Total System Failure

New revelations about German intelligence on Iran are not new to US and international authorities. It is not ignorance we have been operating on, but lack of will to act.

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.

20 thoughts on “Total System Failure”

  1. I’m at a loss to understand why you chose to publish this without offering a consideration as to why the 2007 summary was released.

  2. Well, rejoice, fuster, since I didn’t “publish this without offering a consideration as to why the 2007 summary was released.”

    You’ll find that consideration in my February post “The NIE is Dead,” linked from para 8 above.

  3. Silly me, but after reading that Feb post yet again, I still see but a whisper of a hint of an answer.
    Let me rephrase. Why, after seeing a report both running so far from expectation and not firmly founded, did the administration allow it’s summarized conclusion to be released instead of restudied?

  4. because they didn’t want another unfounded accusation of “cooking the books for the white house”… somehow someway doug feith would have been guilty..

  5. put another way: because the left would have been screaming hysterically about the white house “once again” politicizing intelligence…

  6. Aha. That comes across as a different question from the one I’ve treated, which is why the IC wrote the report, and wrote the report as it did.

    RPM offers one possibility for why the Bush administration didn’t stand in the way of the NIE’s release. Do you have a theory, fuster?

  7. None, twasn’t one of those leading questions. I was looking for your ideas, finding the title of the post suggestive that you harbored something more.

  8. “Many of us may agree with one or more of the proffered reasons, which include the likelihood of Iranian retaliation through terrorism…”

    Everyone says that Iran will retaliate with terrorism if we attack them or bomb their nuke facilities or whatever. What if we, as part of an attack, take out the mullahs/Ajad? I know this is an extreme measure to take, but what would happen if we did this successfully? Would there still be retaliation in the form of terrorism? Or would the (remaining) Iranian terror supporting leadership be so compromised that coordinating and funding of terrorist attacks becomes impossible? That’s if whoever assumes power in the aftermath is indeed a terror supporter. As of now, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that’d be upset that the mullahs were taken out. Especially in Iran itself.

    J.E., I would be really interested in what you had to say about this. I’ve been hoping for a long time that someone with a more nimble mind than mine would delve into this topic. I don’t claim to know that taking the mullahs out is the right thing to do, but I have yet to have it explained to me sufficiently that committing such an act would be a poorer idea than not committing such an act. Would you indulge me??

    I ask this question with people like Mugabe and the junta in Burma and Kim Jong-Il in mind as well, but will not require an explanation on the wisdom of killing all these buffoons. Today at least.

  9. “We cannot truthfully say that “intelligence” failed to alert us to the problem, or even that it fatally delayed our reaction to it.”

    Perhaps. But it can be argued that the “intelligence community” may have fatally delayed our reaction to Iranian nukes. That dreadful NIE in 2007 that you mentioned may well have tied GWB’s hands politically to the point of non-action in regards to attacking Iran’s nuke program. At least personally, I thought it was possible or even likely that he was going to attack before that NIE. After the NIE, I felt it was unlikely that he would attack.

    I have no idea if attacking would have been a good idea or not (the answer will be clearer in the future). However, I think it’s reasonable to argue that the “intelligence community” may have fatally delayed taking action (that answer too may be clearer in the future).

  10. Ritchie Emmons — for the moment, let me ask if you have seen my earlier piece “Hit ‘Em Hard III.” The topic of it is US strike options against Iran, one of which is a comprehensive strike that would take out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is what Ahmadinejad and Khamenei rely on to keep themselves in power.

    Since the earliest days of my visits to “contentions,” I’ve discussed the option of comprehensive strikes that would disable the regime, and not just punch some holes in the nuclear facilities. The “Hit ‘Em Hard III” piece can be found at the “Iran Page” you’ll see the tab for on the picture, at the top of the screen.

  11. Sorry J.E., I read Hit ‘Em Hard I & II, but missed III. I’ just printed it and will give it a read when I have some time this evening.

  12. I’m back and I’ve read Hit ‘Em Hard III. As always, a very comprehensive piece. Towards the end of it, you mention targeted assassinations by the Israelis (and measures that will force the US to intervene). I was wondering about something more along the lines of the US blatantly and publicly killing the mullahs and any other highly placed a-hole that might assume the mantle of power in their wake.

