What does the just released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran say and what's its significance? 

Don't Panic ... your war questions answered

The National Intelligence Estimate is a document that distills the collective judgment of the U.S. government's various intelligence-gathering operations.

Commissioned either by the White House, Congress or a high-ranking military commander, NIEs are written and edited by a committee consisting of a representative from each U.S. intelligence agency (in 2007, there are 16 such agencies). Each full report is classified, but short summaries are often made available to the public.

For wannabe threats to U.S. national security, being in an NIE is like being featured on Perez Hilton, TMZ.com and Drudge, all at once. It's the country's A-list intelligence report on any given national security issue.

Unfortunately, just because it's a big deal doesn't mean it's correct. The NIE has produced some serious screw-ups over the years:

– A September 1962 NIE said the Soviet Union would not station nuclear missiles in Cuba. The following month, a U.S. spy plane photographed Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba.

– A November 1980 NIE predicted Sue Ellen shot J.R. Later that month, it was revealed Sue Ellen's mischievous and sexy younger sister Kristin pulled the trigger.

– A September 2002 NIE claimed Iraq "has chemical and biological weapons," "is reconstituting its nuclear program," and my favorite, is developing a robotic aircraft "probably intended to deliver biological warfare agents."

The just released NIE on Iran is, pardon the pun, a bombshell, for two reasons:

1) It contradicts the 2005 NIE on the same subject. The 2005 report says Iran was secretly working to develop a nuclear weapon. The just released report says Iran stopped work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

2) By saying that the U.S. intelligence does not think Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, this NIE kicks the legs out from underneath White House officials and allies who've spent the last year marching in the direction of war with Iran.

Less than two months ago, President Bush said a nuclear-armed Iran would lead to World War III. The statement was an argument for attacking Iran. If a nuclear-armed Iran equals World War III, a pre-emptive attack by the United States to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities would in fact be a humanitarian mission to prevent World War III.

President Bush, despite his claim that he only read the report in the past couple of weeks, has likely been aware of the new NIE's key finding for months.

A story published more than a year ago in the New Yorker by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour Hersh told of an NIE circulated within the White House and Pentagon indicating that the United States could not find convincing evidence to show Iran was building a nuke.

In light of the NIE's sketchy accuracy in years past, should it be trusted? Some of the hawks pushing for war in Iran say no.

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told a German newspaper the report constituted a "quasi-putsch" by the U.S. intelligence establishment against the White House. Putsch is the German word for coup or overthrow. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that Bolton's use of the word in this context evokes the infamous 1923 "Beer Hall Putsch" in which Hitler tried to take power in Germany for the first time. In other words, by writing a report indicating that Iran is not going nuclear, the intelligence establishment is akin to Nazis.

There's plenty of reason for non-hawks to worry about this report, too.

Our intelligence agencies have been too wrong about the Middle East too often for an intellectually honest person to think Iran's theocratic regime harmless. Despite its reported lack of a weapons program, Iran is, by its own admission, attempting to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants. If Iran masters that step, it will have jumped the biggest technical hurdle on the way to building a nuclear weapon. All you have to do to turn power-plant uranium into weapons uranium is spin it in the same centrifuges a little longer.

The Bush march to war with Iran has probably been stopped, but the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran remains.

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