Let me start by saying I've got a lot of respect for Dafna Linzer. Along with Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus, she is one of the remaining bright spots at the WaPo. And I will get into how her most recent article shows an admirable level of skepticism and balance.
But can I make a sincere request, Dafna?. In the future, would you please refuse to grant SAOs offering the following quote anonymity?
"Taking into account the assessments made by the intelligence community, and others, I just don't have a lot of confidence in the assessments," said a senior administration official who was heavily involved in guiding the White House's use of intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs.
I mean, if
Dick Cheney someone in the White House wants to balance the skepticism expressed in the rest of this article with his attack on CIA abilities, make him do so on the record. There is nothing about this quote that could be considered sensitive. And, really, the American people deserve to know if Dick Cheney is corrupting intelligence again by personally attacking the agency. Please, Dafna--everyone covering this--no more anonymity in the service of politicizing intelligence.
But like I said, the rest of the article provides a respectable degree of balance. Linzer recites the sum of the intelligence the Administration has so far
concocted collected, which consists of two things: A laptop and its contents, and the word of an imprisoned Pakistani:
In this article, Linzer describes the laptop as,
allegedly stolen from an Iranian whom German intelligence tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit as an informant. It was whisked out of the country by another Iranian who offered it up to foreign intelligence officials in Turkey as evidence of a nuclear weapons program.
In other words, the laptop supposedly comes from someone German intelligence found value in. But it doesn't come from him directly. Rather, it comes from an unnamed Iranian who apparently stole it from the Iranian of interest and handed it over to foreign intelligence officials. From the context, you might think these foreign intelligence officials are German, too. But here's what Linzer reported on the laptop in the past.
According to one official with access to the material, a "walk-in" source approached U.S intelligence earlier this month with more than 1,000 pages purported to be Iranian drawings and technical documents, including a nuclear warhead design and modifications to enable Iranian ballistic missiles to deliver an atomic strike.
The official said the CIA remains unsure about the authenticity of the documents and how they came into the informant's possession. A second official would say only that there are questions about the source of the information.
Officials interviewed by The Washington Post did not know the identity of the source or whether the individual is connected to an Iranian exile group that made fresh accusations about Iran at a news conference Wednesday in Paris.
So we've got a laptop that arrived out of nowhere, with all the proof you need to say that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb--we might just call the laptop "War in a Box." On the laptop, there was evidence of three things (I should say, we have learned it contains evidence of three things--they've been leaking each new aspect of this out little by little over the last year and a half, perhaps hoping that we believe it represents new intelligence):
- Plans for adaptations to Iran's Shahab-3 missiles. A description of these missile adaptations was the first piece of evidence revealed from this laptop (by Colin Powell, in some last minute shillery before he left the Administration). But, after the Bush Administration has been pointing to this as proof of intent to develop a nuclear bomb for over a year, we learn this:
Experts at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico ran the schematics through computer simulations. They determined two things: The drawings were an effort to expand the nose cone of the Shahab-3 to carry a nuclear warhead, and the modification plans, if executed, would not work.
Negroponte appeared to hint as much in his public briefing when he said Iran had not yet acquired the ability to integrate a nuclear weapon into its ballistic missiles.
The missile modifications, at first thought to have been based on a North Korean design, are now believed to be the handiwork of Iranian engineers. "This clearly wasn't done by the A-team of Iran's program," said one nuclear expert who has analyzed the documents. "It might have been given to an outside team or subcontracted out as an assignment or project for the military, though."
In other words, the missile designs wouldn't work for a nuclear weapon. Well, since the Iranians claim the adaptations are meant to prepare missiles for a space program, there might be a reason for that.
- Drawings of a 400-meter tunnel apparently "designed for an underground atomic test." Linzer points out,
U.S. and U.N. experts who have studied them said the undated drawings do not clearly fit into a larger picture. Nowhere, for example, does the word "nuclear" appear on them. The authorship is unknown, and there is no evidence of an associated program to acquire, assemble and construct the components of such a site.
Given that we know the US has handed Iran a blueprint for a nuclear bomb, given that we have large suspicions about the documents floated to "prove" Iraq had the intent to reconstitute its own nuclear program, I'd say this evidence is very thin indeed.
- Designs from a firm to produce "green salt," an "intermediate product in the conversion of uranium to a gas." But apparently, this firm (and its plans to produce green salt, presumably) are defunct:
Kimeya Madon appears to have ceased operation in the early spring of 2003, leading U.S. and allied intelligence services to suspect that it was a front company for the Iranian military. The last set of known drawings for the conversion facility are dated February 2003, as U.N. inspectors were making their first trip to Iran and U.S. troops were poised to invade neighboring Iraq.
