Dr. Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian, the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014). Porter has covered U.S. national-security issues for the Rome-based Inter Press Service since 2004. He is the 2012 recipient of the Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, awarded by the Gellhorn Trust in the UK in honor of American journalist Martha Gellhorn. His previous book was Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005).
The 2002 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a major intelligence failure, distorted by a pervasive policy climate that assumed that Iraq did indeed have active WMD programs, including nuclear weapons. What has remained unknown, however, is that intelligence assessments on Iran's nuclear program displayed the same systemic distortions that led to the Iraq WMD fiasco. As was the case in the errant Iraq estimate of 2003, two NIEs — in 2001 and 2005 — effectively reversed the burden of proof and reached the conclusion that Iran had been carrying out a covert nuclear weapons program in the absence of hard, verifiable evidence.
Even the authors of the November 2007 Iran nuclear NIE, known universally for having concluded that Iran had halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003, had actually reiterated in a first draft a few months earlier that Iran still had a nuclear weapons program as of the time of the draft. That conclusion was revised only after the CIA unexpectedly obtained personal communications from suspected weapons specialists that were interpreted as evidence that the government had terminated the program in late 2003.
The story of those three estimates, reconstructed below based in large part on interviews with former intelligence officials who were involved in them, reveals an intelligence failure on Iran that was every bit as dramatic as the one on Iraq. Of course, the Iran intelligence failure has not led to a war, as the Iraq intelligence failure did. Nevertheless, the Iran failure has had profound consequences that are still relevant to U.S. policy, even as negotiations on a comprehensive agreement with Iran continue.
Analysts at the CIA's Weapons Intelligence, Non Proliferation and Arms Control Center (WINPAC), who have had the primary responsibility for WMD assessment on Iraq during the Bush and Obama administrations, told the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (the Robb-Silberman Commission) how they effectively reversed the burden of proof on the question of WMD in Iraq and made the finding of active WMD programs the default position. They explained that, because of Iraq's history of deception on its nuclear program, they could not have imagined that Iraq was not reconstituting its nuclear program. Only if a "well-placed reliable human source" provided specific information indicating otherwise, would they have gone along with such a finding.1
The commission discovered that this reversal of the burden of proof had led to a costly self-deception: the WINPAC analysts believed they had found an increase in the number of suspected Iraqi chemical facilities in 2002, but that discovery turned out to have been nothing more than the effect of the collectors having been directed to more than double the amount of satellite imagery of such "suspect facilities" in 2001-02 compared to 2000. That same mistake had been repeated with regard to the increased number of images of trucks moving to and from the suspected sites, which had been interpreted as possible movement of chemical munitions. As a result, the commission found, the analysts had come to believe that Iraq had a chemical-weapons program based on nothing more than a predisposition to believe that one existed.2
A pattern of intelligence behavior in which expectations about what would be discovered determining the outcome of WMD assessments actually began with the creation of WINPAC's predecessor, the Nonproliferation Center (NPC) in the CIA in September 1991. The tendency to assume that the targeted countries were indeed proliferating nuclear weapons was built into the structure and culture of the new center. The NPC was staffed by weapons analysts and specialists on proliferation whose expertise determined what they believed they could infer about intentions. "They believed a lot in what we can know from the technical capabilities of the state of the program," said Ellen Laipson, the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 1990 to 1993. The WINPAC analysts didn't feel they needed to rely on regional or country expertise in reaching their conclusions on the existence of WMD programs, she recalled.3
Thomas Fingar, a former head of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and later deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis, recalled the same pronounced tendency on the part of proliferation specialists. "The guys closely linked [to] stopping proliferation acquired a predisposition to see malign intentions — to infer as the most likely that which was malign," he said, whereas, "Regional guys tended to have a wider mix of assessments, different levels of confidence."4
Iran's nuclear program was the main proliferation issue assessed by the intelligence community in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the NPC. The CIA initiated a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's foreign policy, which included an assessment of the Iranian nuclear program, around the time the NPC was organized in September 1991. The weapons analysts dominated the estimate on the nuclear program from beginning to end. Laipson recalled that she was only a "supplementary player" on the issue in the 1991 NIE. She had an opportunity to comment on the outline that was adopted for the estimate, but she was not a substantive contributor to the draft. In fact, she did not even read the draft of the estimate until it had gone to an interagency committee. The regional analysts "were in the room," she recalled, "but in the third chapter and only on the few lines on the political context."5
In 1990, Western intelligence began intercepting telex messages from Sharif University in Tehran and the Physics Research Center, which had connections to the Ministry of Defense, attempting to procure several dual-use items that could be used in uranium enrichment. The telexes included orders for ring magnets, fluoride and fluoride-handling equipment, a balancing machine, a mass spectrometer and vacuum equipment.6 Since by definition the dual-use items might equally have been procured for nonmilitary purposes, they could not be conclusive evidence of any military role in enrichment, much less a covert military nuclear program. But the telexes also bore the telex number of the Physics Research Center, which had Iranian Defense Ministry ties. That was enough to convince intelligence analysts that the telexes were evidence of a military-run nuclear program.7 It was a clear case of the predisposition to believe in nuclear-weapons intent shaping the interpretation of inherently ambiguous evidence.
