What's Behind Intelligence Agencies' Iran Reversal? What new information could lead 16 intelligence agencies to change their conclusions on Iran? New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti talks with Melissa Block about how the NIE came together — and what the new estimate says about changes in the intelligence community.
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What's Behind Intelligence Agencies' Iran Reversal?

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What's Behind Intelligence Agencies' Iran Reversal?

What's Behind Intelligence Agencies' Iran Reversal?

What's Behind Intelligence Agencies' Iran Reversal?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16933385/16933368" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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What new information could lead 16 intelligence agencies to change their conclusions on Iran? New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti talks with Melissa Block about how the NIE came together — and what the new estimate says about changes in the intelligence community.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

So what new information led the nation's 16 intelligence agencies to reverse their conclusion on Iran's nuclear program? Mark Mazzetti wrote about that today as national security correspondent for the New York Times. He says for one thing, the intelligence community widened its net, turning to multiple varied sources, and compiling a more accurate picture of Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (Correspondent, The New York Times): We believe it was a combination of some human sources combined with some electronic intercepts that they were then able to piece together. I think if they learned anything from the Iraq episode, it was not to rely too much on one even human source who could be lying.

BLOCK: The communication intercepts that you mentioned - according to some reports, they were conversations that referred to the program having been stopped in 2003, which, of course, raises the question about how anyone would know that that's not disinformation. How do you judge an intercept to know whether what the person is saying is actually true or designed to steer you off track?

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's the first thing that they wonder about, and there's an entire division of the CIA doing counterintelligence to try to assess whether adversaries are feeding the U.S. information to throw us off the trail. This - senior intelligence officials have said that a lot of their time this summer was spent trying to figure out whether this great information that they got this year was trying to throw the United States off. They ultimately determined that all of the information in totality was legit.

BLOCK: It also seems that what's going on here was not just new information coming in from different sources, but also a change in how the intelligence community was analyzing that information - a real culture change.

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's right. And about a year, a year and a half ago, the senior analyst in the intelligence community, basically, put in some new procedures to say what happened with the 2002 Iraq NIE will never happen again. What it is is, in many ways, coming - being upfront about what you don't know, allowing alternate viewpoints. What they used to do was they try to get a consensus and then if anyone dissented, they stuck a dissent down at the bottom of the page.

What they're doing now is they're putting alternate views right upfront and they're saying, you know, you decide for yourself. So they're trying to encourage these different views. What's interesting really about this product is that they came out with remarkably bold statements saying, we have high confidence that Iran stops this program in 2003. So they're in a way going out on a limb, saying that we are very, very sure about this.

BLOCK: You've written about the use now of Red Team. So explain what a Red Team is.

Mr. MAZZETTI: A Red Team is basically in layman's terms a devil's advocate, setting up a team to challenge the views of the intelligence community, basically saying, well, what if it's this and what if it's that and, you know, try to poke holes in the prevailing wisdom. You know, that feeling is if they can survive this process and survive the test of these hypotheses, then maybe in the end, they'll be stronger.

BLOCK: How much of this do you think may have been a result of them going back to the very same information they had in 2005, with fresh eyes, with a new way of looking at the same stuff they had before?

Mr. MAZZETTI: That's right. And from what I can tell, they took this approach with this NIE to basically say, all right. Let's throw away our preconceived notions and see what we can come up with. They've got some new information - some, apparently, very good information that then allowed them to go back to earlier assessments and old information that they had kind of discarded, and then put those pieces together in new ways to create this new picture.

BLOCK: Mark, when you read through the NIE, you'll see terms used like high confidence, moderate confidence - these have very specific meanings, but to a layperson mean really not much at all. Can you explain what the distinctions are?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, and I think that they mean different things today than they may have a couple of years ago. As I said that there was a sort of a change in how they did the analysis. In many ways, it comes down to percentage. They can say to something with 80 or 90 percent confidence, they would then label high confidence. They are terms of art. They are - they admit very imprecise what is the boundary between moderate confidence and high confidence. I think it's very striking that they came out with high confidence in this assessment when they'd come out with high confidence in 2005 so they've really done a total reversal. They have sort of put their cards on the table and said, this is what we believe. And when you're talking about Iran, it's - they knew that this was going to feed right in to a high level international debate about Iran, into the middle of a presidential campaign, so they knew what they were doing.

BLOCK: Now that there's been this huge reversal, how do you explain what led to a 2005 assessment that has proved to be, apparently, completely wrong?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Well, it's not completely wrong. At least, there were some key parts that seemed to be wrong.

BLOCK: Right, right.

Mr. MAZZETTI: It is a little puzzling. I mean, the Iran NIE in 2005 came out two months after the big presidential commission chastised the intelligence community for getting it wrong about Iraq. By most accounts, the 2005 estimate was an update to an earlier assessment. They didn't do the hard scrub of sources of analysis that they did in this case. There were some people who were pretty wedded to this view that Iran was still continuing to build a nuclear weapon - determinable nuclear weapon - and they kind of went along with that prevailing view.

