Andy GrottoEnsign Seeks NIE 2nd Guess Before Recess

I figured that Senator John Ensign’s (R-Nev) blatant attempt to politicize the Iran NIE would go nowhere, but my sources on the Hill tell me his effort is still very much alive. Ensign’s goal is to write the commission into law this week, before the recess.

The draft legislation is reportedly a cut-and-paste job from the the so-called Rumsfeld Commission that the Congress established in 1998 to undermine a 1995 NIE on ballistic missiles — with one, telling alteration.

Predictably, the Rumsfeld Commission condemned the ’95 NIE. Conservatives then used the Rumsfeld Commission’s findings to bolster the case for withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and pouring resources into development of a national missile defense.

Ten years later, however, it turns out the 1995 NIE was right and the Rumsfeld Commission was wrong: the ballistic missile threat to the United States has actually declined since 1998.

Addendum: Check out our hero Jeffrey’s December 7 post pointing out, were Ensign to use the Rumsfeld model, the commission would include 6 D’s and just 3 R’s.


  1. Anya L. (History)

    Andy, do your sources on the Hill also mention who he’ll team up with to try and get this done? I don’t see him garnering much support for this somewhat out of whack idea of dragging the IC back into the spotlight. It seems to me, the Rumsfeld Commission model doesn’t hold up for many reasons – timing and politics are clearly against Ensign here. Weldon he is not.

  2. Andy (History)

    Please let this fail. What a tool. Since he’s not even on the intelligence committee he probably hasn’t read the ACTUAL NIE as opposed to the unclassified key judgments.

  3. Andy Grotto (History)

    Anya, the concern is that some staff don’t recognize this as a trap, and the leadership hasn’t done the best job sounding an alarm.

    At this point, I feel pretty good that this isn’t going anywhere, since the word has now gone out to staff and the Senate recess should start in just a few more hours, punting this issue to January.

  4. Yale Simkin (History)

    I think that the new NIE is a disaster of almost biblical proportions. It has gutted the attempt to rein in Iran’s bomb capability.

    It is not what was said. It is how it was said. (I suspect on purpose.)

    I strongly agree with Jeffery where he points out

    As much as I hate to say this, folks are misreading the most recent NIE

    I usually don’t think much of Dr. James Schlesinger (ex SECDOE, SECDOD, and DIRCIA) but he has it dead right

    Clearly, the key judgments in the NIE were overstated. And that, in turn, may reflect the very late decision to declassify the key judgments, written in a kind of shorthand, and thus incautiously phrased.

    The crucial decision, hidden in a footnote, was to define the “nuclear weapons program” which had been halted to mean only “Iran’s weapon design and weaponization work and covert . . . uranium enrichment-related work.” Thus it excludes Iran’s overt enrichment program monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

    We have long understood that the production of fissile material, whether overt or covert, remains “the long pole in the tent” in the development of a nuclear capability. Thus the NIE defines away what has been the main element stirring international alarm regarding Iran’s nuclear activity.

    After the almost universal error in reading the NIE, the international will to crack down on Iran has petered out.

    Israel has flipped out over this.

    This week – due to the clumsy phrasing in the NIE – the “Crossing of the Rubicon” that I feared has occurred.

    Before this week, Iran COULD NOT BUILD A BOMB. It was physically impossible. It was at about 2 years from possessing the nuclear material required.

    Immediately capitalizing on the comforting warm rosy glow generated by the NIE, Russia rushed in the first shipment of LEU for the reactor.

    Now, and possibly forever, only Iran’s CHOICE determines whether it builds a bomb.

  5. SQ

    It is not clear that the NIE triggered the shipment of LEU fuel. To the contrary, it was already in train; the IAEA had been called in to inspect the fuel in Russia before shipment.

    This does not contract Yale’s basic point about what becomes physically possible when the fuel comes into Iranian possession. (The chemical conversion presumably is not an insuperable obstacle.) As I understand it, it is arriving over a two-month period.

