Relying on US Intelligence

Jerusalem and the resettlement of Palestinian refugees disappeared from the Democratic Party platform; language that characterized Hamas as unacceptable to the United States -- not only to Israel -- disappeared.  Jerusalem is back.  But the crucial part of the Democratic Party Platform for Israel is related only tangentially to Israel.  It is about Iran:

(The) window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options -- including military force -- remain on the table.  But we have an obligation to use the time and space that exists now to put increasing pressure on the Iranian regime...

The crucial questions are:

  • How much time and how much space exist before the window slams on our fingers?
  • What is the U.S. track record on recognizing, assessing and timing an emerging threat?
  • What is the consequence to us and to others if we miss?

The answers are not comforting.  There were important intelligence misses -- Pearl Harbor, the 9-11 attack, Saddam's WMD, the outbreak of the Korean War, the third stage of North Korea's rocket capability, and the Russian atomic bomb among them. We knew about India's nuclear program, yet were surprised by the 1998 Indian nuclear weapons test, followed by a surprise Pakistani test emerging from a program we had been watching.

In The Washington Post, intelligence officials said of Syria's nonconventional capabilities:

"We think we know everything, but we felt the same way about Libya. We had been on the ground in Libya, yet there were big surprises, both in terms of quantities and locations."  The Post continues,  "The stockpile appears to be larger and more widely distributed than originally suspected, according to two officials who have seen the intelligence reports."[1] 

This is the central issue between the United States and Israel.  They agree on what Iran is doing, they agree that an Iran with nuclear weapons poses an intolerable threat to Israel, the region and the world. And Israel may indeed be grateful that the President has announced himself a staunch defender of Israel.  But even if Israel was willing to permit the President to assume responsibility for its security as he insists he will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon -- and Israel is anything but willing to cede sovereign responsibility for the security of its citizens -- America's history makes it clear that we could fail as well as succeed.

For better understanding, The Center for the Study of Intelligence paper "How the CIA Missed Stalin's Bomb" is a "must read."  Excerpts will have to suffice here: 

[The Office of Research and Estimates/ORE] sat at the peak of an intelligence pyramid and was responsible for "national" judgments based on analyses from the "departmental" intelligence services located below it in the pyramid. The resulting products were the reports commonly known as intelligence "estimates" - finished analyses that drew upon the resources of the entire Intelligence Community.

Although ORE had very little evidence on which to base its analysis, it made a fairly definitive judgment:

It is probable that the capability of the USSR to develop weapons based on atomic energy will be limited to the possible development of an atomic bomb to the stage of production at some time between 1950 and 1953. On this assumption, a quantity of such bombs could be produced and stockpiled by 1956. [Italics in original]

The projection contained in ORE 3/1 persisted, without major alteration, until 29 August 1949 when the first Soviet nuclear test - "Joe-1" put an end to speculation. In the nearly three years between the appearances of ORE 3/1 and Joe-1, ORE revisited the question on a regular basis and refined the judgment, but the principal effect was to increase the weighting toward 1953. In other words, with analysis, ORE's projections became more precise but less accurate. [Emphasis added] In 1946, a simple date range of 1950-53 had been identified. On 15 December 1947, a memorandum by ORE reported, "it is doubtful that the Russians can produce a bomb before 1953 and almost certain they cannot produce one before 1951. A probable date cannot be estimated." Over the winter of 1947/48, CIA analysts became both more confident - and more wrong-headed - in their judgment, so that, by 1 July 1948, "the earliest possible date" was being identified as mid-1950, with mid-1953 given as "the most probable date." The same projection last appeared in a report disseminated on 24 August 1949, five days before the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb.

The importation of calcium into Russia from eastern Germany should have been a tip:

In December 1946, a chemical engineer from the former I. G. Farben complex near Bitterfeld (southeast of Berlin) reported that the plant had started producing 500 kilograms per day of distilled metallic calcium. Boxes of this pure calcium were trucked everyday to Berlin, thence onward to Zaporozhe on the Dnieper River in the Soviet Union.

