U.S. Data on Iran Is Spotty, Analysts Say

In early April, Iranian forces went through maneuvers off Larak Island in the Gulf Sea. i i

hide captionIn early April, Iranian forces went through maneuvers off Larak Island in the Gulf Sea.

AFP/Getty Images
In early April, Iranian forces went through maneuvers off Larak Island in the Gulf Sea.

In early April, Iranian forces went through maneuvers off Larak Island in the Gulf Sea.

AFP/Getty Images

Iran is now the top security threat to the United States, according to the Bush administration's new national security strategy. But little is known about its weapons programs and intentions, according to current and former intelligence officials. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee says she recently requested a classified briefing on Iran — and walked away worried that U.S. intelligence is inadequate and possibly riddled with disinformation.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Whether or not targeted nuclear strikes are on the table, as Seymour Hersh is reporting, it's clear the Bush administration is worried about Iran. The new national security strategy released last month states that no country poses a greater threat to the United States. But it's not clear how much U.S. policymakers actually know about Iran's nuclear efforts.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has been surveying current and former intelligence officials, and she has found a disturbing consensus, that U.S. intelligence on Iran is poor, perhaps even worse than prewar intelligence on Iraq.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

Scouring the latest intelligence on Iran is a big part of Jane Harman's job. She's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and recently she asked for a classified briefing on Iran. She got it. But she says she walked away worried that U.S. intelligence is shaky and possibly riddled with disinformation.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California): I remain skeptical. Lots of unanswered questions and conjecture that I have is that if I were Iran and I wanted to put out disinformation, it might look a lot like what our government is claiming is information. I can't tell you that's true. But I can't tell you it's not true.

KELLY: What the U.S. really knows about Iran's weapons programs is hard to pin down. Publicly, senior officials have given only bland accounts. Here's National Intelligence Chief John Negroponte testifying on Capitol Hill a couple of months ago.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (National Intelligence Chief): We assess that Iran seeks nuclear weapons. We judge that Tehran probably does not yet have a nuclear weapon and probably has not yet produced or acquired the necessary fissile material.

KELLY: Negroponte offered no proof of his assertion that Iran is trying to build a nuclear arsenal, nor have other senior officials. The last major review of U.S. intelligence on Iran was put together last year. It's classified. People familiar with the document say it judges that Iran is probably a decade away from producing enough highly enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb. But Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the picture has darkened since that report was compiled.

Mr. ROBERT EINHORN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Since the Iranians took the seals off their facilities and began resuming enrichment operations and that was at the beginning of this year, people have become a bit more concerned about the pace of progress they're making.

KELLY: Einhorn, a former Assistant Secretary of State on nuclear proliferation issues says the concern stems from new information from the U.N. nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mr. EINHORN: The IAEA has reported that the Iranians have now assembled a key centrifuge enrichment cascade, a 164-machine cascade, which is a key building block for an enrichment program.

KELLY: The IAEA is the source for a lot of what's known about Iran, but recent diplomatic developments have thwarted their work. That's according to David Kay, a former inspector for both the IAEA and the CIA, in Iraq.

Mr. DAVID KAY (former top U.S. weapons inspector): Since the action went to the Security Council, the Iranians have restricted their rights of inspection, and now they're being restricted to the previous known sites. And so that is degrading their capability, but it's still better than anything else we have.

KELLY: Kay says Iranian exile and opposition groups continue to provide useful information and there are technical spying efforts. For example, satellite imagery and surveillance drones. But Kay says human intelligence, that is U.S. spies on the ground, is very limited.

Mr. KAY: Everything I know about Iran indicates our intelligence was no better, and if anything, worse than it was in Iraq prewar. And so I think probably we do know very little.

KELLY: Among the many unanswered questions, what other countries may have helped Iran's nuclear efforts? Could fissile material from, say North Korea or former Soviet stockpiles, find its way to Tehran? And, how much help did Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan give to Iran before his black-market network was disrupted?

Michael Rubin, who worked the Iran desk at the Pentagon before joining the American Enterprise Institute, is known as a hawk on national security matters. He concedes there are a lot of unknowns, but Rubin argues policy makers don't have the luxury of waiting for perfect intelligence.

Mr. MICHAEL RUBIN (American Enterprise Institute): I mean, in one way Jane Harmon is right, the intelligence is far from clear. But the question which overshadows that is will we have clear intelligence before the time when President Bush needs to make a decision one way or another, or before the point of no return with regard to Iran getting a nuclear weapons capability?

KELLY: Others, though, counsel caution, and say the path ahead on Iran is complicated by the Bush administration's history of promoting false intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs. One former intelligence official confides, "I keep trying to remind people, in Iraq we were so confident about what they were up to. And in the end, there was an awful lot we didn't know."

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

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