The Blog

A Faulty Intelligence Report Lives On

3:15 PM, Mar 20, 2012 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

After reviewing new documents that have leaked out of Iran and debriefing defectors lured to the West, Mr. Obama’s advisers say they believe the work on weapons design is continuing on a smaller scale -- the same assessment reached by Britain, France, Germany and Israel. 

Notice that Obama administration officials cited new leaked documents and defector debriefings as the reason for their change of heart. This is likely part of what Risen calls “other information.”

Indeed, on January 15, 2010, Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball reported that “U.S. intelligence agencies are quietly revising their widely disputed assertion that Iran has no active program to design or build a nuclear bomb.” Hosenball’s sources warned that the new estimate would likely be “Talmudic” in its “parsing,” because while the Iranians continued to “research” how to build a bomb, they were not in “development” – that is, “actually trying to build a bomb.”

Huh? Research is part of development, no? That’s why corporations around the world call it “research and development.”

In any event, the new intelligence mentioned by the Times and Hosenball was sufficient to move forward with a new NIE, or at least that is what was reported.

In February 2010, Josh Rogin reported at Foreign Policy that “the Obama administration is getting ready to finalize a new National Intelligence Estimate that is expected to walk back the conclusions of the 2007 report on Iran's nuclear program.” Then, in March 2010, Hosenball explained that the updated NIE “has been kicked down the road yet again,” but was still “expected to be more hawkish about Iran's nuclear intentions.” (More “realistic” is probably a better description, but I digress.) 

Despite the delays, Rogin reported about one year later, in February 2011: “The U.S. intelligence community has completed and is circulating a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear weapons program that walks back the conclusion of the 2007 NIE, which stated that Iran had halted work on its covert nuclear weapons program.” 

This conflicts with Risen’s reporting. Risen says that the “intelligence crisis that erupted in 2010” ended when U.S. intelligence officials “stuck” to the 2007 NIE’s conclusions.  

By February 2011, the U.S. intelligence community had long been aware of the facility at Qom. They were also aware of intercepted communications, new leaked documents, and the testimony of Iranian defectors – all of which indicated they got it wrong in the 2007 NIE. 

Taking the word of Risen’s sources at face value, however, we are to believe the 2007 NIE lived on. But in November 2011 a new protagonist tried to kill it: the IAEA. 

“Since 2002,” the IAEA’s report reads, “the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information.” 

The IAEA’s stream of “new information” began the year before the 2007 NIE’s authors said Iran discontinued its nuclear weapons program and continued thereafter. Of particular concern to the IAEA is the work of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a key figure in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It was Fakhrizadeh’s shop that was suddenly shuttered in 2003 and, the U.S. intelligence community assumed, stayed closed. But the IAEA documents in some detail how Fakhrizadeh has played a shell game, moving his operation from one venue to another. No matter where Fakhrizadeh houses his operation, the IAEA says, the Agency remains “concerned because some of the activities undertaken after 2003 would be highly relevant to a nuclear weapon programme.”

That work includes efforts towards what is, in all likelihood, weaponization. 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers