Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Iran nuclear intelligence mess

The USA National Intelligence Estimate on Iran is truly a masterpiece of doubletalk. About 70% of it is devoted to explaining what the US intelligence service is and explaining the difference between "high probability" and "very likely" and other such terms.
There are two "bottom lines" to the document, only one of which is given below.
1- The US estimates that Iran probably could not build a nuclear weapon for another 5 to 10 years, as outlined below.
2- The US believes that though Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program until 2003, it stopped doing so at the time and has never resumed the program. This is the important news, which is not really discussed below.
What it might or might not mean is anyone's guess. The document itself is essentially bumph, but it is based on thousands of bits of intelligence intercepts, including a conversation in which an Iranian officer complains that work as stopped on the nuclear program.
The intelligence estimate, like all such estimates, is characterized by totally opaque prose. For example:

Judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. Judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (DOE and the NIC have moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)

What could be the difference between "halted its nuclear weapons program" and halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program??" Is the halt ongoing or not? Maybe:
Judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years.
And what if the intelligence intercepts were plants?
Why then, was the document released now, of all times, when the US is trying to corral support for sanctions against Iran? Is it because the CIA disagrees with the administration and wants to embarrass it? Is that a way to run a government?
Ami Isseroff
Last update - 16:32 04/12/2007    
 ANALYSIS: Iran laughing at U.S. lack of nuclear intelligence 
By Amir Oren, Haaretz Correspondent 

The noise that was heard last night in Tehran, according to credible reports, was a hearty Persian laugh after looking at the U.S. intelligence service's website. The unclassified document that Director of National Intelligence, Adm. Mike McConnell published, titled "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," as a laundered version that faithfully represents the greatest secrets collected by the CIA and the other U.S. intelligence services, can appropriately be called "much evaluation on no intelligence."
The document's eight pages, which include embarrassing instructions on how to differentiate between different yet related terms ("it is possible," "it may be so," "one must not remove from the equation," and "it's reasonable to assume"), enable the Ayatollas' nuclear and operations officials and the heads of the Revolutionary Guards to reach this soothing conclusion - from their point of view: The Americans have no understanding of what is really happening in Iran's nuclear program. They have no solid information, they have no high-level agents and they have nothing more than a mix of guesswork and chatter. The dissemblance and concealment have succeeded, and the real dispute is not between Washington and Tehran, but within the U.S. administration itself.
Only five weeks ago, McConnell announced that as a rule, he doesn?t believe in the release of such documents. He regretted the publication of the principles of the intelligence evaluation on Iraq.
McConnel kept quiet on Monday. Donald Kerr, his deputy, was enlisted to explain why the Iran assessment followed in Iraq's footsteps. The essence of his explanation: The worst-case evaluation which has been repeatedly published since 2005 has changed, and it is important to clarify its "proper presentation." He means to say that if the politicians, President George W. Bush and Deputy President Richard Cheney, insist on leading their country into a war with Iran, this is their democratic right - on the assumption they receive Congressional support - but they shouldn't delude themselves that they can do this on the back of the CIA's investigative officers. Iraq won't repeat itself.
On one level, this is a philosophical debate: How should the lack of "indicative signs" be interpreted, in the face of a devious enemy, a certified cheat who is determined in his pursuit of the goal (also according to the intelligence assessors). The suspicious Bush and Cheney believe the absence of evidence is in fact evidence of the existence of an additional, hidden channel of nuclear development. Their intelligence services say that without proof there is no place for such an evaluation.
Responsibility is different for each rank. Intelligence is responsible for making assessments on facts collected, and the diplomats are responsible for preventing a failure at the two extremes: Not in making an over-estimation such as with Iraq (a result of former President Saddam Hussein's deception) and not in making an under-assessment such as with Al-Qaida before September 11, 2001. It is possible to say, using an Israeli parallel, like July 11, 2006, when the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence did not know - or did not understand what it had heard - that Hezbollah would execute a kidnapping operation on the following day.
On a second level, the debate is a professional one: How does one evaluate developments in the nuclear field, when there are no actual objects which can be felt (missiles or bombs, for example), and before tests have been conducted. It is possible to weigh from a distance the kilograms of uranium which have been made in centrifuges, and to count how much of them have been hidden or enriched; but the great mystery is the degree of success achieved by the "weapons group," the teams of experts attempting to make the material explosive.
Behind the heap of words, presented as "a low or medium level of certainty," the differences between the worst-case and the best-case views on when Iran will be capable of producing a nuclear weapon are not that great. These range from somewhere between 2009 and the following five years, starting in 2010. Even McConnell's intelligence officers agree that Iran can buy nukes off the shelf - from Syria, North Korea and maybe Pakistan - and that the renewal of the program, if it is indeed on a coffee break, depends only on the intentions of the rulers, and those intentions will change only when the rulers are replaced.
The CIA is so angry with Bush, it seems, that it is ready to go to great lengths in order to help another president. Not Ahmadinejad, God forbid, but the next president in Washington. The result is likely to be the opposite: Higher Iranian militancy along with Bush and Cheney's determination to act - regardless of what the intelligence agencies say.

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