  6. Yale Simkin (History)

    It was the IAEA report in November
    that Russia used (wrongly) as the green light to begin the LEU ship process.

    From the AP:

    TEHRAN, Iran (AP)
    “With nuclear fuel shipped to Bushehr, we are going to see a new approach in deepening strategic relations with Russia in all fields in the future,” Mohammad Saeedi, deputy head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran told the official IRNA news agency.

    Saeedi said Russia’s shipment of nuclear fuel was made possible after a report last month by the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran had been truthful about its past uranium enrichment activities.

    “Russia shipped that fuel on the basis of a contract with Iran … and (after) it obtained confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s past and present nuclear activities. IAEA’s positive report also influenced the issue of fuel shipment,” IRNA quoted Saeedi as saying.

    According to Saeedi, the date for shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran was finalized during a landmark visit to Iran by Russian President Vladimir Putin in October.


    That IAEA report also confused the situation. It pointed out that Iran was being reasonably forthcoming on many nuclear issues, – but the fact that Iran is still enriching in direct opposition to direct UN mandates missed the public and media radar screen.

    The fuel was sealed by the IAEA in November, but not released until after the NIE went public. Coincidence, maybe.

    I think it was timed to take advantage of the cover given by the NIE’s misleading proclamation. The anticipated crapstorm was muted due to the reaction to the NIE.

  7. Anya L (History)

    Thanks, Andy G, let’s hope Ensign stays busy in January.

    Yale, with all due respect, your posts are not only unrelated to Andy G’s original thread, they seem a little misguided. It’s simplistic and silly to suggest that Russia’s decision to ship the fuel, whether you deem it wrong or right, was triggered by or, for that matter, needed a cover from the NIE or the IAEA report in the first place. Moreover, quoting officials in Tehran to better understand the mindset in Moscow seems a little backwards, or better yet, bizarre.

  8. Yale Simkin (History)


    My posts were a bit of a drift off the topic. Due to the format of the blog, topics roll off the bottom the page and disappear. Since the other post on NIE was Israel-related, and this thread was on Ensign’s rampage on the supposed deficiencies of the NIE, it seemed the least worst location. In a message board format, topic threads can stay alive based on user interest, but not here.

    As to being bizarre, simplistic, and silly… hey, I am a child of the ’60s and wear that as a badge of honor.

    Have a nice day!

  9. Yale Simkin (History)

    Joing both me and various Iranian officials in being misguided, silly, bizarre, and simplistic, may I add:

    “The timing of the deliveries appears to be related to the publication of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran,’‘ said Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy. “Russian government officials have said privately that the decision to ship fuel would be made on a political basis.’‘

  10. Mark Gubrud

    I think Yale is probably right that it is not a mere coincidence that the Russian fuel shipment came days after release of the NIE. This LEU has been “in train” by various accounts for up to two years. The train had been held up on a side track for a year at least.

    I also agree that the wording of the NIE key judgements seems to have been calculated to torpedo the Bush-Cheney gang’s juggernaut for war with Iran. It was the collective voice of the military and intelligence professionals screaming NO!

    By the same token I can’t agree with Schlesinger that there was something “incautious” about the wording. Or with Yale that this is some kind of “disaster of almost biblical proportions.” I think it is closer to a miracle of grace.

    Yes, it is true that Iran will now have the means to produce sufficient HEU for a bomb in short order. But that was inevitable anyway, short of a genuine disaster.

    What was not inevitable and is not inevitable is an Iranian nuclear arsenal, war with Iran, the destruction of Israel, or any other dark fantasy of the Strangeloves among us.

    The case against war with Iran and for a positive engagement strategy can’t be stated in two pages or in terms of objective intelligence findings. But the IC has struck a blow in its favor.

    I think this NIE was our IC’s finest hour. It makes me somewhat less ashamed to be an American.

