In the dark, again

A presidential commission finds that, as in Iraq, a shortage of human agents and an overreliance on electronic surveillance are hampering intelligence gathering on Iran's nuclear program.

By Julian Borger
Published March 10, 2005 2:32PM (EST)

A presidential commission has found that U.S. intelligence on Iran is so patchy that it is impossible to reach definite conclusions about the country's suspected weapons programs, it was reported Wednesday. The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the U.S. Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction is due to report to President Bush by the end of this month, primarily on the intelligence fiasco over Iraq's nonexistent WMD.

Its findings could also knock a significant dent in the Bush administration's Iran policy, which is built on the presumption that Tehran is bent on building nuclear weapons and is not prepared to trade that for economic and diplomatic incentives, as European states hope. Late last year, CIA Director Porter Goss reported to Congress that Iran continued "to vigorously pursue indigenous programs to produce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons."

In response to Wednesday's report, Bush insisted that Washington was not alone in its skeptical view of Iran's intentions. "I think it's very important for the United States to continue to work with our friends and allies which believe that the Iranians want a nuclear weapon and which know that Iran possessing a nuclear weapon would be very destabilizing. In my trip to Europe, I discovered common ground with a lot of European nations which believe and are worried about Iranian intentions."

Washington has refused to get involved in talks with Tehran conducted by Britain, France and Germany. The Bush administration has also been lobbying to replace Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which discovered evidence that Iran has attempted to conceal its nuclear research but stopped short of declaring that the regime is trying to build weapons.

Iran insists its nuclear program is aimed exclusively at power generation for civilian purposes.

The New York Times quoted a source who had been briefed on the WMD commission's finding as describing U.S. intelligence on Iran as "scandalous." The panel will reportedly also be critical of U.S. intelligence on North Korea, but that shortcoming is generally seen as being more understandable in view of the isolated nature of North Korean society.

David Albright, a nuclear expert at the independent Institute for Science and International Security, said that whatever the problems faced by U.S. intelligence, inspections by the IAEA had brought much of Iran's program to light. "There are two parts to this question. What we do know about the nuclear program involving nuclear material, uranium enrichment and heavy water is hugely increased compared to two years ago, due to the IAEA's work," Albright said. "But when it comes to the decision making and weaponization, then we don't have direct knowledge ... But my question is: What else is it for?"

The problems dogging intelligence collection on Iran seem to be the same as those undermining the effort to spy on prewar Iraq: a shortage of human agents and an overreliance on electronic surveillance. An American spy network was penetrated and destroyed by Iranian intelligence in the late '80s, and the CIA does not appear to have recovered.

According to recent reports, the Pentagon has been attempting to take the issue into its own hands, infiltrating teams of agents into Iran to search for nuclear weapons sites that could be targeted by airstrikes. Those reports have been denied by the U.S. Defense Department.

The last U.S. multiagency assessment, known as the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, was in 2001 and is now under review. According to the New York Times, a classified update will be circulated this spring.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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