Joshua PollackFingar on the 2007 Iran NIE

Thomas Fingar, the former Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, had some rather interesting things to say recently about the (in)famous November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.

You might remember that the NIE, whose Key Judgments were released to the public in early December 2007, caused a real stir at the time. The judgment that Iran had halted its nuclear weaponization research in 2003 seemed to undercut the pursuit of a third round of sanctions in the Security Council. Some critics felt that the IC had reached this conclusion and then publicized it in order to hamstring the White House.

But according to Fingar, now a Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford, it was none other than the White House that ordered the document released:

This example is drawn from the highly contentious 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. It became contentious, in part, because the White House instructed the Intelligence Community to release an unclassified version of the report’s key judgments but declined to take responsibility for ordering its release.

This comes as news.

Fingar also disputes the idea that the new conclusions about weaponization research were intended to box policymakers in. Rather, he says, it was part of an estimate designed to give policymakers “a timeline, a sense of urgency, and possible alternative ways to address the problem” — an approach consistent with the larger theme of his remarks, which is the importance of identifying both threats and opportunities.

Here’s where he translates the hidden message. Get out your secret decoder rings, kiddies:

In other words, the message it was intended to send to policymakers was, “You do not have a lot of time but you appear to have a diplomatic or non-military option.” Prior to the publication of this Estimate, the judgment of the Intelligence Community—and of many pundits and policymakers—was that there was no chance of deterring Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon and that the only use of force—military options—could prevent Tehran from acquiring the bomb. The estimate also judged, and stated clearly, that Iran at a minimum had retained the option to pursue a weapon and that whether to do so would be a political decision that could be made at any time.

How those judgments could be construed as dismissing the idea that Iranian nuclear activities were a major problem continues to mystify me…

Read the whole thing.


  1. John Schilling (History)

    And since actual policymakers mostly got to read the classified version, the point of the public release was to send a message to the rest of the world – “we will be spending our time pursuing a diplomatic or non-military option; the bombing does not start in five minutes”

    This doesn’t actually come as news to me, just confirmation. When something like this is “leaked”, it is very rarely a matter of a Heroic Whistleblower™ serving the public’s right to know, or a rogue wonk trying to constrain policy. Mostly, it’s the top policymakers (i.e. the White House) deciding policy is best served by making the information public, without taking the credit and/or blame.

    When that’s the case, it doesn’t take much in the way of secret decoder rings. Diplomacy with Iran works best if the Iranians believe the White House isn’t just laying cover for a military option, and making such an NIE public would greatly increase the political cost to the White House of conducting a near-term attack.

    I would prefer the message have been “here is accurate and truthful information regardless of the policy implications”, but we have to take what we can get.

  2. Josh (History)


    Good observations, but is your last paragraph realistic? I don’t believe that the mission of the IC is simply to provide “accurate and truthful information”; they’re not a Philosophy faculty. Rather, their role is to find information relevant to policymakers, and to communicate it to them with clarity and timeliness—and with whatever degree of urgency that it merits.

    Fingar’s remarks are unusually frank about these questions, including the role of what he calls “hype.” It’s worth reading the entire text.

  3. scud

    Josh: Tom Fingar is being disingenuous. He certainly knows that the hoopla about the report would have been different if the NIC had not adopted a restrictive definition of what a “nuclear weapons program” is – i.e., pretending that what the NIC calls “declared civil work” had absolutely no relation with the military dimension of its programme, and that the two were entirely compartmentalized, as if they were happening in two completely different dimension. (To be clear, I’m no talking about the “Natanz breakout option”.)

  4. Josh (History)


    While one can never rule out the influences of a desire to defend one’s own reputation and intentions, I tend to take him at face value. There were aspects of the Key Judgments that were confusingly drafted, but a careful reading doesn’t suggest any intent to mislead.

    PS. Scud, I think I misread your comment. Sorry.

  5. anon

    My magic decorder ring says it’s just Fingar trying once again to spin his way out of the Iran NIE disaster.

  6. Nick (History)

    What is missing from your discussion is Cheney’s recent revelations that this report bascially blocked his push for a military strike. His position was marginilized by those in the Pentagon and other USG officials in favor of a non-military option.

