Monday, April 9, 2012

Intelligence Surge Boosts U.S. Confidence on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Via Washington Post -

More than three years ago, the CIA dispatched a stealth surveillance drone into the skies over Iran.

The bat-winged aircraft penetrated more than 600 miles inside the country, captured images of Iran’s secret nuclear facility at Qom and then flew home. All the while, analysts at the CIA and other agencies watched carefully for any sign that the craft, dubbed the RQ-170 Sentinel, had been detected by Tehran’s air defenses on its maiden voyage.

“There was never even a ripple,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official involved in the previously undisclosed mission.

CIA stealth drones scoured dozens of sites throughout Iran, making hundreds of passes over suspicious facilities, before a version of the RQ-170 crashed inside Iran’s borders in December. The surveillance has been part of what current and former U.S. officials describe as an intelligence surge that is aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and that has been gaining momentum since the final years of George W. Bush’s administration.

The effort has included ramped-up eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, formation of an Iran task force among satellite-imagery analysts and an expanded network of spies, current and former U.S. officials said.

At a time of renewed debate over whether stopping Iran might require military strikes, the expanded intelligence collection has reinforced the view within the White House that it will have early warning of any move by Iran to assemble a nuclear bomb, officials said.

“There is confidence that we would see activity indicating that a decision had been made,” said a senior U.S. official involved in high-level discussions about Iran policy. “Across the board, our access has been significantly improved.”


There is also the chastening experience of Iraq. A decade ago, analysts at the CIA and other agencies were confident that Iraq had stockpiles of banned weapons, including the components of a nuclear weapons program. A costly U.S. invasion and futile search for those stockpiles proved them wrong.

The sting of that intelligence failure was still fresh when U.S. spy agencies came under pressure to ramp up collection efforts against Iran. By 2006, U.S. intelligence officials and top Bush advisers had become alarmed by deep gaps in U.S. knowledge of Iran’s nuclear efforts and ambitions.

Michael V. Hayden, then the new CIA director, recalled a White House briefing in which Bush became visibly agitated.

At the time, Iran was rapidly expanding its stockpile of enriched uranium at its main Natanz facility while working on what was then a secret site at Qom. American officials feared that Iran might surprise the world with a nuclear weapons test that would leave U.S. leaders with two highly unpalatable options: Attack Iran or accept the emergence of a new nuclear power in the Middle East.

At one point, Bush turned to Hayden and said, “I don’t want any U.S. president to be faced with only two choices when it comes to Iran,” according to Hayden. Efforts to reach Bush for comment were not successful.

The meeting became the impetus for overhauling the CIA’s approach to a country considered one of its hardest targets. The agency’s Iran experts and operatives were moved from its Near East Division to a group focused exclusively on Iran, much as the CIA had formed its Counterterrorism Center 20 years earlier.

“We put the best people on the job and put the most talented people in charge,” Hayden said. “Then we said, ‘Tell us what you need to get the job done.’ ”

Known internally as “Persia House,” the Iran Operations Division was set up in the agency’s Old Headquarters Building. Over time, it swelled from several dozen analysts and officers to several hundred. The division is now headed by a veteran case officer who previously served as CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan.

“It got a robust budget,” said a former senior CIA official who worked in the Near East Division at the time. The Iran division’s emphasis was “getting people overseas in front of people they needed to be in front of — there are a lot of places to meet Iranians outside Iran.”


One of those operations was exposed last year, when an RQ-170, flown from an airstrip in Afghanistan, crashed inside Iran. Officials in Tehran have triumphantly claimed credit for bringing the stealth drone down and have released pictures showing the drone apparently patched up after the crash. U.S. officials say a technical failure caused the crash.


Despite the setback, U.S. officials said that some surveillance flights continue and that the damage to American espionage capacity overall has been limited.

That is partly because the drone flights were only a small part of a broad espionage campaign involving the NSA, which intercepts -e-mail and electronic communications, as well as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which scours satellite imagery and was the first to spot the uranium enrichment plant at Qom.


The expanded espionage effort has confirmed the consensus view expressed by the U.S. intelligence community in a controversial estimate released publicly in 2007. That estimate concluded that while Iran remains resolutely committed to assembling key building blocks for a nuclear weapons program, particularly enriched uranium, the nation’s leaders have opted for now against taking the crucial final step: designing a nuclear warhead.

“It isn’t the absence of evidence, it’s the evidence of an absence,” said one former intelligence official briefed on the findings. “Certain things are not being done.”

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