The NIE changed everything. Yeah, right

Bush can pretend it didn't happen, but the aftershocks of the intelligence community's reversal on Iran may be felt for a long time.

By Joan Walsh

Published December 5, 2007 9:38PM (EST)

Read Mark Follman's interview with Flynt Leverett immediately. It's a great look at the politics behind the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, and the intelligence community's decision to reverse its scandalous, politically contorted 2005 finding that Iran had an active nuclear program.

Leverett, a former senior director on President Bush's National Security Council, says it's clear that Bush was briefed on the new findings in August, and the administration has spent its time since then trying to figure out how to spin it. (Leverett sees proof Bush knew about the new NIE in his shift, around that time, to arguing Iran had to be prevented from acquiring the "knowledge" to produce nuclear weapons, not just acquiring the weapons themselves.) That the full document was made public now, Leverett believes, represents an embattled intelligence community fighting back. "The intelligence leadership made a judgment that basically for their own protection they needed to make it public," Leverett says, after it succumbed to political pressure to hype the danger of Iranian nukes in 2005, and then watched Iran hawks use its findings to defend a more hostile stance toward Iran.

Ironically, that political cowardice, which of course extends back to the Iraq-WMD debacle, could help Iran war hawks discredit the new NIE: If intelligence agencies have been so wrong before, why should we believe them now?

Certainly President Bush is ignoring the findings. Today in a speech in Omaha he continued to urge Iran to "come clean" about its nuclear program or face world isolation. According to the Washington Post, he referenced the NIE's information about Iran's nuclear program -- but didn't say the report found it had been halted in 2003. Yesterday he flat out lied to the White House press corps, denying reports he'd been told about the new findings on Iran last summer. In fact, Bush said, he'd merely been told by Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell in August that there were new findings, but not what they were -- and he didn't bother to ask.

On one level, it's tempting to believe Incurious George is telling the truth, but given the intense White House political debates over Iran in the summer and early fall -- with Vice President Dick Cheney backing action while others urged caution -- it's not possible.

Meanwhile, the NIE really changes nothing about the Republican race for president. Rudy Giuliani advisor, neocon granddad Norman Podhoretz has led the charge to discredit the new NIE, and Giuliani just released a scary ad hyping the Iran threat. They will continue to ape Bush and act as though the report was never released. Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, didn't even know it was released until Politico's David Paul Kuhn asked him about it last night. (Maybe Huckabee was distracted by the Huffington Post's impending dump of damaging letters from rape victims urging Huckabee not to support parole for Wayne Dumond, who went on to rape and murder after his release from prison.)

But it could have an impact on the Democratic race. I've thought since the day she cast it that Hillary Clinton's Sept. 26 vote on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, was her worst move since she voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq in October 2002. The new NIE gives her Democratic foes a new way to attack her judgment, and they used it in the NPR debate yesterday. The only thing that blunts its impact is that Barack Obama missed the vote entirely to campaign in New Hampshire (though he said soon afterward that he regretted his absence and would have voted against the measure).

Camp Hillary is making lemonade out of lemons, and trying to use the issue to highlight Obama's unfortunate history of missing key votes on divisive controversies, or merely voting "present," going back to his time in the Illinois Senate. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Clinton campaign chair, hit Obama hard in Newsweek for missing Kyl-Lieberman: "Here's the difference: she was there. She actually cast a vote. There's an issue with a guy who was a state legislator who votes 'present.' You vote 'present' when you have a conflict. This is a guy who does a pretty good job of not answering questions. A guy who skips a significant vote to campaign. It's an issue. He can be critical of her voting, but at least she was there and is willing to stand up and explain what she did. It's very easy to criticize somebody when you weren't there."

I wasn't impressed by Clinton's answers on Iran in the NPR debate, where she defended Kyl-Lieberman as a vote for tougher sanctions and tried to argue it had paid off in fewer Iranian-assisted attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. Obama's ability to use Clinton's vote might be blunted by his own failure to vote, so it could be the flap helps John Edwards the most. Edwards is already benefiting from the mudslinging between Clinton and Obama, and he seems to know it. The NIE could have ripples no one anticipated when it was released. I'll be talking about all of this on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" at 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Mike Huckabee Rudy Giuliani