Neck-Snapping Spin From the President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, December 4, 2007; 2:10 PM

By concluding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, the national intelligence estimate released yesterday undermined a key element of President Bush's foreign policy. It raised questions about whether the president and vice president knowingly misled the public about the danger posed by Iran. And it added to Bush's profound credibility problems with the American people and the international community.

But to hear Bush talk about it at the White House press conference this morning, the new NIE vindicated his beliefs and makes his warnings about Iran more potent.

It was neck-snapping spin even by Bush standards. He intentionally misread the report's central point, failed to acknowledge a huge change in his argument for why Iran is dangerous and exhibited pure bullheaded stubbornness.

When Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Silva noted that Bush appeared dispirited and asked if he was troubled about what this would do to his credibility, Bush replied: "No, I'm feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life, and have made the decision to come before you so I can explain the NIE. And I have said Iran is dangerous, and the NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world. Quite the contrary. I'm using this NIE as an opportunity to continue to rally our colleagues and allies. . . .

"And so, you know, kind of Psychology 101 ain't working. It's just not working, you know? I am -- I understand the issues. I clearly see the problems and I'm going to use the NIE to continue to rally the international community for the sake of peace."

Yesterday's report came as something as a shock to the general public. Bush and Vice President Cheney have long asserted that Iran was actively seeking nuclear weapons, and Cheney, in particular, had been accelerating what some observers saw as a drumbeat for war. But the nation's 16 intelligence agencies didn't come to their conclusion overnight. In fact, this NIE had been in the works for 18 months, during which some of its authors were reportedly harried by Cheney for not being sufficiently hawkish.

So what did Bush know and when did he know it?

Bush insisted today that he had not been formally briefed on the NIE until last week, and that his director of national intelligence simply told him in August that there was some new information. "He didn't tell me what the information was," Bush said. "He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze."

Bush insisted the NIE would not lead to any changes in policy. "I'm saying that I believed before the NIE that Iran was dangerous, and I believe after the NIE that Iran is dangerous."

But even if he wouldn't admit it, his central indictment against the Iranian government has suddenly become a great deal more nebulous: "The NIE says this is a country that had a covert nuclear weapons program, which, by the way, they have failed to disclose, even today," Bush said. "The danger is, is that they can enrich [uranium], play like they got a civilian [nuclear] program -- or have a civilian program, or claim it's a civilian program -- and pass the knowledge to a covert military program. And then the danger is, is at some point in the future, they show up with a weapon."

Not exactly a mushroom cloud -- or even a smoking gun.

The apparent change in Bush's red line for Iran -- no longer the possession or even the pursuit of nuclear weapons but the knowledge of how to make them -- is highly reminiscent of the linguistic contortions Bush executed after it was established that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Hours before sending American troops into Iraq, Bush had expressed"no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." But by late 2004, he shifted to justifying the invasion because Hussein "retained the knowledge, the materials, the means, and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction."

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