Another critique of the NIE, this time from terrorism analyst Thomas Joscelyn. The question must be asked- Why would the Intelligence Community do such an about-face on a country they have admitted they do not know enough about and exaggerate the difference between civilian and military nuclear programs? Joscelyn suggests some answers.
Five Reasons To Doubt The Claim Iran Has Shuttered Nuke Program
BY THOMAS JOSCELYN
The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), comprising the nation’s top 16 intelligence agencies, dropped a bombshell last week. After years of saying they were convinced Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, America’s spooks made an abrupt about-face.
In nine pages of declassified “Key Judgments” from a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the IC now says it has “high confidence” Iran ceased its covert nuclear weapons program in 2003. And they have “moderate confidence” – that is, somewhat less – the mullahs haven’t restarted it since.
We should be skeptical of the IC’s claims.
One need not be a student of intelligence matters to know that high-profile intelligence failures have been far too frequent. From al-Qaida’s surprise attack on Sept. 11, 2001, to the flawed intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the IC has consistently been blind to our enemies. There is little reason, therefore, for us to place our blind faith in the IC.
Indeed, there are at least five reasons to question the IC’s latest findings.
1. The NIE’s authors draw a false distinction between Iran’s civilian and military nuclear efforts.
The IC readily admits Iran is overtly enriching uranium, but claims the mullahs have halted their covert effort to weaponize it. On its face this claim is dubious. The first, and most difficult, step to building the bomb is uranium enrichment. There is little reason to believe oil-rich Iran’s enrichment efforts are part of a peaceful energy program.
And even if the Iranians were enriching uranium for a civilian reactor now, they could quickly and easily tweak their enrichment efforts for military purposes.
So, as long as Iran continues its effort to master the fuel cycle, we can be sure the nation is inching closer to the day when it will have a nuclear arsenal.
Iran is also ostensibly developing the types of missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. For years, Iran has been improving its medium- to long-range missile capability. The mullahs proudly parade their Shahab missile line and its successors, which are designed to deliver unconventional warheads, through Tehran regularly.
Thus, there is no dispute that Iran is openly working on two (enrichment and delivery capability) of the three steps needed to build the bomb. The world witnesses this work with its own eyes, and has no need for the IC’s help. In its latest NIE, however, the IC focuses mainly on Iran’s clandestine work towards the middle step (weaponization of uranium). The effect is to shift the debate from what Iran is doing openly to what it is supposedly doing covertly.
2. Based on its lackluster track record, there is no reason to think the IC has good intelligence on Iran’s covert activities.
In spook speak, Iran is known as a “hard target,” meaning it is exceedingly difficult to procure intelligence inside the country. The U.S. has not had any official diplomatic presence, such as an embassy, inside the country for decades. But most of the CIA’s spying has been run out of diplomatic facilities, in which the agency’s spies are embedded under official cover.
Since the first days of the Iranian revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s “students” seized our embassy in Tehran and held U.S. diplomats (among their ranks were CIA implants) hostage for 444 days, America has had no diplomatic base from which to launch its espionage operations.
Today, the old American embassy in Tehran is used to honor and recruit suicide terrorists. (This says much about the Iranian regime’s notion of diplomacy.)
Despite not having a formal diplomatic presence, the CIA apparently did have a spy network inside Iran. But according to the New York Times, that network was lost due to bureaucratic bungling long ago.
In “Legacy of Ashes,” Tim Weiner explains that as of 1989 the CIA “maintained a network of more than 40 Iranian agents, including midlevel military officers.” The Iranians shut down the network, however, when “a CIA clerk mailed letters to all of the agents, all at the same time, all from the same mailbox, all in the same handwriting, all to the same address.” This yielded a predictable result: “Every one of the CIA’s Iranian spies was imprisoned, and many were executed for treason.”
The CIA managed to reconstitute a human spy network inside Iran after this fiasco, but that too was lost. According to James Risen, Weiner’s colleague at the Times, a well-intending CIA agent inadvertently e-mailed a list of all of the CIA’s spies inside Iran to a double agent, who was merely posing as our ally, in 2004.
Risen explains in his book, “State of War,” that “several of the Iranian agents were arrested and jailed,” and we do not know what happened to others. “It left the CIA virtually blind in Iran,” Risen explains, and “unable to provide any significant intelligence on one of the most critical issues facing the United States – whether Tehran was about to go nuclear.”
