The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported on the White House's statements regarding President Bush's knowledge of the new intelligence that Iran halted its nuclear program in late 2003 -- and the administration's subsequent “clarif[ication]” and “revis[ion]” of some of those statements -- but neither paper has noted National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley's inconsistent statements regarding whether intelligence officials told Bush to “stand down” upon learning the “new information” on Iran's nuclear weapons program.
During his December 3 press conference regarding the recently released National Intelligence Estimate's (NIE) conclusion that Iran halted its nuclear program in late 2003, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said that when the intelligence community first informed President Bush that there was new information on Iran's nuclear program he was told to “stand down.” Later in the same press conference, however, Hadley denied having said that Bush was told to “stand down,” adding that intelligence officials “did not tell the President to stand down and stop talking about Iran's nuclear program.” But while, in recent days, The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported on the administration's statements regarding Bush's knowledge of the new Iran intelligence -- and the White House's subsequent “clarif[ication]” and “revis[ion]” of some of those statements -- both papers have yet to note Hadley's inconsistent statements regarding whether intelligence officials told Bush to “stand down” upon learning the “new information” on Iran's nuclear weapons program.
During an October 17 press conference, Bush claimed, “I believe they [Iran] want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon” and further stated 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.” In his December 3 press conference, reporters asked Hadley to reconcile Bush's previous “World War III” statement regarding Iran's nuclear program with the NIE's conclusion, released earlier that day, that “in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” In response, Hadley offered a number of conflicting statements regarding whether Bush was told to “stand down” in light of the new intelligence:
- First, Hadley said that “when the President was told that we had some additional information [on Iran], he was basically told: 'Stand down; needs to be evaluated; we'll come to you and tell you what we think it means.' ” He added, "[A]s we said, this is information that came in the last few months, and the intelligence community spent a lot time to get on top of it."
- When a reporter mentioned Hadley's statement that Bush was told to “stand down,” he responded, “No, I said just the opposite. I said the President was told, we have some information, we have some new information not to stand down -- said, we have some new information; give us some time to analyze it, and we will come to you and tell you what we think it means.”
- Hadley went on to again assert that intelligence officials “did not tell the President to stand down and stop talking about Iran's nuclear program” and added, “What he was told was: 'We have new information; it is interesting; it is going to take us some time to understand it, to assess it, to know what it means, and to know how credible it is, and we will come back to you when that process is done.' And they did. And they came back to him Wednesday, and the results of their work is included in this estimate.”
On December 4, the Times published four articles on the new NIE (here, here, here, and here), two of which reported on Hadley's comments at the press conference. The Post published two articles on the issue, both noting Hadley's press conference. However, none of the articles by either outlet noted Hadley's conflicting statements regarding whether intelligence officials told Bush to “stand down” when revealing the “new information” regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program.
In a December 4 press conference, Bush defended his October 17 assertion that the United States should prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in order to avoid “World War III,” claiming that he was briefed on the NIE's conclusions only “last week” and that when Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell alerted Bush to “new information” on Iran's nuclear program in August, he did not, in Bush's words, “tell me what the information was.”
On December 5, the Times published three articles on the Iran NIE and Bush's press conference (here, here, and here), while the Post also published three reports (here, here, and here). None of the articles noted Hadley's contradictory statements on whether Bush was told to “stand down.”
On the evening of December 5, White House press secretary Dana Perino issued a statement in which she disclosed that, in an August meeting, Bush had been told by McConnell that Iran's nuclear program “may be suspended” and “that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time.”
In December 6 articles, both the Times and Post reported that Perino had “revised” and “clarified” Bush's December 4 remarks. But again, neither outlet noted Hadley's inconsistent statements on December 3 regarding whether the intelligence agencies told Bush to “stand down.”
From the White House's transcript of Hadley's December 3 press conference:
Q Steve, let me follow on this point. If we now estimate with high confidence that it was shut down as of 2003, that it was halted, in October of this year, in 2007, the President is speaking about the Iranian threat, in terms of World War III. Why wouldn't you conclude that this President is hyping the threat?
MR. HADLEY: Because he was describing the threat as the intelligence community itself had been describing the threat both publicly and in their briefings to him. The President, as I think if you look at the testimony that was given by Don Kerr and Mike Hayden today, they basically said that the intelligence community finally came to the judgments that they came to on this issue Tuesday of last week. The President was briefed on Wednesday. So this is challenging information. The intelligence community had to decide what they thought about it. They were sufficiently uncertain about it that they delayed the publication of the NIE until they could come to the bottom of it, reach their conclusions, present it to the President, as they did on Wednesday, and then at that point, obviously, we wanted to get it out quickly.
Q: There had to be more than an inkling before today that this information, this intelligence, that the Iranians had an ongoing nuclear weapons program was incorrect. So why wasn't -- why then would the President allow it or advise to go ahead with ratcheting up the rhetoric, instead of toning it down, when right now this obviously raises issues of credibility with the American public and with American allies about U.S. intelligence?
MR. HADLEY: Two things. One, when the President was told that we had some additional information, he was basically told: stand down; needs to be evaluated; we'll come to you and tell you what we think it means. So this was basically -- as we said, this is information that came in the last few months, and the intelligence community spent a lot time to get on top of it.
Secondly, I would disagree with you that the President has ratcheted up the rhetoric. We have said -- he has said, I have said, other administration officials have said many times, look, we want diplomacy to work. Because, as I said in my statement, we don't want to be in a situation where the only two choices this or a future President has is to accept Iran on a path to a nuclear weapon or to have to contemplate the use of nuclear force -- sorry, use of military force. Because that in the context of today's Middle East is a big move.