  11. John McGlynn (History)

    Re: “the ballistic missile threat to the United States has actually declined since 1998.”
    The MD analysis everyone keeps forgetting or ignoring, including the folks at CDI, concerns Northeast Asia. Japan is now spending billions on MD. It just did an Aegis test. The missile threat to the US and Europe may be declining, but from Japan’s point of view it is increasing, with the No. Koreans cited as the main villains. So budgets, MD testing, military-to-military coordination, sounding of alarms, etc. are all increasing in the Northeast Asia/Pacific region. Is it all just an excuse to enrich (US & JPN) contractors and keep Japan locked into the US military orbit, or both, or something else? I’m waiting for someone who is an MD expert to do a comprehensive analysis of the region.

  12. hass (History)

    Kinda funny how y’all have taken it for granted that Iran’s nuclear program is a “threat” as a subtext of all your comments. Nevermind the fact that the IAEA has found nothing incriminating in Iran, never mind that Iran’s nuclear program predates the current regime, nevermind that the US was an active participant, nevermind that Iran’s enrichment program was not in fact “hidden” or “clandestine” . . .

    Conventional wisdom and herd mentality of the “expert” shows itself again.

  13. hass (History)

    …Nevermind that the NIE’s conclusion that Iran “once” had a weapons program is reportedly based mainly on what you were ridiculing as the “laptop of death”, and that the IAEA has found nothing to support the NIE’s contention…I could go on but what’s the point if “conventional wisdom” is to be manufactured through repetition and baseless speculation but the “experts”?

    Perhaps you lot need to be reminded of how easily you were all totally fooled over the Iraqi WMDs. Remember that? You should.

  14. Dylan

    Getting back to the original post, I’m wondering where in the article linked to at americanprogress is the evidence that the ballistic missile threat to US interests has declined SINCE 1998 as is asserted. That linked report is full of comparisons to the height of the Cold War twenty years or more ago. Unsurprisingly, it knocks over that straw man by showing that indeed there are less ballistic missiles around than there were in the Cold War.

  15. Andy Grotto (History)

    Dylan — See Chart III (

    The Rumsfeld Commission emphasized North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the main emerging ballistic missile threats. It predicted that Iran and North Korea would have the ability to hit the continental United States in five years, and Iraq in ten.

    We are weeks away from 2008 — ten years later. Iran is nowhere close to having a long-range capability. There is no evidence to suggest that North Korea is much closer to a reliable capability today than it was ten years ago, owing in significant part to its eight-year missile test moratorium. And Iraq, as we know, had gotten completely out of the long range ballistic missile business (among other things).

    So the long-range threat has diminished since 1998. The Rumsfeld Commission got it almost completely wrong.

  16. Yale Simkin (History)

    If I may beg Andy G.‘s indulgence one more time..

    I do agree with Mark G. that the NIE was of value in stopping the Bush team in their headlong rush to loose the dogs of war.

    Where we disagree (and why I think the form the NIE was presented was a disaster,) is that I feel the NIE took the wind out of the sails of the diplomatic side of the effort to prevent the nuclear arming of Iran.

    I believe that there existed at least the possibility that some face-saving option for Iran could be implemented.
    One that would prevent further large scale enrichment or plutonium production.

    Now, unfortunately, the possibility of effective sanctions and incentives seems to have vaporized.

    In addition, the Bushehr facility, with its dangers at both the front and back ends, is now green-lighted and on the fast-track.

    These effects are not warranted by the contents of the NIE, just its presentation.

    It did point out that enriching, the most serious part of the risk, continues unabated. Yet a superficial reading, by limiting the definition of weapons program – and burying that definition, makes the risk appear non-existent.

    Schlesinger, in his using the term “incautious”, was, I think, being diplomatic. He was placing the “blame” for the wording as an unintended effect of rush to publication.

    I am not so charitable.
    Altho I always hate when I find myself arguing the same side as reactionary fossils, I do feel that the NIE was deliberately politicized by the subtle presentation. This made it not “Just the facts, ma’am”, but a repeat of policy by intelligence.

