The Pentagon submitted a report to Congress containing the claim that Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.

Ah, the dreaded could.

Section 1245 of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Defense to submit a report to Congress on Iran’s military power, similar to the annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China.

The report is rather plain — here is the full text. The report looks rather more like the initial editions of Chinese Military Power in 1998 and 1999, before CMP evolved into the giant full-color extravaganza that evokes the old Soviet Military Power in its heyday.

Phil Stewart and Adam Entous of Reuters noticed this sentence stating that Iran could develop an ICBM by 2015 and made it there lede:

With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.

As you know, once a wire service spots a lede, the pack follows.

Unfortunately, this is just intelligence community boilerplate — the same sentence has appeared in every edition of Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat: 2009, 2006, 2003 and 2000. Seriously, you can look it up.

At least these two reporters attempted to ask the right question: Is this different from the May 2009 NIE that U.S. officials told Entous “deemed Tehran unlikely to have a long-range missile until between 2015 and 2020.” (The May 2009 NIE was the same one SECDEF described cited in defense of the phased adaptive approach to missile defense in Europe.)

Good question. Are the two estimates — “could by 2015” “unlikely before 2015” — consistent?

As it turns out, yes!

In the modern area of estimative language and politicized intelligence, the two estimates are perfectly consistent with one another. The word “could,” thanks to the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission, is estimatese (or estimative language) for “not likely.”

Here is how the intelligence community explained their novel use of “could” in Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat:

Our assessments of future missile developments are inexact and subjective because they are based on often fragmentary information. Many countries surround their ballistic missile programs with extensive secrecy and compartmentalization, and some employ deception. Although such key milestones as flight-testing are difficult to hide, we may miss others. To address these uncertainties, we assess both the earliest date that countries could test various missiles, based largely on engineering judgments made by experts inside and outside the Intelligence Community, on the technical capabilities and resources of the countries in question, and, in many cases, on continuing foreign assistance; and when countries would be likely to test such missiles, factoring into the above assessments potential delays caused by technical, political, or economic hurdles. We judge that countries are much less likely to test as early as the hypothetical “could” dates than they are by our projected “likely” dates.

How f’ed up is that?

As a result, every estimate has two sub-estimates: The real one (likely) and the one for missile defense advocates (could). Guess which one headline writers like?

You can’t really blame analysts — missile defense advocates worked them over quite bit in the 1990s to secure precisely this outcome. Still, I think analysts should try this abomination out on their bosses at work:

Do you think you could finish that long overdue draft of the NIE by the end of next week?

I judge that I could.

[Three weeks later]

I thought you said you could finish the draft of the NIE by the end of last week? We’ve had to cancel some meetings already.

Yes, well, that assumed that no significant political, technical or economic delays. As you know, “could complete” dates are substantially earlier than “likely to complete” dates.

One more thing, Mike Emmanuel of FOX News — I know, I know, I know — claimed the estimate is “buried” in the report. On the contrary, the report contains a full section on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. That section comes at the end, but simply because the report follows the structure established by Congress. So if anyone “buried” the claim, it was Representative McKeon and Senator Brownback, who pressed for the study. Somehow, I sense that burying the estimate was not their intent.

So, the bottom line is that there is not, as far as I can tell, a new estimate.