Four former CIA officials who provided intelligence information to past presidents described as preposterous President Bush's claim that he was unaware until very recently that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"It's unbelievable," said Melvin Goodman, who worked for the CIA from 1966 to 1990 and now is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.
Goodman's assessment of Bush's assertions were very similar to those of Larry C. Johnson, who worked at the CIA from 1985 to 1989 and from 1989 to 1993 served as Deputy Director in the U.S. State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism; Ray McGovern, a former CIA official who gave daily intelligence briefings to George H. W. Bush while he was vice president; and Bruce Riedel, who spent over two decades at both the CIA and National Security Council and is the former National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asian Affairs
At a December 4 (Tuesday) press conference, Bush asserted:
I was made aware of the NIE last week. In August, I think it was Mike McConnell [Director of National Intelligence] came in and said, 'we have some new information.' He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze.
Why would you take time to analyze new information? One, you want to make sure it's not disinformation. You want to make sure the piece of intelligence you have is real. And secondly, they want to make sure they understand the intelligence they gathered: If they think it's real, then what does it mean? And it wasn't until last week that I was briefed on the NIE that is now public.
McGovern was totally incredulous: "The notion that the head of National Intelligence whispered in Bush's ear 'I've got a surprise for you and it's really important, but I'm not going to tell you about it until we check it out' -- The whole thing is preposterous," he said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Riedel agreed, saying "the president either chose to ignore what he heard or his director of national intelligence is not doing his job." Riedel said he doubted McConnell failed to "do his part of the bargain."
"To me it is almost mind boggling that the President is told by the DNI that we have new important information on Iran and he doesn't ask 'what is that information?'" said Riedel, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center For Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
He said it wasn't the DNI's responsibility to tell the President to "stop hyperventilating about the Iranian threat."
"The President and his policy advisers - National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in particular - have the responsibility of keeping their eye on the intelligence and to take into account new information as it comes along," Riedel told The Huffington Post.
Bush and Cheney have repeatedly warned of the dangers of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, with no mention of the intelligence findings that Iran had stopped its program in 2003. On October 17, Bush was asked at a press conference, "But you definitively believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon?" He replied
I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace. But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.
White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto declined Wednesday to discuss what McConnell told Bush at their August meeting.
Q ...Was there any indication from McConnell of the nature of the intelligence in the meeting in August?
MR. FRATTO: I can't give you more detail on what Director McConnell said to the President.
Larry Johnson pointed out that the National Intelligence Estimate is actually the result of an analysis of information from all intelligence agencies. The material on which the NIE report was based had been acquired well before the report itself was issued to the public.
When that information first became available to the CIA and other agencies, it would automatically have been included in the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) months before the NIE report, Johnson said. The President, Vice President, Defense Secretary and Secretary of State are all given daily accounts of the PDB, Johnson said. McGovern and Goodman agreed.