ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This weekend, the Bush administration is also dealing with the fallout from the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. The NIE concluded that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. Just weeks ago, President Bush warned of dire consequences if Iran continued its nuclear weapons program.
Well, today, in Bahrain, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged this new intelligence assessment has come at an awkward time.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): It has annoyed a number of our good friends; it has confused a lot of people around the world in terms of what we're trying to accomplish.
SEABROOK: Still, as he addressed Arab defense ministers, Secretary Gates urged the world community to keep up that pressure.
Sec. GATES: To suspend enrichment and to agree to verifiable arrangements that can prevent that country from resuming its nuclear weapons program at a moment's notice, at the whim of its most militant leaders.
SEABROOK: I spoke earlier today with John Bolton. You may remember his embattled tenure as the Bush administration's ambassador to the U.N. Before that, he was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post this week, asserting that the headline of the National Intelligence Estimate that is that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program is misleading.
Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security): Because as, I think, anyone will tell you, looking at a nation's capability to achieve nuclear weapons status, the most important thing it has to do is master the very complex science and technology of uranium enrichment. And the NIE itself reconfirms what we've been saying for quite some time that Iran is continuing and indeed expanding its uranium enrichment activities. So the idea that some small sliver of activity was suspended in 2003 and that the NIE itself says they don't really know whether that suspension is continued leaves the impression, nonetheless, that the whole thing has been shut down and that there's no problem. And I think you can see the implications and the reaction both domestically in the U.S. and in many countries abroad.
SEABROOK: Your argument seems to stem from a distinction that the NIE makes between a weapons program and a civilian nuclear program. And that distinction seems to hang on how enriched the uranium is. Do you mean to say that uranium that is enriched for civilian purposes is just as bad as uranium enriched for weapons purposes or that they're not that far apart?
Mr. BOLTON: The fact is the difference between a low-enriched uranium or reactor-grade uranium and high-enriched uranium or weapons-grade uranium is not that great. In fact, two-thirds of the work is consumed by getting to low-enriched uranium, so even if they're simply enriching to reactor grade levels, they're two-thirds of the way to what they need to have weapons-grade uranium.
SEABROOK: In your op-ed, you also take issue with the NIE's assessment that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in response to diplomatic pressure. You say that the only event that really could have caused them to stop their nuclear weapons program in 2003 was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But at the same time, the European Union's diplomatic push that…
Mr. BOLTON: The Europeans weren't pushing. The Europeans were offering them carrots; that's not diplomatic pressure; that was an effort to entice the Iranians out of giving up their program. And absolutely critical to what the Europeans were doing was to say none of the benefits they were promising would be forthcoming until Iran stop its uranium enrichment program. So the notion that the European effort somehow led Iran to shut down its weapons - the weapons aspect - and I want to it call the weaponization aspect of its nuclear program - but continued uranium enrichment is a non sequitur.
SEABROOK: Ambassador Bolton, you say about this National Intelligence Estimate - I'll quote you here, "rarely has an administration been so unprepared for such an event." Are you sure that the White House did not know about this?
Mr. BOLTON: I think they knew about it only days before it was released publicly. And in fact, I think this is an example of the mismanagement of the intelligence function within the government. You know, it is - the principal purpose of the intelligence community to advise the president not to make public pronouncements. And the inside story of how these key judgments were released was contrary to the regular policy not to release these judgments under fear that aspects of it would leak out and would be damaging. I view that as kind of a threat to the White House and one where it's evidenced that the policy biases that I think underlie this assessment were exposed.
SEABROOK: What is the policy formulation here?
Mr. BOLTON: The argument made at the - near the end of the key judgments is that Iran is susceptible to making cost-benefit analyses about its nuclear program and that the application of diplomatic efforts can get them to seize those activities; that's a raw policy judgment, and I think it's evident in the way the entire NIE was put together with that one headline right at the beginning that would sweep away people's attention to virtually all the rest of the judgments.
SEABROOK: And so what would be the motive of those writing this?
Mr. BOLTON: To stop the Bush administration from continuing putting the pressure on Iran, and I think the consequence has been exactly as they predicted. Despite some rhetorical victories this past week, I think it's near impossible to believe the administration will get another sanctions resolution from the Security Council.
SEABROOK: Ambassador Bolton, do you - did you take exception yourself to the way that the NIE was used to support going into Iraq?
Mr. BOLTON: Well, I didn't use the NIE to support going into Iraq. I felt that the regime itself was the threat, and I had written that consistently through the late 1990s, as indeed did the United States Congress.
SEABROOK: I guess my question is, Ambassador Bolton, is there ever a time when it is appropriate for a National Intelligence Estimate to come to a sort of quasi policy conclusion?
Mr. BOLTON: If people in the intelligence community want to do policy, they ought to move to the Pentagon or the State Department. The only way that you can try and keep intelligence objective is to resist its politicization -whether it comes from the policymaker's side or whether it's occurring within the intelligence community. This is an example of politicization from within the intelligence community.
SEABROOK: Ambassador John Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Thank you very much, sir.
Mr. BOLTON: Thank you.
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