Official Washington and the chattering class are abuzz over the recently-declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which assesses that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program three years ago.
The latest NIE on Tehran's nuclear efforts--released only one day before a scheduled Presidential news conference--declares with "high confidence" that the Iranian weapons program remains on hold. The assessment also says with "high confidence" that the pause was "directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure."
As the International Herald-Tribune reports (from a NYT article):
The estimate does not say when American intelligence agencies learned that the weapons program had been halted, but a statement issued by Donald Kerr, the principal director of national intelligence, said the document was being made public "since our understanding of Iran's capabilities has changed."
Rather than painting Iran as a rogue, irrational nation determined to join the club of nations with the bomb, the estimate states that Iran's "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.
The latest assessment comes two years after the last NIE on Iran's nuclear ambitions, which stated that Tehran was working "inexorably" toward obtaining a nuclear bomb. And, the new intelligence estimate was released only weeks after President Bush and Vice-President Cheney warned of grave consequences if the Iranian government didn't abandon its weapons program.
So, why the stunning reversal?
The answer probably lies in a single name: General Ali Rez Asgari.
General Asgari is the former Deputy Iranian Defense Minister and Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander who defected to the west earlier this year. Asgari is the highest-ranking Iranian military defector in decades; it is widely believed that he has detailed knowledge of Tehran's most sensitive operations, including its sponsorship of Hizballah, and information on Iran's nuclear program.
While General Asgari retired from active duty several years ago, he remained a key player in military and political matters. At the time of his defection, Asgari was on an "official" trip to Syria, for discussions on matters of mutual interest, including upcoming weapons deliveries by Russia, and continued support for Hizballah.
But Asgari never made it to Damascus; he disappeared during a stopover in Turkey and was spirited out of the country by the CIA or the Mossad, with likely assistance from Ankara's intelligence services. In a colossal display of ineptitude, Iranian counter-intelligence officers missed signs of the planned defection. General Asgari sold his home in Tehran last year, and his family joined him on the Syria trip, allowing them to escape as well.
Since his defection, Asgari has reportedly been sheltered in CIA safe houses in the U.S., where he has undergone extensive debriefing. Information supplied by Asgari allowed American intel services to check their information against the defector's account. The (apparent) result is a vastly different picture of Iran's nuclear program than the one offered by the intelligence community just two years ago.
Indeed, the dramatic change in assessments could be viewed as another, damning indictment of our intel services. Reading between the lines of the 2005 and 2007 NIEs, it seems likely that the first estimate was based almost entirely on national technical collection. Information gathered by overhead platforms and other high-tech sensors suggested that Iran was actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
However, the earlier estimate apparently lacked an important detail--corroboration by human intelligence (HUMINT) sources--insiders who could "fill in the details" on the Iranian effort and its long-range goals. Sad to say, but the new estimate suggests that western intelligence never had a credible source at the highest levels of the Iranian government until Asgari defected (emphasis mine).
Information from the general's debriefs provided fresh data for U.S. analysts, allowing them to compare his information with that obtained from other sources. And, apparently, his information suggested that our intelligence services had missed the mark (again).
Officially, no one in the intelligence community has identified Asgari as the source for the "new" information that prompted the revised assessment. Mr. Kerr's claim that "our understanding has changed" is little more than tacit acknowledgment of new information--or, more correctly a new source with information that was previously unavailable and cannot be refuted (so far). General Asgari certainly fits the profile for that type of source.
If we assume that the defector provided much of the information behind the new assessment, that will raise inevitable questions about his veracity--and the possibility that Asgari is some sort of double-agent. In fairness, we should note that intel agencies (principally, the CIA) work very hard at establishing the reliability of defectors and their information. At a minimum, Asgari would have been subjected to multiple polygraphs and a series of exhaustive debriefings that covered key points over and over again. So far, Asgari's accounts seem to be standing up to scrutiny.
But even Asgari's cross-checked claims might not be enough to prompt that a major reversal of an NIE. That's why we believe that the general brought much more out of Iran than his personal recollections and memories. In his posts as IRGC Commander and Deputy Defense Minister, Asgari was in a position to access classified information on Iranian programs and policies across the political-military spectrum. We're guessing that scores of letters, e-mails, memoranda, spreadsheets and other documents were saved by Asgari, and have been turned over to the CIA. Analysis of that material, coupled with the general's own personal account, was enough to force a change in the NIE.
While the assessment casts a different light on Tehran's nuclear ambitions, it does not give Iran a clean bill of health. The report notes that Iran is still enriching uranium, and could still develop a bomb between 2010-2015, if it so chooses. Also disturbing--at least from the intelligence perspective--we still don't know all the reasons behind Iran's apparent decision to freeze its program, or what might trigger its resumption. That reminds us that there are limits to any source's knowledge, and once they defect, the information becomes dated.
Bottom line: there are still serious gaps in what we know about Iran's nuclear program. According to the AP, the CIA (which leads development of most NIEs) considered at least six alternatives to explain the freeze, including the possibility that the halt is nothing more than a ruse. Some of the other scenarios may have included an "outsourcing" of Tehran's weapons program (a claim that is partially supported by Israel's discovery--and bombing of a nuclear facility in Syria), and the possibility that Iran planned to buy finished weapons from another source, perhaps North Korea.
While some Congressional Democrats praised the "independence" of the new NIE, the report is also evidence of the continuing war between the CIA and the White House. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney were briefed on the new assessment (and its conclusions) last week, but interim reports on the Asgari debriefing were available for months--almost from the day he defected. It would be interesting to know how much of this information (if any) was included in the daily intelligence briefings for the President and Vice-President, given their frequent comments on Iran's nuclear program.
If President Bush and Vice-President Cheney ignored early "warnings" from Asgari's debriefings, shame on them. But, given the long-running hostilities between the CIA and the White House, it is possible that much of the data from the debrief and the NIE formulation process was suppressed until the assessment was complete.
How could that happen? It's quite simple, really. Bury the defector reports in routine HUMINT reporting, or simply withhold the biggest "bombshells" for the NIE. Remember: the intel community is responsible for determining what is briefed to the president and members of his senior staff. By sitting on information (as part of the NIE preparation process), or parceling out information in normal HUMINT reporting, anti-Bush factions in various intel agencies could pull another "gotcha" on the Commander-in-Chief, forcing him to rely on the 2005 NIE as the basis for his remarks on Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Mr. Bush is expected to field a lot of questions on the intel assessment at today's news conference. The MSM won't pose these queries, but they should be asked, nonetheless:
--"Mr. President, when were you first briefed on General Asgari, and how many updates have you received since his defection?
--"In updates provided on the defection, were you ever briefed on new information regarding Iran's nuclear program? When did you first receive that information?
--"Considering the disparity between your remarks on Iran's nuclear ambitions--and the information in the NIE--do you believe the intelligence community withheld information from the White House, or downplayed the significance of recently-acquired information?
The answers to those questions would probably confirm our worst suspicions--relations between the administration and the CIA are as bad as ever, and unlikely to change until the next president takes office.
And, for what it's worth, we would not want to be in General Hayden or Admiral McConnell's shoes this morning.