In mid-January 1947, further reporting from Bitterfeld showed that the plant was shipping the phenomenal quantity of 30 tons of distilled metallic calcium per month -- at the time, total US production of calcium was 3-5 tons per year. Research had shown that exceptionally pure calcium could be used to separate uranium metal from uranium ore. There could be no non-nuclear use for so much calcium in such a pure form. [Emphasis added] The nuclear connection was confirmed in mid-1947, when a source at Bitterfeld produced shipping manifests that showed three rail cars loaded with distilled calcium leaving for Riehl's uranium production plant at Elektrostal on 26 July 1947. Later that year, CIA analysis of samples of Bitterfeld-produced calcium confirmed that it was suitable for uranium production.

And yet, calculations of Russian capability relied solely on estimates of Russian stockpiles and ignored the imported calcium.

[the] indication from metallic calcium production... appears to be the construction of two plutonium producing reactors... with 500 megawatts [of total power]... particularly significant [is] that a project of this size cannot be supported by the estimated reserves of uranium ore available to the Russians... 514 tons uranium oxide already available and 2200 tons of uranium in reserves... The best information indicates that this program is not proceeding well, and in fact uranium metal appears to have been produced in insufficient quantity to operate more than a very small pilot reactor, such as that first operated in this country in December 1942. Thus, if it is assumed in the worst case that Russian progress from this date will proceed at a rate comparable to that of the American project... then to produce a single bomb, January 1950 represents the absolute lower limit. [Italics in original.]

In retrospect, it seems incredible that ORE should have paid so little attention to information such as that coming out of Bitterfeld. The reporting was timely, detailed, and derived from a source with excellent access that was undeniably compatible with the kind of data he was providing. Moreover, it was corroborated by wartime aerial photographs of the Bitterfeld complex, in which photo-interpreters could not only identify the facility used to manufacture calcium, but also verify the production data provided by the source inside the complex.

This brings us to the question, "What is the consequence of being wrong?"  It isn't always bad news. The former U.S. Commander in Berlin tells the wry story of his daily CIA briefing on November 9, 1989. He noted that when nothing was happening, a low-level analyst would present the brief; when things were "hot," it would be a high-ranking official.  On the morning of the 9th, it was a junior officer. By evening, well...you know.

In the case of Iran -- as in the case of Russia -- wrong, late or sloppy can be devastating.

In 2007, The Washington Post trumpeted a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian nuclear progress that appeared to disparage President Bush's view.

The new findings...reflected a surprising shift in the midst of the Bush administration's continuing political and diplomatic campaign to depict Tehran's nuclear development as a grave threat. The report was drafted after an extended internal debate over the reliability of communications intercepts of Iranian conversations this past summer that suggested the program had been suspended.

"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," a declassified summary of the new National Intelligence Estimate stated. Two years ago, the intelligence community said in contrast it had "high confidence that Iran currently is determined to have nuclear weapons."

The new estimate, prepared by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, applied the same "high confidence" label to a judgment that suspected Iranian military efforts to build a nuclear weapon were suspended in 2003 and said with "moderate confidence" that it had remained inactive since then.

It was, of course, the NIE that was wrong not President Bush. The latest NIE, presented just last month, shares Israel's view that Iran is making "surprising progress" toward nuclear capability. NIE analysts -- from the 16 intelligence agencies hailed by The Washington Post -- would have been less surprised now if they had been more correct in 2007.

The NIE was nearly simultaneous with a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that shows that since May Iran may have as much as doubled its enrichment capacity at the hardened Fordow site, and continues to stockpile uranium enriched to 3.5% and 20% -- bomb-making levels.

There is, then, perhaps still a window and President Obama may be determined to act against Iran before it closes.  But Israel, the designated target of Iran's wrath, would be derelict in its duty to its citizens to rely on the work of the American intelligence community in the formulation of its policies toward Iran.  And foolish indeed to rely on the Democratic Platform or the President's good will for its defense.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.  She was previously Senior Director for Security Policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.


[1] Is it possible that Iraqi WMD - which U.S. Army intelligence reported in 2003 had crossed the Iraq/Syria border in trucks - accounts for the extra volume and depots?  Are these intelligence officers surprised because they had already "decided" those weapons didn't exist, and so were closed to the possibility that the Army was right? Of course it is possible, although it remains to be seen whether it's true.

