When Iran announces her first nuclear weapons detonation, the one thing we will not be able to say is that there was an intelligence failure that left us without warning that this was likely to happen.
But neither will we be able to say that an intelligence failure delayed intervention until it was too late.
Because the truth is, we knew all along. The whole world knows. The world knew. At no point were the elements of evidence hidden from the people who needed to know about them. We have had the intelligence, much of it for years. It is what we have done about it that will be justly burned as chaff, in the fire of history’s judgment.
A German court is making headlines this week, for its finding earlier this year that German intelligence on Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons – after 2003 – justifies the indictment of a German-Iranian businessman for supplying Tehran’s program, in violation of German law.
Passages from the Wall Street Journal report clarify the details demonstrated by the German intelligence:
“According to the supreme court judges, the businessman has brokered ‘industrial machines, equipment and raw materials primarily to Iranian customers,’ for Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
“According to the same decision, the defendant’s business partners in Tehran ‘dealt with acquiring military and nuclear-related goods for Iran and used various front companies, headquartered for example in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, to circumvent existing trade restrictions.’ According to the judges, [defendant] Mohsen V. also tried to supply to Tehran via front companies in Dubai ‘Geiger counters for radiation-resistant detectors constructed especially for protection against the effects of nuclear detonations.’”
The blogosphere is alive with the sound of caustic, in the I-told-you-so vein. And rightly so, of course. As one of the earliest Optimistic Conservative posts made clear, as far as I am concerned, the correct title of the US intelligence community’s 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program is The Execrable 2007 Iran NIE. That atrociously unprofessional document marks a low point in the history of intelligence that will not soon be matched. It was not only a politicized document, it was simply bad intelligence, violating a list of professional standards and deserving a big, red “F” on its front cover, and a trip to the dean’s office for incorrigibility.
I pointed out in that February 2009 piece that in order to emphasize its politically-determined conclusion, the 2007 NIE had to ignore two years’ worth of steadily-accumulating evidence about all three legs of Iran’s program: fissile material, warhead design, and delivery system (e.g., ballistic missiles). There were various relevant events from Iran’s R&D programs between the US intelligence community’s 2005 and 2007 NIEs – and one of the ones ignored in the 2007 NIE was the German intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapons effort. As the WSJ story points out, the Germans shared this intelligence with the CIA before publication of the 2007 NIE.
But as readers of TOC know, at least some of it was provided to IAEA. In its May 2008 report on the inspection regime in Iran, IAEA referenced intelligence reports from UN member nations outlining information on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. (The 18 separate summaries are found in the report’s appendix. Collectively, IAEA refers to them as the “Alleged Studies.”) IAEA forwarded some of these intelligence reports to Iran (those it was authorized to by the originating nation), and requested explanations that would satisfy Iran’s Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation to not develop nuclear weapons. Iran has steadily refused to provide explanations, and although IAEA continues to press the request for them in its meetings with Iranian representatives, Tehran has unilaterally declared the matter closed. (See the subsequent IAEA reports indexed here for the report-by-report history of Iran’s failure to respond.)
US news media were aware of the intelligence reports well before the May 2008 report, as this WaPo story from March 2008 makes clear. Media reporting on the progress of the IAEA inspections almost never addresses the “Alleged Studies,” which are all from non-US intelligence sources, even though the news media have been aware of them since at least February 2008.
American and other nations’ diplomats and intelligence officials are also, of course, aware of them, since they were provided to IAEA through the UN, and summaries of their information have been in the public realm for a year and a half. Our envoy to the IAEA made the point publicly, in May 2008, that Iran was being uncooperative about responding to the Agency’s questions about the “Alleged Studies.” Here is outgoing IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei in June 2009, on the Alleged Studies and his agency’s bottom line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program:
“…there is enough in these alleged studies to create concern in the minds of our professional inspectors, who work twenty-four hours a day on this issue. Although sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies said Iran stopped alleged work on nuclear weapons studies in 2003, we do not know whether it has stopped or not.”
ElBaradei had, of course, a professional obligation to be skeptical, and act only on proof (much of which his agency has been denied by Iran’s increasing refusals to allow requested inspections to proceed). But if the material in the Alleged Studies was not convincing enough, perhaps the IAEA will spend some time with the “thousands of records” testified to in May 2009, before the US Senate, by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, which document Iran’s “nuclear shopping list.” This WSJ piece, referenced by TOC here, notes also the following:
“Mr. Morgenthau’s information is corroborated by a staff report for the Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Democrat John Kerry, which notes that Iran is making nuclear progress on all fronts, and that it ‘could produce enough weapons-grade material for a bomb within six months.’ The committee also notes that ‘Iran is operating a broad network of front organizations,’ and that authorities suspect ‘some purchases for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs may have come through an elaborate ruse to avoid U.S. financial sanctions on dealing with Iranian banks.’”