In its waning days, the George H. W. Bush administration pushed for curbing all nuclear-technology transfers to Iran on the basis of what officials said was intelligence indicating "a suspicious procurement pattern."8 That was an apparent reference to the telexes from Sharif University. Only in late 2007 and early 2008 did it become clear from detailed documentary evidence provided to the IAEA by Iran that the head of the Physics Research Center, a professor at Sharif University, had actually procured the items in question at the request of various academic departments of the university for faculty and student research. The IAEA did, in fact, find the equipment in use at the university.9
Beginning in 1997, the Nonproliferation Center sent a series of semiannual unclassified reports to Congress on the status of WMD in Iran and other targeted countries that clearly inferred Iranian nuclear-weapons intentions from its enrichment program and the flawed assessment of the procurement telexes. In 1997 and 1998, the reports offered the same boilerplate language: "Tehran continues to seek fissile material and technology for weapons development and has set up an elaborate system of military and civilian organizations to support its effort." In another paragraph, the reports speculated that Iran's nuclear-technology infrastructure "would be useful in supporting nuclear weapons research and development."10
In its report for the first six months of 1999, the NPC referred explicitly to "Iran's nuclear weapons research and development program." That shift in language to an explicit accusation that Iran had a program for nuclear-weapons R & D coincided with the decision by the CIA to revise its 1995 NIE on the ballistic-missile threat from Iran and North Korea. This was accomplished by heavy political pressure from Congress, reflecting the strength of the missile-defense lobby.11
In early 2001, CIA Director George Tenet had created WINPAC, which represented the complete centralization of all the CIA's technical specialists on weapons and proliferation into a single office.12 WINPAC would play the key role in the pivotal intelligence estimates on WMD in both Iraq and Iran during the Bush administration, beginning with an estimate on the Iranian nuclear program in 2001.
Robert D. Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs and formerly a weapons analyst in WINPAC's predecessor, the NPC, had the lead in the 2001 estimate. That meant that he would determine what would be included in the first draft, as Pillar observed.13 WINPAC's technical analysts dominated the process, writing not only about Iran's capabilities in regard to possible nuclear weapons but also the crucial section on Iran's nuclear intentions, according to Pillar, even though that was not their expertise.14 Those analysts who had the expertise to assess Iran's intent in light of the full range of evidence were again sidelined.
