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Kay: Recent Iran NIE Recalls Erroneous 2003 Iraq Estimate

Interviewee: David Kay, Senior Research Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 11, 2008


David Kay, a veteran arms inspector, led the Iraq Survey Group that looked in vain for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2003 after the U.S. defeat of Iraq. Kay’s Iraq mission ended with the conclusion that these weapons, the primary rationale for the war, simply did not exist. Today, says Kay, the debate over Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and in particular the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran publicly released in November 2007, recalls the flawed logic that preceded the Iraq war. The NIE declared that Iran had “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003. Kays says that is seriously flawed. “I cannot believe that anyone who worked on nuclear proliferation for any period of time would make a statement like that,” he says, noting that Iran is going ahead with its uranium-enrichment program and at any time could decide to build nuclear weapons.

You were recently a part of a panel discussing the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capacity that was issued at the end of November. That declassified version began by saying: ”We judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program.” That of course got enormous attention around the world and led people to think that either intelligence agencies were trying to undercut the bellicose members of the Bush administration who would like to do something against Iran or were just trying make up for mistakes made in the Iraq intelligence estimates about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which were issued in 2002 and 2003. What did you think of that Iran NIE?

That first line brought me up sharp. There was a footnote to it that a lot of people missed if they were reading just the press reports of it. It turns out what they call a “nuclear weapons program” is just the design work on the actual warhead itself. Actually, the U.S. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell testified this week that the weapons design work, particularly for an early- generation weapon, is the least important part of a nuclear-weapons program. What’s important is the fissile material and in the case of Tehran, the enriched uranium. That’s the real core of a nuclear-weapons program. And there’s no doubt that activity continues.

The NIE refers to it and so has the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. I particularly found it an egregious statement not only because it showed no sensitivity to what a nuclear-weapons program was but the fact was that Tehran by IAEA standards has cheated and tried to hide that program for eighteen years. I have to emphasize I have not read the classified version and I have no idea whether it reflects a more sophisticated understanding of nuclear proliferation than the unclassified version.

In my earlier life I was a newspaper editor. You’ve been involved in intelligence agencies and the United Nations. Don’t they have editors at the agency looking at the reports before they make them public?

My best interpretation is that it did not go through careful editing. I cannot believe that anyone who worked on nuclear proliferation for any period of time would make a statement like that. On the other hand, it is frightening.

What’s important is the fissile material and in the case of Tehran, the enriched uranium. That’s the real core of a nuclear weapons program. And there’s no doubt that activity continues.

The second thing that really worried me about this report is that if you go down to the second bullet, which is under the first key judgment, it says: “We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years.” Then you get in parentheses, “Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this estimate, however, DOE [Department of Energy] and the NIC [National Intelligence Council] assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear-weapons program.” Now that’s a direct contradiction to the first sentence, which tended to indicate that the sixteen agencies had agreed that there was a high confidence that they halted it in 2003.

For me that brought up Yogi Berra’s term, “déjà vu all over again,” reminding me of the Iraq National Intelligence Estimate, which we discovered had also been a compromised document. It should worry everyone because of all the sixteen agencies, the Department of Energy contains Los Alamos National Lab, Lawrence Livermore, and Oak Ridge, the three national labs with technical expertise of nuclear-weapon design. I came away from this really, deeply concerned about the process of writing national intelligence assessments. Based on this, I do not think they have been improved greatly since 2002 [when an NIE on Iraq (PDF) was published saying Iraq had a program to develop weapons of mass destruction].

Touch on the 2002 situation. What was the real problem with the NIE then? Was it really that they had no intelligence, was it driven by political reasons, or just poor management?

It was a combination, as usually disasters are, without a single factor. There were very new pieces of intelligence. The few pieces there were had been badly handled by the intelligence community. One was the so-called Curveball, the source for the report about mobile biological labs. This was a single source that the Germans controlled and refused to allow the United States to have direct contact with and even refused to give theUnited Stateshis name. The second piece, the aluminum tubes [there were reports that Iraq had imported aluminum tubes for building nuclear centrifuges], was a case where an agent in the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] took responsibility for analyzing it but kept the data away from the others. The data in fact showed the tubes would have been inappropriate for centrifuge use. That data was never made available until after the war to DOE and others so their concerns about not having access were simply ignored in the report. The Iraq NIE strongly looked like a report that was managed, compromised, and everyone knew what the conclusion would be so they didn’t let data get in the way. They shaped the report based on what little data they had.