Jerusalem and the resettlement of Palestinian refugees disappeared from the Democratic Party platform; language that characterized Hamas as unacceptable to the United States -- not only to Israel -- disappeared.  Jerusalem is back.  But the crucial part of the Democratic Party Platform for Israel is related only tangentially to Israel.  It is about Iran:

(The) window for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely and that all options -- including military force -- remain on the table.  But we have an obligation to use the time and space that exists now to put increasing pressure on the Iranian regime...

The crucial questions are:

  • How much time and how much space exist before the window slams on our fingers?
  • What is the U.S. track record on recognizing, assessing and timing an emerging threat?
  • What is the consequence to us and to others if we miss?

The answers are not comforting.  There were important intelligence misses -- Pearl Harbor, the 9-11 attack, Saddam's WMD, the outbreak of the Korean War, the third stage of North Korea's rocket capability, and the Russian atomic bomb among them. We knew about India's nuclear program, yet were surprised by the 1998 Indian nuclear weapons test, followed by a surprise Pakistani test emerging from a program we had been watching.

In The Washington Post, intelligence officials said of Syria's nonconventional capabilities:

"We think we know everything, but we felt the same way about Libya. We had been on the ground in Libya, yet there were big surprises, both in terms of quantities and locations."  The Post continues,  "The stockpile appears to be larger and more widely distributed than originally suspected, according to two officials who have seen the intelligence reports."[1] 

This is the central issue between the United States and Israel.  They agree on what Iran is doing, they agree that an Iran with nuclear weapons poses an intolerable threat to Israel, the region and the world. And Israel may indeed be grateful that the President has announced himself a staunch defender of Israel.  But even if Israel was willing to permit the President to assume responsibility for its security as he insists he will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon -- and Israel is anything but willing to cede sovereign responsibility for the security of its citizens -- America's history makes it clear that we could fail as well as succeed.

For better understanding, The Center for the Study of Intelligence paper "How the CIA Missed Stalin's Bomb" is a "must read."  Excerpts will have to suffice here: 

[The Office of Research and Estimates/ORE] sat at the peak of an intelligence pyramid and was responsible for "national" judgments based on analyses from the "departmental" intelligence services located below it in the pyramid. The resulting products were the reports commonly known as intelligence "estimates" - finished analyses that drew upon the resources of the entire Intelligence Community.

Although ORE had very little evidence on which to base its analysis, it made a fairly definitive judgment:

It is probable that the capability of the USSR to develop weapons based on atomic energy will be limited to the possible development of an atomic bomb to the stage of production at some time between 1950 and 1953. On this assumption, a quantity of such bombs could be produced and stockpiled by 1956. [Italics in original]

The projection contained in ORE 3/1 persisted, without major alteration, until 29 August 1949 when the first Soviet nuclear test - "Joe-1" put an end to speculation. In the nearly three years between the appearances of ORE 3/1 and Joe-1, ORE revisited the question on a regular basis and refined the judgment, but the principal effect was to increase the weighting toward 1953. In other words, with analysis, ORE's projections became more precise but less accurate. [Emphasis added] In 1946, a simple date range of 1950-53 had been identified. On 15 December 1947, a memorandum by ORE reported, "it is doubtful that the Russians can produce a bomb before 1953 and almost certain they cannot produce one before 1951. A probable date cannot be estimated." Over the winter of 1947/48, CIA analysts became both more confident - and more wrong-headed - in their judgment, so that, by 1 July 1948, "the earliest possible date" was being identified as mid-1950, with mid-1953 given as "the most probable date." The same projection last appeared in a report disseminated on 24 August 1949, five days before the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb.

The importation of calcium into Russia from eastern Germany should have been a tip:

In December 1946, a chemical engineer from the former I. G. Farben complex near Bitterfeld (southeast of Berlin) reported that the plant had started producing 500 kilograms per day of distilled metallic calcium. Boxes of this pure calcium were trucked everyday to Berlin, thence onward to Zaporozhe on the Dnieper River in the Soviet Union.

