Diving Deep, Unearthing a Surprise
How a Search for Iran's Nuclear Arms Program Turned Up an Unexpected Conclusion
By Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 8, 2007; A09
They call them "deep dives," special briefings for President Bush to meet with not just his advisers but also the analysts who study Iran in the bowels of the intelligence world. Starting last year, aides arranged a series of sessions for Bush to "get his hands dirty," in the White House vernacular for digging into intelligence to understand what is known and not known.
Preparing for what might be the defining foreign policy challenge of his final years in office, Bush was struck by the limited intelligence on Tehran's nuclear program and pressed for more, said officials familiar with the sessions. But if Bush hoped for solid evidence that Iran was trying to build nuclear bombs, what came back proved more surprising -- Iran did have a nuclear weapons program but shut it down four years ago.
The new report on Iran released this week underscored the fluid nature of U.S. intelligence and its uncomfortable marriage with the nation's foreign policy. Five years after the botched assessment of Iraq's weapons programs, the new information posed profound challenges to the Bush administration: How could officials be sure it was right this time? What would it mean for Bush's policy of international confrontation with Tehran? And should it be revealed to Congress, U.S. allies and the public at large?
While deeply sensitive to any suggestion of improperly influencing intelligence, White House officials were initially skeptical of the new data. "You want to make sure it's not disinformation," Bush said at a news conference. The intelligence agencies created a special "red team" of analysts who set out to determine whether the information could be fake. They concluded it was not.
As they digested the new findings, Bush and his aides chose to focus on the part that confirmed their suspicions -- that Iran previously had a secret weapons program and might still restart it. In their discussions at the White House, officials said, no one suggested Bush tone down his public rhetoric or change his policy.
Still, they understood the sensitivity of the new conclusions. At first, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, decided to keep the new findings secret, but reluctantly reversed course in a flurry of discussions last weekend out of fear of leaks and charges of a coverup, officials said. At that point, only the Israelis had gotten a heads-up. Congress, European allies and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency were not given full briefings about the report until hours before it was released.
That irritated European allies. "The administration is going to pay a price for not allowing allies in on it at an earlier date," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department nonproliferation official. "The French had carried the administration's water on this issue and really went out on a limb to get the European Union to adopt tough sanctions. And now the rug has been pulled out from under them."
The origin of the latest intelligence can be traced to the summer of 2004, when an Iranian man turned up in Turkey with a laptop computer and the phone number of a German intelligence officer. He called the number, and within 24 hours, analysts at CIA headquarters in Langley were poring over thousands of pages of drawings and information stored on the computer indicating that Iran had been trying to retrofit its longest-range missile, the Shahab III, to carry a nuclear payload. It was designated Project 1-11 and seemed to confirm a nuclear weapons program.
The information retrieved from the laptop formed the backbone of a National Intelligence Estimate issued in 2005 that declared "with high confidence" that Iran was working to build a bomb. Armed with that, the Bush administration spent the past two years pressing European allies, Russia and China to sanction Iran if it did not give up its uranium enrichment program, despite Tehran's insistence that it was only for civilian energy.
With tension rising, Congress asked last year for a new NIE. Bush was pushing for more information as well during his deep-dive sessions. "We've got to get more information on Iran so we know what they're up to," one official paraphrased Bush saying.
As analysts scrambled to finish by April, they were reaching the conclusion that Iran was still a decade away from nuclear weapons, senior intelligence and administration officials said. For three years, the intelligence community had not obtained new information on Project 1-11, vexing administration officials who worried that a cold trail would lead to doubts about the reliability of the laptop's information. "They just wouldn't budge," complained one such official, who declined to be identified to speak candidly.
By June, analysts had an almost complete draft of a new NIE, and it provoked a sharp debate. "The less data you have, the more you argue," said a source familiar with the discussions. Some officials pressed the CIA's Iran desk to follow up on Project 1-11. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and National Security Agency Director Keith B. Alexander responded by directing vast manpower and technology toward spying on Iranians who may have been involved in the warhead effort.