Now, of course, your own feeling and not having been involved in writing that report was that they probably did have some weapons of mass destruction, right?

Absolutely. When you deal with the intelligence community from the outside you get used to the fact that they never expose everything. You sort of judge your degree of confidence by how much they expose because there must be a lot more behind it. If they expose little, you wonder if there’s much more. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s report to the UN Security Council [in February 2003] was complete with data, hard facts, with a lot of evidence. It was very well done. Plus, it was backed by Colin Powell, himself. I came away thinking that I knew they had WMDs in the 1990s, because I was part of the effort that found it. I knew they treated inspectors with a considerable amount of deception and denial. What most people have forgotten is actually that even Hans Blix, the head of UN inspectors, in his early statements to the Security Council after inspectors returned, spoke about the likelihood that there were still WMDs in Iraq.

I cannot believe that anyone who worked on nuclear proliferation for any period of time would make a statement like that.

I had a bias to think that there were [weapons]. I knew there had been and I believed there were probably still some. Then you had Powell’s laying out of the dossier, which I thought was a very compelling document until I actually had the backup for it. I was in Iraq and went systematically, point by point, through it and found that almost every single thing turned out not to be what it was portrayed as.

Fascinating. There have been all these reforms now, changes of titles and restructuring of the intelligence apparatus, which is why I think this NIE on Iranwas disconcerting to a lot of people.

To me particularly. There again I took them at their word. I’ve known Mike McConnell for fifteen years and have a great deal of respect for his seriousness. I thought they had really understood that a compromised document would only get you in trouble. There again, I’m at a disadvantage because I have never read the classified version, so if someone comes back and says, “Well, this was just a product of a sloppy attempt to do a quick, unclassified version.” I really don’t have a response to it but I don’t know how you pull that language out of it if it didn’t come from the classified version.

My impression after reading the whole thing, aware of course that Iran is producing enriched uranium, which at any point could be converted into a nuclear weapon, was that this was a new thing that they had discovered—that some defector or somebody had produced evidence that they had stopped this weapons design program in 2003. It was like in a news story sometimes when you’d put the hottest news in the first paragraph.

I would be all right with that if this first sentence had said, “We judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003 Iran halted its clandestine work on nuclear weapons design. Efforts continued with the rest of its secret weapons program, including the attempt to enrich uranium.” That would have been fine. That would have been a newsworthy story.

There is something else that almost no one has picked up. If you read that footnote one, it says “We mean Iran’s secret design and weaponization work and covert uranium-conversion-related and uranium-enrichment work.” Well, up until that time the CIA had never reported that we had evidence that they had a clandestine uranium-enrichment-related work or covert conversion. That would have been frontpage news in the New York Times if someone had leaked that.

Conflicting claims in the Iran NIE “brought up Yogi Berra’s term, ‘déjà vu all over again,’ reminding me of the Iraq National Intelligence Estimate, which we discovered had also been a compromised document.”

Here, it’s sort of buried as they had it. I’ve been asking people who are inside and the answer I get is “Well, what we’re really talking about there is their attempt to obtain P2-design centrifuges—which is the second generation of Pakistani centrifuge design—not that they really had covert uranium enrichment.” Here again, if that’s what they meant, they should have said it. It’s really sloppy work. I’m not suggesting that they should bury their lead. If they got a hot piece of information that the covert design work stopped in 2003, they should have said it but that’s not what they said.

From what we know just from open sources now, what’s your sense of Iran’s nuclear program? What’s it doing?

They understand that, to use this trite analogy, “the long pole in the tent” is really getting enriched uranium. They’re doing everything they can to protect that effort, including going along with a certain degree of IAEA safeguard work, to ensure that continues. It makes no sense to really worry about anything else in the program unless you have the fissile material. Once you have the fissile material, almost everything else comes easy, except the missile to deliver it—and that work has also continued. I view it as a program that is actually very, very rational. The Iranians say: “Let’s get the highly enriched uranium; we can do that now with IAEA safeguards to a certain degree. Let’s continue with our missile development work because if we end up with highly enriched uranium, [we need] a weapons design. We know Pakistani nuclear expert A.Q. Khan gave them the first-generation design the Chinese had given the Pakistanis. Why do anything else?

The other thing I worry about here is the unknown. If you didn’t know until 2007 that they stopped the program in 2003, how do you assess your competence to know if: A. They restarted sometime after 2003 or B. How long will it take you to know if they restart it sometime in the future? Those are the interesting questions. That’s not addressed at all in here.

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