[dehai-news] Was the CIA wrong (again)?


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From: wolda002@umn.edu
Date: Fri Dec 12 2008 - 00:37:46 EST


 International Herald Tribune
Was the CIA wrong (again)?
By Edward Jay Epstein
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A year has passed since the release of the 2007 National Intelligence
Estimate on Iran. In a stunning departure from all the previous estimates
dating back to 1997 under Presidents Clinton and Bush, it declared: "We
judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear
weapons program."

It also judged, with modest confidence, that Iran had not resumed its quest
for nuclear weapons. If correct, this new assessment meant that previous
ones, such as the 2004 NIE that also judged with "high confidence" that
Iran was expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities under the cover of a
civilian energy program, were based on flawed intelligence.

But was this astonishing reversal correct?

The 2007 intelligence estimate proceeded from both a reorganization of the
so-called intelligence community and a re-evaluation of information the CIA
had gotten on a clandestine nuclear weapon design program code-named by
Iran "Project 1-11." Even though Project 1-11 had been in operation since
1997, the CIA did not get wind of it until 2004, when it obtained a stolen
Iranian laptop that had been smuggled into Turkey. The computer's hard
drive contained thousands of pages of documents describing efforts to
design a warhead that would fit in the nose cone of the Iranian Shahab 3
missile and detonate at an altitude of 600 meters (which is too high for
any explosion but a nuclear one to be effective).

>From the warhead's specifications, which included the kind of high-tension
electric bridge wire used in implosion-type nuclear weapons, the CIA
deduced that the payload was a nuclear bomb similar to Pakistan's early
bomb. Its conclusion that Iran was going nuclear was repeated in all the
NIEs through 2006.

By 2007, however, the CIA and reorganized intelligence community
re-examined the issue and doubts began to emerge. It turned out that
shortly after the stolen laptop compromised Project 1-11, satellite
photographs showed that buildings involved in it had been bulldozed, and
conversations intercepted by the U.S. indicated that the project was being
dismantled. Then a high-level defector from the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard, General Ali-Reza Asgari, confirmed in his CIA debriefings that
Project 1-11 had been terminated in 2003.

After a long review, and "scrubbing" the evidence for signs of deception,
the CIA reached its new conclusion that Iran's 1-11 project really had
ended by 2004. In the world of clandestine activities, it is hardly
unexpected that a super-secret operation such as Project 1-11, once it was
compromised, would be officially closed down, and the evidence seems
convincing that it was shuttered.

The issue is why. One explanation is that Iran had abandoned its efforts to
acquire nuclear weapons. Another is that Iran no longer needed Project 1-11
because Iran had solved the tricky problem of triggering a nuclear warhead
through other means.

Three pieces of the puzzle uncovered by the UN's International Atomic
Energy Agency cast a surprising light on how Iran has advanced its
capabilities independently of Project 11-1. First, there is the digital
blueprint circulated by the network of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's
nuclear bomb. IAEA investigators decoding and analyzing the massive
computer files of this network found that it had clandestinely provided
clients with a detailed design of a nuclear warhead of the version used by
first China then Pakistan.

Since the IAEA knew that Iran had been dealing with the Khan network since
at least 2003, and features of that digital blueprint matched those
described in the Project 11-1 documents, it was suspected that Iran
acquired the digital blueprint, along with other components, from the Khan
network. If so, it shortened the task of Project 1-11.

Then, in late 2007, IAEA investigators uncovered a detailed Iranian
narrative, written in Farsi, that described how a Russian scientist helped
the Iranians conduct experiments to help Iranian scientists solve a complex
design problem: Configuring high-tension electric bridge wire to detonate
at different points less than a fraction of a nanosecond apart. In an
implosion-type bomb, this is crucial for properly compressing the nuclear
core. As Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's chief inspector explained at a
closed-door briefing in February 2008, these Russian-led experiments were
"not consistent with any application other than the development of a
nuclear weapon."

Finally, there is the Polonium 210 experiments that Iran conducted prior to
2004. Since Polonium 210 is used to initiate the chain reaction in
early-generation nuclear bombs (and used in the Pakistan design), IAEA
inspectors attempted up until 2008 to get access to the facility, or "box,"
in which the Polonium 210 was extracted from radioactive Bismuth.

Iran insisted that the Polonium 210 was only to be used for a civilian
purpose - powering batteries on an Iranian spacecraft - and turned down
these requests.

Iran had no known space program, but even if the extraction process was for
civilian purposes, Iran's success with it meant that it could also produce
Polonium 210 to trigger a nuclear bomb of the design furnished by the Khan
network. So, even without further work by Project 1-11, it may have
acquired all essential design elements for a nuclear weapon.

Design of course is only part of the equation. The other crucial part is
obtaining a fissile fuel for the nuclear explosion, such as highly-enriched
uranium.

In 1974, Pakistan, with the assistance of A.Q. Khan, had pioneered the path
to nuclear proliferation by using centrifuges to enrich gasified uranium
into weapon-grade uranium. In this process, the uranium cascades from one
rapidly-spinning centrifuge to the next, each gradually increasing the
proportion of the fissile isotope Uranium 235, until it becomes first
low-enriched uranium for power plants, then, if continued, high-enriched
uranium, for weapons. Iran built a similar facility in the massive
underground caves at Natanz, able to house up to 50,000 centrifuges, which
became operational in 2002.

Iran claimed this facility was intended for the production of low-enriched
uranium for the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr to generate
electric power (a facility Russia had agreed to fully supply as long as it
operated). But the plant also could be used to produce weapons-grade
uranium.

According to the IAEA, which monitors Natanz, by 2008 Iran had 3,800
centrifuges in operation and is adding another 3,000. It has also upgraded
many of the older centrifuges, giving it about quadruple the capacity it
had in 2003. To date, it has produced and stockpiled 1,380 pounds of
low-enriched uranium, which is enough, if further enriched to weapons
grade, to build a nuclear bomb.

The 2007 NIE deftly ducked this escalation with a footnote stating it was
excluding from its assessment "Iran's declared civil work related to
uranium conversion and enrichment," which meant Natanz. However, in light
of all the developments in the past year, America's new president will have
to confront the reality that Iran now has the capability to change the
balance of power in the Gulf, if it so elects to do so, by building a
nuclear weapon.

Edward Jay Epstein is an investigative writer and the author of 13 books,
including "Deception: The Invisible War Between the KGB and CIA." He is
currently writing a book on the 9/11 Commission.

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