According to a front-page story by James Risen in The New York Times, those crazy mullahs in Iran have U.S. intelligence agencies dumbfounded:
WASHINGTON — While American spy agencies have believed that the Iranians halted efforts to build a nuclear bomb back in 2003, the difficulty in assessing the government’s ambitions was evident two years ago, when what appeared to be alarming new intelligence emerged, according to current and former United States officials.
Intercepted communications of Iranian officials discussing their nuclear program raised concerns that the country’s leaders had decided to revive efforts to develop a weapon, intelligence officials said.
That, along with a stream of other information, set off an intensive review and delayed publication of the 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified report reflecting the consensus of analysts from 16 agencies. But in the end, they deemed the intercepts and other evidence unpersuasive, and they stuck to their longstanding conclusion.
We have an authoritarian regime in Iran that has repeatedly attacked the United States and its allies over the last 30 years. They have invested billions of petro dollars (at the expense of their shaky economy and massive public unrest) in order to build elaborate, underground facilities with state of the art centrifuges to enrich uranium. They are known to have consulted with A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist key to the Pakistani Bomb. They are known to have consulted with North Korea on nuclear weapons including, according to one recent article, the testing of a uranium nuclear device in North Korea. Their attempts to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear payloads was recently exposed when the testing facility suffered enormous explosions. The Regime leadership regularly threatens to obliterate Israel.
And yet the collected wisdom of U.S. intelligence agencies, according to Mr. Risen, remains unchanged from the controversial 2007 N.I.E. that concluded that Iran had stopped pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003. They found the evidence of Iranian intentions “unpersuasive.”
How can this be? And bear in mind that the N.I.E. believes that the Iranians have still not re-started their nuclear program. Let that sink in. Our intelligence agencies best information leads them to believe that the Iranians have had their nuclear weapons program on hold for almost 10 years now.
What has our intel services so stymied?
The picture emerging from Risen’s article is incredibly troublesome. To hear Risen tell it, the U.S. lacks any meaningful human intelligence sources inside of Iran and relies, instead, upon signals intelligence– intercepted telephone calls and emails, recon photos and sensitive detection devices. Israel, we are told, has human intelligence sources in Iran, but the U.S. agencies give them little credence, seemingly afraid of the shadows of Iraq intelligence failures.
Worse, U.S. agencies cannot seem to figure out the complex structure and hierarchy of Iranian leadership:
“In large part, that’s because their system is so confusing,” he said, which “has the effect of making it difficult to determine who speaks authoritatively on what.”
And, he added, “We’re not on the ground, and not having our people on the ground to catch nuance is a problem.”
This is a systemic failure in so many respects that it defies belief. It almost seems like a farce at times.
Consider the apparent basis for concluding in 2007 that Iran had stopped their nuke program:
Just as in 2010, new evidence about the Iranian nuclear program delayed the National Intelligence Estimate in 2007, the last previous assessment. Current and former American officials say that a draft version of the assessment had been completed when the United States began to collect surprising intelligence suggesting that Iran had suspended its weapons program and disbanded its weapons team four years earlier.
The draft version had concluded that the Iranians were still trying to build a bomb, the same finding of a 2005 assessment. But as they scrutinized the new intelligence from several sources, including intercepted communications in which Iranian officials were heard complaining to one another about stopping the program, the American intelligence officials decided they had to change course, officials said. While enrichment activities continued, the evidence that Iran had halted its weapons program in 2003 at the direction of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was too strong to ignore, they said.
One former senior official characterized the information as very persuasive. “I had high confidence in it,” he said. “There was tremendous evidence that the program had been halted.”
Is this a joke? “Intercepted communications in which Iranian officials were heard complaining… about stopping the program” ? And other, apparent evidence that Khamenei directed that the program be halted? I am obviously not a professional intelligence analyst but if all the physical evidence (enrichment, secret, underground facilities, contacts with nuclear rogue states) points to a burgeoning nuclear weapons program and there are intercepted communications saying the program has stopped, I am going to believe the physical evidence and dismiss the intercepts as so much misinformation.
Can it really be so easy to deceive U.S. intelligence? Apparently so.
One final note. Risen claims that Israeli intelligence mainly agrees with the U.S. assessment. I do not buy this for one moment. Not a single Israeli source is cited in the article (and on the whole, the article relies upon unnamed and anonymous sources). We have hearsay from an unnamed source that Israel’s Mossad is on board with the U.S. view. This runs so contrary to every report being published that it should not be trusted unless and until a source is named.
It is, of course, quite possible that the NYT article is a planted piece by the Obama Administration to take some of the pressure off of Obama to take any decisive action on Iran as well as further undercut any building consensus in Israel to take action on its own. It is even possible that the intelligence agency chiefs are willing participants in an effort by the Administration to undersell and downplay the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Either way, it stinks and this moment should be marked down as yet another step in the path to a very violent and rude awakening.