A Pig Looking at a Watch: Assessing Iran's Nuclear Program

Given all the "slam dunk" lies and exaggerations they swallowed about Iraq's WMD -- and now the curious revision concerning Korea -- Americans should no longer tolerate unsubstantiated intelligence conclusions.
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Now that North Korea might reopen its doors to weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), U.S. "intelligence agencies are facing the possibility that their assessments will once again be compared to what is actually found on the ground." [David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, "U.S. Concedes Uncertainty On Korean Uranium Effort," New York Times, March 1, 2007]

Perhaps that explains why, during "a little-noticed exchange" [Ibid] at the 27 February 2007 session of the Senate Armed Services Committee, an official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence seized the opportunity to publicly soften earlier intelligence findings about North Korea's uranium enrichment program. "We still have confidence that the program is in existence" but now "at the mid-confidence level." [Ibid]

Yet, it was during that very same session that the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, boldly asserted: "Although Iran claims its program is focused on producing commercial electric power, DIA assesses with high confidence Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons." ["Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States," 27 February 2007, p. 14]

General Maples's testimony echoed that of J. Michael McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, who asserted: "We assess that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons - despite its international obligations and international pressure." [Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence," 27 February 2007] Moreover, when Senator Lindsey Graham - whose questions implied talking points supplied by Israel -- asked Mr. McConnell whether he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear power program or a nuclear weapons program, McConnell asserted: "My opinion is they're pursuing a nuclear weapon."

And when Senator Hillary Clinton asked McConnell, "What is the best estimate of the U.S. intelligence community for how long it would take for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and a capacity to deliver them?" McConnell replied, "The earliest they could produce a nuclear weapon would be early next decade, more likely mid-next decade."

Thus, while Americans might take comfort in knowing that there's plenty of time for diplomacy with Iran, they should be disturbed to find nothing in the prepared testimony presented by either General Maples or Director McConnell - and certainly nothing contained in their answers to the questions asked by the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee - that could be considered hard or direct evidence that substantiates the assessment that "Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons."

Given all the "slam dunk" lies and exaggerations they swallowed about Iraq's WMD -- and now the curious revision concerning Korea -- Americans should no longer tolerate unsubstantiated intelligence conclusions. Neither should they accept tendentious news reporting, such as that offered by Bill Gertz in the February 28, 2007 issue of the "Moonie" Washington Times.

Rather than raise questions about the lack of evidence provided by McConnell and Maples - as any serious reporter for any serious paper should -- Mr. Gertz actually exaggerated the conclusions reached by McConnell and Maples. Thus, he opened his news report with the following sentence: "Iran's development of nuclear arms is 'very dangerous,' and Tehran could deploy the weapons within the next several years, the nation's most senior intelligence official told the Senate yesterday." [Bill Gertz, "McConnell Fears Iran Nukes By 2015," Washington Times Feb. 28, 2007]

Is Gertz English-challenged or logic-challenged? Or is he simply a pimp for the military industrial complex? How else can one explain his transformation of McConnell's "Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons" into his own "Iran's development of nuclear arms?"

After all, neither McConnell nor Maples testified: "Iran is developing nuclear weapons." The words they used allow for the possibility that actual "development" has yet to occur. Thus, "determined to develop," insofar as it implies intent to develop, is a far cry from actual development. But, then, if you are Gertz, why quibble, especially when the goal is to provoke a U.S. attack on Iran?

