NIE in the sky?
By James Zumwalt
The Washington Times
December 18, 2007
With the recent publication of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) suggesting Iran may have halted work on its nuclear weapons capability in 2003, we recalled the intelligence reporting received in 1991 as we prepared to advance into Kuwait during Desert Storm.
Assessments made it clear a formidable Iraqi army stood between us and our objective. Aerial photos revealed massive networks of bunkers.
Intelligence, from an array of other sources, supported the assessment thousands of enemy soldiers occupied the networks. But one very important intelligence input was missing from the assessment — human intelligence or “humint.” Absent the benefit of human eyes and ears on the ground, i.e., an observer, spy or defector providing timely,
subjective information, we lacked good intelligence on enemy troop levels, willingness to fight, their ability to fight, etc. Advancing into Kuwait, we encountered little resistance.
Unbeknownst to the analysts, many Iraqi soldiers deserted under cover of darkness. What Saddam Hussein predicted would be the “mother of all battles” became the mother of all defeats as U.S. ground forces routed the Iraqis in four days.
The science of analyzing intelligence is imperfect. Like modern art, it is subject to personal interpretation. At times, intelligence can provide clear evidence of enemy intent. In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, it proved most embarrassing for the Soviet ambassador, after
being called in by the U.S. State Department and denying the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, to be shown indisputable evidence of same in aerial photographs.
Edging toward war, Washington remained steadfastly firm, forcing Moscow to back down and remove the missiles.
Only later did we discover such U.S. steadfastness was the result of critical humint fed to Washington by a Soviet spy inside the Kremlin, thus providing Washington with a decided edge throughout the crisis.
In the Desert Storm example, no humint was available to indicate enemy levels and intentions; in the Cuban missile crisis example, enemy intentions were clear. Thus, intelligence assessments become a balancing act of trying to determine what elements should be given more weight and which should receive less.
Sometimes analysts give humint the wrong weight. In December 1941, as the Japanese navy silently approached Pearl Harbor bent on war-making, analysts felt war was not imminent, giving greater weight to the words and actions of Japanese diplomats in Washington they believed to be bent on peacemaking. Thus, even when humint is available, intelligence analysis is seldom perfect.
There are several reasons for concern about NIE’s about-face on Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.
The assessment appears to have been triggered primarily by recent humint input. Worrisome is the weight given to what may well be a counter-intelligence effort by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The humint relied upon is a claim by senior IRGC official Ali Rez Asgari who defected during a February trip to Turkey. Mr.
Asgari told a foreign intelligence agency all activity on Iran’s nuclear weapons program stopped four years ago. His claim purported was supported by intercepted communications among Iranian officials.
Such information needs to be carefully scrutinized as we have learned
some lessons from the Cold War. We now know “critically timed”
defections as well as intercepted communications within a targeted
country could conceivably be a counter-intelligence initiative. The
Iranians are well aware of Moscow’s successful use in the past of
double agents — Soviet spies who defected to the West only to further
U.S.S.R. objectives in obfuscating Moscow’s sinister intent.
The role of one such Soviet double agent, Yuri Noshenko, remains a
mystery. His timely defection to the United States, shortly after
President Kennedy’s assassination as the Warren Commission began
investigating whether accused killer Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, has
long been cited as a disinformation effort to divert suspicion from
Moscow. While claiming coincidentally to have just reviewed the KGB’s
files on Oswald, who visited the U.S.S.R. prior to the assassination,
he said he found no evidence of Soviet complicity. Yet Noshenko later
failed two polygraph exams.
Surprisingly, the commission accepted the humint, finding Oswald did
act alone. Some critics believe the failed polygraphs cast questionable
light on the timing of Noshenko’s defection. Likewise, the timing of
Mr. Asgari’s defection must be questioned, coming at a time the
Iranians realized even America’s European allies were losing patience
with Tehran and considering more severe economic sanctions. Blindly
accepting Asgari’s claim is a “pie in the sky” approach to NIE
There are also major concerns about the experience and motivation of the U.S. analysts involved. Newsmax reports it was prepared by inexperienced State Department political and intelligence analysts who, as Democratic Party activists, politicized the assessment. Thus, it was either their political leanings or their inexperience that resulted in
several shortcomings in the NIE.
First, they relied upon humint unvetted by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Second, as pointed out by Iran expert Alireza Jafarzadeh, they failed to focus on actions of the IRGC — the military arm created in Iran by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 to safeguard and export the Islamic Revolution. Mr. Jafarzadeh, who first revealed the existence of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, reports the IRGC holds the keys to the
country’s nuclear weapons program. IRGC leaders who are also nuclear scientists, in collaboration with Iranian universities, are fully committed to achieving what they believe is Tehran’s religious mandate to be so armed.
Yet the NIE makes little mention of the IRGC. Third, the acceptance of Mr. Asgari’s claims Iran’s nuclear weapons program ceased in 2003 conflicts with Iranian purchases two years later of 18 North Korean BM-25 long range, land-mobile missiles that are used to carry nuclear warheads.
A post-report concern is the effort just this month by Iran to secretly obtain uranium from Bolivia, through the good offices of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dedicated follower of Khomeini and believes in the ayatollah’s assertion, “Islam makes it incumbent [for believers] to prepare for the conquest of countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country of the world … [by fulfilling Islam’s mandate to] kill all unbelievers.”
Devout believer Mr. Ahmadinejad has made clear, several times, his intention to wipe the U.S. and Israel off the map. So there should be no doubt his intentions remain focused on obtaining nuclear weaponry with which to make good on his threat.
Against this backdrop of declared Iranian intentions to destroy us, of past questionable U.S. intelligence assessments, of the timing of Mr. Asgari’s defection, of the inexperience and motivations of the analysts, can we afford to put the world at risk by blindly accepting
it? Previously, the U.S. was able to bounce back following flawed intelligence assessments.
But that will not be the case if we are wrong about Iran.
Therefore, the only assessment we can afford to accept is one obtained via verifiable inspection of a nuclear weapons development program Tehran keeps hidden deep beneath the Earth’s surface, while claiming peaceful intent.
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam
wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.
National Intelligence Estimate 101