There's one more event that happened in February 2003 that Linzer's sources don't mention, but bears mention. February 2003 is when the large INC presence in Teheran closed up shop and headed for northern Iran. They were due out in January 2003, but then postpoened their departure until early-February. There may be absolutely no connection. But let's just keep all those dates in mind, shall we?
So that's the laptop. A set of documents with dodgy providence, the contents of which have been partly debunked in the interim period.
And we're to believe that one person had evidence of three different aspects of Iran's nuclear development program on one laptop. Having studied Iraqi WMD scientists a bit, I can think of maybe five people in Iraq who would have even had access to information from these three unrelated areas. But those people certainly wouldn't have had the blueprints for all these areas on their laptop. But hey, who knows. Maybe those "crazy mullahs" are just more loosey-goosey with their intelligence that Saddam was?
As a side note, at the same time as this laptop was first made public, the People's Mujahedeen also claimed--to apparent Franklin-AIPAC leakee Steve Weisman (link to come), among others--that Iran "had bought blueprints for a nuclear bomb." We now know, thanks to James Risen, that that blueprint came from US intelligence as part of the botched Merlin program. Which raises serious questions about where the rest of their information comes from.
The other piece of evidence the US is peddling to make the case that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb is evidence from an "imprisoned Pakistani arms dealer" who said he sold Iran some centrifuges in the 1990s. But we learn of this source that,
[Bukhary Syed] Tahir is held in a high-security prison, without charges, for his alleged role as a manufacturer, salesman and partner in Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's nuclear network, which supplied materials to Libya, Iran and North Korea. After more than a year of denials about shipments to Iran in the 1990s, Tahir has changed his story and now claims to have recalled a previously forgotten sale, according to U.S. sources.
Two sources with direct knowledge of Tahir's recent claims said they did not know what led him to offer a new account. They had no information on whether his new claims were made under duress or came after promises of release.
I wonder if Tahir knows Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi? Or rather, perhaps he knows what al-Libi knows, that sometimes, to stop the torture, it's enough to tell the Americans what they want to hear. I mean, how can we believe anything coming from a American detainee anymore? Find me someone--not a defector--who will testify to this while still free, and I might believe it.
As I said, Linzer expresses an appropriate degree of skepticism regarding this intelligence, describing this intelligence as,
Often circumstantial, usually ambiguous and always incomplete, the evidence has confounded efforts by policymakers, intelligence officials and U.S. allies to reach a confident judgment about Iran's intentions and a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Unfortunately, by using some of the same approaches they used with Iraq, the Neocons appear to making some headway:
British intelligence, asked for a second opinion, concurred last year that the documents appear authentic. German and French officials consider the information troubling, sources said, but Russian experts have dismissed it as inconclusive. IAEA inspectors, who were highly skeptical of U.S. intelligence on Iraq, have begun to pursue aspects of the laptop information that appear to bolster previous leads.
"There is always a chance this could be the biggest scam perpetrated on U.S. intelligence," one U.S. source acknowledged. "But it's such a large body of documents and such strong indications of nuclear weapons intent, and nothing seems so inconsistent."
It bears remembering that one of the ways the INC proved so perceptive about UNSCOM's (and the CIA's) expectations of Iraq's weapons systems and thereby produced evidence that was consistent with what they already had is because Chalabi basically interviewed Scott Ritter and found out what UNSCOM knew and what they were still looking for. And, voila, those things they were still looking for started appearing out of the INC defector woodwork. And the stuff Linzer mentions that seems consistent with known information doesn't seem like it'd be that tough to ferret out.
Fueling suspicion, however, is the fact that the offices mentioned on the laptop documents are connected to an Iranian military officer, Mohsen Fakrizadeh.
Fakrizadeh is believed by U.S. intelligence to be the director of Project 111, a nuclear research effort that includes work on missile development. For years, U.S. intelligence knew of an Iranian endeavor that the Iranians code-named Project 110, believed to be the military arm of the country's nuclear program. U.S. officials believe its sequential successor may be the link between the country's nuclear energy program and its military, but they cannot be certain without more information from Fakrizadeh. "We want him produced for U.N. inspectors," said one U.S. source.
I mean, if they've been asking to interview Fakrizadeh, how hard would it be to know to insert his name into your faked evidence?
Now let me be clear. I strongly suspect Iran has the motive and the intention to at least develop the capacity to enrich uranium. I would not be surprised if some factions within Iran intended to develop a nuclear bomb.
But this stuff stinks to high heaven. It resembles the shoddy intelligence they dredged up to justify war with Iraq. It's validity must be questioned for two reasons: we have every reason to doubt the provenance of the laptop, on which most of this evidence arrived in US hands. And we have every reason to doubt Tahir's testimony, given the widespread evidence we're using torture to get detainees to tell us what we want. I just hope Congress--and our allies in Europe--take a good look at Linzer's reporting before they get snowed again.