Did the CIA 'Cook the Books' on Iran?

Do you remember that 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate which concluded -- to virtually everyone's astonishment -- that four years earlier Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program?

Publication of that NIE cut the ground out from under the Bush administration's efforts to prevent Iran from getting its hands on a nuclear bomb.  After all, why pressure the mullahs in Teheran to stop a program they'd already abandoned?  And, of course, the NIE's conclusion was cited by President Bush's political enemies as (further) evidence that the President and his team were so driven by their hard-line ideology that they (as usual) ignored the evidence provided by our country's senior intelligence analysts.

Now, thanks to a brilliant piece of journalism by German investigative reporter Bruno Schirra published in the July 20 edition of The Wall Street Journal Europe, we have evidence to suggest that the 2007 NIE's conclusion about Iran's nuclear bomb program wasn't merely wrong, but corrupt.

Here's a summary of Schirra's explosive article:

Over in Germany the Federal Prosecutor had charged a German-Iranian businessman with brokering supplies for Iran's nuclear bomb program, thus violating the country's War Weapons Control Law and its Foreign Trade Act.  But a lower court in Frankfurt refused to try the case on grounds that at the time of the businessman's alleged activities, Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program.  According to Shirra, the court actually cited the 2007 U.S. NIE as evidence of its conclusion.

But the Federal Prosecutor appealed the lower court's decision to Germany's Federal Supreme Court -- and that's when Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) stepped in by submitting what's called an "office testimony," which Schirra defines as "factual statements about the Iranian program that can be proved in a court of law."

According to Schirra:

The BND...has amassed evidence of a sophisticated Iranian nuclear weapons program that continued after 2003....In a 30-page legal opinion on March 26 and a May 27 press release in a case about possible illegal trading with Iran, a special national security panel of the Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe cites from a May 2008 BND report, saying the agency "showed comprehensively" that "development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003.

According to the judges, the BND supplemented its findings on August 28, 2008, showing "the development of a new missile launcher and the similarities between Iran's acquisition efforts and those of countries with already known nuclear weapons programs, such as Pakistan and North Korea".....In their May press release, the judges come out even more clear [sic], stating unequivocally that "Iran in 2007 worked on the development of nuclear weapons."

Simply put, while our country's intelligence service believed that Iran had abandoned its nuclear bomb program in 2003, Germany's intelligence service was amassing evidence that the Iranian bomb program was ongoing.

This raises three obvious and crucially important questions:

  • Was our country's intelligence service aware of the BND's evidence and conclusions when its analysts wrote that 2007 NIE about Iran?
  • If not, why not?
  • If our intelligence service was aware of the BND's evidence and conclusions, then how and why did the authors of that 2007 NIE reach the opposite conclusion about Iran's nuclear bomb program?

To answer these questions, you need a bit of background about how National Intelligence Estimates are produced, and of how our country's intelligence service works with our allies' intelligence services.  What follows is based on my own experience during the Reagan Administration, as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and then as Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

Our country's intelligence service is actually a collection of more than a dozen agencies including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the intelligence services of each military service, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and a few others we won't talk about.  Even after all the reorganizations of the last few years -- it's now so screwed up that if my life depended on it I couldn't draw an accurate chart -- there's a unit that sits in the office of the Director of National Intelligence called the National Intelligence Council.  The NIC is comprised of the intelligence community's most senior analysts, and it's the NIC that produces the National Intelligence Estimates.

These NIEs reflect the overall, coordinated judgments and conclusions of all the various agencies and components of our country's intelligence service.  They include the evidence on which these key judgments are based, and when properly done they even include dissents by one or another agency, for instance if there's a disagreement about the evidence itself or about the meaning of the evidence.   All this explains why NIEs are so highly classified, and why they carry so much weight. And it explains why the release of an NIE's key judgments -- such as those of that 2007 Iran NIE -- is such a big deal.

In times of national emergency, the President can ask for a special NIE to be produced within days, or even overnight.  But as a general rule, it takes weeks or even months to produce an NIE -- to amass the evidence, sift through it, and to coordinate both the evidence and its implications with senior members of all the agencies and entities that comprise our country's intelligence service.  And the individuals who actually produce the NIEs -- the members and leaders of the National Intelligence Council -- can get their hands on anything our intelligence service knows.

Of course, we aren't the only country with an intelligence service.  Our allies also have services of their own, and some of them are very, very good.  That's why senior officials of our country's intelligence service stay in close touch with their counterparts in, say, London, Paris - and Berlin.

It is inconceivable to me that senior officials of our intelligence service were unaware of the BND's evidence and conclusions about Iran's nuclear bomb program.  Indeed, if the BND's officials withheld what they knew from our officials that constitutes an act of allied betrayal whose implications for US-German relations are, well, staggering.

On the other hand, if our intelligence officials were aware of the BND's evidence and conclusions, why did we reach the opposite conclusion?  Did our analysts judge the BND's evidence to be invalid?  Or did they just ignore the BND's evidence because they didn't like it and because our intelligence officials wanted to throw a banana peel under President Bush's feet?

I don't know the answers to these questions.  What I do know is that a nuclear-armed Iran threatens our national survival, and that to meet this threat President Obama and his advisers need the best possible intelligence.  Only the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees can get to the bottom of all this.  But right now leading members of these committees, and the Speaker of the House, are blathering on -- and on -- about the phony issue of whether former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to not testify about some program to wipe out the leaders of al Qaeda that never actually got off the ground.

This isn't politics; this is suicide.  God help us if our enemies conclude that the United States is no longer capable of being serious about intelligence.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.  He is widely credited with being the first senior U.S. intelligence official to forecast the Soviet Union's collapse, for which he later was awarded the U.S. National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal.  He is author of
How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.
Do you remember that 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate which concluded -- to virtually everyone's astonishment -- that four years earlier Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program?

