Behind the NIE

BEHIND THE NIE….I don’t know if you’d call this backlash or irony or something completely different, but can you guess at the ultimate source of last week’s NIE concluding that Iran halted work on its nuclear bomb program in 2003? Turns out it was largely the result of a CIA program called “Brain Drain,” which sought to persuade Iranian defections from the ranks of its nuclear program, which in turn was part of a “major intelligence push against Iran” ordered by the White House two years ago. Greg Miller has the story in the LA Times today:

Intelligence gathered as part of that campaign provided much of the basis for a U.S. report released last week that concluded the Islamic Republic had halted its nuclear weapons work in 2003.

….The White House ordered the stepped-up effort in hopes of gathering stronger evidence that Tehran was making progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration “wanted better information” on Iran’s nuclear programs, said a U.S. official briefed on the expanded collection efforts.

“I can’t imagine that they would have ever guessed that the information they got would show that the program was shut down,” the official said.

And why did we need a “major intelligence push” in the first place? According to Miller, it’s because Bush dismantled the Iran Task Force set up during Bill Clinton’s administration in order to focus all his attention on — surprise! — Iraq. “When Bush came in, they were totally disinterested in Iran,” said a former CIA official who held a senior position at the time. “It went from being a main focus to everything being switched to Iraq.”

Great stuff. Still, once “Brain Drain” produced its unexpected (and unwelcome) results, couldn’t Bush simply have buried it? Why release it publicly at all? Via Matt Yglesias, former spook Pat Lang provides his take:

The “jungle telegraph” in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE. I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that “intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary” if the document’s gist were not given to the public. Translation? Someone in that group would have gone to the media “on the record” to disclose its contents.

That would have been quite a sight, wouldn’t it?