The piece, citing current and former US officials who chose to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, reports that because of significant improvements in intelligence, the Obama administration would know with plenty of forewarning that the Iranians were moving toward the completion of a nuclear weapon. “In the absolute worst case—six months,” according to one “senior US official involved in high-level discussions about Iran policy.” Pletka is incredulous about this claim and characterizes the article as “another salvo in the Obama administration information wars against… Israel.”
Pletka proceeds to dissect the piece, identifying four of its main points and then responding to each one while adding a couple of her own. To summarize:
- The US is using a lot of drones, but “Iran’s most important nuclear facilities—or at least the ones we are aware of—are hardened under about [sic] meters and meters of concrete. Drones cannot see through concrete, and even infrared sensors that can detect the heat signature of a cascade (used to create highly enriched uranium)—can’t see through that much.”
- The National Security Agency is picking up plenty of communications, but “calls and faxes don’t tell us with certainty what decisions are being made in the highest offices in Iran.”
- US covert operations have not been without “screw-ups.”
- The “six months” figure by the anonymous Obama administration figure is off the mark—“First, the Iranians won’t need six months to go for a weapon: Read up here to understand why. Second, what kind of intelligence does Obama think he’s gonna get? A timeline?”
- The CIA said it knew about the enrichment facility at Natanz and the heavy water reactor at Arak, but maybe it didn’t.
- The intelligence community has a long list of misses, not the least of which are 9/11, the Arab Spring, and India’s 1998 nuclear tests.
To be sure, Pletka may be on the mark on some of these points. But then again, perhaps she’s being too cynical.
- Certainly, the Fordow and Natanz sites are buried underground, but I’m not able to say, as Pletka confidently does, that infrared sensors on US drones “can’t see through that much” concrete. It’s possible that they can’t, but Pletka doesn’t give the reader any reason to agree with her view.
- Of course there are limits to the intelligence the NSA can glean from Iranian communications, and Pletka is right to point out that the decision to go nuclear, if it is to happen, will probably be made in the context of a face-to-face meeting with senior officials, not through email. Nonetheless, orders will have to be passed down from these officials to the engineers and scientists at work in the enrichment facilities, and even if these instructions are passed along via secure, NSA-proof communications (i.e., more face-to-face meetings) there is always the very real possibility that one of these scientists will not exercise the proper amount of discretion and go blabbering on the phone to his cousin or wife about changes being made in pace/nature of uranium production. The controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate conclusion that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003, for instance, was based on intercepted email and telephone communications from scientists and a key figure associated with the nuclear program complaining that the weaponization program had been stopped.
- Of course the National Clandestine Service (previously known as the Directorate of Operations) isn’t infallible. But this, of course, doesn’t preclude the CIA from collecting pertinent human intelligence.
- It might be true that the Iranians would be able to throw together a crude nuclear weapon in less than six months. Estimates on the matter vary to a large degree. US, European, and even Israeli intelligence agencies, however, are all on the same page: It would take Iran roughly 12 months to build a nuclear bomb and another two years to figure out how to strap it to a Shahab-3, Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile. Also, it would seem that, as a report by the East-West Institute points out, “Unless Iran has an enrichment program separate from the one being monitored by the IAEA, there would be warning that Iran intended to make nuclear weapons. It would have to end IAEA containment and surveillance of the nuclear material and all installed cascades at the Fuel Enrichment Plant.”
- Maybe it did.
- Again, yes, the intelligence community has plenty of room for improvement. Absolutely. There is a well-known and too-long list of 20th century US intelligence failures and an even more recent 21st century one that should rightfully be at the back of one’s mind when they read a Post piece on how great our intelligence is with regard to Iran. Here’s former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar (of whom Danielle Pletka is no fan) on the limits of intelligence:
Intelligence can help manage uncertainty, defining its scope and specifying what is known and what is likely to stay unknown. It can distinguish true uncertainty from simple ignorance by systematically assembling all available information, but it cannot eliminate uncertainty and it cannot prevent all surprises, including some big ones. Leaders must accept this reality; they must expect—and prepare—to be surprised.
Hopefully it will be Pletka who is surprised this go-around.By Nathan Patin, Aslan Media Columnist