Pillar recalled that the basis for the conclusion that Iran intended to go to nuclear weapons was "a matter of inference, not direct evidence."15 Pillar and other analysts believed that the Iranian regime had not made a decision to build nuclear weapons and that Iran's decision on manufacturing nuclear weapons would be especially influenced by United States policy — particularly whether the United States pursued an aggressive policy toward Iran or was willing to offer security assurances to Tehran. Citing pragmatic arguments made by Iranian officials against possession of nuclear weapons, among other indications, they argued that Iran was pursuing a "hedging strategy" aimed at having the technical know-how and capability to acquire nuclear weapons but refraining from a decision to proceed with a nuclear program for the indefinite future. But the WINPAC analysts tended to be uninterested in such arguments, according to Pillar: "Some of them would say, ‘Don't give me that Iranian-decision-yet-to-be-made approach. They've already decided!'"16
Because two dramatically different points of view had been expressed during the discussion of the draft, the participants either had to agree on compromise language or to register fundamental disagreement on the conclusions. The negotiations focused on the order of key sentences representing the two competing conclusions. The side that prevailed got its conclusions into the very first two sentences, Pillar said, whereas the competing conclusion might only appear in the third paragraph.17 The language used in the paragraphs summarizing the main conclusions of the 2001 NIE has not been made public, but the title of the NIE leaves no room for doubt about which view prevailed: "Iran Nuclear Weapons Program: Multifaceted and Poised to Succeed, but When?"18
In unclassified reports to Congress, WINPAC continued to accuse Iran of having a nuclear weapons program, still relying on inference from Iran's capability to do so. In its report for the second half of 2003, WINPAC asserted, "The United States remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program." The report argued that Iran did not need to produce fuel for the Bushehr nuclear-power reactor, because Russia had pledged to provide the fuel. But this argument conveniently ignored the fact that the Clinton administration had put intense pressure on Russia to abandon the Bushehr project, and had already forced Russia to abandon a 1995 agreement to negotiate on a uranium-enrichment facility. The George W. Bush administration was continuing to press Russia diplomatically to halt all assistance to Bushehr, even as the CIA was citing that argument.19
Essentially the same dynamics were repeated in the 2005 NIE on Iran's nuclear program. WINPAC analysts reaffirmed their previous assessments about the Iranian nuclear program. And Pillar and other country and regional analysts again argued that Iran had not made any decision to weaponize and was engaging in a "hedging" strategy. The first sentence of the key conclusions in the 2005 estimate assessed "[w]ith high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable."20 Despite the "high confidence" claimed in that conclusion, however, no evidence had come to light of any Iranian nuclear-weapons design work, according to Pillar.21
The weapons-proliferation specialists relied heavily on a set of intelligence documents that had come into the CIA's possession in late 2004, supposedly from a laptop computer purloined from a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program. They included a set of computer models of efforts to integrate what appeared to be a nuclear weapon into the reentry vehicle of Iran's Shahab-3 missile, as well as high-explosives experiments supposedly aimed at developing a detonation system for a nuclear weapon. The Washington Post would later report that the collection had "formed the backbone" of the 2005 estimate's conclusions. Fingar confirmed that the laptop documents had made the nuclear intentions of Iran, which had previously been somewhat ambiguous, "pretty clear."22 But the documents showed no evidence of nuclear-weapons design work.23
The documents had not come from an Iranian participant in the purported covert weapons program or from a German spy, contrary to the cover stories leaked to the news media, but from a member of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the armed Iranian opposition group with a reputation for terrorism that had established close working relations with Israel. According to former German foreign-office official Karsten Voigt, the coordinator for German-North American relations for more than a decade before his retirement in 2010, senior BND intelligence officials had told him in November 2004 that the MEK agent who had provided the papers to the BND and had been a sometime source for the agency was considered "doubtful." They were unhappy that the Bush administration appeared to be relying on information obtained from this source.24 But the analysts who worked on the 2005 estimate were apparently never informed about the MEK role in providing the documents.
The documents also bore internal evidence of having been fabricated. The reason given by Bush administration officials for believing that they were authentic was the technical sophistication of the work. But both the drawings of efforts to redesign the reentry vehicle of the Shahab-3 missile and the outline of a bench-scale process for uranium conversion contained numerous serious technical errors. This betrayed the fact that they were not the work of experts associated with an Iranian "Manhattan Project" for nuclear weapons. At least eight other indicators of fraud were evident from a careful examination of the descriptions of the documents in IAEA reports and independent verifiable facts that contradicted them, as I documented in a previous study.25
The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program has been seen as a radical break with past estimates on the subject, because it concluded that Iran had halted work on nuclear weapons. In fact, however, it reaffirmed the main point of previous estimates: that Iran was actively seeking nuclear weapons.
Thomas Fingar, then deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, revealed in an interview that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell had agreed to the estimate in 2006 in response to requests from those in Congress who wanted to prevent a war over Iran and demanded a more thorough analysis of its real nuclear intentions.26 But the analysts never did a thorough reassessment of the key issue of Iran's intentions. In fact, a draft completed in June 2007, after several months of work, simply reaffirmed the main conclusions of the 2005 estimate, according to Fingar. In testimony in early July before the House Armed Services Committee, Fingar actually restated, word for word, the primary conclusion of the 2005 NIE: "We assess that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons, despite its international obligations and international pressure."27
That draft conclusion reflected what Fingar called "the deference that was paid to prior judgments." Previous NIE's "damn near came to be sacred texts," he said. "To go back and redo, relook at original information and judgment reached earlier — it simply wasn't done."28
The draft reaffirmed the previous conclusion that Iran was committed to obtaining nuclear weapons, despite the fact that Walpole had called Fingar's attention to the absence of any new evidence on "weaponization," even though, Walpole recalled "we used to have a relatively large amount of stuff."29 That was an apparent reference to the computer-modeling studies of the missile reentry vehicle and high explosives experiments on a detonator in the 2004 intelligence documents purporting to be from the covert Iranian weapons program.
