The Wiretap Jury on the Iran War

At a moment when the Obama Administration is still aggresively pursuing James Risen’s testimony on sources for an Iran story he wrote 7 years ago, on Saturday he published a new story summarizing the uncertainty surround intelligence on Iran right now.

In the story, Risen reveals that both the 2007 and the 2010 NIEs on Iran’s nuke program got held up and rethought because of intercepts collected during the writing process.

The draft version [of the 2007 NIE] had concluded that the Iranians were still trying to build a bomb, the same finding of a 2005 assessment. But as they scrutinized the new intelligence from several sources, including intercepted communications in which Iranian officials were heard complaining to one another about stopping the program, the American intelligence officials decided they had to change course, officials said. While enrichment activities continued, the evidence that Iran had halted its weapons program in 2003 at the direction of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was too strong to ignore, they said.


Intercepted communications of Iranian officials discussing their nuclear program raised concerns that the country’s leaders had decided to revive efforts to develop a weapon, intelligence officials said.

That, along with a stream of other information, set off an intensive review and delayed publication of the 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified report reflecting the consensus of analysts from 16 agencies. But in the end, they deemed the intercepts and other evidence unpersuasive, and they stuck to their longstanding conclusion.

Risen goes on to lay out all the other intelligence we’ve got on Iran, as well as the significant failures that have set intelligence efforts back: we’ve got radar and satellite imagery of suspected nuke sites, clandestine electromagnetic and radiation sensors, and information from IAEA inspectors. We don’t have much HUMINT, in part because of an email error in 2004 that exposed our assets, in part because of aborted defection of Shahram Amiri in 2009, and in part because we don’t have an embassy to house people working under official cover. We’re trying hard, Risen said, to avoid relying on information from MEK via the Israelis, having learned our lesson from Ahmed Chalabi in the Iraq war.

But our key tool, it seems, is the wiretapping. In particular, the eavesdropping on just 12 or so top officials who know the program.

American intelligence officials said that the conversations of only a dozen or so top Iranian officials and scientists would be worth monitoring in order to determine whether the weapons program had been restarted, because decision-making on nuclear matters is so highly compartmentalized in Iran.

I wonder how the assassination of at least 4 Iranian nuclear scientists has circumscribed the intelligence we can gather from wiretaps?

In any case, that seems to be what the decision to go to war or not comes down to: these 12 Iranians speaking into our wiretaps.

14 replies
  1. JTM says:

    Kind of terrifying that it could all come down to which phones we managed to tap, eh?

    In any event, Risen might believe that we’ve learned our lesson from Chalabi, and he could well be correct that we learned something from that fiasco, but I doubt that we learned the lesson that we should have and/or needed to.

  2. PeasantParty says:

    Good Gobs of Goose Grease!

    What else can one say of the stupidity?

    Especially after The Great Pretender signs up an Executive Order late Friday essentially making this country a Military State. A New World Order coming to your neighborhood soon! July will be a huge dance party for nekkid participants at the Bohemian Grove this year.

  3. orionATL says:

    another pro-war story;

    more gossip to keep the embers of war at the ready.

    how convenient that

    in two different years

    three years apart,

    just as an nie was being prepared,

    american gov’t wiretaps appear suggesting a covert nuclear program in iran.

    i’m sorry risen wasn’t able to publish the precise words used by the iranians.

  4. John B. (another) says:

    Do you think it might occur to some of our trusted warriors that the Iranians might know they are being wiretapped and thus communicate accordingly?

  5. KWillow says:

    These days “intelligence” informs our leaders of what they want to hear. Does DC want to bomb Iran? “Intelligence” will find evidence of nukes. Does DC want to avoid another Iraq disaster? Iran doesn’t have and doesn’t want nukes.

    For years our Intelligence sources assured us that the Soviet Union was a terrible threat, that their arsenal was huge, their capabilities of using it very very advanced! Now we know that wasn’t even close to true. People like to give Regan credit for tearing down the Soviets, but they collapsed all on their own, and gee, the US was so surprised!

  6. MadDog says:

    James Bamford, an author of a number of books publicly detailing the known universe of the National Security Agency (NSA), had a piece up at Wired Thursday last week about the new NSA “Data Center” being built in Utah. Among his revelations tangentially related to EW’s post topic is this:

    “…But “this is more than just a data center,” says one senior intelligence official who until recently was involved with the program. The mammoth Bluffdale center will have another important and far more secret role that until now has gone unrevealed. It is also critical, he says, for breaking codes. And code-breaking is crucial, because much of the data that the center will handle—financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications—will be heavily encrypted. According to another top official also involved with the program, the NSA made an enormous breakthrough several years ago in its ability to cryptanalyze, or break, unfathomably complex encryption systems employed by not only governments around the world but also many average computer users in the US. The upshot, according to this official: “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target…”

    (My Bold)

    Whether this statement is actually true or merely what the US government wants the world to believe, it ought to scare the pants off all of us.

  7. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And this too:

    “…For the NSA, overflowing with tens of billions of dollars in post-9/11 budget awards, the cryptanalysis breakthrough came at a time of explosive growth, in size as well as in power…

    …In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes…”

  8. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And this as well:

    “…Domestic listening posts

    The NSA has long been free to eavesdrop on international satellite communications. But after 9/11, it installed taps in US telecom “switches,” gaining access to domestic traffic. An ex-NSA official says there are 10 to 20 such installations…”

  9. MadDog says:

    My apologies! I’ve removed this comment since I was really overboard in Fair Use of James Banford’s Wired piece.

    I do know better, so I’ll just say that folks should go read it.

  10. P J Evans says:

    I remember twenty-five years ago, as a college student, that we were pretty sure NSA had a back door into the DES (data encryption standard). It’s supposed to be unbreakable, but it was NSA who said so….

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