Lessons of Iraq Aided Intelligence On Iran

By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The starkly different view of Iran's nuclear program that emerged from U.S. spy agencies this week was the product of a surge in clandestine intelligence-gathering in Iran as well as radical changes in the way the intelligence community analyzes information.

Drawing lessons from the intelligence debacle over supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell required agencies to consult more sources and to say to a larger intelligence community audience precisely what they know and how they know it -- and to acknowledge, to a degree previously unheard of, what they do not know.

" 'Do not know' is a new technical term for an NIE," said a senior official who was involved in preparation of the report, known as a National Intelligence Estimate.

While intelligence officials say the new conclusion about the Iranian program proved that the reforms were sound, the wide gap between Monday's report and previous assessments also left the agencies vulnerable to accusations that officials had failed for too long to grasp a fundamental change in course by Iran's leaders.

The new report upended years of previous assessments by asserting that the Islamic republic halted the weapons side of its nuclear program in 2003. The report, while expressing concern about Iran's rapidly growing civilian nuclear energy program, contradicted assertions by top Bush administration officials and previous intelligence assessments that Iran has been bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.

"The new report brings the U.S. intelligence community in line with what the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and several European governments were saying years ago," said David Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector and president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.

In 2005, a National Intelligence Estimate had said Iran was "determined" to acquire nuclear weapons, a view that meshed with the foreign policy of an administration that in 2002 declared Iran to be part of an "axis of evil." But former and current U.S. intelligence officials said the flaws in that report reflected only the extreme difficulty of penetrating Iran's nuclear program.

"It's the hardest damn target out there -- harder than North Korea," said an intelligence official who contributed to the report. "This is a program they tried very hard to hide from us, and it was hard even to fathom who was in charge."

The 2005 report's assertions that Iran was secretly working on nuclear weapons turned out to be accurate, but dated. Ellen Laipson, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said the earlier judgment was based on credible information that may have been the best available at the time.

"It's not getting it wrong, it's that [the intelligence] collection may have been insufficient," said Laipson, now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a defense think tank. "It takes years to know the truth."

A pivotal moment occurred in early summer 2005, when President Bush discussed the new Iran NIE with advisers during a routine intelligence briefing. Why, he asked, was it so hard to get information about Iran's nuclear program?

The exchange, described by a senior U.S. official who witnessed it, helped instigate the intelligence community's most aggressive attempt to penetrate Iran's highly secretive nuclear program. Over the coming months, the CIA established a new Iran Operations Division that brought analysts and clandestine collectors together to search for hard evidence.

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