The Blog

Do We Have Spies Inside Iran?

1:04 PM, Oct 29, 2007 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Over at his new blog "http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/schoenfeld/1151#more-1151 target=_blank>connecting the dots," Gabriel Schoenfeld--who is always a "must read" when it comes to intelligence matters--is discussing Kenneth Timmerman's new book, Shadow Warriors. I have not yet read Timmerman's book, but Schoenfeld is discussing one of Timmerman's claims that I have looked into--that is, I've tried to look into it as much as I can. According to Schoenfeld, Timmerman writes that "to this day, the CIA has no spies in Iran" and he attributes this claim to "numerous agency insiders and other sources."

Schoenfeld points out that if the CIA did have spies inside Iran, Langley would have an incentive to tell journalists like Timmerman that they didn't. It is a fair point. The Agency certainly does have a strong incentive to protect its most important sources. Despite his "distrust" of Timmerman's account, Schoenfeld says his "best guess, knowing a bit about CIA difficulties in recruiting human sources, is that his claim about the agency's non-coverage of Iran is accurate."

I am also inclined to believe Timmerman is right. Here's why.

In 2006, Chris Wallace of Fox News interviewed Congressman Pete Hoekstra, who was then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Hoekstra was asked what we know about Iran's nuclear program:

WALLACE: Congressman, how close is Iran to actually developing a nuclear weapon, or don't we really know?

HOEKSTRA: I'd say we really don't know. We're getting lots of mixed messages. Obviously, we're getting lots of different messages from their leadership, the stuff that they are saying in public.

It all points out the fact we need to do much better in rebuilding our intelligence community, reshaping it, transforming it, making sure that we give public policy--that we give policymakers the information that they need so that we can make better decisions.

We've got a long way to go in rebuilding our intelligence community. We're focused on this in a bipartisan basis, and we're going to keep trying to build the intelligence community that we outlined in the reform bill that we passed a couple of years ago.

WALLACE: But, Chairman Hoekstra, I mean, almost everyone agrees this is the major foreign policy issue or challenge facing this country today, and you're saying we really don't know what's going on in Tehran?

HOEKSTRA: Hey, sometimes it's better to be honest and to say there's a whole lot we don't know about Iran that I wish we did know, and we as public policymakers need to know that as we're moving forward and as decisions are being made on Iran, we don't have all of the information that we would like to have.
And that's nothing more than being honest, being honest with the American people of saying in some of this stuff, we wish we had the information, but right now we don't.

During the same session, Wallace also interviewed Jane Harman, Hoekstra's Democratic counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee. Harman concurred with Hoekstra: "We don't know. Our intelligence is thin. I don't think we have enough sources. I don't think our analysis is sharp enough."

Is it possible that the CIA hid its sources inside Iran from the senior ranking Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, so much so that they went on television warning that we didn't have any real significant intel inside Iran? Maybe, but that certainly isn't likely. You could argue that Hoekstra and Harman did not say that the CIA had no spies at all inside Iran, which is Timmerman's claim. That's true, but their statements leave us in the same place--the U.S. intelligence community is blind when it comes to Iran.

The Robb-Silverman Commission investigated U.S. intelligence failures with respect to Iraq's WMD programs and also looked into the state of the intelligence community's penetration of other nations' programs, including Iran. It wasn't a pretty picture. Sure, there were some successes, such as the CIA's infiltration of A.Q Khan's nuclear proliferation network. (I should note, however, that the CIA's penetration of Khan's network came rather late in the game. Khan had been doing deals around the world for the better part of a decade, if not longer, by the time American intelligence finally got good sources on the inside.) But overall, the CIA and its fellow intelligence agencies knew little about places like Iran and North Korea.