The Times reports on the newly released National Intelligence estimate and manages to mis-read it. This is the opening to their paragraph five, with emphasis added:
But the new estimate declares with “high confidence” that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform that raw material into a nuclear weapon has been shut down since 2003, and also says with high confidence that the halt “was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.”
Please, let's get those verb tenses working for us. The NIE reported with "high confidence" that the program was suspended in 2003; it reported with "moderate confidence" that, as of mid-2007, the program had not been re-started:
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.
...We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)
• We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.
That is neither a subtle nor meaningless distinction - "moderate confidence", we are told,
generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence.
By way of contrast, "high confidence"
generally indicates that our judgments are based on high-quality information, and/or that the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.
A “high confidence” judgment is not a fact or a certainty, however, and such judgments still carry a risk of being wrong.
For comparison's sake let's note that Walter Pincus of the WaPo managed to get this right in his first two paragraphs:
Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 in response to international pressure, and while it continues to develop an enriched uranium program, it apparently has not resumed moving toward a nuclear capability, according to a consensus judgment of the U.S. intelligence community released today by Director of National Intelligence John M. McConnell.
The assessment states "with moderate confidence" that "Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program" as of mid-2007, but suggests that Tehran continues to keep that option open.
That said, one wonders (as does Kevin Drum) why this had been kept quiet until now, and what forces prompted its release.
And who does this release help politically? Dare we state the obvious - this news takes the wind away from the Dems who have been asserting that Republicans will lead us inexorably to war with Iran. But what about an alternative story line - heroic Dems forced the release of this info, thereby halting the Cheney-led march to war? Well, bully for them and we promise not to vote for Cheney in 2008. Meanwhile, insinuations that McCain or Giuliani (or Huckabee!?!) will take us to war with Iran have been dramatically undercut.
And does it defuse criticism of Hillary's controversial support of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution branding Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization? If we have no basis for war then we don't need to worry that Hillary has given some support for it.