Michael McConnell, the man responsible for the US National Intelligence Estimate that two months ago essentially cleared Iran of pursuing a nuclear bomb, backtracked last week. In testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 5, the admiral vouchsafed that, in hindsight, "I think I would change the way that we described [the Iranian] nuclear program." Here's the very first sentence of that immensely ballyhooed NIE, which was greeted rapturously by Iran and with horror in Israel when it was published in early December: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program." What McConnell is now saying amounts to the very opposite: Yes, runs the amended narrative, we think the Iranians may have halted what we narrowly, foolishly and misleadingly defined as their nuclear weapons program four years ago, we're not sure if they've restarted it, but the fact is that we led you all astray with our definition of that program in the first place. You see, the new line continues, weapon design and weaponization - those narrow aspects that might have been halted - really constitute the "least significant portion" of a nuclear weapons program. In retrospect, we should have relied on more than a footnote to make that clear. The "most difficult challenge" is actually "uranium enrichment [to] enable the production of fissile material," and, as we probably should have stressed more prominently, work on that is proceeding apace. Citing the "persistent threat of WMD-related proliferation," McConnell told the Committee that "Iran continues to pursue fissile material and nuclear-capable missile delivery systems." He then elaborated: "Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons. Iran continues its efforts to develop uranium enrichment technology, which can be used both for power reactor fuel and to produce nuclear weapons. And, as noted, Iran continues to deploy ballistic missiles inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and to develop longer-range missiles." Or, to put it another way: Whoops. We meant to say that Iran is closing in relentlessly on a nuclear weapons capability, but we didn't express ourselves very effectively, and wound up making you believe the reverse. Sorry. But we're fixing that now, so we're all back on the same page. No biggie, right? Wrong. Typifying the American media's top-of-the-news coverage of the original, incompetently phrased NIE, The New York Times splashed it across page one on December 4, complete with numerous substories and sidebars, under headlines hailing the "Major Reversal" in the Iran threat assessment and the likelihood that the "New Intelligence May Force a Reshaping of Bush's Policy." Typifying the American media's entirely indifferent coverage of McConnell's volte face last week, the Times did not so much as headline it at all - not on page one, and not on any other page, either. Rather, it buried what it called McConnell's belated "calibration" of the NIE's thrust, encapsulated in a few paragraphs, deep inside an article that headlined comments he made in the same Senate appearance about al-Qaida's improving ability to strike within the US. When the original, exculpatory NIE was published, Iran's would-be-Israel-eliminating President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed "victory," the international sanctions effort stalled, Russia began shipping fuel to the reactor it had built for the Iranians at Bushehr and Ahmadinejad's regime merrily intensified its declared centrifuge installations and operations at Natanz. Meanwhile, President Bush found himself accused by political rivals and other critics of having unwarrantably, even dishonestly, overhyped the threat posed by Iran. Some of the more hysterical voices went so far as to charge that his administration had been deliberately skewing the intelligence on Iran's nuclear drive to justify thrusting the United States into another unnecessary war. McConnell's barely noticed reversal has changed none of that. It has done nothing to dent Ahmadinejad's public confidence that nobody is going to stop the Iranian drive now, and nothing to suggest to Iran that it need halt what McConnell acknowledged last week was the range of dual-purpose activities that daily bring it ever-closer to a nuclear weapons capability. The admiral's climbdown has injected no new urgency, and no stronger teeth, into the weak and snail-paced UN-centered sanctions effort. It has prompted no rethink by Moscow about assisting Teheran's "peaceful" nuclear programs. And with this US administration now counting down its final months, his "recalibration" has restored no credibility to Bush's efforts to thwart Iran - credibility that was swept away when the shattering original NIE essentially removed his administration's military option. SOON AFTER the NIE was released, I happened to attend a seminar at the Hebrew University on "The Interface between Law, Intelligence and Terror." One of the scheduled speakers at a morning session had dropped out, and the last-minute replacement was Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, the former head of IDF Military Intelligence. Palpably furious over the NIE, Ze'evi-Farkash used the unexpected platform to deliver one of the most impassioned lectures I have ever witnessed - an overview of the Iranian nuclear program and its apocalyptic dangers, complete with caution-free explanations of how it was that Israel had come to obtain some of the intelligence on which it has based its dire predictions. Essentially, the NIE had undone much of Ze'evi-Farkash's professional work, and speaking from the gut with a fervor quite alien to the rarefied academic atmosphere, he took the opportunity to punch great big holes in its unjustifiably sanguine assessment. In contrast to the NIE's headline-making opening assertion, Ze'evi-Farkash said flatly, "The Iranian clandestine military program is continuing." Furthermore, he said bitterly, the NIE's "distinction between military and civilian programs is artificial," since the open, undisputed enrichment of uranium "is critical to both." As for the massive ongoing funding of Iran's missile program, he stressed, that could only bespeak the darkest of intentions, since "no other country would invest so many billions of dollars in surface-to-surface missile programs without nuclear military intentions." His furious conclusion: The NIE had done nothing short of clearing the path "for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions." WHEN I interviewed Quartet peace envoy Tony Blair last week, he suggested that the diplomatic effort to deter Iran's nuclear drive was now back "in balance" following McConnell's amended testimony. It is not. Precious months of potentially concerted international economic and diplomatic efforts to force Iran to change course have been lost. Critically, the entire momentum of sanctions has stalled. And all the time, Iran is closing in on its goal. If, as Ze'evi-Farkash is by no means the only observer to assert, the initial NIE was a function of the politicization of American intelligence, a report deliberately oriented to deprive Bush of the legitimacy for last-resort military intervention, it would appear to have achieved its goal. Indeed, whatever the motivation for that astonishing inarticulacy, the result has been the same: Iran off the hook, the US hamstrung, and Israel left to look after its existential interests with time running short and without so much as a supportive international climate. Iran, state sponsor of the late, unlamented Imad Mughniyeh, is moving serenely toward the bomb, directly threatening Israel, on the point of remaking not just the regional but the global balance of power, and potentially threatening all American and free-world interests. No biggie, Admiral McConnell.