With Bush pressing for more information, the intelligence community finally came up with something new -- a series of communications intercepts, including snippets of conversations between key Iranian officials, one of them a military officer whose name appeared on the laptop. Two sources said the Iranians complained that the nuclear weapons program had been shuttered four years earlier and argued about whether it would ever be restarted.
There had been clues for those willing to see them. For one thing, the laptop contained no new drawings on its hard drive after February 2003, said officials familiar with it. And during a dinner in Tehran with visiting American experts in 2005, Iranian leaders Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rowhani flatly declared that the country's nuclear weapons research had been halted because Iran felt it did not need the actual bombs, only the ability to show the world it could.
"Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the [nuclear] fuel cycle, we don't need anything else," Rafsanjani said at the dinner, according to George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions."
The evolving NIE bore the imprint of McConnell and his deputies, Thomas Fingar and Donald M. Kerr, friends with decades of national security experience. Fingar in 2005 began changing how information was gathered, filtered and analyzed, and McConnell formalized the new rules after becoming director of national intelligence in February. "He quickly got the mantra down: 'We must make a clear distinction between what we know and don't know and what we judge to be the case,' " said an official present at the time.
As a result, the internal debate over the meaning of the new Iran intelligence was intense and often contentious, with different agencies and individuals clashing over everything from the fine points to the broad conclusions, participants said.
McConnell told Bush about the new information in August during a daily intelligence briefing, but did not provide much detail or anything on paper, White House officials said. Bush periodically asked McConnell for updates. "The president and his advisers were regularly and continuously appraised on new information as we acquired it," an intelligence official said.
Officials also informed House intelligence committee members and key Senate intelligence committee staff members in September, although they were circumspect. "They said, 'We've got new information. We want to make sure we get this thing as close to right as possible,' " said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the House panel's senior Republican.
One intelligence official said Bush's team expressed concern that the intercepts might be disinformation, so analysts tested that thesis. "They tried to figure out what exactly it would take to perpetrate that kind of deception, how many people would be involved, how they would go about doing it, when it would have been set up and so forth," the official said. Analysts "scrubbed and rescrubbed" more than 1,000 pieces of evidence but concluded Iran's program really had been shut down.
A new draft NIE was prepared in September that was radically different from the June version. As part of the testing process, Hayden and his deputy, Stephen Kappes, convened a murder board of sorts, grilling analysts about their data and conclusions. They "had them in a room and it was kind of 'show me,' " one official said. "And they were a skeptical audience." A similar session was conducted in front of Fingar in late October or early November.
By mid-November, the agencies were ready to deliver their conclusions to the White House. Intelligence officials gave a preliminary briefing Nov. 15 in the Situation Room to Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and other senior officials.
The process was climaxing just as Bush was convening a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, a meeting designed at least in part to rally the region against Iran. No one told participants about the new information, but on the same day they were gathering in Annapolis on Nov. 27, the National Intelligence Board met to finalize the new NIE. McConnell and others briefed Bush and Cheney the next day. Even though intelligence officials planned to keep it from the public, Bush later that day passed it on to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Cheney told Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
By last weekend, an intense discussion broke out about whether to keep it secret. "We knew it would leak, so honesty required that we get this out ahead, to prevent it from appearing to be cherry picking," said a top intelligence official. So McConnell reversed himself, and analysts scrambled over the weekend to draft a declassified version.
On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, which have been negotiating a new set of sanctions against Iran. Foreign officials groused about how it was handled. Had they known before the summit, a senior Israeli official said, "I'm not sure we would have shown up."
Among those Kerr called that morning was Hoekstra. He was exasperated at the turnaround and not at all persuaded. To him, it was another example of the tenuous nature of intelligence. "This is not about I don't like the conclusion," he said. "We didn't know enough in 2005, and we don't know enough today."
Staff writers Walter Pincus, Joby Warrick and Robin Wright contributed to this report.