  7. Josh (History)


    I don’t know what actually happened or what Cheney believes, but that’s not what he said:

    WALLACE: There is a question I have wanted to ask you for some period of time. Why didn’t your Administration take out the Iranian nuclear program, given what a threat I know you believe it was, given the fact that you knew that Barack Obama favored, not only diplomatic engagement, but actually sitting down with the Iranians, why would you leave it to him to make this decision?
    CHENEY: It was not my decision to make.
    WALLACE: Would you have favored military action?
    CHENEY: I was probably a bigger advocate of military action than any of my colleagues.
    WALLACE: Do you think that it was a mistake, while you were in power, while your administration was in power, not to go after the nuclear infrastructure of Iran?
    CHENEY: I can’t say that yet. We do not know how it is ultimately going to come out.
    WALLACE: But you don’t get the choice to make it 20/20 hindsight.
    CHENEY: Well, I —
    WALLACE: In 2007, 2008, was it a mistake not to take out their program?
    CHENEY: I think it was very important that the military option be on the table. I thought that negotiations could not possibly succeed unless the Iranians really believed we were prepared to use military force. And to date, of course, they are still proceeding with their nuclear program and the matter has not yet been resolved.
    We can speculate about what might have happened if we had followed a different course of action. As I say I was an advocate of a more robust policy than any of my colleagues, but I didn’t make the decision.
    WALLACE: Including the president?
    CHENEY: The president made the decision and, obviously, we pursued the diplomatic avenues.
    WALLACE: Do you think it was a mistake to let the opportunity when you guys were in power, go, knowing that here was Barack Obama and he was going to take a much different —
    CHENEY: I am going to — if I address that, I will address it in my book, Chris.
    WALLACE: It is going to be a hell of a book.
    CHENEY: It is going to be a great book.

    No mention of the NIE. But I guess we’ll learn more about it in the book.

  8. FSB

    How does anyone discriminate between Iran pursuing nuclear weapons and pursuing the capability to make such weapons in short order, should they desire?

    Unfortunately for the West, they were silly enough to sign the NPT with Iran which allows Iran (and any other nation) to step right up the the redline. Next time craft a more sensible treaty.

    What about Japan’s breakout capability? What about Brazil’s?

  9. Josh (History)


    True, that’s a real weakness in the NPT, and a good reason to root for the negotiation of the FMCT. On the other hand, the NPT doesn’t allow countries to hide the construction of fuel-cycle facilities, as Iran has done not once now (Natanz, Arak), but twice (Qom). I’d be pretty surprised if it ever turned out that Brazil or Japan had gone that route. Moreso with Japan, to be honest.

    Perhaps this is why Iran has been found in violation of safeguards, and the others haven’t. Call it a hunch.

    Anything to say about the NIE? If not, don’t worry, as I’m sure we’ll be talking about Qom quite a bit in the near future…

  10. FSB

    About the NIE? Yes, as I said, “How does anyone discriminate between Iran pursuing nuclear weapons and pursuing the capability to make such weapons in short order, should they desire?”

    About Iran hiding things: perhaps they do not wish to declare everything so that US-Israel can incorporate each of their declared nuclear sites into their targeting plans. They have a right to suspect that US and Israel will be trigger happy, given that US has attacked Af/Pak and Iraq (the latter on a similar weak pre-text) and Israel has attacked Syria, Lebanon and Gaza (and Iraq in 1908s).

    If we and our allies were not so ludicrously violent in pursuit of things that end up being not even in our “national interests”, maybe the Iranians would not hide things.

    Call it a hunch.

    Perhaps if Israel did not field nuclear ICBMs in the region, it would take some edge off of Iran’s desire to weaponize (possibly).

    (another hunch)

  11. Josh (History)

    Ah. Well, I would nominate clandestine fuel-cycle work and weaponization research as pretty good discriminators. These issues are highlighted in the NIE.

    Concern about having someone bomb one’s nuclear facilities is obviously no joke in the Middle East. The Iranians know it well; they pioneered the practice in the post-WWII era, and suffered from it at Iraqi hands.

    Nonetheless, this concern doesn’t justify Iran’s safeguards violations, which are large, glaring, and now (subject to the outcome of the next BoG meeting) repeated. Nor does it satisfy anyone’s substantive concerns about clandestine fuel-cycle development, which has never previously served a peaceful purpose, as far as anybody knows.

    Anyhow, you already know what I think, and I already know what you think. So let’s leave it here, shall we?

  12. kme

    That weakness in the NPT was quite possibly a large factor in it gaining such universal currency. It was a lot easier for states to sign up as NNWS if it wouldn’t stop them from developing the technology needed to weaponise if things went pear-shaped (which was obviously a distinct possibility and concern in the early days of the NPT).

    No-one would have wanted to be the first to sign if they knew that it would instantly put them significantly behind the nuclear eightball in their neighbourhood.

  13. FSB


    “Clandestine” is the operative word.

    And I have tried to spell out why Iran, even if it were carrying out a civil enrichment program, would want to make sure it is at least partially clandestine.

    Anything less would be irrational on their part.

    Fuel-cycle development is 100% legal within the NPT.