After that draft was completed, however, U.S. intelligence obtained new information, mainly from electronic intercepts of communications between military figures, which the team interpreted as indicating that the Iranian government had been carrying out a nuclear weapons program in 2003. The team rewrote the estimate in light of the new discoveries, concluding that Iran's military had been "working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons" until 2003, but that Iran had "halted its nuclear weapons program" in 2003.30
But there is good reason to doubt that the new information underlying the conclusion actually referred to the existence of a nuclear weapons program in 2003. Intelligence officials were remarkably specific in revealing the sources of the information but completely silent on the substance being cited as evidence of a nuclear weapons program. The Washington Post reported that the data included "intercepted calls between Iranian military commanders" and that the "snippets of conversations" involved a military officer whose name appeared on the laptop." The Los Angeles Times reported that some of the information was from the "journal or diary" of an Iranian "involved in the management of the military program."31 Those disclosures went far beyond what is normally permissible in regard to the sources and methods involved in obtaining intelligence. But the news media were told nothing about what those bits of conversation and diary entries revealed that indicated the existence of a nuclear weapons program more than three years earlier.
The contrast between the unusually detailed account of the sources and the complete silence on what was actually said suggests the statements were far more ambiguous than the very firm conclusions of the NIE about a nuclear weapons program appeared to indicate. Fingar said the absence of any further disclosure about the work involved was because of the fear of losing access to the stream of information. But, logically, that fear would have ruled out silence about the sources of the information rather than about its substance. Fingar would not comment further when asked about this apparent discrepancy.
Fingar did reveal an additional detail about the estimate, however, that suggests the authors were again making an inference rather than basing the assessment on unambiguous evidence. He said that he had personally dissented from the NIE's "high confidence" that Iran had "halted its nuclear weapons program" in 2003. "The dissent," he explained to me, "was on the level of confidence that the halt had embraced all aspects of the program. I did not think we had enough specific information to have high confidence that it did."32 The logical implication of Fingar's dissent is that the personal comments obtained in 2007 had not referred to a government-controlled research program. Had they done so, Fingar would not have had a reason to question that the decision applied to the entire program, and there would have been no cause for concern about "insufficient information."
Fingar acknowledged that the new information should have prompted "a real deep rethink of intentions," but that no such reconsideration was carried out. The team had spent several weeks under challenge from an openly skeptical White House examining the possibility that it had been deliberately misled by Iran, he recalled. Therefore, the new draft was not finished until late October, less than a week before the date McConnell had promised the senators it would be finished. It was the third such significant delay in completing the estimate, according to Fingar, and he was afraid those who had requested it would view a failure to deliver it by the promised date as a coverup for an administration bent on war.
As a result, a long list of questions that Fingar had expected to be analyzed remained unanswered in the estimate. "Did they want to rejoin the community of nations? Was it related to Saddam? These are the questions we should and would have tackled," Fingar said. Had the NIE team carried out such an analysis of Iranian motivation and intention on a more fundamental historical level, however, it would have discovered that Iranian policy toward weapons of mass destruction had been constrained by the regime's strict Shia Islamic jurisprudence. The analysts would have found that, during the Iran-Iraq War, the clerical elite's belief that the Quran prohibited such weapons had resulted in a fatwa against chemical weapons issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This had prevented Iran from using or manufacturing chemical weapons, despite nearly eight years of Iraqi chemical-weapons attacks on Iran.33
The strong predisposition to believe Iran was intent on nuclear weapons that had animated the 2007 estimate was similar to the systematic bias that had reversed the burden of proof on WMD in Iraq. On three different occasions, in 2001, 2005 and mid-2007, the weapons-proliferation analysts concluded that Iran had a nuclear weapons program, even though there was no hard evidence to support it — except for documents whose provenance alone should have raised serious questions about their reliability, had it been made known to the analysts. The analysts had finally admitted in the 2007 estimate, moreover, that the intelligence community had confidently referred to an Iranian nuclear weapons program in the 2005 and draft 2007 estimates that had not, in fact, existed.
