Administration Puts Its Best Spin on Iran Report

President Bush is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the new Nationals Park in Southeast Washington on Sunday night -- the sixth time he will have taken the mound during his presidency. Those pitches include, from left, opening Miller Park in Milwaukee in 2001; the first World Series game in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; the Nationals' first game at RFK Stadium in 2005 after moving from Montreal, where they were the Expos; and opening day at St. Louis -- in politically valuable Missouri -- during the 2004 campaign.
President Bush is scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the new Nationals Park in Southeast Washington on Sunday night -- the sixth time he will have taken the mound during his presidency. Those pitches include, from left, opening Miller Park in Milwaukee in 2001; the first World Series game in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; the Nationals' first game at RFK Stadium in 2005 after moving from Montreal, where they were the Expos; and opening day at St. Louis -- in politically valuable Missouri -- during the 2004 campaign. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, March 24, 2008

Comments last week by President Bush and Vice President Cheney suggested continuing White House unhappiness at the conclusions of last December's national intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program.

Bush told U.S.-funded Radio Farda, which broadcasts into Iran in Farsi, that Iranian leaders have "declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people," a statement that went well beyond the findings of the NIE.

Cheney, meanwhile, jousted with ABC's Martha Raddatz when she tried to pin him down on whether he agreed with the NIE's finding that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite having several opportunities to endorse this finding, the vice president said in an interview only that "I have high confidence they have an ongoing enrichment program."

The White House effort to play down the NIE is not particularly surprising. The estimate has been a huge headache for the administration, undermining allies' confidence in the administration's resolve and inviting criticism that it has been hyping the Iranian threat.

Bush and Cheney have spent months trying with mixed success to focus the public on the parts of the NIE that suggest malign Iranian intentions, such as the ongoing uranium-enrichment program. In recent weeks, senior intelligence officials also have expressed regret over the way the estimate was made public -- even as they have stood by the key findings themselves.

In fact, they have said they were not expecting the results of their work to be made public at all. Therefore, they emphasized the finding that would be seen as new by busy policymakers -- Iran's decision to halt the weaponization aspect of its nuclear program -- even though other elements of the estimate concluded that Iran still maintained an ability to create a nuclear weapon over time.

"I'm certainly comfortable with the judgments -- the conclusions that are in it -- and nobody who has looked at it has challenged those judgments," Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said last week in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. "If we had thought that this was going to be released, we would have written the key judgments differently than we did."

Here is where the White House continues to reap the bitter fruit of its prewar handling of assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction: After administration officials decided that the Iran findings ought to be made public -- in large measure because they concluded that the findings would leak anyway -- they had little choice but to emphasize the judgment that was most damaging to their case.

Otherwise, as many officials inside and outside the White House have ruefully conceded, they would have been seen as having improperly tampered once again with intelligence produced by nonpartisan analysts.

Getting Our Craft Right

After a Washington Post article last week detailed the rising costs of a new Marine One helicopter program, Thomas M. DeFrank, a longtime Washington journalist now at the New York Daily News, wrote to let us know that the most famous presidential chopper moment did not actually involve Marine One. When Richard M. Nixon took off from the South Lawn after resigning in 1974, DeFrank said, it was actually aboard an Army helicopter and therefore Army One. DeFrank should know -- he was the "pool reporter" that day and wrote the report for his fellow journalists.

Intrigued, my colleague Peter Baker contacted the Nixon Presidential Library in California, where spokesman Paul Musgrave said historians agree with DeFrank. He noted, though, that Julie Nixon Eisenhower still remembers it as a Marine helicopter. Baker tracked down retired Army Lt. Col. Gene Boyer, the pilot of the aircraft that took Nixon away from the White House that day, and he confirmed it was an Army chopper. In fact, Boyer later tracked down the helicopter and had it refitted. It is now on display at the library in Yorba Linda.

Boyer, now living in Huntington Beach, Calif., said that the White House initially had four Marine choppers and four Army choppers. During almost 10 years with the unit, he flew nearly 600 flights for presidents Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford and for visiting heads of state. But Boyer said Donald H. Rumsfeld, Ford's chief of staff and later defense secretary, eventually was responsible for removing the Army helicopters and leaving presidential chopper duty to the Marines.

Boyer is no fan of the current effort to build a fleet of 28 super-sophisticated Marine One helicopters. As far as he's concerned, the White House could easily get by with 12.

"For the life of me, I don't understand how they justify 28 helicopters," he said.

Moving On

One little-known Bush aide appears to be heading to an intriguing -- and potentially lucrative -- post-White House life. Bryan Corbett, 35, a special assistant to the president on such matters as banking, financial markets and insurance, will join the Carlyle Group next month.

Carlyle, the well-known and well-connected private equity group, faces increasing challenges in Washington and around the world in its relations with governments. Corbett will help handle regulatory issues that confront Carlyle itself and the 200 or so firms in its investment funds, according to Carlyle spokesman Chris Ullman.

A Multicultural Touch

Add Nowruz to the list of holidays celebrated at the White House. Last Wednesday, first lady Laura Bush invited about 40 guests to help celebrate the traditional Persian new year at a tea in the State Dining Room.

With the guidance of Susan Sheybani, a National Security Council staffer of Iranian descent, the first lady's office set up a traditional Haft Sin table with items symbolizing rebirth, affluence, love, medicine, beauty and health, sunrise, and patience. Among those present were half a dozen ambassadors from countries that celebrate the holiday, as well as Haleh Esfandiari, the Wilson Center scholar who was imprisoned in Iran for eight months last year.


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