The Cable

Exclusive: New National Intelligence Estimate on Iran complete

The U.S. intelligence community has completed and is circulating a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear weapons program that walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which stated that Iran had halted work on its covert nuclear weapons program.

Intelligence officials briefed executive branch policymakers on the revised NIE last week. The document is being shared with members of Congress and their staff this week, an administration official and several Capitol Hill sources told The Cable. This is in advance of an early March meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors, where there may be another resolution on Iran's nuclear program, the official said.

The 2007 NIE was attacked in public due to its conclusion: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program." The new estimate might not directly contradict that judgment, Hill sources report, but could say that while the intelligence community has not determined that Iran has made the strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, it is working on the components of such a device.

Several sources said they are being told there will be no declassified version of the new NIE, and that only those cleared to read the full 2007 NIE (pdf) will be able to see the new version.

"It does exist," House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said in an interview with The Cable. Rogers said the administration was right to take its time to revise the 2007 NIE before releasing the updated version. "Intelligence is a fluid thing, sometimes you get great stuff and sometimes you don't get great stuff to make good conclusions. I think they were prudent in what they've done."

House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) told The Cable he had heard the new NIE would walk back the controversial conclusions of the 2007 version, but that he hadn't read it yet. Regardless, he said, the 2007 Iran NIE was now obsolete and discredited.

"Nobody had been paying attention to the older NIE. A few people on the outside focused on it because they didn't want us to go down the sanctions route but neither the administration nor the Congress paid it much attention," Berman said. "I thought the NIE estimate then was a faulty one because it focused on some aspects of weaponization -- even as Iran was continuing to enrich."

Revelations that Iran had a secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom, which occurred after the release of the 2007 NIE, were further proof that the Iranian regime was pursing nuclear weapons, Berman said. Regardless, the Obama administration has disregarded the 2007 Iran NIE, he said.

"For a year and a half the administration has been convinced that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapon. That's what they whole sanctions push is based on," Berman said. "There can be no serious doubt that Iran wants to have a nuclear weapons capability."

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a former intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy, told The Cable, "The 2007 NIE was a mistake," and this document appears to be more realistic. He urged the intelligence community to take a less technical and more comprehensive look at the Iranian leadership's actions when making such judgments.

"My hope is that the current leaders of the intelligence community look not just at technical details and also comment regularly on Iran's leaders," Kirk said. "In Intelligence 101 we are taught to measure both capability and intent politically, and the intent here on the part of the Iranian regime is pretty clear."

Several lawmakers refused to discuss the new NIE because it was classified or because they hadn't read it yet. Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable he had been briefed on the new NIE, but declined to comment on its contents. Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Cable she hadn't yet seen the new NIE but planned to review it soon.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI), who supported the conclusions in the 2007 NIE, contended that the old estimate was misconstrued as an attempt by its authors to head off an attack against Iran by the Bush administration.

"I think it was interpreted incorrectly," Levin told The Cable.

The NIE is compiled by the National Intelligence Council, but rollout and classification decisions are ultimately made by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The Cable

Congress prepares 'Middle East Stability' funding package

There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.

"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.

The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.

Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.

Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.

Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.

Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.

"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."

If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly.

"Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.