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U.S. Policy on Iran Under New Scrutiny after Weapons Report

December 4, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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A day after a new intelligence report found that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, President Bush warned that Iran remains a threat and could restart its weapons program at any time. Two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee discuss the report and U.S. policy on Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: The latest National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, containing findings about Iran’s nuclear programs dominated the president’s news conference today.

QUESTION: Mr. President, a new intelligence report says that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago and that it remains frozen. Are you still convinced that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb? And do the new findings take the military option that you’ve talked about off the table?

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I think it is very important for the international community to recognize the fact that, if Iran were to develop the knowledge that they could transfer to a clandestine program, it would create a danger for the world.

And so I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. And the reason why it’s a warning signal is that they could restart it. And the thing that would make a restarted program effective and dangerous is the ability to enrich uranium, the knowledge of which could be passed on to a hidden program.

And so it’s a — to me, the NIE provides an opportunity for us to rally the international community, continue to rally the community to pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program.

RAY SUAREZ: The president said he was not concerned that the new estimate, which contradicts one released in 2005, would hurt the credibility of U.S. intelligence or his administration.

GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, I want to compliment the intelligence community for their good work. Right after the failure of intelligence in Iraq, we reformed the intel community so that there was a lot of serious considerations of NIEs in a way that would give us confidence.

And here’s a, I think, a very important product that is a result of the reforms we’ve put in place.

People said, “Well, why is it that you can’t get exact knowledge quicker?” Well, the answer is, is because we’re dealing with a regime that is not very transparent. And, frankly, we haven’t had a very good presence in Iran since 1979.

And that’s why I instructed the intel community to beef up its intelligence on Iran, so we could have a better sense for what they’re thinking and what they’re doing. And this product is a result of intelligence reform and, more importantly, the good, hard work of our intelligence community.

QUESTION: You talked about Iraq, you and others in the administration talked about a mushroom cloud; then there were no WMD in Iraq. When it came to Iran, you said in October, on October 17th, you warned about the prospect of World War III.

So can’t you be accused of hyping this threat? And don’t you worry that that undermines U.S. credibility?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was John McConnell — Mike McConnell who came in and said, “We have some new information.” He didn’t tell me what the information was. He did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.

Why would you take time to analyze new information? One, you want to make sure it’s not disinformation; you want to make sure the piece of intelligence you have is real. And, secondly, they want to make sure they understand the intelligence they gathered. If they think it’s real, then what does it mean? And it wasn’t until last week that I was briefed on the NIE that is now public.

Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. The NIE says that Iran had a hidden, a covert nuclear weapons program. That’s what it said. What’s to say they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?

RAY SUAREZ: Reaction abroad has been mixed. Iranian officials said the new intelligence report supported Tehran’s longstanding claims that its nuclear program is only for civilian use. And China, which agreed only reluctantly to pass sanctions against Iran, said it hoped the NIE would spur new diplomatic efforts.

But Britain and France, which are also permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, said they would continue to seek further sanctions against Iran.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill takes the story from there.

New information

Sen. Jay Rockefeller
I consider it a sign that it's time for to us stop talking about nuclear holocausts and World War III and to get down to the business of trying to work out our relationship with Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the view from Capitol Hill. For that, we turn to the two senior members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Jay Rockefeller, Democrat from West Virginia, is the chairman; and Kit Bond, Republican of Missouri, is the vice chairman.

Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

SEN. KIT BOND (R), Missouri: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Rockefeller, we just heard the president lay out a case for Iran as a past, present, and future threat. Do you agree with that?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER (D), West Virginia: It's always possible, but I think the news of the day is that the intelligence community, under Mike McConnell, potentially has begun to wipe out the catastrophic mistake they made, and which our Intelligence Committee caught them up on, about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I think Mike McConnell is very good. I think he's really serious about getting rid of stovepipes. I think he's serious about making the different intelligence agencies work together.

I assume there was a lot of debate on this, but what he's done is he's flown in the face of what the president was saying. It's hard intelligence that -- obviously, any intelligence can be wrong, but you don't get the feeling that this one probably is -- saying that they stopped all of that and that they haven't been doing that now for several years.