    I know that such assassinations (via a JDAM through the window and/or something more subtle) alone wouldn’t do the trick if the goal is to prevent Iran getting nukes or to prevent them from exporting terror. My main query is whether the pros outweigh the cons of adopting this new and highly provocative policy. We send in a missile and kill the mullahs et al – all of the top leadership, and threaten to impart the same treatment to anyone else who we consider a bad actor. Would that be enough to cut off the head of the snake in Iran? And if so, would the negative political fallout of the US setting a new precedent by blatantly assassinating another head(s) of state ultimately outweigh the positive aspects?

    Line up people like Mugabe next. The Burmese junta perhaps. (But avoid nuclear powers like China/Russia). Would the “bad guys” simply stop assuming power for fear that they’ll be pushing daisies soon enough?

    Every case would have it’s own characteristics of course, but I wonder if blatant “meddling” wouldn’t be a net plus in the long run – despite how incredibly drastic a measure it is.

  13. Ritchie, your suggestion doesn’t seem drastic. If anything, it’s timid.
    Instead of simply blowing up anyone that we think might be an enemy, why not really make an example of the Iranians.
    We should start by killing all the men. Then all the young children and old people. We can take the adolescent females and mature women away as captives.
    Then we put everything to the torch and sow the ground with salt.
    This might give other people pause and prevent other states from growing defiant.

  14. RE — there have certainly been numerous discussions out in the public realm of an assassination campaign against lists of bad guys, partly to just get rid of them, but also “pour encourager les autres.”

    People will have their own ideas of whether they think it’s moral enough for consideration, to go about assassinating foreign ruling cliques. I don’t regard it so myself, and would oppose making it US policy, especially as a stand-alone method. If we’re going to invade Iraq, I have no problem with seeking to blow Saddam up in one of his palaces as part of the regime-change campaign. But trying to regime-change Saddam by carrying out an assassination campaign against him and, say, 100 top officials?

    There are a lot of things wrong with such a plan. Applied to Iran, I would see it going badly awry. One of the worst consequences would be that it would have to be obvious such a large-scale plan was executed by the US. The underhanded viciousness of it would put us out of position to be considered a benefactor by the people of Iran, and that could be fatal on multiple levels. Iranians would probably tolerate a level of intervention that checked the regime’s ability to suppress reformists with force. But the idea of a foreign power sweeping through their nation assassinating officials would horrify them — and they’d probably end up uniting behind someone as bad as Ahmadinejad, if not worse.

    Knocking off officials would create the opposite of the kind of political environment we want, for change in Iran. The Iranians need to be taking the political lead, using their own mechanisms, and making their own decisions about who needs to go. Unless we are prepared to invade, conquer, and rule Iran for some indefinite period of time, the atmosphere of horror and distrust that would ensue on dozens of targeted assassinations would be be extremely unlikely to produce the kind of regime-change outcome we are looking for.

    If it sounds like I think assassination would do no good whatsoever for the more circumscribed objective of slowing down Iran’s nuclear program — that’s correct.

    One more point about assassination is that anyone can bring it off. We don’t want to open the door to it globally. Today, terrorists know that if they assassinated our president, we’d find a way to disrupt a whole geopolitical region hunting them down, and fixing the wagon of whoever sponsored them. But if we start assassinating others, and then jihadists start assassinating our leaders — we can’t wage war on the entire Middle East and continent of Asia (or at least we don’t want to, and the whole point is NOT to have to); and we certainly can’t add Africa to that.

    It’s too easy to bring off an assassination, for us to make other nations and transnational actors want to retaliate against us by that method. I’ll leave the fermented animal byproducts to fuster, but I don’t think this is the way we want to go.

  15. Thank you very much J.E. I’ve finally been indulged and have received from someone a clear explanation about the cons of assassination methods against bad actors like the mullahs.

    I still feel that the mullahs et al deserve to be killed in principle. Anyone that treats their own citizens like Mugabe, Kim, mullahs treat theirs deserves nothing less than termination in my book. That’s of course not taking into account consequences, which is why I say “in principle.”

    Anyway, thanks again for taking the time from your busy schedule to answer my question. Very kind of you.

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