Reviewing the rather startling conclusions from the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear program, we suggested it might be appropriate for other analysts to look at the same information and offer their assessment. You may recall that the CIA tried that approach with their "Team B" in the 1970s, an effort that was criticized for over-hyping the threat. Never mind that Team B had it successes, most notably on the critically important issue of Soviet ICBM accuracy. Because the team challenged the analysis of so-called "intelligence professionals," it became an object of scorn, even ridicule within the community.
For another look at recent information on Iran's nuclear program, it may not be necessary to convene a latter-day version of Team B. According to the U.K. Telegraph, British spooks have reviewed portions of the NIE, and don't support the claim that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003. As the paper reports:
British spy chiefs have grave doubts that Iran has mothballed its nuclear weapons programme, as a US intelligence report claimed last week, and believe the CIA has been hoodwinked by Tehran.
The security services in London want concrete evidence to allay concerns that the Islamic state has fed disinformation to the CIA.
The report used new evidence - including human sources, wireless intercepts and evidence from an Iranian defector - to conclude that Tehran suspended the bomb-making side of its nuclear programme in 2003. But British intelligence is concerned that US spy chiefs were so determined to avoid giving President Bush a reason to go to war - as their reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes did in Iraq - that they got it wrong this time.
A senior British official delivered a withering assessment of US intelligence-gathering abilities in the Middle East and revealed that British spies shared the concerns of Israeli defence chiefs that Iran was still pursuing nuclear weapons.
The source said British analysts believed that Iranian nuclear staff, knowing their phones were tapped, deliberately gave misinformation. "We are sceptical. We want to know what the basis of it is, where did it come from? Was it on the basis of the defector? Was it on the basis of the intercept material? They say things on the phone because they know we are up on the phones. They say black is white. They will say anything to throw us off.
"It's not as if the American intelligence agencies are regarded as brilliant performers in that region. They got badly burned over Iraq."
While the "pros" at Langley will dismiss the criticism as "second-guessing" from a few hardliners in the British intelligence services, we believe the British critique is valid, for several reasons.
First, U.S. and U.K. intel agencies have an extremely close working (read: information sharing) relationship, particularly in the fields of imagery and signals intelligence. American intel organizations share more data with the Brits than any other foreign partner, and rely on the U.K for expertise and analysis on certain "accounts," including Iran. For analysts on both sides of the Atlantic, evidence of this relationship is only a mouse click away; American spooks can readily access British intelligence reporting on INTELINK, the intel community's classified intranet, and U.K. systems provide similar access to a wide range of U.S. assessments.
Obviously, the U.S. doesn't share everything with Britain (just as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ don't provide their total "haul" to American spy agencies). But the U.S.-British intel relationship is both extensive and expansive. Bottom line: British analysts had access to vast majority of data used in formulating the recent NIE, but doubt its key judgments.
Secondly, the Brits recognize the potential impact of Iranian deception efforts on allied intel collection and reporting. Though Tehran is often judged less proficient in denial and deception than say, Russia or China, the Iranians have demonstrated an ability to carry out elaborate deception schemes in the past. During the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran used a variety of information sources, ranging from mosque sermons to phony radio nets, to convince Saddam Hussein that a pending offensive would be aimed toward Baghdad. When the came in the south, at Khorramshahr, the Iraqis were completely surprised, and their defenses almost collapsed.
Could the U.S. be as easily fooled? That depends on a variety of factors, including execution of the potential deception effort, the amount of resources devoted to the campaign and our own willingness to accept what the Iranians are offering. Put another way: we are not immune to deception, as illustrated by various intelligence failures over the past 70 years. Tehran is well aware of that fact. It would be quite interesting to know what the NIE says--in detail--about the possibility that Iran's nuclear "pause" is nothing more than a strategic deception campaign.
Finally, the Brits aren't alone in the skepticism. Israeli intelligence, which, presumably, has access to similar information (and its own sources in Iran) believes that Iran's nuclear program remains active. Admittedly, Tel Aviv doesn't have the vast array of technical sources available to the U.S. intelligence community, but their analysis on Iran is extremely good. It's also worth noting that the Israelis were apparently the first to detect that nuclear facility in Syria, which was subsequently destroyed by the IAF.
Believing the NIE's key judgements means that both the Brits and the Israelis are wrong in their assessments of similar intelligence. The odds that one country got it wrong are low; chances that both missed the boat are exceedingly small. It would be more likely for the U.S., British and Israeli agencies to concur--and blow--the assessment than for one to get it right, and the others to get it wrong. It is extremely rare for the U.S. to disagree with two of its closest intelligence partners when all have access to similar sources and information.
All the more reason for our intel community to take another look at the conclusions of the Iran NIE. Non-concurrence among British and Israeli intelligence officials is another danger sign that the estimate is potentially flawed. Given the gravity of that assessment--and its impact on western policies toward Iran--a fresh set of eyes on the raw data wouldn't hurt.