George Bush was “angry” when US intelligence said

Iran hadn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme


In the National Intelligence Estimate, Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, produced in November 2007, the 16 US intelligence services expressed the consensus view that Iran hadn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme at that time.  That is still their view today.


As he revealed in his memoir Decision Points, instead of being pleased that Iran was almost certainly not developing nuclear weapons, President Bush was “angry” that his intelligence services had expressed this view.  He was “angry” because it cut the ground from under his efforts to gain international support for what he termed “dealing with Iran”, which clearly went beyond ensuring that it did not possess nuclear weapons.  The NIE had a big impact, he concluded – and not a good one.


His full comments on the NIE in Decision Points are as follows:


In November 2007, the intelligence community produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program. It confirmed that, as we suspected, Iran had operated a secret nuclear weapons program in defiance of its treaty obligations. It also reported that, in 2003, Iran had suspended its covert effort to design a warhead – considered by some to be the least challenging part of building a weapon.  Despite the fact that Iran was testing missiles that could be used as a delivery system and had announced its resumption of uranium enrichment, the NIE opened with an eye-popping declaration: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”


The NIE’s conclusion was so stunning that I felt certain it would immediately leak to the press. As much as I disliked the idea, I decided to declassify the key findings so that we could shape the news stories with the facts. The backlash was immediate. Ahmadinejad hailed the NIE as “a great victory.”  Momentum for new sanctions faded among the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese. As New York Times journalist David Sanger rightly put it, “The new intelligence estimate relieved the international pressure on Iran – the same pressure that the document itself claimed had successfully forced the country to suspend its weapons ambitions.”


In January 2008, I took a trip to the Middle East, where I tried to reassure leaders that we remained committed to dealing with Iran. Israel and our Arab allies found themselves in a rare moment of unity. Both were deeply concerned about Iran and furious with the United States about the NIE. In Saudi Arabia, I met with King Abdullah and members of the Sudairi Seven, the influential full brothers of the late King Fahd.


“Your Majesty, may I begin the meeting?” I said. “I’m confident that every one of you believes that I wrote the NIE as a way of avoiding taking action against Iran.”


No one said a word. The Saudis were too polite to confirm their suspicion aloud.


“You have to understand our system,” I said. “The NIE was produced independently by our intelligence community. I am as angry about it as you are.”


The NIE didn’t just undermine diplomacy.  It also tied my hands on the military side. There were many reasons I was concerned about undertaking a military strike on Iran, including its uncertain effectiveness and the serious problems it would create for Iraq’s fragile young democracy. But after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?


I don’t know why the NIE was written the way it was. I wondered if the intelligence community was trying so hard to avoid repeating its mistake on Iraq, that it had underestimated the threat from Iran.  I certainly hoped that intelligence analysts weren’t trying to influence policy. Whatever the explanation, the NIE had a big impact – and not a good one.


David Morrison

5 March 2012