Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Changing the Assessment on Iran

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.


F said...

If I were an analyst, I would worry that a single defector with a dramatically different story is a double agent sent to cloud intel assessments up to that point. I would be doubly worried if the defector had been allowed to sell his property and bring his family with him, especially from a country like Iran. And if I worked in this White House, I'd worry that a dramatically changed NIE was designed to trip up this administration more than to shed new light on a murky situation. Le Carre would have a field day with this plot -- why should we give it more national security credence than any of le Carre's other plots? F

Unknown said...

As I noted in the post, I think the only reason the CIA would assign substantial credence to Asgari would be if (a) he brought substantial, amplifying information with him, and (b) we were able to corroborate key claims by other sources/methods.

Yes, I would be suspicious about the nature of his defection. But no one is perfect at counter-intel, including Iran. A number of high-level sources have defected in the past, literally under the noses of hostile intel services. The defection of the KGB's Athens station chief in the late 70s comes to mind, as does the CIA operation which took Polish Colonel Richard Kuklinski out of his homeland in the early 80s. Kuklinski was one of our most important sources behind the Iron Curtain, and provided tremendous info on the Warsaw Pact command structure and nuclear war plans, among other things.

I've said it before and it's worth repeating again: the validity of a source is established over time and through independent corroboration. Apparently, General Asgari's information is standing up to scrutiny, at least for now.

My biggest concern about the NIE is it's inability to draw any medium to long-range conclusion. After stating that the weapons program is now frozen, the intel community's "best minds" are unable to decide where it goes from here; the bulk of the assessment is nothing more than an exercise in bureaucratic CYA. In that respect, it's a terrible piece of analysis, and it sets the stage for years of western inactivity toward Iran and its nuclear program.

Unknown said...

I can't, for the life of me, see any way Iran's actions regarding the past three years of chest-thumping is a result of them giving up their weaponization efforts. Postponing, maybe. Outsourcing, possibly. But this whole catch-us-if-you-can rhetoric with the centrifuges is odd brinkmanship. Why appear to be building a weapon when you've halted development? Especially when you just had your neighbor's armed forces vaporized because they refused to show that they weren't developing those same weapons?

The other odd thing is... why declassify the NIE if it makes you look foolish for using harsh words when dealing with Tehran? Is the Bush administration attempting to justify a future downscaling of the rhetoric? Did they think the accusations of "yet another march to war" were getting to hot to handle? Seems odd.

B_Walthrop said...

I believe this NIE does two things not widely discussed.

1. It distances the US from any Israeli action. This NIE may have unleashed the Israeli terrier. It is hard to fathom that this information was not telegraphed and discussed with Olmert before the NIE became public.

2. It places the diplomatic ball squarely in Iran's court. It also goes a long way in undermining Ahmadinnerjacket's domestic rhetoric. Undermining the mullas and Ahmadinnerjacket in the mind of the Iranian public may help de-stabilize the regime.


Andy said...

Ok, let me get this straight - of the five question you want to ask the President, none of them have to do with policy on Iran?

lgude said...

This blog is like having an uncle who used to work for the CIA. You really help sort the spin. I was sharply reminded of that because I got an email from Howard Dean - yes that one - this AM which ends:

"President Bush used faulty intelligence and fear-mongering to enter Iraq. Now he's been caught using faulty intelligence and fear-mongering to engage Iran."

And they wonder why Democrats like me will vote for any Republican - even toe tappers and page turners. The whole thing smells fishy to me - particularly with the uncertainties introduced by the CIA playing politics. If the President was set up - and he would know of course - I'd like to see him fire those responsible loudly and publicly for the sake of all future presidents of both parties.