Defense Department officials acknowledged to Fox News that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while speaking to a Jewish congregation at a Maryland synagogue on Tuesday, appeared to have misstated the administration's policy on Iran -- by saying the country should not be allowed the "capacity" to develop a nuclear weapon.
"So that's the position of this administration; it was the position of the Bush administration -- that's unequivocal. That's stated -- it's clear," Hagel said at the Beth El synagogue in Bethesda, Md.
But Hagel was mistaken, and it's not the first time he has misspoken about the United States' nuclear policy on Iran. What he described on Tuesday would be a much firmer stance than either administration has taken. The current policy is that Iran should be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, rather than preventing its capacity to make a weapon.
Just last month the Director of National Intelligence released "The Worldwide Threat Assessment" to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Page five states clearly that Iran already has the capacity to build and deliver a nuclear weapon should it decide to do so.
"Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas -- including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles -- from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons," DNI James Clapper wrote. "These technical advancements strengthen our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so."
Curious is that the Department of Defense produced a transcript of Hagel's remarks that incorrectly quotes this portion of his remarks. Instead of using the word "capacity," the transcript reads "passively."
The line on the DoD website reads: "SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, you know the policy of this administration -- the same policy of the Bush administration; that Iran will not be allowed to develop passively for a nuclear weapon."
But Fox News' own audio recording of the event (cameras were not allowed) demonstrates clearly he used the word "capacity." The DoD says it relied on Congressional Quarterly to produce the transcript.
There is no way to know if the transcript was intentionally changed, but it is also possible that someone could have mistakenly heard the word "passively."
Pentagon Press Secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the transcript will be fixed. "I don't think there is any nefariousness here," Kirby said. "The secretary fully and completely supports the president's position that Iran not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon."
Fox News asked National Security Agency spokesman Caitlin Hayden to clarify the Iran nuclear policy for the record. In an email she wrote: "feel free to consult any one of dozens of transcripts where we (including the President) talk about our Iran policy. As the President said when he announced the JPOA [Joint Plan of Action], 'Since I took office, I've made clear my determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.'"
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said Hagel's remarks, though technically inaccurate, are unlikely to have any negative national security consequence or effect on the ongoing nuclear talks. "The real danger here would be if he was somehow softening the U.S. position ... that would be a bigger policy problem," O'Hanlon said.
Anthony Cordesman, a military and foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said "in fairness to Hagel, trying to find a consistent semantic structure in the United States government over any issue is pretty difficult, and in this case arms controllers don't have a common definition. You're raising an issue that goes way beyond Hagel."
It's not the first time Hagel has misstated the president's policy on Iran and nuclear weapons. Asked during his confirmation hearing one year ago about the strategy to prevent Iran from building a nuke, Hagel said: "I support the president's strong position on containment, as I have said."
But moments later he had to correct himself after an aide passed him a note.
"I misspoke and said I supported the president's position on containment. If I said that, I meant to say we don't have a position on containment," he said.
It was then that Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., interrupted, correcting Hagel once again. "Just to make sure your correction is clear, we do have a position on containment, which is that we do not favor containment," Levin said. "I just wanted to clarify the clarify."
Later in the hearing, Hagel promised to get all the issues straight.
"There are a lot of things I don't know about. If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do. I will have to," Hagel said.