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Diving Deep, Unearthing a Surprise

President Bush talked to reporters at the White House a day after a National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.
President Bush talked to reporters at the White House a day after a National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

With Bush pressing for more information, the intelligence community finally came up with something new -- a series of communications intercepts, including snippets of conversations between key Iranian officials, one of them a military officer whose name appeared on the laptop. Two sources said the Iranians complained that the nuclear weapons program had been shuttered four years earlier and argued about whether it would ever be restarted.

There had been clues for those willing to see them. For one thing, the laptop contained no new drawings on its hard drive after February 2003, said officials familiar with it. And during a dinner in Tehran with visiting American experts in 2005, Iranian leaders Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rowhani flatly declared that the country's nuclear weapons research had been halted because Iran felt it did not need the actual bombs, only the ability to show the world it could.

"Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the [nuclear] fuel cycle, we don't need anything else," Rafsanjani said at the dinner, according to George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions."

The evolving NIE bore the imprint of McConnell and his deputies, Thomas Fingar and Donald M. Kerr, friends with decades of national security experience. Fingar in 2005 began changing how information was gathered, filtered and analyzed, and McConnell formalized the new rules after becoming director of national intelligence in February. "He quickly got the mantra down: 'We must make a clear distinction between what we know and don't know and what we judge to be the case,' " said an official present at the time.

As a result, the internal debate over the meaning of the new Iran intelligence was intense and often contentious, with different agencies and individuals clashing over everything from the fine points to the broad conclusions, participants said.

McConnell told Bush about the new information in August during a daily intelligence briefing, but did not provide much detail or anything on paper, White House officials said. Bush periodically asked McConnell for updates. "The president and his advisers were regularly and continuously appraised on new information as we acquired it," an intelligence official said.

Officials also informed House intelligence committee members and key Senate intelligence committee staff members in September, although they were circumspect. "They said, 'We've got new information. We want to make sure we get this thing as close to right as possible,' " said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the House panel's senior Republican.

One intelligence official said Bush's team expressed concern that the intercepts might be disinformation, so analysts tested that thesis. "They tried to figure out what exactly it would take to perpetrate that kind of deception, how many people would be involved, how they would go about doing it, when it would have been set up and so forth," the official said. Analysts "scrubbed and rescrubbed" more than 1,000 pieces of evidence but concluded Iran's program really had been shut down.

A new draft NIE was prepared in September that was radically different from the June version. As part of the testing process, Hayden and his deputy, Stephen Kappes, convened a murder board of sorts, grilling analysts about their data and conclusions. They "had them in a room and it was kind of 'show me,' " one official said. "And they were a skeptical audience." A similar session was conducted in front of Fingar in late October or early November.

By mid-November, the agencies were ready to deliver their conclusions to the White House. Intelligence officials gave a preliminary briefing Nov. 15 in the Situation Room to Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and other senior officials.

The process was climaxing just as Bush was convening a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, a meeting designed at least in part to rally the region against Iran. No one told participants about the new information, but on the same day they were gathering in Annapolis on Nov. 27, the National Intelligence Board met to finalize the new NIE. McConnell and others briefed Bush and Cheney the next day. Even though intelligence officials planned to keep it from the public, Bush later that day passed it on to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Cheney told Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

By last weekend, an intense discussion broke out about whether to keep it secret. "We knew it would leak, so honesty required that we get this out ahead, to prevent it from appearing to be cherry picking," said a top intelligence official. So McConnell reversed himself, and analysts scrambled over the weekend to draft a declassified version.

On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, which have been negotiating a new set of sanctions against Iran. Foreign officials groused about how it was handled. Had they known before the summit, a senior Israeli official said, "I'm not sure we would have shown up."

Among those Kerr called that morning was Hoekstra. He was exasperated at the turnaround and not at all persuaded. To him, it was another example of the tenuous nature of intelligence. "This is not about I don't like the conclusion," he said. "We didn't know enough in 2005, and we don't know enough today."

Staff writers Walter Pincus, Joby Warrick and Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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