Obama v. the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran

Last year, the NIE famously concluded with "high confidence" that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Why did Obama say yesterday that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons?

By Glenn Greenwald

Published January 12, 2009 1:43PM (EST)

[updated below -- Update II (Obama's prior NIE statement)]

Regarding Barack Obama's statements about Iran yesterday during his ABC News interview, Charles Davis makes an excellent point (h/t Jonathan Schwarz):  

President-elect Barack Obama in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos:

Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges and as I said during the campaign we have a situation in which not only is Iran exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hezbollah but they are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race.

The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf), the consensus opinion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.

Naturally, Stephanopolous asked Obama -- as any competent, professional journalist would -- to explain why he disagreed with the findings of the intelligence community and of the international inspectors on the ground:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have to do something about it in your first year.

So it goes.

There's usually no shortage of people willing to defend Obama's statements and explain what he really means.  I recall, after Obama voted for warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity back last August, reading in numerous places -- for the first time ever -- that the FISA controversy wasn't really all that important, that warrantless eavesdropping wasn't much of a threat, that Democrats had no choice but to support this bill lest they lose the election, that nobody will die or starve if the Government eavesdrops, etc. etc.  

And yesterday -- after Obama signaled his reluctance to investigate Bush lawbreaking and explained that he can't close Guantanamo until there is a new "process" allowing "tainted" evidence to be used -- my comment section was full of people explaining why Obama can't possibly investigate (let alone prosecute) Bush officials for crimes, and that it's more important to keep Dangerous Terrorists imprisoned than it is to abide by long-standing principles of American law and Western justice which prohibit the use of "tainted" evidence (meaning, at least in part, confessions and other evidence obtained by torture), even though we have repeatedly been successful in obtaining convictions of Dangerous Terrorists in our federal court system both before and after 9/11.  Some pro-Obama bloggers echoed those claims.

So what's the justification for Obama's inflammatory and obviously consequential (though seemingly baseless) claim on national television that the Iranians "are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race" when the consensus of American intelligence agencies is that they are not doing so?


UPDATE:  Regarding Obama's statements yesterday about Guantanamo and investigations/prosecutions of Bush lawbreaking -- which I wrote about yesterday in detail -- the ACLU's Executive Director, Anthony Romero, today said this:

While everyone understands that President-elect Obama will have a lot on his plate when he is sworn in, restoring our commitment to the rule of law cannot be put on the back burner. President-elect Obama is inheriting not only a financial market meltdown, but also a meltdown of a legal system under which the Bush administration has held individuals for years without charge, allowed torture and waterboarding and allowed hearsay evidence in specious military commissions. . . . Closing Guantánamo and the military commissions is a matter of both reclaiming our international reputation and increasing our national security, and must be done immediately.

While the next steps might be politically charged and require courage, they are not fundamentally complicated. Each detainee's case must be reviewed by the new Justice Department. If there is evidence of criminal conduct – and one would hope that, after all these years, the government with its vast resources in the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the CIA and FBI would have collected untainted evidence against those detainees it claims are dangerous or guilty -- detainees should be prosecuted in our traditional courts, which are the best in the world and fully capable of handling sensitive national security issues without compromising fundamental rights. If there is not, detainees should be repatriated to countries that don't practice torture. Fundamental and transformative change is neither incremental nor tentative.

President-elect Obama says he wants to look forward, but you can't look forward without looking back. You can't know where to go and how to get there without knowing where you've been. Only a full airing of the maladies that have plagued our democracy for eight years and an unconditional return to our fundamental values and the Constitution will give us back an America we can be proud of.

Before Obama made his comments about Guantanamo yesterday, I don't recall hearing many liberals or Democrats talking about how "complex" is the issue of closing Guantanamo.  The issue is quite clear:  should we, in the name of waging the "War on Terror," radically change our legal system and renounce core, long-standing principles of Western justice (such as the prohibition on the use by the state of torture-obtained confessions and other "tainted" evidence)?  If there was any clear lesson of the last eight years, I would have thought -- at least until Obama's comments yesterday -- that the answer to that question is a resounding "no."


UPDATE II:  Contrast Obama's flat declaration yesterday that Iran is "pursuing a nuclear weapon" with what he said on the same topic in December, 2007 when seeking the Democratic nomination:

By reporting that Iran halted its nuclear weapon development program four years ago because of international pressure, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes a compelling case for less saber-rattling and more direct diplomacy. The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force.

Back then, Obama was touting as authoritative the NIE's finding that "Iran halted its nuclear weapon development program four years ago."  Yesterday, with no explanation, he embraced the opposite of the NIE's finding and claimed that they were still pursuing nuclear weapons.  It should be emphasized that Obama doesn't seem to have changed his policy approach -- he continued in yesterday's interview to stress the need for "engagement" with Iran, which would be a real and important change from the Bush approach.  Still, at the very least, some explanation is in order as to what the basis for yesterday's claim is about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------