And so the President, in that statement -- as he said before and as he explained afterwards -- was trying to give a wake-up call to the international community that we needed to step up the diplomacy and step up the pressure to get Iran to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program. And that still is the case today, because that is the path to weapons-grade material which would give Iran the option in the future to produce a nuclear weapon.
Q The President -- you said the President was told to stand down on that -
MR. HADLEY: No, I said just the opposite. I said the President was told, we have some information, we have some new information not to stand down -- said, we have some new information; give us some time to analyze it, and we will come to you and tell you what we think it means.
Q Was he told that before or after -
MR. HADLEY: And that's what he was told, and they -- as was briefed by the intelligence community today, they came to their final judgments on Tuesday of last week, and they told the President of the United States on Wednesday.
Q But was he given that advice before or after the World War III comment?
MR. HADLEY: I'll have to -- I'll have to look.
Q Which was on October 20th.
MR. HADLEY: From my mind, it doesn't make any difference, because the World War III comment you characterize as stepping up the rhetoric. I would say it was making a point that the President and we have been making for two or three years, that the international community has to exert more pressure because Iran needs to suspend its enrichment program.
That was the position of our policy before the National Intelligence Estimate, and for the reasons I said. That continues to be our policy after this latest National Intelligence Estimate.
Q Steve, just to clarify.
MR. HADLEY: Sure.
Q Is it fair to say that the intelligence came in, in recent weeks, not recent months? Because this -- as was pointed out, the press briefing was late October when the President was asked definitively, do you believe Iran wants to build a nuclear bomb? And that's where you get, in the second part of that answer, the World War III comment.
MR. HADLEY: Correct.
Q So was it recent weeks that this intelligence came in?
MR. HADLEY: What the intelligence community has said is in the last few months. And again I would say, if they were working on this information before that quote in October, again, in terms of the point the President was making, he would have made that comment before we got -- the intelligence community got this information. He would have made that, I believe, that comment after. I just made it in this statement, which is, the international community has to understand that if we want to avoid a situation where we either have to accept Iran on the road to a nuclear weapon, with a path to a nuclear weapon, or the possibility of having to use force to stop it, with all the connotations of World War III, then we need to step up the diplomacy, step up the pressure to get Iran to stop their civilian -- so-called civilian uranium enrichment program. That was our policy before his October comment, that was the policy between October -- his October comment and today, and that's our policy going forward; no change.
Q Steve, you just said you would describe it quite different. Just a minute ago -
MR. HADLEY: I think that's right. And we would describe it -
Q Are you being consistent? I don't think you're being consistent.
MR. HADLEY: I am being consistent, because what we can say now is, that they actually had -- which we did not know at the time of 2005 -- they actually had a covert weapons program, which means we were right to be concerned; it was probably worse than we thought.
We would also say now, but that program, that covert nuclear weapon program has been suspended. And therefore it is important for our policy to continue to put diplomatic pressure on Iran so that the suspension -- the halting, excuse me -- the halting of their covert nuclear weapons program continues and that they suspend their uranium enrichment program. Because if you can do both of those things, maintain the halting of the nuclear weapons program and obtain the suspension of the uranium enrichment program, you've got some real assurance that Iran is not going to be on the path towards a nuclear weapon -- assuming they don't steal the weapon, they don't get weapons-grade nuclear material from some other source. And it still leaves the worrisome fact that they're working and developing ballistic missiles.
But it is a -- so I would describe our posture differently. I would describe our assessment -- the intelligence community would describe the assessment in a different way. But in terms of our policy, it continues to be one. And I would say it both underscores the urgency of the policy, and also gives us some confidence that it actually can work, but only if we pick up the pace.
Q Second question. When did the Vice President get briefed on this? Because he was warning of serious consequences just last month, too.
MR. HADLEY: I've just got a note from him -- I did it once, I'll do it again. In terms of stand down, they did not tell the President to stand down and stop talking about Iran's nuclear program; they told him just the opposite: Mr. President, we have new information. Or let me put it this way, not just the opposite, let me be precise. He was not told to stop talking about Iran's nuclear weapons program. He was not told to change what he says about it. What he was told was, we have new information; it is interesting; it is going to take us some time to understand it, to assess it, to know what it means, and to know how credible it is, and we will come back to you when that process is done. And they did. And they came back to him Wednesday, and the results of their work is included in this estimate. Is that okay? (Laughter.)
I'm sorry, you asked a question and I didn't answer. Could you restate it, please?
Q When was the Vice President briefed on this? You mentioned when the President was, what about the Vice President?
MR. HADLEY: He, of course, can answer that for himself. I will say that the week before the Tuesday/Wednesday, there was a meeting that was held with the principals -- including the Vice President, myself and others -- to get a preliminary look at this information, to get some sense of it, and to give us an opportunity to test it and ask questions about it, and probe it a little bit, as part -- and we thought, one, so we would understand it, and two, as part of the process for the intelligence community, you know, coming to its conclusion about what this all meant. And those were the conclusions that they reached on Tuesday, and which were briefed to the President on Wednesday of last week.
Q Steve, when was the first time the President was given the inkling of something? I'm not clear on this. Was this months ago, when the first information started to become available to intelligence agencies?
MR. HADLEY: You ought to go back to the intelligence community. We will get you an answer on that. There's two questions: one, when did they first get the information? -- you ought to ask that to them -- two, when was the President notified that there was new information available? We'll try and get you a precise answer. As I say, it was, in my recollection, is in the last few months. Whether that is October -- August, September, we'll try and get you an answer to that.