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On Capitol Hill today, the intelligence community vigorously defended this week's National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. That report undercut what President Bush and others in his administration had said about the nuclear threat from that country. The intelligence agency has concluded that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program four years ago, and the experts who prepared it say it's among the best-sourced estimates ever produced.
NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story.
TOM GJELTEN: Knowing they'd be challenged, the analysts behind the National Intelligence Estimate in Iran allowed experts on nuclear weapons development to grill them about their findings. The experts forced them, for example, to consider alternative explanations for their judgment that the Iranian government had halted its weapons program.
Still, not everyone is convinced the NIE got it right, when the deputy director of national intelligence, Donald Kerr, appeared before a House intelligence subcommittee today. He faced tough questioning from Republican Todd Tiahrt of Kansas. Tiahrt pointed out that the Iranian government, from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on down, have hardly been cooperative with international arms inspectors.
Representative TODD TIAHRT (Republican, Kansas): I'm not sure we have a good, clear signal of what's really happening inside Iran. We've got a very big batch of mixed signals. National Intelligence Estimate tells us one thing that they haven't been doing anything since 2003 as far as the nuclear program, then we had the words themselves from their president, we've had the actions of their scientists when the international community has tried to visit them.
GJELTEN: Donald Kerr, defending the intelligence estimate, said he could fully explain its conclusions only in a closed-door briefing.
Mr. DONALD KERR (Deputy Director, National Intelligence Estimate): But I can say here for the record, that this is probably one of the most well sourced NIEs that has ever been produced. There are over a thousand source notes with this NIE. This benefited from the increased collection posture that we have been in since the 2005 assessment.
GJELTEN: That 2005 assessment concluded that Iran had an active weapons program. That conclusion, which U.S. intelligence officials continued to support until earlier this year, is said to be based, in part, on the CIA's discovery in 2004 of a laptop computer that belonged to an Iranian engineer who was apparently working on a covert nuclear weapons program.
U.S. intelligence officials say they remain convinced that this and other pieces of evidence did in fact show that Iran had a covert program. The new information that caused the agencies to conclude the program was suspended actually helped them understand the old evidence better. The 1,000-source notes according to a senior intelligence official summarizes new information from both human sources such as defectors and agents and electronic means including intercepted communication between Iranian officials.
The New York Times reported today the U.S. intelligence agencies obtained notes of conversations between Iranians involved in the weapons development. The Iranians are said to have been complaining about a decision by the Iranian government to suspend the weapons program.
Jeffrey Lewis, a specialist in nuclear weapons strategy at the New America Foundation speculated in 2005 that a reorganization of the Iranian government sidelined the sector of the military that was working on nuclear weapons development. The report that Iranian officials were found to be complaining about an order to halt their work makes sense, he says, given what he knows about the Iranian nuclear program.
Mr. JEFFREY LEWIS (Director, New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy): You've got a defense bureaucracy that basically hands out contracts to companies and research organizations. And the allegation is that the laptop that convinced the intelligence community that there was a covert program in the first place was a laptop that was used to conduct work at one of these - I think they were calling it a semi-official institute.
So, you know, I imagine that the people who are patrons of that work as well as the people who were actually doing it were probably quite put off by the fact that their funding and their efforts got put on hold.
GJELTEN: John Bolton, the Bush administration's former ambassador to the United Nations, called the NIE judgment on Iran flawed. In an op-ed column today, he said it was prepared by analysts with an overly benign view of the Iranian regime.
Donald Kerr, in defending the intelligence estimate, pointed out today that it actually concluded with moderate to high confidence that the Iranian government is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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