CIA vs the White House: the leaks go on

Reading today's story in the Washington Post by Dafna Linzer about a National Intelligence Estimate of Iran detailing the mad Mullah's progress toward achieving a nuclear weapon, one could be forgiven for thinking that we've been down this road before. The leaking of classified information is, after all, a felony. That doesn't seem to stop some employees at the CIA from assuming the job of policy makers by leaking information that buttresses their opinion that Iran is not an immediate threat to the United States and that the Administration is once again lying about a potential adversary's intentions.

The problem is that, as the article points out, only selected portions of the NIE were relayed to the reporter. Is it an accident that those portions that were leaked are at odds with the Administration's oft—stated claims that Iran, if left to its own devices, would be nuclear capable in a matter of a year or two?

In fact, the report predicts that Iran would be unable to build a weapon for ten years, something that would come as a huge surprise to the state of Israel. In an article written by Peter Hirschberg for Ha'aretz, the author quotes an Israeli military official giving a quite different analysis of the threat from Iran:

Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran could be capable of producing enriched uranium within six months and have nuclear weapons within two years. Earlier this month, head of Israeli military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi said that while Iran was not currently capable of enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb, 'it is only half a year away from achieving such independent capability — if it is not stopped by the West.'

And yet, the Washington Post story says that the consensus estimate of our intelligence community is that Iran would not be capable of producing a bomb for a decade:

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before 'early to mid—next decade,' according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures. The estimate is for acquisition of fissile material, but there is no firm view expressed on whether Iran would be ready by then with an implosion device, sources said.

The problem with Iran's 'technical limitations' is that the production of Highly Enriched (HE) uranium is not a huge technical problem to overcome. Hiding the process from prying eyes is the real dilemma. The two practical ways to separate U—235 (bomb material) from U—238 (uranium hexafluoride or 'hex') are gaseous diffusion and centrifuges. A gaseous diffusion plant would be impossible to hide given how big the works would have to be to efficiently separate the uranium. The centrifuge method is much easier to conceal but a bigger technical challenge given the engineering tolerances necessary to spin the centrifuge at the enormous speeds in order to separate the isotopes.
There is a third way and would in fact be a shortcut to a nuclear weapon; acquire the material from a third party. The article doesn't say whether or not the NIE deals with that possibility.

As for constructing an 'implosion' device, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was constructed using the so called 'gun design' where a sphere of U—235 sits at one end of a barrel and a smaller pellet of the material is fired into it thus achieving critical mass and detonating the bomb. This is less efficient than an implosion device but still packs a huge wallop.

The point I'm trying to make is that given the piecemeal release of parts of the NIE, the leaker has succeeded in spinning the Iran nuclear story toward a conclusion at odds with what the Administration has been saying since at least 2002 — that Iran must be prevented from enriching uranium because of how close they are to constructing a nuclear device.

Evidently, part of the Administration's concern was that the Iranian military had its own nuclear program separate from the civilian government:

Sources said the new timeline also reflects a fading of suspicions that Iran's military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort. But there is evidence of clandestine military work on missiles and centrifuge research and development that could be linked to a nuclear program, four sources said.

Suspicions are 'fading' but there is 'evidence' of clandestine military work on centrifuges? It appears that either we have someone wanting to cover all bases at the same time or we have no consensus in our intelligence community on the issue. If this is the case, how can the estimate of Iranian capabilities be taken seriously? Is there another estimate at odds with the conclusion leaked in the article?

We don't know which is why the leaking of this NIE should be seen in the context of the continuing war being waged by a faction at the CIA on the White House. Is it an accident that much of the information leaked confirms what one former CIA agent has been saying about Iran since at least March?

Ray McGovern is on the steering committee for the radical group of ex—CIA agents at war with the White House known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Here's what Mr. McGovern had to say in an article for Tom Paine, an on—line leftist magazine:

Let's look briefly at the scariest rationale—If Iran is allowed to produce fissile material, it may transfer it to terrorists bent on exploding a nuclear device in an American city.

