The Los Angeles Timesand New York Timeslead with President Bush warning that Iran is still a threat, regardless of the new intelligence that says Tehran halted its nuclear program in 2003. Bush emphasized that "our policy remains the same" and he will continue to seek new sanctions against Iran, though getting the support of international leaders will now be more difficult, notes the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Postleads with, and the LAT fronts, a closer look at how it's possible that intelligence agencies reached such a different conclusion about Iran's nuclear operations than what was previously believed. Everyone says the new analysis was not only the result of new intelligence, but also because of new policies that were put in place after the failures in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
USA Todayleads with a new poll that shows the Iraq war is still the top issue on voters' minds, but it is quickly losing ground to domestic concerns. When questioners combine domestic and economic issues, "they are mentioned more often than the war, terrorism and foreign policy by 9 percentage points," says the paper. Although more people are saying that the increase of troops in Iraq improved the situation on the ground, 57 percent still think the invasion was a mistake.
The NYT emphasizes that at yesterday's news conference, Bush said Iran couldn't be trusted with the knowledge of how to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, "explicitly declaring for the first time what has been an underlying premise of the administration's policy." Bush acknowledged that he had first been told there was new information about Iran in August, but insisted he didn't know the details until last week. Many found that hard to believe. "If that's true he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history," Sen. Joseph Biden said. Regardless, Bush made clear that even if he had known the new information, it wouldn't have changed his views or his World War III talk.
So, is it even possible that Bush didn't know about this new analysis of Iran's capabilities? Most of the papers skirt the question, although the LAT suggests it could be. In a separate Page One piece on the intelligence, the paper says that keeping "unvetted intelligence" out of the hands of senior administration officials was one of the key lessons learned from the Iraq WMD fiasco. The LAT goes on to say that "it wasn't until about two weeks ago" that Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials "received initial briefs on the pending findings," although it's still unclear when Bush got word of the developments. But that still really doesn't answer the question of whether Bush wasn't even given a heads up on how the thinking was changing inside the intelligence community.
Meanwhile, the administration went on an all-out effort to hold on to international support for a third set of sanctions. According to the Post, the effort has been largely successful as Europeans seem to agree with Bush that Iran continues to be a threat, although there is talk that minds could change in the coming weeks. But the biggest challenge now has to do with Russia and China, two countries that had recently given signs they could be convinced to support new sanctions. The WSJ also points out this new reluctance to support a hard stance against Iran is even spreading to Arab countries.
Intelligence officials now insist that the 2005 estimate wasn't necessarily wrong, but it relied on old information. A former senior CIA official tells the LAT that the reversal on Iran "underscores to me that this is tough stuff to do." And that is especially true with Iran, which is "the hardest damn target out there," an intelligence official tells the Post. The WP goes on to detail how, at the behest of President Bush, intelligence officials began to step up their efforts to get hard information about Iran. So what was the data that led to a new analysis? Of course, most of it is extremely vague due to its classified nature but it seems clear there were communication intercepts of Iranian officials. The WP mentions there was also a stolen Iranian laptop, and the LAT gets word of "a journal or diary" by an Iranian official.
But everyone is sure to point out that this was more than just a case of new data. Over the past year, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, has been instituting new policies that required analysts to check information more carefully and back up what they know and detail what they don't. Analysts are also now encouraged to reach different conclusions with the same information to avoid "groupthink."
Everyone notes several Republican lawmakers and experts are skeptical of the new intelligence report. The NYT notes inside that although the International Atomic Energy Agency praised the new report, in truth it "is sounding a somewhat tougher line" on Iran than the Bush administration. "We don't buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous," an official said. For its part, Israel said it believes Iran has resumed work on a nuclear weapons program.
Everyone notes that Sen. Hillary Clinton continued to face attacks from the other Democratic presidential candidates for her vote to classify Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. A constant pounding on this issue could threaten Clinton's standing among Democrats who are already skeptical of her support for the Iraq invasion, says the WSJ.
In other election news, the LAT fronts a new poll that shows support for Mike Huckabee is surging nationally, and now stands at 17 percent among likely GOP voters, which is an increase from 7 percent in October. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani's numbers have gone down by an almost equal margin as he now has the support of 23 percent of likely voters. But the Post reports that Mitt Romney continues to hold a commanding lead in New Hampshire, where support for Huckabee is still in the single digits. Things could rapidly change though, as two-thirds of those who favored Romney also said they could change their minds.