Although General Maples expressed "high confidence" that "Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons," the only shard of evidence to support such confidence was provided by McConnell, who asserted: "We are watching several states for signs of nuclear weapons aspirations, in part because of reporting of past contact with A. Q. Khan and his network, when it was active." Yet, how does that weigh in the balance, when compared (for example) with the September 2004 fatwa by Ayatollah Khamenei forbidding Iran's "production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons?" [Scott Ritter,Target Iran, p. 170]

As we know, A. Q. Khan admitted to selling his nuclear secrets to Iran. Moreover, after engaging in deceit, Iran belatedly provided the IAEA with documents supplied by the Khan network "which included instructions on the manufacture and molding of uranium metal into hemispherical shapes needed for any implosion-type weapon." [Ibid, p. 184] Yet, as the IAEA subsequently concluded: "it had observed nothing in Iran which indicated the Iranians had ever taken any action in relation to the activities referred to in the documents." [Ibid, p. 185]

Perhaps, the DIA Director's "high confidence" is based upon the laptop computer, which, according to Bush administration officials, contained "internal computerized working files related to ongoing research and development on a tri-conic re-entry vehicle for the Iranian Shahib-3 missile," thus proving "Iranian nuclear warhead design." [Ibid, p. 183] Yet, according to former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, such claims "misrepresented" what, in reality, were designs to upgrade a conventional warhead. [Ibid]

But all of this is mere speculation. Neither McConnell nor Maples cited such evidence. They cited no evidence at all. Thus, absent any specific evidence to support Maples's "high confidence" or McConnell's conclusions, I cannot avoid asking: "Is it the same DIA that concluded Iraq's pursuit of aluminum tubes provided compelling evidence that Iraq was in the process of restoring its uranium enrichment capability? Is this the same DIA that failed to validate 'Curveball's' bogus reporting about Iraq's biological weapons program?" [Craig R. Whitney, ed., The WMD Mirage, p. 415, pp.340-41]

Or, worse still, is General Maples's DIA the same agency that gave Major General James "Spider" Marks a useless Weapons of Mass Destruction Master Site List, containing "946 locations where intelligence indicated there were production plants or storage facilities for chemical, biological or nuclear-related material in Saddam's Iraq?" [Bob Woodward, State of Denial, p. 93]

According to Bob Woodward, General Marks had been tasked with locating, neutralizing and securing each WMD site, once the invasion of Iraq commenced. And when he asked the "DIA smart guys" [Ibid] whether site number one was more important than site 946, one of the people at the table said dismissively: "Of course, General. Why wouldn't it be?" [Ibid, p. 94]

But when Marks asked whether the sites had been prioritized by the certainty of their existence or their importance, "nobody had a real answer." [Ibid, p. 95] And their answers were no more specific, when Marks asked: "Was the first site listed first because they thought it had the most WMD? Or was it because of the type of WMD - chemical, biological, nuclear or missile-related activity or another category? Was it related to the overall threat of the site? Or was it a matter of how quickly or easily Saddam could use the WMD? 'How are these things racked and stacked?' Marks asked." [Ibid]

Marks subsequently told General McKiernan, "I can't get DIA to move. You need to fire me." [Ibid, p. 101] When that didn't work, Marks told McKiernan, "Sir, I can't confirm what's inside any of these sites." [Ibid] And he made that admission during the very period, when President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Secretary of State, Colin Powell and National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice were bamboozling Americans into believing that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, unlike our idiotic and malevolent Vice President -- who requires just one percent of supporting evidence to act upon his preconceived biases and who once childishly gushed over a satellite photo purporting to show (but unable to prove) WMD activity -- Marks looked at similar photos only to conclude that, when doing so, "You're a pig looking at a watch." [Ibid, p. 99] Such is the huge uncertainty involved in the process.

(According to Seymour Hersh, speaking to Amy Goodman on February 28, 2007, "the core belief of Cheney is that Iran is going to get the bomb, no matter what the intelligence is...and when Iran gets the bomb, they will give it to Hezbollah to distribute it, and Washington and New York will be vulnerable." ["Investigative Reporter Seymour Hersh: US Indirectly Funding Al-Qaeda Linked Sunni Groups in Move to Counter Iran," Democracy Now!, Feb. 28, 2007])

And, thus, absent any public evidence to support their "high confidence Iran remains determined to develop nuclear weapons," Americans - including those on the Senate Armed Forces Committee - should take to heart the suspicion that America's Intelligence Community is "a pig looking at a watch."

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA).

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