January 14, 2008 Issue
Copyright © 2007 The American Conservative
No More Slam Dunks
A reality-based assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability
by Philip Giraldi
The bombshell National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program asserted with a “high degree of certainty” that Tehran had abandoned its nuclear weapons in 2003 due to international pressure and as part of a negotiated agreement with the Europeans. The report stated that even if Tehran were to restart its program, it would not have enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon until 2010 at the earliest.
The NIE is widely seen as a decisive blow to the neoconservatives and Bush administration hawks who have been advocating a preemptive attack on Iran, depriving them of their principal casus belli. They have counterattacked, claiming that the report is based on flawed information or even Iranian disinformation, that the CIA has a history of poor analysis of proliferation issues, and that a politicized intelligence community is out to get the White House and/or Israel.
The political landscape in Washington has not yet shifted dramatically. By demonstrating that Iran has acted as a rational player, the report gives advocates of negotiations without preconditions a stronger hand. Those who still seek war have already re-written their talking points. They argue that as Iranian intentions and plans remain suspect, Teheran must be denied any ability to enrich uranium. On Dec. 4, President Bush stated that the military option remains on the table, while warning seven times that Tehran might use “knowledge” of how to enrich uranium to secretly construct a bomb. Other administration spokesmen have insisted that Iran must be denied the engineering infrastructure to manage the nuclear fuel cycle, even for peaceful purposes. The White House has asserted that it still regards Iran as its major foreign-policy problem.
An alarmed Israel, where the report’s conclusions have been rejected by both politicians and media, is considering taking unilateral action against the principal Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz. If Israel were to attack Iran, it would need Washington’s help, and U.S. forces would almost certainly be involved in any Iranian retaliation.
The history of how the NIE was developed provides an effective rebuke to those attacking it. Since late 2006, the White House has been aware that the NIE would not confirm the existence of an Iranian weapons program. In January 2007, John Negroponte resigned as director of national intelligence because he backed his analysts and refused to order the rewriting of the key judgments that appeared in the NIE draft. Vice President Dick Cheney’s office subsequently demanded several revisions and numerous reviews of the source material. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell is loyal to the president, but, like Negroponte, was unwilling to alter the conclusions for the White House, and the administration eventually became resigned to a final report that it knew would contradict policy.
Contrary to administration claims, when conclusive new intelligence demonstrating that the Iranians had cancelled their weapons program became available in early summer 2007, the White House was informed. It is no coincidence that President Bush and his aides soon began to downplay Iranian nukes and started to emphasize “they’re killing our soldiers” to make its case against Tehran. In November, McConnell, under pressure from Congress to finish the NIE, agreed to White House demands that it be kept classified, but when the report was finally completed a month later, an unclassified summary was prepared because of concerns that inevitable leaks by Democrats in Congress would make it appear that the administration was again deceiving the American people.
The actual NIE process makes clear how impossible it would be to cook the books in order to damage the administration. Sixteen separate intelligence agencies contribute to the report and must concur on key judgments. In the case of the Iran NIE, every detail of evidence for the report’s conclusions was looked at repeatedly and from all angles. In the classified version, there are more than 1,500 footnotes describing the sources used. When the draft came to tentative conclusions, the findings were attacked by analysts acting as a “red team” to determine if there were flaws in the analysis or whether Iranian disinformation was being used to mislead CIA analysts. This process was repeated over and over again until everyone was satisfied with the results. A final no-holds-barred review took place in the White House in mid-November, attended by Bush, Cheney, Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice, and senior staff members, where objections to sourcing and conclusions were aired. No agenda-driven judgments could possibly survive the process.
The claim that the CIA has historically had trouble reporting accurately on proliferation is based on the 2002 and 2005 Iraq and Iran NIE’s. Reporting on Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and the A.Q. Khan network was also flawed. But the 2007 Iran NIE should be judged on its merits because intelligence is not a science but a process, based on the best assessment of available information.
After the fiasco of the Iraq NIE, the Agency took a hard look at what had gone wrong. It decided that there were three issues that produced bad analysis: poor information sources resulting in “garbage in, garbage out,” political pressure to make the intelligence match the policy, and “groupthink” where assumptions based on past intelligence shape the current analysis.
To address the poor information problem, the Agency launched a major operation against Iran designated the “Persian House,” involving 175 case officers and 35 analysts. It also aggressively went after traveling Iranian officials and businessmen in Europe and the Persian Gulf, most particularly in Dubai, where the Iranian government actively does business to avoid sanctions enforced elsewhere. The effort was successful and, combined with improved technical collection against Iran, provided a window into the Iranian nuclear program. Key information came from Ali Resa Asghari, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who was recruited in 2003 and jointly run by the CIA and the Turkish intelligence service, MIT. Before defecting in Istanbul in February, Asghari provided critical intelligence on the Iranian program as well as on Tehran’s defense communications, permitting the NSA and CIA to obtain still more information. The intelligence available to analysts on Iran improved dramatically.
Both the Iraq NIE and the 2005 NIE on Iran suffered from White House staffers, mostly neoconservatives from Vice President Cheney’s office, participating in the review process. To deal with the problem of such political pressure, Director of Central Intelligence Michael Hayden and DNI Mike McConnell isolated analysts from policymakers and also took steps to deal with the groupthink problem. In the 2002 Iraq NIE, the consensus view that Saddam Hussein must have weapons of mass destruction influenced analysis, but proved to be untrue. The Iran NIE was instead constructed from the ground up with every assumption being challenged. The critics of the NIE curiously engage in their own groupthink when they claim that the CIA’s record of failures in the past mean that it has likely failed again. This time, however, the CIA has gotten it right.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is a partner in Cannistraro Associates.