically credible — but acknowledges credibility is a problem for the administration. The problem lies in the fact that the two reports — the one from 2007 and the one from 2005 — are so drastically different.
Leading up to Monday's report, he said, "We've got all this stuff about they're two years away from bomb, they're two weeks from a bomb. ... And suddenly, they're not even making a bomb."
"All of a sudden, you know, in one day, we have a new NIE comes out that really flip-flops one-eighty, and says they quit working on it back in '03. I would say we have a major credibility issue," Cowan said.
But he said — in contradiction to those like former U.N. Ambassador Bolton — that doesn't mean the report itself is flawed. He said he has faith in National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell to put together a good report, and he credited efforts to bring in non-consensus opinions — an effort intelligence officials say is to try and prevent another situation like the infamous 2002 Iraq NIE.
Cowan said he believes the administration, with new NIE in hand, needs to go back, vet past reports and re-evaluate its policy. He said he thinks the NIE means policy will change, but not dramatically.
"Some of the rhetoric is going to have to change, and like the president said, we're going to have to keep the international pressure on the Iranians, but maybe the U.S [will] back off a little bit," and rely more the United Nations and foreign allies, he said.
Ellen Laipson, a former member of the National Intelligence Council who now is president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., defense policy think tank, also vouched for the authenticity of the report in a column posted on her group's Web site.
"Clearly, the methodology that produced these new judgments about Iran's nuclear weapons activity was subjected to months of scrutiny and debate," Laipson said, adding that the "intelligence community had the courage and intellectual honesty to compare its new conclusions to past judgments."
In her article, Laipson said the NIE will result in making diplomacy "the only acceptable tool" for dealing with Iran, as opposed to military intervention. "This is a net win for international peace and security," she said. Laipson was not immediately available to comment Thursday.
Joshua Muravchik, an Iran policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the report basically only shifts out the problem of Iran possibly having a nuclear weapon — it doesn't show the problem has disappeared.
"I don't think this whole thing really changed the picture in any way," Muravchik said.
He said he doesn't believe there is any more of a credibility issue with this latest NIE as there was with any others.
"NIE is the highest product of their intelligence community. ... The fact that it's our highest product does not mean at all that they're flawless," he said, pointing to another NIE in 1950 that all but ruled out the chance that North Korea would invade South Korea. Later that year the Korean War broke out.
Most of the reports' critics are missing the point, a former national security official who has served in previous administrations, told FOXNews.com, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Critics seem "to have overlooked the importance of the fact that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, and Iran continues to be advancing along the path most critical to the earliest acquisition of those weapons" — that critical path being the continuation of uranium enrichment.
"They're reacting to one element of the report rather than analyzing the whole thing, and figuring out what the implications are," the official added.
The official said that, contrary to what some are saying, the report "argues for maintaining a very focused, concentrated, determined effort" to stop Iran's march toward nuclear weapons, adding: "There is no basis in my view for relaxing or for believing that the Iranian nuclear program is less worrisome, or less requiring of urgent attention than before."