Media Roundtable with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell (Excerpts)

January 16, 2009

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QUESTION: Tom Finger, at a similar session like this a couple of weeks back defended the 2007 Iran NIE. He said he stood by its conclusions. You have spoken in public several times and suggested that you were sorry that it was put forward the way that it was. Do you stand by the conclusions of that NIE?

DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Oh, conclusions, yes. Yeah - here's the mistake we made: I came in thinking that we are better served by keeping our NIEs classified, not having unclassified key judgments. And if you'll recall, just before I came in and just after I came in, the big debate about the Iraq War - President wanted a surge and others wanted to start getting out. So the Congress put in legislation that we would write an NIE and we must produce unclassified key judgments.

Now I think that's not a wise policy and there are lots of reasons for that. But as it turned out, we had the Iraq NIE - I think it was fall of 2007 - and we had an update and we got to the summer and we had another. So expectation was, you guys do an NIE, where are the unclassified key judgments? This is good stuff, we want to see it. Well, my issue with that is now I've - it becomes an issue internally to the community about how you write it and speaking truth to power and discipline and so on.

So I made my case for no unclassified key judgments. Now, here's where I made a mistake - it was my mistake. I should have been smarter. If you write an NIE with no expectation of unclassified key judgments, you would write the key judgments for an informed audience - people who already knew the background, the issues and so on. And we didn't do it that way. We wrote it so if you read the full body, which is not unclassified, that you didn't read - you can figure it out. But it wasn't comprehensive to present context and the full problem. So when we showed it to the President, I said, Mr. President, I've been working on this, we've got new information that caused us to change our view. And when he read it, he said, Mike, this is not consistent with my public statements. And I said, yes, sir, I understand. Nor is it consistent with my public statements.

And he said, we have no choice - we have to release this at the unclassified level. Now I'm trapped. The reason is, I can't change those unclassified - I can't change those key judgments the way they were constructed because now if I change them, I'm manipulating something. The accusations would go on forever. So we were in a position where we had to release it. Now, what should it have said?

If I had known upfront I was going to have to do unclassified key judgments, I would have introduced it by saying there are three basic components to a nuclear weapons program. The first is fissile material, the second is warhead construction and the third is the delivery system. What we didn't highlight in our key judgments is fissile material processing is continuing and delivery systems are continuing to be built. What we captured at a point in time is that the Iranians cancelled the technical design of an implosion warhead. And that's what we're reporting in a technical way to a sophisticated audience and we were trapped. So the lesson learned - even though our intent is no unclassified key judgments, when we write those key judgments, it's - it has context and depth so that if they happen to be unclassified for whatever reason, we would not be misleading. I can't tell you how many times I have read - and things you all write - that the 2007 NIE said the Iranians cancelled their nuclear weapons program. That's not what it said. It said the Iranians halted the design of an implosion warhead - that's what it said. All those other things continue. And as the IAEA has just verified, it's continuing
in the current time frame in a pretty robust way.

QUESTION: Do you believe the Iranians have restarted the warhead design program?

DIRECTOR McCONNELL: I don't know. If you ask me a different question - do I believe
they intend to have nuclear weapons, I believe that. But I have no evidence that I can show absolutely that's the case.

So my job is to give my opinion, but I can't state as a fact anything that I can't prove. So think of it as separating the evidence from the assessment. So we are very focused on what is the evidence and think of it as a court trial. What is the evidence? Now, I can think whatever I need or want or whatever. We debate a lot about that part. What's the evidence? I don't have any evidence they've restarted.

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QUESTION: I guess I have sort of two unrelated questions, that the first was just kind of going off of the Iran discussion. What is your assessment of Iran's long-range missile threat, sort of aside from the nuclear program?

DIRECTOR McCONNELL: They're making every effort to keep building things that can put
vehicles in space and to reach as far as Europe.

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of the timeline or anything like that?

DIRECTOR McCONNELL: They have some capability today and they're working as quickly
as they can to bring it to closure, so I would say minimal capability today and they will have, if they stay on the same vector and if they're successful, because this is a challenge, they'll have capability over the next two or three years.

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QUESTION: Threats?

DIRECTOR McCONNELL: Threats - threats to the United States. You can divide it in time,
but I guess my biggest worry is I'm very concerned that Iran will continue down a path that will result in nuclear weapons. And if you think about it just for a second, if Iran gets nuclear weapons, what's going to be the response of their neighbors? And now, while at one level, while the United States had nuclear weapons and U.K. had nuclear weapons and the Russians had nuclear weapons, a state of play in position was reached where we had sort of a mutual standoff. I don't have any confidence that if you had the players in that region of the word as volatile as it is that you would have mutual deterrence. So do I have any evidence they have made a decision and they're actively pursuing? No. But their behavior says they're continuing with fissile material. They're continuing to build these long-range missiles. And it would be a logical conclusion - I just can't prove it - if they get them, that's my biggest worry.

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