One need not take Risen’s or Weiner’s accounts, with all of their fantastic details, at face value. There is abundant evidence that they are right and the U.S. has few, if any, valuable spies inside Iran.
In 2005, for example, the Robb-Silberman Commission, which investigated what the IC knew about WMD programs around the world, found: “Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world’s most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or 10 years ago.”
There is little reason to believe the IC’s collection efforts have dramatically improved since the commission’s report. In an interview last week, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the leading Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, made this point clear. The IC “doesn’t have the intelligence that from my perspective” allows it “to make definitive assessments” on Iran’s nuclear program, Hoekstra said.
Moreover, Hoekstra pointed to the IC’s ongoing intelligence failures, including the fact that it “still hasn’t built a Human Intelligence” capability, as a reason to doubt the veracity of the NIE.
Without human spies burrowed deep inside Iran’s nuclear program, it is difficult to believe the IC could have “high confidence” in any of its assessments. This is especially true since Iran has successfully deceived the world for decades.
Iran’s nuclear program has roots inside Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s network. It is true that the IC infiltrated Khan’s network beginning in the late 1990s, leading to the proliferation network’s demise. But at that point he and his associates had been selling nuclear technology around the world for years. Iran disguised its purchases so well that there are open questions about the full scope of the transactions to this day.
3. The new NIE is an astonishing departure from the IC’s previous assessments.
In 2005, the IC released its previous NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. Then it had “high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.” As recently as July, the DNI’s deputy director of analysis, Thomas Fingar, reiterated this assessment in testimony before Congress.
Anonymous intelligence officials have told the media that new intelligence led to this about-face. But, at a minimum, this sudden change does not inspire confidence in the IC’s ability to get this story right.
Rep. Hoekstra also doubts the IC is on firm footing. “I haven’t seen much out of the Intelligence Community that leads me to believe they have made a quantum leap in their understanding of Iran’s nuclear program” since 2005, he said last week.
4. While it is not at all clear what new intelligence was used to justify the IC’s flip-flop, the details given in press accounts raise a host of troubling questions.
We can only speculate as to the intelligence included in the full NIE, which has not been released. But after the release of the NIE’s “Key Judgments,” anonymous intelligence officials quoted by the New York Times, the Washington Post and other media organizations offered several explanations for the change in their opinion.
Electronic intercepts of communications between senior Iranian officials and a hodgepodge of other intelligence was cited. But, if accounts in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Times are right, then it seems the IC has pegged much of its analysis on the word of Iranian defectors. To make up for its inadequate human intelligence sources on the ground inside Iran, the IC reportedly went about enticing senior Iranian officials to defect in recent years.
Ali-Reza Asgari, a longtime general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is rumored to be one such defector. For decades, Asgari was charged with running terrorist operations and training new cadres of Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed terrorists. The details surrounding his purported abandonment of the Iranian cause remain murky, but it is known that Asgari suddenly defected to the West in early 2007.
If the IC is relying on witnesses such as Asgari to fill in the blanks in its intelligence, we should be worried. The Iranians could very well have caught wind of our effort to recruit defectors and sent agents of disinformation our way. The IC supposedly probed this possibility, but without established, bona fide spies inside Iran there is no way to conclusively establish whether Asgari, or any other defector, is lying. It is very difficult to properly vet any Iranian defector’s story.
5. Finally, we cannot discount the possibility of politicization.
NIEs are the product of widespread consensus within the IC. Multiple agencies, with dozens of analysts, have to sign off any new NIE. Some would point to this as a reason to doubt that an NIE can be politicized.
But we should remember that the IC feels badly burned by the Iraq war, which was justified, in part, on the basis of its sparse intel on Saddam’s WMD programs. This could be reason enough for many analysts, fearful their work could be used to justify an unpopular strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, to accept shaky intelligence indicating Iran had abandoned its efforts to develop WMD.
Moreover, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun have raised legitimate questions about the three intelligence officials who were principally responsible for crafting the NIE. The Journal cited an intelligence source who described the three men as “hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials.” If true, then we need to know what role these three individuals had in writing the NIE as well as the “Key Judgments” published for public consumption.
Make no mistake, it would be great news if Iran truly gave up its designs on a nuclear weapon. But no one should take the IC’s word for it.