U.S. Data on Iran Is Spotty, Analysts Say
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
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: 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.
JANE HARMAN: 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.
LOUISE 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.
JOHN NEGROPONTE: 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.
LOUISE 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.
ROBERT EINHORN: 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.
LOUISE 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.
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.
LOUISE 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.
DAVID KAY: 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.
LOUISE 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.
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.
LOUISE KELLY: 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.
MICHAEL RUBIN: 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?
LOUISE KELLY: Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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