  17. hass (History)

    The Bushehr reactor is under IAEA safeguards, as is Iran’s enrichment program – safeguards whose whole purpose and design is to catch weapons programs. Iran “could” build a bomb in 10 years – and so “could” Jamaica (it took Pakistan only 5 years.) According to the IAEA, around 40 nations have the “capability” of building nukes righg now, and more will be able to later. Engaging in endless speculation and hyperbole is not the same thing as factual analysis. If you want to write a Tom Clancy plot line, that’s a different matter.

  18. Yale Simkin (History)

    Andy G…

    In one aspect, the BM threat may have warmed up a bit. The “Axis of Evil” may be a missile dud, but the commission also considered other areas of concern. In particular was Russia and China.

    Altho numerically shrinking and not necessarily in high-alert with programmed targeting of the US and Western Europe, the Russians are modernizing the arsenal. Coupled with a quite worrisome drift from democratic principles, increased regional and international assertiveness and lubricated with enormous oil income, I would argue that the threat, in some significant ways, has grown since ’98.

    China is also modernizing and diversifying its arsenal. Altho currently small, its philosophy The Minimum Means of Reprisal may not be a permanent strategy as China asserts itself in a resource-starved world.

  19. Andy (History)

    Well, it looks like a lot of the intel used in the NIE has been leaked.

  20. Yale Simkin (History)

    Circling back to the Russian LEU fuel delivery for the Bushehr reactor, some stats to keep in mind:

    A uranium gun-assembly uses about 40 kilograms of U235

    A first generation implosion bomb uses about 14 kilograms of U235

    If the 3000 Iranian centrifuges operate at only 20% of the nominal 2 SWU/year, then two tons of LEU can produce 15 kg of 90% HEU in 4.5 months. At nominal output its 15 kg in one month.

    The IAEA “Significant Quantity” or SQ for LEU is 2 tons.

    The quantity of 3.62% LEU being delivered for the reactor is 71 tons containing 2600 kilograns of U235.

    It is to be stockpiled for about 6 months then begins irradiation in the core.

    In addition, another 7 tons of LEU, containing 260 kilograms of U235 will be kept in permanent on-site reserve and never placed in the reactor. This fuel will never be irradiated.

    Approximately 17 tons of fresh LEU containing 640 kilograms of U235 will be delivered annually to refuel for the indefinite future.

    8 kilograms of reactor-grade plutonium or 5 kilograms of weapons-grade is used in a first generation plutonium bomb.

    At equilibrium, the reactor core will contain about +200 kilograms of plutonium.

    In addition, about 50 kilograms will be added to the spent fuel pool each year.

    This will be kept in Iran for a minimum 2 year cool-down, but I have seen statements that Russia plans a 10 year cool-down.

    This implies a maximum stockpile of more than 3/4 tons of plutonium per reactor.

    Iran plans to build a large fleet of “civilian” power plants.

  21. Yale Simkin (History)

    An interesting comment from the recently (12/14/07) released Congressional Research Service report:
    Intelligence Estimates: How Useful to Congress?

    The NIE’s Key Judgments did not indicate that Iran had ceased its nuclear efforts but, in the view of some observers, it undermined the urgency of the Administration’s efforts.
    Few would argue that the conclusions drawn by the NIE should not have been brought to the attention of policymakers in the Executive Branch and Congress, but a number of observers have argued that the Key Judgments overemphasized the importance of the nuclear weapon design and weaponization work at the expense of ongoing uranium conversion and enrichment efforts that would be essential to achieving nuclear weapons capabilities. Dennis Ross, a retired diplomat with long experience in the Middle East, noted: “While nothing has changed, the NIE has created a new story line.” According to Ross, the NIE will unwisely focus public attention on nuclear weapons per se rather than Iran’s larger nuclear effort. He writes: “Weaponizing is not the issue, developing fissionable materials is. Because, compared with producing fissionable material, which makes up the core of nuclear bombs, weaponizing it is neither particularly difficult nor expensive.”

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