This seems to be the main boogeyman, whether real or contrived, in U.S. policymaking councils. Its unexamined premise — the flimsily supported but strongly held view that Iran's leaders would give terrorists a nuclear device or the wherewithal to make one — is being promoted as revealed truth. Serious analysts who voice skepticism about this and who list the strong disincentives to such a step by Iran are regarded as apostates.

For those of you with a sense of deja vu, we have indeed been here before — just a few years ago. And the experience should have been instructive. In the case of Iraq, CIA and other analysts strongly resisted the notion that Saddam Hussein would risk providing nuclear, chemical, or biological materials to al—Qaeda or other terrorists — except as a desperate gesture if and when he had his back to the wall.

Similarly, it strains credulity beyond the breaking point to posit that the Iranian leaders would give up control of such material to terrorists.

Since Mr. McGovern wrote that article in March, Iran's ruling Guardian Council has by most accounts rigged an election so that a hard line militarist with ties to terrorist groups was elected President. Even before President elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken office, a crackdown on dissidents as well as an ideological purge of key government and civil institutions has been underway in Iran. And President elect Ahmadinejad has made it clear that he sees the Islamic revolution as a worldwide phenomena that will conquer 'every mountaintop.'

Now, we can choose to believe what we read and what we see or we can listen to the very same people were saying in July of 2001 that al Qaeda was not a threat. And let's not forget most of these same analysts concurred in the estimates regarding Iraqi WMD.

The point is that regardless of recent steps to reform our intelligence capability, it appears that we're still working with a dysfunctional system where agency personnel feel perfectly comfortable with leaking classified information in a bid to influence both Administration policy and the political process. No one expects everybody to agree on everything. But the American people have a right to expect that the unelected bureaucrats who work at the CIA allow policy making to reside with those we have entrusted for the task — the elected representatives of the people.

Rick Moran is proprietor of the blog Rightwing Nuthouse

Reading today's story in the Washington Post by Dafna Linzer about a National Intelligence Estimate of Iran detailing the mad Mullah's progress toward achieving a nuclear weapon, one could be forgiven for thinking that we've been down this road before. The leaking of classified information is, after all, a felony. That doesn't seem to stop some employees at the CIA from assuming the job of policy makers by leaking information that buttresses their opinion that Iran is not an immediate threat to the United States and that the Administration is once again lying about a potential adversary's intentions.

The problem is that, as the article points out, only selected portions of the NIE were relayed to the reporter. Is it an accident that those portions that were leaked are at odds with the Administration's oft—stated claims that Iran, if left to its own devices, would be nuclear capable in a matter of a year or two?

In fact, the report predicts that Iran would be unable to build a weapon for ten years, something that would come as a huge surprise to the state of Israel. In an article written by Peter Hirschberg for Ha'aretz, the author quotes an Israeli military official giving a quite different analysis of the threat from Iran:

Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Iran could be capable of producing enriched uranium within six months and have nuclear weapons within two years. Earlier this month, head of Israeli military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi said that while Iran was not currently capable of enriching uranium to build a nuclear bomb, 'it is only half a year away from achieving such independent capability — if it is not stopped by the West.'

And yet, the Washington Post story says that the consensus estimate of our intelligence community is that Iran would not be capable of producing a bomb for a decade:

The new estimate extends the timeline, judging that Iran will be unlikely to produce a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for an atomic weapon, before 'early to mid—next decade,' according to four sources familiar with that finding. The sources said the shift, based on a better understanding of Iran's technical limitations, puts the timeline closer to 2015 and in line with recently revised British and Israeli figures. The estimate is for acquisition of fissile material, but there is no firm view expressed on whether Iran would be ready by then with an implosion device, sources said.

