It should surprise no one to learn that when intelligence agencies talk to other intelligence agencies as part of a liaison relationship there are certain rules in place, even though they are frequently unspoken. During the Cold War the most productive such relationship that the United States had was not with obvious candidates like the British or Germans. It was with the Norwegians, who ran a chain of listening posts that were able to pick up signals and other valuable information drawn from the heart of the Soviet nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The U.S. knew all about the latest Russian technical developments, and both Washington and Oslo kept quiet about what they were up to.
But sometimes the temptation to use highly sensitive classified intelligence obtained from a friend is overwhelming? On August 9, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak confirmed Israeli media reports that a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from the United States on the Iranian nuclear program had “included new and alarming intelligence” that had led to the judgment that “Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of the military nuclear program.” He described the source as an intelligence report “being passed around senior offices.” Barak concluded that the new report means that Israel and the United States now have the same view of developments in Iran, meaning that both now believe that the country’s nuclear program has a military component which makes Iran unambiguously a threat.
“Militarization” has become something of a buzzword in the debate over Tehran’s intentions. It can mean a couple of things, most obviously that some research or development is taking place that can plausibly only be linked to creation of a nuclear weapon. Or it could mean that certain developments in the nuclear area have been linked to corresponding advances in ballistic missile engineering, meaning that there might be a program to work clandestinely on a bomb while simultaneously upgrading Iran’s missiles to provide a mechanism to deliver the weapon on target as soon as it is available.
Barak’s remarks sparked considerable commentary worldwide, suggesting that Israel and the United States, who appear to have been seeking a casus belli for attacking Iran, at last have found their smoking pistol enabling them to do so. But there were some serious problems with the story, and the CIA and Office of National Intelligence initiated some immediate pushback over Barak’s apparent exposure of classified information provided to Israel by Washington.
Intelligence insiders noted immediately that there has not, in fact, been a new NIE on Iran. Barak apparently intentionally called the report he had seen an NIE to heighten the impact and veracity of what he was saying. An NIE is the consensus product of the entire U.S. intelligence community and the views contained in it are endorsed by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. Barak clearly felt that he needed the gravitas of an NIE because there have been two previous NIEs, in 2007 and 2011, that have concluded that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and has not made the political decision to initiate one.
So it became clear that Ehud Barak was talking about something else. It turns out that CIA routinely shares what is referred to as finished intelligence with Israel, and among those reports there have been several examining possible advances in Iranian missile development, to include an examination of intelligence suggesting that there might be some engineering of a warhead that might be capable of carrying a small nuclear device, if such a weapon were ultimately to become available. Finished intelligence consists of reports that are produced in great quantity addressing a variety of issues. They are not unlike the types of reports generated by the various think tanks in Washington and at major universities, being generally academic in tone though carefully drafted to avoid any revelation of the sources and methods contributing to the document. Finished intelligence is frequently passed by CIA to friendly intelligence liaison services and is generally classified “Secret.”
So Barak was quite possibly misrepresenting a U.S. intelligence-generated report to serve his own purposes, and he was also leaking information that had been given to him in confidence with the understanding that he would only use it to guide internal Israel deliberations, not to discuss it with the media. The CIA was reportedly furious over the leak and, in an unusual move, the White House quickly gave a green light for the National Security Council to actually rebuke Israel, with an NSC spokesman commenting that “We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.”
So Israel was saying that the Iranian threat had been demonstrated based on U.S. intelligence while Washington claimed the contrary. It all might have ended there, but intelligence leaks have a tendency to spill over and turn out to be difficult to contain. The Obama White House felt compelled to assuage Israeli fears over Iran’s alleged nukes. On Friday press spokesman Jay Carney told the media (and the Israelis) that the U.S. “would know if and when Iran made” a decision to build a weapon. “We have eyes–we have visibility into the program, and we would know if and when Iran made what’s called a breakout move towards acquiring a weapon.”
Carney’s unnecessary elaboration of United States intelligence capabilities vis-à-vis Iran caused the intel community to go ballistic for a second time in two days. If there is one thing that an intelligence organization never does it is to reveal what it can and cannot do. Now Iran, which already knew that it was being monitored closely, probably has a pretty good idea where its vulnerabilities lie because the White House has told them where to look. Marc Ambinder, a national security specialist who writes for The Atlantic, explains how it works: “the CIA’s ops arm, the National Clandestine Service, along with the US military, are devoting thousands of person-hours per day working along the periphery of the country, scrutinizing and seizing cargo shipments bound for Iran, tapping the black market for nuclear supplies and buying up spare parts, and maximizing the collection of Iranian signal traffic … it has a high-definition picture of the current state of the nuclear program and would be able to much more quickly identify if, say, scientists began to create the material needed to manufacture the lens and tamper system that would induce the fission in a bomb. What’s most valuable here is the US mastery of obscure but vital types of intelligence collection that spooks call ‘MASINT’—or measurement and signature intelligence. MASINT sensors on satellites, drones, and on the ground can detect everything from the electromagnetic signatures created by testing conventional missile systems to disturbances in the soil and geography around a hidden nuclear facility to streams of radioactive particles that are byproducts of the uranium enrichment process. Put together, the US has a good handle on the nuclear supply chain; it knows what Iran has and doesn’t have; it has a good handle on who needs to be where in order for certain things to happen; it knows, probably through National Security Agency signals collection, a lot about the daily lives and stresses of Iran’s nuclear scientists.”
If Marc Ambinder has figured out in some detail how the U.S. collects its most sensitive intelligence on Iran, the Iranians have almost certainly come to the same conclusions. Which means that they can move to address their vulnerabilities and can work harder to shield their intentions if they actually are developing a weapon, possibly doing so with outside technical help from the sophisticated friendly foreign intelligence services of Russia and China. As for the Israelis, a foolish attempt to use U.S.-provided intelligence to further demonize a country that has already been effectively blackened will prove counter-productive. Israel and its friends in Congress have long been demanding that CIA and NSA provide them with raw instead of finished intelligence. Raw intelligence is information that comes in as it is collected, indicating the sources and methods used. It is extremely valuable because it is transparent and not subject to analysis, but it is also highly vulnerable to disruption if it is in any way exposed. The resistance within the intelligence community to providing the Israelis anything of that nature has just hardened, with credit going to Ehud Barak for leaking information in an attempt to obtain some political mileage to bolster his country’s incessant arguments in favor of war.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.