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Last Thursday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had an open hearing to discuss the top threats to American security in the world today.  For those of you who think Congressional hearings are always an epic snooze-fest, I present to you evidence to the contrary.
The Committee, with its brand new chairman Sen. Diane Feinstein, heard testimony from the brand new Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.  On tap for the DNI:

And if that’s not exciting enough…wait for it…someone leaked highly classified information!
To begin, let’s take a look at Ranking Republican Sen. Kit Bond’s opening statement:

The intelligence community told us in late ’07 that we did not know Iran’s intentions, but we knew it was pursuing weapons capability in the nuclear field until at least 2003.
Additionally, we now see Teheran making significant advancements in a civilian nuclear program, which could give Iran the technical capabilities necessary to produce highly enriched uranium, which requires fairly careful attention.

My personal belief is that our inability to get the most effective pressure on Iran that we could pose from an economic standpoint is our inability to cut off the supply of refined petroleum to Iran.
And it is my strong suspicion that the energy supply lines have influence, and perhaps some of our allies should be  concerned as we are about Iran from utilizing that very, very important economic and diplomatic weapon.

We’ve long expected conservative members of Congress to rehash the old H.Con.Res. 362 argument for imposing an embargo on Iran’s gasoline imports.  In fact, with AIPAC continuing to press for a blockade of Iran as its top priority, we expect it’s only a matter of time before this year’s war resolution gets introduced.   (And with the AIPAC conference on May 3, the smart money is in the next month or two)…
So it’s interesting to see Sen. Bond tipping the AIPAC hand in the first major intelligence hearing of the 111th Congress.
Next came Director Blair, who fell in lock step with previous administration declarations (and with the hardest of hardliners from the Bush administration) about an Iranian nuclear weapons program:

The Iranian regime views the United States as its principal enemy and also as a threat to them. A more assertive regional Iranian foreign policy, coupled with its dogged development of a deliverable nuclear weapon, alarms most of the governments from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.

With Iran developing a nuclear weapon capability, and with Israel determined not to allow it, there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis.

But here’s where it gets interesting.  Director Blair took to using much more measured language regarding Iran’s nuclear program from that point on:

The assessment that was in our — in our 2007 National Intelligence Estimate about Iran’s nuclear weapons programs are generally still valid today. Tehran is — at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons.

It’s a small difference, but it’s significant.  Just as President Obama checked himself during last week’s press conference,  preferring to say “Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons” instead of his original “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon,” those small differences of language provide a glimpse into the administration’s point of reference.   Based on that tiny glimpse, (and somewhat contrary to what my previous post might have led you to believe) there’s some daylight between Obama and Bush on Iran.
That being said, Blair then went on to echo the “carrots and sticks” chorus that has failed for so long…
Back to Kit Bond:

Mr. Director, many of us on this committee criticized the way the 2007 NIE on Iran was drafted, which in key unclassified judgments left the impression on the public that the intelligence community was not concerned about Iran’s nuclear efforts.
Indeed, today’s article in the Los Angeles Times notes statements by the president and Mr. Panetta, when he was before us for confirmation, about the intent of Iran to seek nuclear capability.
And they go on to say this language reflects the extent to which senior U.S. officials now discount the NIE issued in November ’07 that was instrumental in derailing U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to shut down its nuclear program.

Blair:

I — I can say in this forum that Iran is clearly developing all the components of a deliverable nuclear weapons program: fissionable material, nuclear weapons — weaponizing capability and the means to deliver it.
Whether they take it all the way to nuclear weapons and become a nuclear power I think will depend on — it will depend a great deal on their own internal decisions.

This for me is a huge point in the plus column for Director Blair–it shows an awareness of the reality of Iran’s nuclear weapons calculus: that Iran doesn’t have to decide yet whether to pursue a nuclear weapon, and that its current program is not necessarily illegal under the NPT.
Of course, then he goes on to say

And if the international community can put together the right package of sticks and potential reassurances that we’ll meet some of these security concerns that Iran feels, then there’s a chance — there’s a chance that they would choose another course.

Ohhh!  So close.
Then came the lightning round:

Q: When could Iran have a nuclear weapon?
Blair: “As early as 2010…but it might take them to 2015.”
Q: What is your assessment of Iran’s missile launch?
Blair: “Iran’s space — space launch demonstrated that they are mastering multi-stage missile and rocket — or missile technology. Again, that technology can be used for peaceful pursuits, and it can be used for — for military pursuits.
They have — they have some smart scientists and good — good engineers. They put resources on it. They can — they can make a serious missile force.”

That was the Director of National Intelligence, when asked about Iran’s missile program, talking about the possible peaceful uses of that kind of technology, using measured language so as not to inflate the threat beyond what’s reasonable…  Change, indeed.
Now, I promised a really interesting bit of leaked classified information, and for those of you still reading this gargantuan post, I must deliver.
In what is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime gaffe, Senator Feinstein accidentally let it slip that unmanned Predator drone airstrikes on al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan are flown out of a Pakistani airbase.  This was not supposed to come out.
Pakistan’s government is already struggling with charges of selling out its country to the US.  Add to that its difficulties in trying to keep control over a hugely unstable country, and this is a troubling bit of news for the new Zardari government.
Either Zardari knew that Americans were bombing his country from within its own borders, so he’s an American stooge; or he didn’t know about the American bases, which means he’s oblivious to what’s going on inside the country he’s supposedly running.  Either way, you can expect the Pakistani street to be none too happy.

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