The problem with Iran's 'technical limitations' is that the production of Highly Enriched (HE) uranium is not a huge technical problem to overcome. Hiding the process from prying eyes is the real dilemma. The two practical ways to separate U—235 (bomb material) from U—238 (uranium hexafluoride or 'hex') are gaseous diffusion and centrifuges. A gaseous diffusion plant would be impossible to hide given how big the works would have to be to efficiently separate the uranium. The centrifuge method is much easier to conceal but a bigger technical challenge given the engineering tolerances necessary to spin the centrifuge at the enormous speeds in order to separate the isotopes.
There is a third way and would in fact be a shortcut to a nuclear weapon; acquire the material from a third party. The article doesn't say whether or not the NIE deals with that possibility.

As for constructing an 'implosion' device, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was constructed using the so called 'gun design' where a sphere of U—235 sits at one end of a barrel and a smaller pellet of the material is fired into it thus achieving critical mass and detonating the bomb. This is less efficient than an implosion device but still packs a huge wallop.

The point I'm trying to make is that given the piecemeal release of parts of the NIE, the leaker has succeeded in spinning the Iran nuclear story toward a conclusion at odds with what the Administration has been saying since at least 2002 — that Iran must be prevented from enriching uranium because of how close they are to constructing a nuclear device.

Evidently, part of the Administration's concern was that the Iranian military had its own nuclear program separate from the civilian government:

Sources said the new timeline also reflects a fading of suspicions that Iran's military has been running its own separate and covert enrichment effort. But there is evidence of clandestine military work on missiles and centrifuge research and development that could be linked to a nuclear program, four sources said.

Suspicions are 'fading' but there is 'evidence' of clandestine military work on centrifuges? It appears that either we have someone wanting to cover all bases at the same time or we have no consensus in our intelligence community on the issue. If this is the case, how can the estimate of Iranian capabilities be taken seriously? Is there another estimate at odds with the conclusion leaked in the article?

We don't know which is why the leaking of this NIE should be seen in the context of the continuing war being waged by a faction at the CIA on the White House. Is it an accident that much of the information leaked confirms what one former CIA agent has been saying about Iran since at least March?

Ray McGovern is on the steering committee for the radical group of ex—CIA agents at war with the White House known as Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). Here's what Mr. McGovern had to say in an article for Tom Paine, an on—line leftist magazine:

Let's look briefly at the scariest rationale—If Iran is allowed to produce fissile material, it may transfer it to terrorists bent on exploding a nuclear device in an American city.

This seems to be the main boogeyman, whether real or contrived, in U.S. policymaking councils. Its unexamined premise — the flimsily supported but strongly held view that Iran's leaders would give terrorists a nuclear device or the wherewithal to make one — is being promoted as revealed truth. Serious analysts who voice skepticism about this and who list the strong disincentives to such a step by Iran are regarded as apostates.

For those of you with a sense of deja vu, we have indeed been here before — just a few years ago. And the experience should have been instructive. In the case of Iraq, CIA and other analysts strongly resisted the notion that Saddam Hussein would risk providing nuclear, chemical, or biological materials to al—Qaeda or other terrorists — except as a desperate gesture if and when he had his back to the wall.

Similarly, it strains credulity beyond the breaking point to posit that the Iranian leaders would give up control of such material to terrorists.

Since Mr. McGovern wrote that article in March, Iran's ruling Guardian Council has by most accounts rigged an election so that a hard line militarist with ties to terrorist groups was elected President. Even before President elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken office, a crackdown on dissidents as well as an ideological purge of key government and civil institutions has been underway in Iran. And President elect Ahmadinejad has made it clear that he sees the Islamic revolution as a worldwide phenomena that will conquer 'every mountaintop.'

Now, we can choose to believe what we read and what we see or we can listen to the very same people were saying in July of 2001 that al Qaeda was not a threat. And let's not forget most of these same analysts concurred in the estimates regarding Iraqi WMD.

The point is that regardless of recent steps to reform our intelligence capability, it appears that we're still working with a dysfunctional system where agency personnel feel perfectly comfortable with leaking classified information in a bid to influence both Administration policy and the political process. No one expects everybody to agree on everything. But the American people have a right to expect that the unelected bureaucrats who work at the CIA allow policy making to reside with those we have entrusted for the task — the elected representatives of the people.

Rick Moran is proprietor of the blog Rightwing Nuthouse