The President looked awful. He stood puffy-eyed, stoop-shouldered, in front of the press corps discussing the stunning new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. He looked as if he'd spent the night throwing chairs around the Situation Room. A reporter noted that he seemed dispirited, and the President joked, "This is like all of a sudden, it's like Psychology 101, you know?" He added, "No, I'm feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life, and I made the decision to come before you so I can explain the NIE." And then, defiantly, "And so, kind of Psychology 101 ain't working. It's just not working. I understand the issues, I clearly see the problems, and I'm going to use the NIE to continue to rally the international community for the sake of peace." And then he walked out.
In truth, Bush seemed as befuddled as everyone else about how and why the nation's intelligence community the 16 federal agencies charged with spying had issued an NIE that so profoundly undermined his provocative rhetoric toward Iran. As recently as Oct. 17, the President had said Iran's bomb-building program could be a precursor to "World War III." It was a statement that was both outrageous in its extravagance and very strange. Bush acknowledged that he had first heard in August that a new intelligence analysis of Iran's nuclear-bomb program was imminent, but and here comes the strange part he hadn't bothered to ask the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, what it might contain. "If that's true," Senator Joe Biden opined soon after, "then this is ... one of the most incompetent Presidents in modern American history."
The moment certainly seemed historic. This was, quite possibly, the most assertive, surprising and rebellious act in the history of the U.S. intelligence community. The Administration seemed to have lost control of its secrets. Gone were the days when spymasters would come to the White House for morning coffee and whisper the latest intelligence to the President, and the rest of the world would find out decades later, only after numerous Freedom of Information requests had prized the buried treasure from the CIA vault. Now the latest intelligence evaluations were being announced worldwide, nearly in real time. "It's just mind-boggling," a former CIA officer told me. "The impact of the Iraq WMD fiasco is coming home to roost. The intelligence community was badly burned by that. And the various players never want it asked of them again, 'Why didn't you stand up to the Administration and tell it the truth?'"