Publication of that NIE cut the ground out from under the Bush administration's efforts to prevent Iran from getting its hands on a nuclear bomb.  After all, why pressure the mullahs in Teheran to stop a program they'd already abandoned?  And, of course, the NIE's conclusion was cited by President Bush's political enemies as (further) evidence that the President and his team were so driven by their hard-line ideology that they (as usual) ignored the evidence provided by our country's senior intelligence analysts.

Now, thanks to a brilliant piece of journalism by German investigative reporter Bruno Schirra published in the July 20 edition of The Wall Street Journal Europe, we have evidence to suggest that the 2007 NIE's conclusion about Iran's nuclear bomb program wasn't merely wrong, but corrupt.

Here's a summary of Schirra's explosive article:

Over in Germany the Federal Prosecutor had charged a German-Iranian businessman with brokering supplies for Iran's nuclear bomb program, thus violating the country's War Weapons Control Law and its Foreign Trade Act.  But a lower court in Frankfurt refused to try the case on grounds that at the time of the businessman's alleged activities, Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program.  According to Shirra, the court actually cited the 2007 U.S. NIE as evidence of its conclusion.

But the Federal Prosecutor appealed the lower court's decision to Germany's Federal Supreme Court -- and that's when Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) stepped in by submitting what's called an "office testimony," which Schirra defines as "factual statements about the Iranian program that can be proved in a court of law."

According to Schirra:

The BND...has amassed evidence of a sophisticated Iranian nuclear weapons program that continued after 2003....In a 30-page legal opinion on March 26 and a May 27 press release in a case about possible illegal trading with Iran, a special national security panel of the Federal Supreme Court in Karlsruhe cites from a May 2008 BND report, saying the agency "showed comprehensively" that "development work on nuclear weapons can be observed in Iran even after 2003.

According to the judges, the BND supplemented its findings on August 28, 2008, showing "the development of a new missile launcher and the similarities between Iran's acquisition efforts and those of countries with already known nuclear weapons programs, such as Pakistan and North Korea".....In their May press release, the judges come out even more clear [sic], stating unequivocally that "Iran in 2007 worked on the development of nuclear weapons."

Simply put, while our country's intelligence service believed that Iran had abandoned its nuclear bomb program in 2003, Germany's intelligence service was amassing evidence that the Iranian bomb program was ongoing.

This raises three obvious and crucially important questions:

  • Was our country's intelligence service aware of the BND's evidence and conclusions when its analysts wrote that 2007 NIE about Iran?
  • If not, why not?
  • If our intelligence service was aware of the BND's evidence and conclusions, then how and why did the authors of that 2007 NIE reach the opposite conclusion about Iran's nuclear bomb program?

To answer these questions, you need a bit of background about how National Intelligence Estimates are produced, and of how our country's intelligence service works with our allies' intelligence services.  What follows is based on my own experience during the Reagan Administration, as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and then as Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

Our country's intelligence service is actually a collection of more than a dozen agencies including the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the intelligence services of each military service, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and a few others we won't talk about.  Even after all the reorganizations of the last few years -- it's now so screwed up that if my life depended on it I couldn't draw an accurate chart -- there's a unit that sits in the office of the Director of National Intelligence called the National Intelligence Council.  The NIC is comprised of the intelligence community's most senior analysts, and it's the NIC that produces the National Intelligence Estimates.

These NIEs reflect the overall, coordinated judgments and conclusions of all the various agencies and components of our country's intelligence service.  They include the evidence on which these key judgments are based, and when properly done they even include dissents by one or another agency, for instance if there's a disagreement about the evidence itself or about the meaning of the evidence.   All this explains why NIEs are so highly classified, and why they carry so much weight. And it explains why the release of an NIE's key judgments -- such as those of that 2007 Iran NIE -- is such a big deal.

In times of national emergency, the President can ask for a special NIE to be produced within days, or even overnight.  But as a general rule, it takes weeks or even months to produce an NIE -- to amass the evidence, sift through it, and to coordinate both the evidence and its implications with senior members of all the agencies and entities that comprise our country's intelligence service.  And the individuals who actually produce the NIEs -- the members and leaders of the National Intelligence Council -- can get their hands on anything our intelligence service knows.

Of course, we aren't the only country with an intelligence service.  Our allies also have services of their own, and some of them are very, very good.  That's why senior officials of our country's intelligence service stay in close touch with their counterparts in, say, London, Paris - and Berlin.

It is inconceivable to me that senior officials of our intelligence service were unaware of the BND's evidence and conclusions about Iran's nuclear bomb program.  Indeed, if the BND's officials withheld what they knew from our officials that constitutes an act of allied betrayal whose implications for US-German relations are, well, staggering.

On the other hand, if our intelligence officials were aware of the BND's evidence and conclusions, why did we reach the opposite conclusion?  Did our analysts judge the BND's evidence to be invalid?  Or did they just ignore the BND's evidence because they didn't like it and because our intelligence officials wanted to throw a banana peel under President Bush's feet?

I don't know the answers to these questions.  What I do know is that a nuclear-armed Iran threatens our national survival, and that to meet this threat President Obama and his advisers need the best possible intelligence.  Only the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees can get to the bottom of all this.  But right now leading members of these committees, and the Speaker of the House, are blathering on -- and on -- about the phony issue of whether former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to not testify about some program to wipe out the leaders of al Qaeda that never actually got off the ground.

This isn't politics; this is suicide.  God help us if our enemies conclude that the United States is no longer capable of being serious about intelligence.

Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council.  He is widely credited with being the first senior U.S. intelligence official to forecast the Soviet Union's collapse, for which he later was awarded the U.S. National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal.  He is author of
How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.