I consider that very good news. And I consider it a sign that it's time for to us stop talking about nuclear holocausts and World War III and to get down to the business of trying to work out our relationship with Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bond, Senator Rockefeller said this flies in the face of what the president's previous claims have been, yet we saw the president today and his national security adviser yesterday embrace this as good news.

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, it's good news that they stopped production -- at least we have a high level of confidence -- back in 2003. But, number one, that proves that they did have a nuclear weapons program. We just learned the information recently that they had stopped it at that point.

However, we do not have a high degree of confidence that they have not restarted the program. In addition, Iran continues to enrich uranium, they say for peaceful purposes, but enriching uranium puts them in a position to use that in a nuclear weapon, perhaps in the 2010-2015 timeframe.

Intelligence community reforms

Sen. Kit Bond
Iran continues to be very dangerous. And we don't know when or if they are going to continue to -- or will restart their program to enable them to achieve Ahmadinejad's goal of wiping Israel off the face of the Earth.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bond -- pardon me, were you surprised at this reversal, however? And do you think -- do you now trust the information contained in the reversal, if the 2005 report was not accurate?

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, we received new information. Now, we have not looked at the tradecraft and the analysis that went into that information. That's one of the things that we do in the Intelligence Committee.

And we will continue to look at the information they had and go in depth in classified, secret hearings as to what they knew, when they knew it, and what other information they have that tends to support or discredit that information.

But the other points that are important is, there is no question that Iran has supported terrorist activities against us, from the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, the embassy bombing. We know that they have sent explosively formed projectiles, a deadly form of weapon, into Iraq to use against our troops in the field, and they've sent the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

So there's no question that Iran continues to be very dangerous. And we don't know when or if they are going to continue to -- or will restart their program to enable them to achieve Ahmadinejad's goal of wiping Israel off the face of the Earth.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Rockefeller, Senator Bond just used the old formulation "What did they know and when did they know it?" I wonder if you have that question about the president. He said today that he heard about this last week, that it had been hinted to him, essentially, by Mike McConnell, the head of intelligence, in August. Do you think the president should have known about it?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: My guess is that the president had information on it, because Vice Chairman Bond and I were given information several months ago. We were not given any final conclusions, just simply information which didn't lead to anything.

But I was really struck when the president said that he only got the final judgments on Tuesday -- or whatever it was that he said -- because I have to believe that he knew what was going on before Vice Chairman Bond and I did.

GWEN IFILL: When you say -- I just want to clear that up -- when you say that you were given information, you mean information that led you to believe that this outcome was in the offing?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: No, not at all, because the Intelligence Committee was not in a position to do that. They did give us information. And it was -- I think they gave it just to Kit Bond and myself, the vice chairman and myself. And it was just information.

But it was a number of months ago. And I can't believe that between -- you know, I can't believe that the president didn't get that same information. And then, since that time, was he asking questions? Why was he talking about a nuclear holocaust? Why was he talking about all of those things?

Now, granted, they hadn't arrived at a final judgment, but there was clearly something changing in the air. And I think it's really important for the world.

And, Gwen, I've got to say this. What was most fascinating to me about that was not the politics of any of this, but was the fact that Iran seemed to have made up their minds partly on a cost-benefit ratio. In other words, what was the cost of proceeding with a nuclear program? And, indeed, they could do that again.

But it seems that they decided that the benefit, in terms of what it would give up, feeding people in the rural areas and taking care of their many other needs, was outweighed, and that the nuclear program had to give way.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bond, I want to pick up on the intelligence piece about this a little bit more, because the president also said today that what happened in this new report was the fruit of post-Iraq intelligence reform. What kind of intelligence reform are we talking about that would encourage the American people to believe what they are being presented now, rather than what they were presented two years ago?

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, as a result of 9/11 and the failures of information throughout the '90s, and prior to 9/11, there has been major reform within the intelligence community providing more information-sharing among agencies under the direction of the director of national intelligence.

The Intelligence Committee itself -- our committee -- put out a very critical report that the intelligence community assumed too many things because of Saddam Hussein's previous actions. Now, this NIE states that we had information -- the information that was available to the intelligence community in 2005 when they did the NIE -- suggested that -- indicated that there was a nuclear weapons program.

Now that they have found new information, which they've had to examine and now believe credible, they have come back and told us honestly that they believe that there was a halt in the program in 2003.

