Date: Sat Jun 27 2009 - 00:37:02 EDT
For US Intelligence, Few Clues to Iran Turmoil
Thursday 25 June 2009
by: Mary Louise Kelly | Visit article original @ NPR
Officers of Iran's Revolutionary Guard at a meeting with President
Ahmadinejad earlier this year. (Photo: Rouholla Vahdati / ISNA / AP)
Generations of Western spies have tried, and mostly failed, to decipher
events in Iran.
Martin Indyk was among them. Working for Australian intelligence 30
years ago, Indyk, who has since served as a U.S. diplomat, regaled a recent
gathering at the Brookings Institution with his efforts to crack Iran in
"I was the Iran assessments officer during the revolution and produced
an assessment which said the shah was finished," he said. "And my bosses,
under the heavy influence of the CIA, changed the assessment to say that
the shah was likely to face a few problems, but that, quote, 'The sun would
never set on the peacock throne.'"
Of course, the sun did set that very year on the throne of the Persian
emperor, and since then, Western intelligence on Iran has, if anything,
Little Known About Iran
The CIA was forced to close its station when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
shut down. For a while, the agency ran a hub out of Frankfurt, from which
CIA officers could travel to meet contacts and try to steal secrets about
Iran. More recently, it based a collection office in Los Angeles to take
advantage of the Iranian expatriate community there.
None of it, however, is a substitute for having CIA staff actually on
the ground, says former CIA official Bob Baer.
"We know virtually nothing about Iran. It's very easy to get misled
when you collect intelligence through occasional sources, who travel out
rarely, that are almost impossible to vet," Baer says. "Your intelligence
by force is bad."
Another former CIA official says the agency does have sources inside
the country: Iranians who have agreed to pass on to U.S. intelligence what
they see and hear.
Internet Provides Few Clues
Recent years have seen the advent of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and
allowed anyone with an Internet connection to watch the crackdown this week
by Iranian security forces against pro-reform demonstrators. But such tools
are next to useless for providing insights into the current political
What the CIA would like to know, for example, is more about the power
struggle under way among Iran's leading mullahs, or for that matter, says
Baer, Iran's nuclear program.
"God knows we've tried every way in the world. But the fact is Iran is
still a police state," he says. "And it's very difficult to collect on a
police state, especially a police state that puts out so much propaganda
Baer says disinformation is a major obstacle to working with another
possible source of information: Iranian expatriates and dissidents.
Paul Pillar, the CIA's former top analyst for the Middle East, agrees.
He says the CIA always tries to milk exiles for intelligence.
"You do so with a couple of very big grains of salt that you have to
keep in mind. One is how dated these people's information often is. And the
other big thing is what kind of ax they have to grind," he says. "We've
just had a big set of experiences with Iraqi exiles, and we know how that