    Clandestine fuel cycle development is not, but it is absolutely rational given Iran’s trigger happy adversaries, even if the fuel cycle is for civil purposes or for the purposes of having a breakout capability.

    Certainly having a nuclear program that is partially clandestine is not in worse conflict of international law than bombing nations at will (Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraqx2, Pakistan, Afghanistan,…)

  14. Josh (History)


    You’re probably right. That and the right of withdrawal, and the 25-year duration of the treaty, subject to permanent extension (which has now taken place).

    But what do you mean by “pear-shaped”?

  15. Hippo1


    Speaking of Brazil, has anyone been paying attention to Brazil recently? A few months back Brazilian newspapers were reporting on nuclear weapon related research being conducted in a Brazilian Army research institute. Brazil’s refusal to let the IAEA visit the site or interview the Army officer who wrote his thesis on weapon design apparently caused a minor stink in the Brazilian legislature. More worryingly, former government officials and editorials in reputable newspapers have called for, at a minimum, that Brazil should have a debate over acquiring nuclear weapons. I’m not qualified to judge the actual importance of all this, but it does appear that the Brazilian military has recently been carrying out academic and theoretical research related to nuclear weapons. They already have the fuel cycle so Brazil could possibly be the next nuclear crisis. I’d be interested to here what any Brazilian experts have to say on the recent events done south.

  16. Andy (History)

    I think what the history of the NPT tells us is that arms control treaties require very robust verification measures. The problem isn’t really the NPT – the problem is that the verification portion (ie. safeguards) are much too easy to circumvent. Maybe things would be different if we’d started with the AP from the beginning.


    The problem with your argument (going clandestine is necessary and rational for Iran’s program) is that it can’t stay clandestine and be a civilian program. At some point it will have to be exposed (voluntarily or not). Those “targeting plans” will therefore only be delayed, but at a significant cost: To begin with, some kind of sanctions are inevitable because of safeguards violations. Secondly, a clandestine program will be viewed as a military program by many (particularly your enemies) and will therefore increase, not decrease, the chance the program will be attacked by those enemies. Third, when the program is discovered, it doesn’t do any good to lie and try to hide and cover-up your technical progress from the IAEA, which is what Iran did. Hiding such details would not impede US targeting efforts.

    The US came pretty close, I think, to attacking Iran’s program because it was clandestine. It made the argument for war sound more reasonable than it would with a fully-transparent program. Frankly, I think VP Cheney would have won the day if not for the strategic vulnerability of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ll predict here that Cheney’s book will point to Iraq as a big factor in President Bush’s decision.

    So I disagree with your assertion that “anything less would be irrational.”

  17. anon

    From my perspective, the failure of NP efforts in Iran & North Korea is far less the fault of any U.S. Administration but rather the failure of the World Community or lack thereof.

  18. nick (History)


    Please distinguish between, weaponizing declared nuclear material, which would be in violation of Articles 1 and 2, and safeguard non-compliance, which was related to injecting UF6 into a test centrifuge and 5 other issues, mostly technical matters. Non-declaration of Natanz was not part of non-compliancy concern, it was within code 3.1 safeguard agreement of Iran.

  19. Josh (History)


    I think this is a worthwhile distinction and I believe you are correct as far as it goes (excepting the part about Article I, which applies only to NWS).

    However, if memory serves, in a time period overlapping with the construction of Natanz, Iran introduced undeclared uranium supplies into its facilities; introduced nuclear material to centrifuges at the Kalaye Electric facility, and conducted plutonium separation experiments in Tehran — all without notification to the IAEA. All of these are violations of safeguards. I’m fairly sure that the old Code 3.1 that was in place until 2003 applied to Kalaye Electric, Pars Trash, and any other undeclared facilities where nuclear material was introduced. (There may have been even more to it than that, but I’m writing this from memory and may be missing a few of the wrinkles.)

    I might add that, to my eye, Natanz was clearly intended to be hidden underground. It was the IAEA that came to Iran to inquire about its existence, not the other way around. This procedure wasn’t exactly within the spirit of safeguards compliance, and it’s anything but clear that the Iranians otherwise would have declared the facility prior to the introduction of nuclear materials; after all, as noted above, they weren’t doing that in a number of places connected to the centrifuge program.

    The unfolding of the Qom story suggests that the Iranian side has learned something from the experience, albeit perhaps not the “right” lesson.

    Anyhow. This post is about the NIE. I think we’ve beaten this tangent to death. So let’s move on.

  20. Josh (History)


    C’mon. It’s enough for now. We’ll come back to this soon, I promise.

  21. FSB
  22. kme

    Josh: gone pear-shaped is slang of British origin for events taking an unexpected turn for the worse.