I just spoke with a senior U.S. intelligence official who made the following points:
1. the NIE was made with a “high” degree of certainty, which means there was more than one information stream confirming it.
2. our “collection” capability within Iran has improved considerably over the past few years.
3. that Iran once did actually have a nuclear weapons program but…
4. It was international attention and disapproval that caused the Iranians to quit the program, which means that diplomacy, the UN sanctions regime–all the things the Bush administration has disdained–actually matter. They certainly worked in this case, which is just wonderful news.
Update: Kevin Drum speculates that it may have been pressure from Congressional Democrats that got this released…and that may be true. But it also may be that the intelligence community was waiting for the definitive information that made this a “high” degree of certainty estimate rather than a “moderate” degree estimate.
And it is not impossible that the intelligence community has concluded that it might well be dealing with a Democratic President come 2009.