President Obama is rushing to implement the six-month interim agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran that went into effect last week. Together with five other world powers, he is now working to negotiate a long-term agreement aimed at keeping Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. He regards his opening to Iran as a signature achievement of his presidency and has proudly declared that diplomacy opened a path to “a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
If we assume that negotiations do not collapse and some sort of long-term accord is struck, there will still be thorny questions. A preeminent one concerns Iranian compliance. How much confidence can we have that the ayatollahs will not press ahead with their nuclear program in clandestine facilities, as they have done in the past? And if they do press ahead, how much confidence can we have that our intelligence agencies will catch them?
Obama’s faith that “we can verify” Iranian compliance glides over the fact that the U.S. track record in unmasking covert nuclear programs is checkered at best. This is not because our intelligence agencies are incompetent—although sometimes they are—but because the task is exceptionally hard. Just last week, a three-year study by a Pentagon subunit, the Defense Science Board, concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies “are not yet organized or fully equipped” to detect when foreign powers are constructing nuclear weapons or adding to existing arsenals. What is more, their ability to find “small nuclear enterprises designed to produce, store, and deploy only a small number of weapons” is “either inadequate, or more often, [does] not exist.”
Past intelligence lapses in the nuclear realm go back to the dawn of the atomic age and include a failure to foresee the first Soviet A-bomb test in 1949, the first Soviet H-bomb test in 1953, and the first Indian nuclear test in 1974. After the first Gulf war, the U.S. intelligence community was astonished to learn that Iraq was only months away from putting the final screw in a nuclear device. In the run-up to the second Gulf war, the CIA blundered in the opposite direction, declaring with high confidence—“a slam dunk” in CIA director George Tenet’s notorious phrase—that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons. He was not. More recently, North Korea constructed a uranium enrichment facility that, despite intense scrutiny by American intelligence, went unnoticed until the North itself chose to reveal it.
The case of Syria is especially pertinent to our efforts to monitor Iran.
By the late 1990s, U.S. intelligence detected glimmerings that Syria might be embarking on some sort of nuclear project. But the agency had trouble making sense of the evidence it was gathering. It perceived that North Korea was helping Syria with a joint venture involving North Korean nuclear experts, but as a senior U.S. intelligence official explained in a briefing, we “had no details on the nature or location of the cooperative projects.” By 2003, U.S. intelligence had concluded that the activity involved work at sites “probably within Syria,” but they “didn’t know exactly where.” The fog of intelligence had set in: “We had this body of evidence, kind of almost like a cloud of, boy, there is something going on here but we can’t get a whole lot of precision about it.”
By 2005, the United States had made more progress in determining what was transpiring. Satellite photos revealed a “large unidentified building under construction” set in a canyon in eastern Syria near the Euphrates River at a juncture called al Kibar. But American intelligence analysts could not say much more. All they had was images of a structure that was “externally complete,” but it was “hard to figure out, looking at that building, what its purpose is.”
One problem was that “it certainly didn’t have any observable, externally observable characteristics that would say, oh, yeah, you got yourself a nuclear reactor here—things like a massive electrical-supply system, massive ventilation, and most importantly a cooling system.” Another problem was that though the structure closely resembled North Korea’s plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, America’s highly skilled photo-interpreters could not connect the dots between the two facilities. The oversight was not their fault; the Syrians had erected curtain walls and a false roof to disguise the building’s shape and conceal typical features of a reactor. The multibillion-dollar, ultra-high-tech tools of U.S. intelligence were foiled by one of the most low-cost and ancient techniques of warfare: camouflage.