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Former CIA Director George Tenet
CIA Director-designate John Brennan's assertion to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Iran is "bent on pursuing nuclear weapons" is precisely the kind of dangerous "mistake" made by his mentor, former CIA Director George Tenet, who made many such "mistakes" a decade ago in greasing the skids for war on Iraq.
Of course, the appropriate word is not "mistake" but "fraud." And perhaps what should disqualify Brennan as much as anything is his intimate connection to the lies and abuses perpetrated by the thoroughly discredited Tenet. As one of Tenet's former proteges, Brennan could not even bring himself to admit on Thursday that waterboarding was torture.
Brennan's misleading statement on Iran was both "sly" and "intriguing." It also did not come across as an off-the-cuff answer to a question, but rather was embedded in the written text of his "Opening Statement for the Record" for his confirmation hearing. His disingenuousness on this neuralgic issue is another reason to reject his nomination to be CIA director.
Brennan's assertion about Iran's nuclear ambitions stands on its head the unanimous intelligence community judgment in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) -- revalidated every year since -- that Iran stopped working on nuclear weaponization at the end of 2003 and has not resumed that work.
One might have thought that an indication from the next CIA director-to-be that he was predisposed to overturn the considered judgment of the intelligence community's top analysts -- and take the politically preferred "tough-guy" position toward Iran -- would have set off alarm bells with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which (commendably though belatedly) excoriated the politicization of intelligence that led to the Iraq War.
But committee members instead had their prepared posturing to do, and thus let the statement on Iran slide by without noticing -- much less challenging -- it. And, luckily for Brennan, by that point in his prepared testimony, committee chair Dianne Feinstein had removed from the hearing room the many Code Pink-led protesters, who would have been the only ones knowledgeable and courageous enough to call loud attention to Brennan's dishonesty.
Anatomy of a "Mistake"
In that part of his testimony, Brennan warned the senators that the "regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons..." (Emphasis added)
When "practicing casuistry," half-truths and conflating two very different situations often work better than straight-out lies. They are, as the Jesuits might attest, very old rhetorical tricks. Is North Korea "bent on pursuing nuclear weapons?" A definitive "Yes" has been the answer to that question for several years. Indeed, the North Koreans apparently already have a few.
But the case is different for Iran, as the U.S. intelligence community has asserted since 2007. For instance, let's compare Brennan's phrasing to the most recent congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Jan. 31, 2012:
"We judge North Korea has tested two nuclear devices. Its October 2006 nuclear test is consistent with our longstanding assessment that it produced a nuclear device, although we judge the test itself was a partial failure. The North's probable nuclear test in May 2009 had a yield of roughly two kilotons TNT equivalent and was apparently more successful than the 2006 test. These tests strengthen our assessment that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons."
But what about Iran? Are the Iranians, too, "bent on pursuing nuclear weapons?" Clapper's words were much more conditional in that part of his testimony:
"We 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.
"Iran nevertheless is expanding its uranium enrichment capabilities, which can be used for either civil or weapons purposes. ... [We judge] that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon, if it so chooses. ... We judge Iran's nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran."
It is likely that Clapper, like Brennan a political appointee, is going as far as he can in presenting a frightening case regarding Iran, yet -- unlike Brennan -- is staying within the parameters of the less alarming assessment of professional intelligence analysts.
Brennan instead edged past that line with his rhetorical sleight-of-hand -- lumping Iran in with North Korea -- the sort of trickery that he witnessed up close as a Tenet favorite during the early excesses of the "war on terror" and the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
After all, Iran has been a front-burner issue for the past several years. It beggars belief that Brennan has forgotten the key judgment of the National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 in which all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies concurred, "with high confidence," that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapon design and weaponization work in 2003 -- a judgment reaffirmed every year since by the Director of National Intelligence in sworn testimony to Congress?