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A Pattern of Deception

"But within weeks, there was an abrupt change of course. The earlier drafts were scrapped. Analysts began to assemble a new report built around the single, startling conclusion that Iran's nuclear weapons program had actually been shut down for four years.

"What happened?

"As U.S. intelligence officials sought Tuesday to explain the remarkable reversal, they pointed to two factors: the emergence of crucial information over the summer, and a determination to avoid repeating the mistakes that preceded the Iraq war."

But there's an alternate timeline that seems at least as plausible -- and that would make Bush's deniability even more difficult to support.

Consider what Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker over a year ago: "The Administration's planning for a military attack on Iran was made far more complicated earlier this fall by a highly classified draft assessment by the C.I.A. challenging the White House's assumptions about how close Iran might be to building a nuclear bomb. The C.I.A. found no conclusive evidence, as yet, of a secret Iranian nuclear-weapons program running parallel to the civilian operations that Iran has declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Here's Hersh with Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday:

Hersh: "At the time, I wrote that there was a tremendous fight about it, because Cheney in the White House -- the vice president did not want to hear this. So that there was a fight about that intelligence. And, actually, for the last year, I think the vice president's office pretty much has kept -- you know, the vice president has kept his foot on the neck of that report. That report was bottled up for a year.

"The intelligence we learned about yesterday has been circulating inside this government at the highest levels for the last year -- and probably longer."

And Hersh scoffed at Bush's suggestion that he didn't know about the changing intelligence until last week: "Either he didn't know what was going on at the highest levels -- the fight I'm talking about began last year. . . . Now, maybe he didn't know what was going on at the vice presidential level about something that serious. If so, I mean we pay him to know these things and not to make statements based on information that turned out not to be accurate. Or else he's misrepresenting what he knows.

"I don't think there's any question, this is going to pose a serious credibility problem. I assume people are going to be asking more and more questions about what did he know when. And his statement that McConnell comes to him -- the head of the intelligence services of the United States -- and says I have something serious to say to you and he says great, let me know when I want to hear it, is, you know -- it's his words and we can only say that if that's true, you know, that's -- that's not what we pay the guy to do."

Similarly, Scott Horton blogs for Harpers that a "highly reliable intelligence community source" told him: "The NIE has been in substantially the form in which it was finally submitted for more than six months. The White House, and particularly Vice President Cheney, used every trick in the book to stop it from being finalized and issued. There was no last minute breakthrough that caused the issuance of the assessment."

Iraq Redux

In the run-up to war in Iraq, administration policy was to create the perception that Saddam Hussein was an imminent and potentially nuclear-armed threat and was even involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- without exactly saying so. None of that was true, of course. But the message delivery was hugely successful, and the war was launched.

How intentionally misleading Bush and his advisers were before the invasion of Iraq has never been definitively established. Asked last year in a Newsweek poll, 45 percent of Americans said they believed the president was truthful and honest in laying out the case for war, while 48 percent said they believed he was deliberately misleading. Congress and the press seem to have lost interest in the issue.

But here's a fresh case study. And the evidence seems to indicate that even after Bush likely became aware that the intelligence did not support his claim that Iran was an imminent threat -- or even that it was evn pursuing nuclear weapons at all -- he embarked on a strategy of carefully calibrated misinformation.

The public deserves to know precisely what Bush was told when. And that's really only the tip of the iceberg. What was happening behind the scenes? What changed, such that the intelligence agencies finally went public with their findings? And why would Bush and Cheney warn so direly about something that they knew wasn't happening? What was their motivation?

Yesterday's Spin

I wrote in yesterday's column about what I called Bush's neck-snapping spin.

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush scrambled yesterday to hold together a fragile international coalition against Iran, declaring that the Islamic republic remains 'dangerous' and that 'nothing has changed' despite a new intelligence report that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago.

"While his top diplomats reached out to key counterparts, Bush began calling world leaders and held a White House news conference to argue that the new National Intelligence Estimate only reinforces the need for diplomatic pressure against Iran. Although the report determined that Iran stopped seeking a nuclear bomb in 2003, Bush said Tehran's secrecy shows it cannot be trusted."

Ken Fireman and Jeff Bliss write for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush, his credibility under fire because of intelligence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons drive in 2003, adopted a new argument yesterday to justify tougher sanctions: Just knowing how to produce a bomb is dangerous. . . .

"By shifting from seeking to block an actual weapons program to the 'more amorphous' knowledge standard, Bush is changing a decade-old U.S. policy and making a diplomatic resolution less likely, said [Hillary Mann] Leverett, former director of Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs at the White House National Security Council."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The president's stance on Iran -- including his continuing assertion that 'all options are on the table,' meaning potential U.S. military action to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb -- raised new questions about his credibility on such security issues, questions that both Democratic leaders and independent analysts were highlighting Tuesday. . . .

"It is a pattern of targeting the 'devil du jour,' suggested John Mueller, a professor of national security at Ohio State University. The last devil was Hussein, he said, and the new one Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"'Just the historical exaggeration of this threat fits into a long syndrome,' said Mueller."

Opinion Watch

Trita Parsi writes on behalf of the National Iranian American Council: "Rather than adjusting policy on Iran in accordance to the reality-check provided by the NIE, the President moved the goal post on Iran. As the NIE declared that Iran likely doesn't have a weapons program, the President shifted the red line from weaponization to the mere knowledge of enriching uranium -- an activity that in and of itself is not of a military nature and is permitted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"By setting a new and arbitrary standard with no root or support in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Bush is insisting on adjusting reality to policy rather than policy to reality. There are numerous problems with this stance.

"First, it further undermines US credibility and leaves allies and foes alike with the impression that Washington seeks a military conflict with Iran regardless of the realities of Iran's nuclear program.

"Second, Iran already possesses the knowledge to enrich uranium. Given the President's logic, this reality would permit the US to continue to pursue a military option against Iran -- in spite of the absence of an Iranian weapons program."

Neocon icon Robert Kagan writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Regardless of what one thinks about the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- and there is much to question in the report -- its practical effects are indisputable. The Bush administration cannot take military action against Iran during its remaining time in office, or credibly threaten to do so, unless it is in response to an extremely provocative Iranian action. . . .

"Neither, however, will the administration make further progress in winning international support for tighter sanctions on Iran. Fear of American military action was always the primary reason Europeans pressured Tehran. . . .

"With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Bush is correct to say that the revised intelligence estimate does not warrant a fundamental change in policy. A nuclear-armed Iran should be deterred. The tragedy for U.S. security and global peace is that Bush has twice squandered his chances to lead that vital effort."

The Washington Post editorial board encourages Bush to stick to his plan, and not agree to talks with Iran unless the regime first suspends uranium enrichment.

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "If W. can shape the intelligence to match his faith-based beliefs, as with Iraq, then he will believe the intelligence -- no matter how incredible it is.

"If he can't shape it to match his beliefs, as with Iran, then he will disregard the intelligence -- no matter how credible it is."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles, Tony Auth, Mike Luckovich, Pat Oliphant, John Sherffius, Dan Waserman, and Dwane Powell on the new intelligence.

And Jeff Danziger on Karl Rove.

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