By Greg Thielmann
In spite of widespread rumors that the intelligence community’s assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat had changed significantly in the last three years, two hearings held by the intelligence committees in recent days provided scant confirmation. Instead, terrorism and cyber threats dominated both the testimony of witnesses and questioning by Members of Congress.
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hosted the year’s first comprehensive threat assessment by the intelligence community in an unclassified hearing on February 10. Senior intelligence officials returned to the Hill on February 16 for a similar hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The principal witness at the sessions was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was joined by five heads of major intelligence entities.
The most dramatic changes in this year’s assessment over last year’s by former DNI Dennis Blair were optical rather than substantive. With the conspicuous exception of climate change, all of last year’s topics were included in the 2011 assessment, but the order of presentation was rearranged. Last year’s assessment opened with cyber threats to critical infrastructure. Although DNI Clapper’s statement included a section on the “far-reaching impact of the cyber threat,” which reported “a dramatic increase in malicious cyber activity targeting US computers and networks,” the first and principal focus of his statement was on terrorism, which “will remain at the forefront of our national security threats over the coming year.”
Last year, “the growing proliferation threat” was broken out in a separate section. This year, it was subsumed in a “global challenges” section. The 2011 assessment reported evidence from U.S. visitors to North Korea that Pyongyang has constructed and may be operating a major uranium enrichment facility. The assessment also described IAEA reports of significant growth in Iran’s number of installed centrifuges over the past year along with continued slower growth in the number of centrifuges operating.
Notwithstanding recent developments, key judgments on Iran in the DNI’s 2011 statement are nearly identical to those delivered by the DNI in 2010 and virtually unchanged from those in the controversial 2007 NIE:
- “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.” (NIE 2007)
- “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” (DNI 2011)
- “We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.” (NIE 2007)
- “…Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so.” (DNI 2011)
- “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.” (NIE 2007)
- “We continue to judge Iran’s nuclear decisionmaking is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran.” (DNI 2011)
These statements suggest important caveats to a recent report that a newly completed NIE on Iran’s nuclear program “walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE” (e.g., Josh Rogin, “Exclusive: New National Intelligence Estimate on Iran complete,” The Cable, February 15, 2011). The 2007 NIE concluded that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003 — “a halt that lasted at least several years” – and that “Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”
Unlike the Members of Congress quoted in the “walkback” report, DNI Clapper can be presumed to have read and assessed the latest intelligence, postdating the information on which the earlier estimate was based. He confirmed at the Senate hearing that the updated NIE (“Memorandum to Holders”) has been completed and would be subsequently briefed to Members.
Senator Coats (R-Ind.) expressed concern and skepticism about Clapper’s statements on Iran, worrying that they would undermine resolve to increase the existing sanctions. Clapper responded that it would be best to address these questions behind closed doors. Whatever the nature of Clapper’s elaboration in a classified session, it is reasonable to assume that he will not be contradicting the open testimony he has just given. So if the latest NIE is designed to “walk back” from previous assessments, then it is certainly taking baby steps.
The intelligence community’s treatment of the most potent potential U.S. adversaries, China and Russia, did not change significantly in tone from the previous year. China’s “rise” and the “sustained pace” for its military modernization programs is noted and the intelligence community is said to be “attentive” to the possibility of more assertive Chinese behavior or increased “potential for unintended conflict between China and its neighbors.”
In the case of Russia, the “encouraging signs” of greater cooperation mentioned in last year’s assessment had evolved sufficiently for the 2011 statement to note “significant improvements in US-Russian relations.” At the same time, Clapper’s statement acknowledges that policy disagreements with Russia persist, citing missile defense suspicions by “some Russian elites” and Russian obduracy concerning its continuing occupation of contested territory in Georgia.
The public is not privy to the classified sessions, which typically follow the open hearings. It may be that members of the two intelligence committees have been briefed on dramatic developments not reflected in the unclassified hearings. But based on the public testimony, some of the most dramatic news comes from the “dogs that didn’t bark.” The U.S. intelligence community has apparently not concluded that Iran has resumed the nuclear weaponization effort it assessed as having been halted in fall 2003. It reported no flight-testing of long-range ballistic missiles in 2010 by either North Korea or Iran. Moreover, China’s strategic modernization efforts apparently did not include introducing strategic missiles with multiple warheads.
There is still plenty to trouble one’s sleep, but not all of last year’s alarms have rung true.