Diving Deep, Unearthing a Surprise

President Bush talked to reporters at the White House a day after a National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program.
President Bush talked to reporters at the White House a day after a National Intelligence Estimate revealed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 8, 2007

They call them "deep dives," special briefings for President Bush to meet with not just his advisers but also the analysts who study Iran in the bowels of the intelligence world. Starting last year, aides arranged a series of sessions for Bush to "get his hands dirty," in the White House vernacular for digging into intelligence to understand what is known and not known.

Preparing for what might be the defining foreign policy challenge of his final years in office, Bush was struck by the limited intelligence on Tehran's nuclear program and pressed for more, said officials familiar with the sessions. But if Bush hoped for solid evidence that Iran was trying to build nuclear bombs, what came back proved more surprising -- Iran did have a nuclear weapons program but shut it down four years ago.

The new report on Iran released this week underscored the fluid nature of U.S. intelligence and its uncomfortable marriage with the nation's foreign policy. Five years after the botched assessment of Iraq's weapons programs, the new information posed profound challenges to the Bush administration: How could officials be sure it was right this time? What would it mean for Bush's policy of international confrontation with Tehran? And should it be revealed to Congress, U.S. allies and the public at large?

While deeply sensitive to any suggestion of improperly influencing intelligence, White House officials were initially skeptical of the new data. "You want to make sure it's not disinformation," Bush said at a news conference. The intelligence agencies created a special "red team" of analysts who set out to determine whether the information could be fake. They concluded it was not.

As they digested the new findings, Bush and his aides chose to focus on the part that confirmed their suspicions -- that Iran previously had a secret weapons program and might still restart it. In their discussions at the White House, officials said, no one suggested Bush tone down his public rhetoric or change his policy.

Still, they understood the sensitivity of the new conclusions. At first, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, decided to keep the new findings secret, but reluctantly reversed course in a flurry of discussions last weekend out of fear of leaks and charges of a coverup, officials said. At that point, only the Israelis had gotten a heads-up. Congress, European allies and the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency were not given full briefings about the report until hours before it was released.

That irritated European allies. "The administration is going to pay a price for not allowing allies in on it at an earlier date," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former State Department nonproliferation official. "The French had carried the administration's water on this issue and really went out on a limb to get the European Union to adopt tough sanctions. And now the rug has been pulled out from under them."

The origin of the latest intelligence can be traced to the summer of 2004, when an Iranian man turned up in Turkey with a laptop computer and the phone number of a German intelligence officer. He called the number, and within 24 hours, analysts at CIA headquarters in Langley were poring over thousands of pages of drawings and information stored on the computer indicating that Iran had been trying to retrofit its longest-range missile, the Shahab III, to carry a nuclear payload. It was designated Project 1-11 and seemed to confirm a nuclear weapons program.

The information retrieved from the laptop formed the backbone of a National Intelligence Estimate issued in 2005 that declared "with high confidence" that Iran was working to build a bomb. Armed with that, the Bush administration spent the past two years pressing European allies, Russia and China to sanction Iran if it did not give up its uranium enrichment program, despite Tehran's insistence that it was only for civilian energy.

With tension rising, Congress asked last year for a new NIE. Bush was pushing for more information as well during his deep-dive sessions. "We've got to get more information on Iran so we know what they're up to," one official paraphrased Bush saying.

As analysts scrambled to finish by April, they were reaching the conclusion that Iran was still a decade away from nuclear weapons, senior intelligence and administration officials said. For three years, the intelligence community had not obtained new information on Project 1-11, vexing administration officials who worried that a cold trail would lead to doubts about the reliability of the laptop's information. "They just wouldn't budge," complained one such official, who declined to be identified to speak candidly.

By June, analysts had an almost complete draft of a new NIE, and it provoked a sharp debate. "The less data you have, the more you argue," said a source familiar with the discussions. Some officials pressed the CIA's Iran desk to follow up on Project 1-11. CIA Director Michael V. Hayden and National Security Agency Director Keith B. Alexander responded by directing vast manpower and technology toward spying on Iranians who may have been involved in the warhead effort.

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