And that tells us what we know, but there's also a tremendous amount that we don't know, as to whether they -- well, we do know that they're continuing to enrich uranium, which is one important forerunner to developing a nuclear weapon.

But we don't know if a nuclear weapon program has restarted. There is a great danger that it could restart.

Policy changes

Sen. Jay Rockefeller
They really do understand that giving good intelligence, whether the White House or the Congress or anybody else wants to hear it, is their job and that they have a new commitment under McConnell to doing that job.

GWEN IFILL: Do we think, Senator Bond, based on what the president, as Senator Rockefeller was saying, his references to World War III, and now given what we didn't know, do you feel that, in the absence of what we didn't know, that the president and Vice President Cheney were making the case for war against Iran?

SEN. KIT BOND: They never said that they were making the case for war against Iran. They have sought sanctions. They've sought inspections. They have sought diplomatic pressure. And we have been able to apply, through persuasion, squeezes on their financial institutions.

This is a country, again, not only that was developing a nuclear weapon at one point, up until 2003, but actively supporting efforts that were killing American troops and threatening our troops. And they are a very dangerous country in a very volatile part of the world, and the leader has promised to wipe Israel off the map and has made other threats that you cannot disregard. If he got a nuclear weapon, he could be extremely dangerous.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask that same question to Senator Rockefeller, whether military action is now off the table as we focus on diplomacy because of what we see in this report?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: I think there was a lot of either direct talk or implied talk about regime change. And I think, in many ways, the White House was kind of preparing the country for that in a not-high-decibel manner.

To me, the most interesting part of this is that -- is really two-fold. One is that the intelligence community really did an about-face. I think -- and I hope I'm not proven wrong -- that they really do understand that giving good intelligence, whether the White House or the Congress or anybody else wants to hear it, is their job and that they have a new commitment under McConnell to doing that job.

And, secondly, I think it shows that Vice Chairman Bond and myself and the House Intelligence Committee, that we're really committed to oversight, that we're no longer kidding about oversight. We have done a lot of things within our committee -- Vice Chairman Bond and myself -- to increase oversight, I'd say probably 100 or 200 percent more than previously.

And I think those are important for balance of power, and I think it's very important for intelligence, because intelligence has to precede any move that the United States makes.

International sanctions

Sen. Kit Bond
If that requires a change in regime, then that might well be one of the beneficial results of international pressure and sanctions that I think are still very important on Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Now I'd like to ask you both briefly if you can tell me whether you think that the results of this report increases or decreases the likelihood -- starting with you, Senator Rockefeller -- that sanctions will -- international sanctions will now be toughened?

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: I think it will make people -- I'll answer yes, to be sure, but I think it takes some of the pressure off. But, remember, what we're talking about is not Hezbollah and Hamas, although Vice Chairman Bond is absolutely correct about that. They're still a very dangerous country, and what they're doing to our men and women in Iraq, and these other vehicles in the -- can destroy Israel.

But the subject of the day is atomic nuclear capacity. And I think they have backed off from that, and they've done it for interesting reasons, and it may be that the cost-benefit ratio was the decision-maker. It may be that the threat of sanctions was hurting more than we thought it was.

And, therefore, I don't think that sanctions should be taken off the table at all. I do think that talk about regime change should be taken off the table.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bond, what do you think about that?

SEN. KIT BOND: Well, number one, I agree with Chairman Rockefeller that there's a lot more work we need to do on this intelligence report. We've only had a chance to look at it briefly. We want to learn more about it, because I have some questions about some of the conclusions they reached and how they reached them, not to say that there's anything wrong in the report.

But the chairman raised a number of interesting issues about what may have changed their attitudes. And I don't know whether we have good information to know whether there are factors which will indicate that they're much less likely to pursue nuclear weapons. I am not confident -- I am not highly confident that they have forever forsaken it.

There is nobody that I know of that is saying, "We need military action against Iran." But I think given the whole -- the actions they've taken, the military actions, the terrorist actions they've supported, we must continue to seek sanctions, which I would hope would bring about a change of attitude. And if that requires a change in regime, then that might well be one of the beneficial results of international pressure and sanctions that I think are still very important on Iran.

GWEN IFILL: Senators Kit Bond and Jay Rockefeller, thank you both very much.

SEN. KIT BOND: Thank you.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER: Thank you, Gwen.