This analysis of intelligence assessments about Iran's nuclear program does not extend to the NIEs on the subject since 2007, which may well have departed from the earlier patterns. The damage done by the earlier intelligence failure on Iran has had continuing consequences, however. The conclusions of the 2007 estimate in particular have given further legitimacy to a false political narrative: that the Iranian nuclear program is a cover for a covert nuclear weapons program. That false narrative has achieved the almost complete adherence of the news media and political elites. It represents a crucial political weapon wielded by opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and it will continue for years to come to plague efforts to move away from the U.S. demonization of Iran.
1 Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, Commission Report to the President, March 31, 2005, ch. 1, 168–69, http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/wmd_report.pdf.
2Commission Report to the President, ch. 1, 122-26, 117.
3 Interview with Ellen Laipson, February 1, 2009; interview with Laipson, February 4, 2013.
4 Interview with Thomas Fingar, Oxford, UK, February 7, 2013.
5 Interview with Ellen Laipson, February 13, 2013.
6 Herbert Krosney, Deadly Business: Legal Deals and Outlaw Weapons (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993), 263–65.
7 David Albright, Paul Brannan and Andrea Striker, "The Physics Research Center and Iran's Parallel Military Nuclear Program," Institute for Science and International Security, February 23, 2012, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/PHRC_report_23Feb….
8 Steve Coll, "U.S. Halted Nuclear Bid by Iran," Washington Post, November 17, 1992.
9 GOV/2008/4, February 22, 2008, 3-4.
10 See unclassified reports to Congress on "Acquisition of Technology," 1997-2003, CIA webpage on "Recurring Reports," https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/archived-reports-1.
11 Unclassified report to Congress on "Acquisition of Technology," 1997-2003, CIA webpage on "Recurring Reports," https://www.cia.gov/library/reporsts/archived-reports-1. On the CIA retreat from its previoius NIE on the ballistic missile threat, see Michael Dobbs, "How Politics Helped Redefine Threat," Washington Post, January 14, 2002, A1.
12 On the establishment of WINPAC, see Kathleen M. Vogel, Phantom Menace or Looming Danger? A New Framework for Assessing Bioweapons (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 20; and Peter Eisner and Knut Royce, The Italian Letter (Rodale, 2007), 120-21.
13 Interview with Paul Pillar, January 27, 2009.
14 Interview with Pillar, October 25, 2012.
15 Interview with Pillar, April 26, 2013.
16 Interview with Pillar, January 27, 2009.
17 Interview with Pillar, October 25, 2012.
18 Paul K. Kerr, Iran's Nuclear Program: Status, Congressional Research Service, September 19, 2009, 16n86.
19 Steven Erlanger, "Russia Says Sale of Atom Reactor Is Still On," New York Times, April 4, 1995; Steven Greenhouse, "U.S. Gives Russia Secret Data on Iran to Discourage Atom Deal," New York Times, April 4, 1995; and John Bolton, Surrender Is Not an Option (Threshold Editions, 2007), 59.
20Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007, 9. http://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/200712….
21 Interview with Pillar, January 27, 2009.
22 Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer, "Diving Deep, Unearthing a Surprise," Washington Post, December 8, 2007; interview with Fingar.
23 See Gareth Porter, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Just World Books, 2014), 197.
24 Voigt's account, provided to the author in an interview March 13, 2013, is reported in detail in Porter, Manufactured Crisis, 194-96.
25 Porter, Manufactured Crisis, 197-99; Gareth Porter, "The Iran Nuclear "Alleged Studies" Documents: The Evidence of Fraud," Middle East Policy 17, no. 4, 23-39.
26 Interview with Fingar. Although Fingar did not name the member or members, public statements by Senator Jay Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, suggest that he was the primary mover in the request.
27 Global Security Assessment, July 11, 2007, before the House Armed Services Com., 110th Cong., 1st sess., statement of Dr. Thomas S. Fingar, CIA deputy director of analysis; comparison of key judgments of the 2005 and 2007 NIEs on Iran's nuclear program in Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities.
28 Interview with Fingar.
30 "Key Judgments," in Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities.
31 Miller, "New Data."
32 Personal communication from Fingar, July 4, 2012. Fingar's dissent (as representative of the National Intelligence Council) is found in the "Key Judgments" document in the top right cell of the comparison between the 2005 and 2007 NIEs, which states, "DOE and NIC (National Intelligence Council) have moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represent a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program." The estimate judged "with high confidence" that the halt had taken place.
33 Porter, Manufactured Crisis, 59-65.
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.