It really was - the 2005 estimate was really the last product under kind of the old regime. So since that time period, they have installed these new safeguards, not to say that - and they'll the first to admit that they're going to get a lot of things wrong, but they feel like they're at least prouder of what they're producing.

BLOCK: Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent for the New York Times, thanks very much.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Thanks a lot.

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Timeline: Words Fly Over Iran's Nuclear Program

Key Players in the Debate

President Bush fields questions Dec. 4 about intelligence agency reports saying that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that it remains on hold. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bush on Iran and Israel

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Bush on Iran's Pursuit of Nuclear Technology

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defended Iran's stance time and time again. Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Ahmadinejad announces Iran's nuclear abilities

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Vice President Dick Cheney has strongly rejected the idea of allowing Iran to have a nuclear program. hide caption

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Cheney on Iran's nuclear ambitions

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would not support Mohammed ElBaradei as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency for a third term unless he took a harder line against Iran's nuclear program. David Silverman/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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David Silverman/AFP/Getty Images

Rice urges Iran to respond to negotiations

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Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, called for a "timeout" on Iran in January 2007. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

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Mohammed ElBaradei on the need to avoid escalation

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The controversy over Iran's nuclear program is complicated by the country's decision to resume efforts to enrich uranium — defying the United Nations despite saying it had stopped researching nuclear weapons.

Iranian officials said they wanted the enriched radioactive material as fuel for peaceful nuclear reactors. When President Bush and other administration officials accused Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear bomb, they often referred to Iran's uranium-enrichment program as proof.

Here's a timeline highlighting what was said and known about the program since early 2003:

February 2003: Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, find evidence that Iran has secretly begun enriching uranium.

May 2003: Iranian President Mohammed Khatami offers to talk to the United States about the countries' differences. But the Bush administration rejects the offer. In part because of this refusal, the Europeans act on their own to negotiate with the Iranians while trying to persuade the Bush administration to join the negotiation process.

October 2003: The EU 3 — France, Britain and Germany — reach an initial understanding with Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment. The Bush administration refuses to support this, insisting suspension of nuclear enrichment is not enough. The Bush administration insists that before it will enter into any negotiations with the Iranians, Iran must commit to abandoning enrichment altogether.

November 2003: The IAEA announces that Iran has been violating its safeguards agreement under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It accuses Tehran of failing to report that it was handling nuclear material and building facilities to process it. It says Iranian officials hid key parts of their nuclear program for nearly 20 years. The latest National Intelligence Estimate now says it believes "with high confidence" that the fall of 2003 was about the time Iran shut down a secret nuclear weapons program.

December 2003: After talks with the European Union, Tehran agrees to allow IAEA inspectors to expand their operations in Iran, by questioning its scientists and officials, reviewing documents and conducting further examinations of some of its nuclear research and development facilities.

November 2004: Iran promises negotiators from the EU that it will suspend all its activities for processing nuclear fuel. Although Iran continues to deny that its activities have any military purpose, President Bush calls it a "nuclear weapons program" and chides Iran's leaders for suspending it, rather than ending it entirely. "Our position is that they ought to terminate their nuclear weapons program," Bush says.

February 2005: President Bush accuses Iran of being "the world's primary state sponsor of terror, pursuing nuclear weapons, while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve."

June 2005: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the United States will not support a third term for Mohammed ElBaradei as head of the IAEA unless he takes a harder line against Iran's nuclear program.

April 2006: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iranian scientists have successfully enriched uranium to the 3.5 percent level, pure enough to run a nuclear reactor. He says, "I am officially announcing that Iran has joined the group of those countries which have nuclear technology." Uranium for a nuclear bomb would require around 90 percent enrichment.

July 2006: The United Nations Security Council passes a resolution demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment activities or face international sanctions.

December 2006: The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposes sanctions on Iran for failure to halt its uranium enrichment program. It bans U.N. member states from providing Iran with equipment or technology that could be used in its nuclear program.

January 2007: IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei calls for a "timeout" on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, saying the United Nations should suspend sanctions against Iran if Iran will freeze its nuclear program. He tells CNN, "The key to the Iranian issue is a direct engagement between Iran and the U.S., similar to North Korea."

Spring 2007: A National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was expected to be delivered to Congress during this period, but is repeatedly postponed as intelligence agencies re-assess information about Iran's nuclear program.

August 2007: President Bush says, "Iran's active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust." The latest National Intelligence Estimate says, "we assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007."

September 2007: U.S. intelligence officials, including CIA Director Michael Hayden, begin a reassessment of their information on Iran, according to unnamed officials quoted in the New York Times. The newspaper says White House officials knew at the time that the intelligence agencies were reviewing their conclusions, but did not know until later that those conclusions were drastically being changed.

October 2007: President Bush says, "we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

November 2007: A final draft of the National Intelligence Estimate is presented to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. It concludes that Iran stopped its weapons program in late 2003 and since then has shown no signs of resuming it.

December 2007: A day after the NIE is made public, President Bush says he was first told by Director of Intelligence Michael McConnell in August that there was new intelligence about Iran's nuclear program, but that he wasn't told what that new intelligence was at the time. President Bush, in a press conference, says he still regards Iran as "dangerous." He asks reporters, "What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program?"