In mid-January 1947, further reporting from Bitterfeld showed that the plant was shipping the phenomenal quantity of 30 tons of distilled metallic calcium per month -- at the time, total US production of calcium was 3-5 tons per year. Research had shown that exceptionally pure calcium could be used to separate uranium metal from uranium ore. There could be no non-nuclear use for so much calcium in such a pure form. [Emphasis added] The nuclear connection was confirmed in mid-1947, when a source at Bitterfeld produced shipping manifests that showed three rail cars loaded with distilled calcium leaving for Riehl's uranium production plant at Elektrostal on 26 July 1947. Later that year, CIA analysis of samples of Bitterfeld-produced calcium confirmed that it was suitable for uranium production.

And yet, calculations of Russian capability relied solely on estimates of Russian stockpiles and ignored the imported calcium.

[the] indication from metallic calcium production... appears to be the construction of two plutonium producing reactors... with 500 megawatts [of total power]... particularly significant [is] that a project of this size cannot be supported by the estimated reserves of uranium ore available to the Russians... 514 tons uranium oxide already available and 2200 tons of uranium in reserves... The best information indicates that this program is not proceeding well, and in fact uranium metal appears to have been produced in insufficient quantity to operate more than a very small pilot reactor, such as that first operated in this country in December 1942. Thus, if it is assumed in the worst case that Russian progress from this date will proceed at a rate comparable to that of the American project... then to produce a single bomb, January 1950 represents the absolute lower limit. [Italics in original.]

In retrospect, it seems incredible that ORE should have paid so little attention to information such as that coming out of Bitterfeld. The reporting was timely, detailed, and derived from a source with excellent access that was undeniably compatible with the kind of data he was providing. Moreover, it was corroborated by wartime aerial photographs of the Bitterfeld complex, in which photo-interpreters could not only identify the facility used to manufacture calcium, but also verify the production data provided by the source inside the complex.

This brings us to the question, "What is the consequence of being wrong?"  It isn't always bad news. The former U.S. Commander in Berlin tells the wry story of his daily CIA briefing on November 9, 1989. He noted that when nothing was happening, a low-level analyst would present the brief; when things were "hot," it would be a high-ranking official.  On the morning of the 9th, it was a junior officer. By evening, well...you know.

In the case of Iran -- as in the case of Russia -- wrong, late or sloppy can be devastating.

In 2007, The Washington Post trumpeted a US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian nuclear progress that appeared to disparage President Bush's view.

The new findings...reflected a surprising shift in the midst of the Bush administration's continuing political and diplomatic campaign to depict Tehran's nuclear development as a grave threat. The report was drafted after an extended internal debate over the reliability of communications intercepts of Iranian conversations this past summer that suggested the program had been suspended.

"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," a declassified summary of the new National Intelligence Estimate stated. Two years ago, the intelligence community said in contrast it had "high confidence that Iran currently is determined to have nuclear weapons."

The new estimate, prepared by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, applied the same "high confidence" label to a judgment that suspected Iranian military efforts to build a nuclear weapon were suspended in 2003 and said with "moderate confidence" that it had remained inactive since then.

It was, of course, the NIE that was wrong not President Bush. The latest NIE, presented just last month, shares Israel's view that Iran is making "surprising progress" toward nuclear capability. NIE analysts -- from the 16 intelligence agencies hailed by The Washington Post -- would have been less surprised now if they had been more correct in 2007.

The NIE was nearly simultaneous with a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that shows that since May Iran may have as much as doubled its enrichment capacity at the hardened Fordow site, and continues to stockpile uranium enriched to 3.5% and 20% -- bomb-making levels.

There is, then, perhaps still a window and President Obama may be determined to act against Iran before it closes.  But Israel, the designated target of Iran's wrath, would be derelict in its duty to its citizens to rely on the work of the American intelligence community in the formulation of its policies toward Iran.  And foolish indeed to rely on the Democratic Platform or the President's good will for its defense.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center.  She was previously Senior Director for Security Policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.


[1] Is it possible that Iraqi WMD - which U.S. Army intelligence reported in 2003 had crossed the Iraq/Syria border in trucks - accounts for the extra volume and depots?  Are these intelligence officers surprised because they had already "decided" those weapons didn't exist, and so were closed to the possibility that the Army was right? Of course it is possible, although it remains to be seen whether it's true.