The Senate Committee staff’s report of 4 May 2009 can be found here, and we may note that it makes reference to the documents IAEA refers to as the “Alleged Studies,” as well as the belief of foreign governments in their authenticity. It would be absurd, in the future, for anyone to make the case that either an “intelligence failure” or “the failed policies of the Bush administration” put Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress out of position to take action on Iran’s nuclear program in 2009.
We have reached the point at which it is increasingly ridiculous to continue, officially, allowing our lack of knowledge to drive our course of action. This is the principle behind continuing to pursue the UN sanctions and IAEA inspections methodology, one of whose chief – interlinked – purposes is to induce Iran to divulge the information that would allow IAEA to certify her NPT compliance (or report on its absence). ElBaradei’s June speech, like his typical comments made on the release of each new IAEA report on Iran, is a study in complacency about the process: Iran remained uncooperative, his agency had unanswered questions and concerns, it was very possible Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, and he was very concerned – but forcible action against Iran was not warranted. What was needed was greater pressure from the UN for Iran to be more cooperative about disclosure and inspections.
Having been in this do-loop since 2003, it seems as though we might have recognized it for what it is before now. The UN has, in fact, increased its pressure on Iran for greater cooperation, with three rounds of sanctions. In a separate process based on the “EU-3” (the UK, France, and Germany), an expanding group of world powers, including the US, has also offered Iran an ever-increasing package of incentives to cooperate: to suspend uranium enrichment for the duration of negotiations, and to come away with, at a minimum, a pre-guaranteed list of financial and programmatic benefits, plus whatever else Iran’s crack negotiators can bargain for at the table. In 2009, Barack Obama offered Iran negotiations with no preconditions at all – not even suspension of uranium enrichment – and Iran rejected the offer.
Germany, a core member of the EU-3, has had her intelligence building since at least 2007. The US has been aware of at least some of it since before November 2007, when the classified version of the 2007 NIE was published. The UN has had elements of it since sometime before February 2008, the month in which WaPo reporters became aware of its release to IAEA. IAEA made the collection of foreign intelligence reports public, in unclassified summaries, in its May 2008 report on Iran. America’s envoy to the IAEA demonstrated his knowledge of those reports the same month. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s staff questioned reporting governments on some of the “Alleged Studies” prior to the Committee’s May 2009 report, in which elements of the intelligence from them are referenced. The Senate testimony of the Manhattan District Attorney in May 2009, regarding his investigation of bank fraud by Iran, yielded “thousands of records” on purchase requests that corroborated the types of materials and equipment considered by German intelligence to validate the assessment that Iran continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. Also in May 2009, Germany’s special national security court released its March 2009 finding that the original German intelligence was compelling evidence that “development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003.”
As the Hot Air piece demonstrates, American commentators are focusing on the (deserved) black eye for US intelligence. But let’s keep this whole thing straight. There is no one in a position to make decisions or influence the world community’s course of action – or America’s individual course of action – who has not been aware of the German intelligence (and indeed of other foreign intelligence) for nearly a year and a half, or more.
As discussed in my “Hit ‘Em Hard” series, a number of considerations have been offered for why action on the problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons program has been desultory and incoherent. Many of us may agree with one or more of the proffered reasons, which include the likelihood of Iranian retaliation through terrorism, the impact of a kinetic strike against Iran on stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, and the general disfavor Americans have shown, when polled, toward striking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But what we must be clear on is that we are not identifying these objections as priorities because of either lacking intelligence, or having decisionmakers unaware of it. This is not an “intelligence failure,” even though the US intelligence system has failed to distinguish itself for integrity or professionalism on this matter. This is a total system failure. We cannot truthfully say that “intelligence” failed to alert us to the problem, or even that it fatally delayed our reaction to it. The UN, the IAEA, the EU-3, the US Senate, the CIA, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and various other media around the world – all have not only been aware of the substance of the German intelligence, as well as intelligence from other foreign services, but have been aware of Iran’s concurrent progress in uranium enrichment – “fissile material” – and in ballistic missile and rocket – “delivery system” – development.
We knew. We know. We cannot claim otherwise. The convenient fiction that there is any way for “intelligence” to present us with a smoking gun before the trigger has been pulled, and that intelligence has “failed” us if it does not do so, is just that – a fiction. It is designed to exonerate decisionmakers who knew enough to justify stronger action, and yet chose not to take it. The perspective of history on such situations is already available to us, and it will not be kind to our finger-pointing excuses, if the rule of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad continues, and Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear weapon. History will judge not our processes, our arguments, or our justifications, but our results.