Sunday, December 16, 2007

Five Questions Concerning the Latest NIE.

ByThomas Jocelyn, December 3, 2007 06:53 PM

The story dominating the news cycle right now is the public release of "Key Judgments" from an NIE on Iran's nuclear program. In particular, the first sentence of the NIE is drawing the press's intention: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program…" But, as they say, the devil is in the details. Given the poor performance of the U.S. Intelligence Community ("IC") in drafting previous NIE's, we should review the IC's work with a skeptical eye -- no matter what conclusions are drawn. Interestingly, the IC now concedes that it is certain Iran had a nuclear weapons program. But that isn't getting the headlines. And after having read the little that has been made public from this NIE, we are left with substantive questions.

First, what intelligence is this assessment based upon?

Any student, or even casual observer, of the U.S. intelligence community knows that it has done a remarkably poor job of recruiting spies inside unfriendly regimes. For example, we had no meaningful spies inside Saddam's regime. That was at least part of the reason the U.S. intelligence community misjudged Saddam's WMD programs so badly. (Whatever came of Saddam's WMD, U.S. intelligence clearly did not know what was going on since the few sources it had were on the periphery of Saddam's regime.)

Reading the latest NIE does not provide, of course, any clues as to how the IC came to these conclusions. If the IC does have good sources inside the Iranian regime and its putative nuclear program, then quite naturally it would want to protect them. And we wouldn't expect to see any information about sources in a declassified "Key Judgments" such as this.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the IC does not have good intelligence inside Iran. For example, both of the leading members (one Republican, one Democrat) of the House Intelligence Committee explained back in 2006 that we did not really know then what was going on inside Iran. And the Robb-Silberman Commission, which investigated what the IC knew about WMD programs around the world, found in 2005: "Across the board, the Intelligence Community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors. In some cases, it knows less now than it did five or ten years ago." Understandably, the Commission refrained from discussing the specifics of the intelligence community's infiltration, or lack thereof, of both the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. But it is a safe bet that the statement cited above applied in both cases.

Thus, we should not be confident, at all, that the IC has the type of intelligence that would allow it to make a definitive assessment one way or another. This is true no matter what conclusions the IC publishes. Who or what are the sources cited by IC? How do we know they are telling the truth? If they are members of the Iranian regime, have their so-called bona fides been established? Are they in a position to know what they claim to know? Do they have any motives to lie, or distort the truth? We should be mindful of all of these questions and more.

Second, what has changed since 2005?

As this latest NIE notes, its conclusions are at odds with what the IC believed in 2005. The last page of the declassified Key Judgments notes significant differences between what the IC believed in 2005 and what it is saying now. In 2005, the IC noted: "[We] assess with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable." Now the IC says, "…we do not know whether (Iran) currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." So, in 2005 the IC was sure that Iran was determined to build a nuclear weapon and now it is not sure at all. This is a profound change in opinion and, at a minimum, does not inspire confidence that the IC can get this story right. After all, if the IC's judgments can change so drastically in two years time, why should we believe any of its pronouncements one way or the other?

What is the basis for this flip-flop? What has been learned in the meantime to warrant such an about-face?

Third, how did the IC draw its line between a "civilian" nuclear program and a military one?

In the very first footnote the authors of the NIE explain: "For the purposes of this Estimate, by 'nuclear weapons program' we mean Iran's nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran's declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment."

So, is the IC then assuming that Iran's "declared civil work" is necessarily benign? One of the key issues with respect to Iran's "civilian" nuclear program is its capacity, with some tweaking here and there, to be used for military purposes. For example, according to the New York Times in early 2006, the IAEA concluded that there was evidence suggesting "links between Iran's ostensibly peaceful nuclear program and its military work on high explosives and missiles." Indeed, the authors of the NIE explicitly recognize the possibility of the civilian program being diverted for military uses:

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran's civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications--some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

So, then, the NIE's conclusions apply strictly to Iran's alleged halt of its military and clandestine programs. As we know, however, uranium enrichment is the most important component of developing the bomb and Iran indisputably has the capacity. (Again, with some tweaking, Iran can use its declared enrichment facilities at some point to make weapons-grade material.) But, this leads us to ask another simple question.

Fourth, how does the IC know that Iran has stopped its clandestine activities with respect to developing nuclear weapons?

Returning to the first footnote of the NIE's Key Judgments, the IC argues that, in 2003, Iran ceased its "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work." How does the IC know that Iran did not continue working on "weapon design and weaponization" covertly? Does it think that its sources are so good that they can rule out that possibility? Remember that Iran carried out much of its work on its nuclear program clandestinely for the better part of two decades. And some of these clandestine activities involved dealings with the AQ Khan network, the scope of which was not fully appreciated until it had already been doing business for years. How can the IC be sure that Iran's clandestine activities ceased in 2003?

Note that the IC argues that Iran supposedly gave up its covert uranium conversion and enrichment work. How does the IC know that? Are we to believe that the IC's penetration of Iran's intelligence services, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other parties controlled by the mullahs is so iron-clad that it can know this with certainty? Furthermore, is it possible that Iran did not need to do said work covertly because it has been openly enriching uranium?

Fifth, how does the IC know what motivated Iran's alleged change in behavior?

The NIE claims that "Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure." How does the IC know what motivated Iran's alleged change in behavior? Did the Iranians tell someone? Is this coming from clandestine sources? Assuming for the moment that Iran really did halt its program, are we to believe that a substantial U.S.-led military presence in Afghanistan and in Iraq (or potential presence in Iraq, depending on when in 2003 this change supposedly occurred), had nothing to do with Iran's supposed decision? That is, are we to believe that U.S. led forces on Iran's eastern and western borders had nothing to do with Tehran's decision-making process?

We are left with a number of important questions. And without knowing the answers to these questions, the IC's opinions are best viewed with a skeptical eye.

Thomas Joscelyn is a terrorism researcher, writer and economist living in New York, and a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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