December 10, 2007

Brits To CIA: Psyche!

The latest national intelligence estimate (NIE) on Iran has come under considerable criticism for ist conclusion that the mullahs stopped pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003. Not only have Americans questioned the sudden reversal of the analysis, but even the Europeans wonder what the CIA has been drinking of late. The British have "grave doubts" about the veracity of this conclusion, and openly speculate that the CIA fell into a disinformation trap:

British spy chiefs have grave doubts that Iran has mothballed its nuclear weapons programme, as a US intelligence report claimed last week, and believe the CIA has been hoodwinked by Teheran.

The timing of the CIA report has also provoked fury in the British Government, where officials believe it has undermined efforts to impose tough new sanctions on Iran and made an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities more likely.

The security services in London want concrete evidence to allay concerns that the Islamic state has fed disinformation to the CIA.

The report used new evidence - including human sources, wireless intercepts and evidence from an Iranian defector - to conclude that Teheran suspended the bomb-making side of its nuclear programme in 2003. But British intelligence is concerned that US spy chiefs were so determined to avoid giving President Bush a reason to go to war - as their reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes did in Iraq - that they got it wrong this time.

A senior British official delivered a withering assessment of US intelligence-gathering abilities in the Middle East and revealed that British spies shared the concerns of Israeli defence chiefs that Iran was still pursuing nuclear weapons.

Both the British and Israeli intelligence agencies operate on the conclusion that the Iranians still pursue nuclear weapons. This analysis has the benefit of explaining Iranian intransigence on IAEA compliance now, and the obfuscation the mullahs conducted before and after the 2003 revelation of their program. It also has the benefit of working on a worst-case scenario and pressing it forward until the Iranians allow solid verification that they have not pursued parallel programs in civilian and military nuclear programs.

The Telegraph also notes that, despite the media reporting on this side of the pond, the NIE did not reflect a consensus analysis among American intel agents. Middle-ranking agents just outside the political circle believe that the Iranians have never stopped pursuing nuclear weapons. They also tell the Telegraph that the US lost a number of intel assets in Iran shortly after the program got exposed, and that the basis for the new conclusion seems very weak.

"It's not as if the American intelligence agencies are regarded as brilliant performers in that region," British intelligence sources told the Telegraph. Nor are they adept at diplomatic isolation. The Brown government is said to be furious about the publication of the NIE, as Britain and France have worked hard to secure a third round of sanctions against Iran. Now the possibility of getting Russian and Chinese cooperation have completely dissipated, and Iran stands at the edge of freeing itself economically and diplomatically with its uranium-enrichment program intact -- and all of the plans necessary to build a bomb. Within months, a 3,000-centrifuge cascade could provide the core material for a weapon, and the Shahab-3 could carry it all the way to Eastern Europe ... and Israel.

The Bush administration released the NIE within days of its briefing. Some have questioned that decision, although given its authors and the track record of the CIA, it would have leaked shortly thereafter had the White House kept it classified. This may have helped expose a faction in the CIA that has determined to manipulate intelligence in order to conduct their own foreign policy. When even the Europeans scratch their heads at this assessment, Americans have to wonder whether the CIA has gone so far off the rails as to make it impossible for them to get back on track.


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