White House officials have now admitted that George
W. Bush was told that the intelligence assessment on a covert Iranian nuclear
program might change last August, but they have avoided answering the question
of when the president was first informed about the new intelligence that led
to that revised assessment.
That evasion is necessary, it now appears, to conceal the fact that Bush likely
knew about that intelligence as early as February or March 2007.
The White House evasions began on the day the "key judgments" in
the Iran National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) were released. At his Dec. 3 press
conference, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was asked, "So was
it recent weeks that this intelligence came in?" Hadley answered, "What
the intelligence community has said is in the last few months."
In fact, no intelligence official had commented on when the crucial intelligence
had been first obtained.
Then a journalist asked, "Steve, when was the first time the president
was given the inkling of something? … Was this months ago, when the first
information started to become available to intelligence agencies?" This
time Hadley responded, "You ought to go back to the intelligence community."
The evidence now available strongly suggests, however, that Hadley dodged the
question not because he did not know the answer, but because he did not wish
to reveal that Bush had been informed about the new intelligence months before
the August meeting with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell.
The key development that altered the course of the National Intelligence Estimate
on Iran, according to intelligence sources, was the defection of a senior official
of the Iranian Ministry of Defense, Ali Reza Asgari, on a visit to Turkey last
February, as widely reported in international news media in subsequent weeks.
The Washington Post's Dafna Linzer, citing a "senior U.S. official,"
reported on March 8 that Asgari, who had been deputy minister of defense for
eight years under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami from 1997 to 2005,
was already providing information to U.S. intelligence.
The senior official told Linzer, however, that Asgari was not being questioned
about Iran's nuclear program, despite the fact that Asgari certainly had significant
knowledge of policy decisions, if not technical details, of the nuclear program
That incongruous denial that Asgari had anything to say about Iran's nuclear
program suggested that the information being provided by Asgari on that subject
was considered extraordinarily sensitive.
Intelligence officials have kept any reference to Asgari out of the discussion
of the NIE. Former CIA officer Philip Giraldi has told IPS, however, that, according
to intelligence sources, information provided by Asgari was indeed a "key
component" of the intelligence community's conclusion that Iran ended its
nuclear weapons-related work in 2003, although it was corroborated by other
Giraldi says Asgari had been recruited by Turkish intelligence in 2003, and
defected to Turkey after he had picked up indications that Iranian intelligence
had become suspicious of him. Giraldi said his sources confirm press reports
that Asgari came out with "bags of documents." Intelligence officials
have confirmed that papers on military discussions of the nuclear program were
part of the evidence that led the analysts to the new conclusion about the Iranian
Equally important to the NIE's conclusion, according to Giraldi, was the information
provided by Asgari about the Iranian defense communications system that allowed
U.S. intelligence to gain new access to sensitive communications within the
Iranian military. That was a crucial to the intercepted electronic communications
which also played a role in the analysis that led to the estimate's conclusion.
Gary Sick, who was the principal White House aide on Iran during the Carter
administration and is now a senior research scholar at the Middle East Institute
of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, says he
believes Asgari's knowledge of the debate in Tehran's defense establishment
also may have allowed the intelligence community to identify which intercepted
communications were most important.
"There are zillions of pieces of evidence, and what you look for is defined
by what you know," says Sick. "What Asgari gave them was a new way
of looking at the evidence."
There are other indications that, by April 2007, the intelligence community
was already intensively reviewing new evidence provided by Asgari and old evidence
that the new information suggested could corroborate it. Thomas Fingar, chair
of the National Intelligence Council, who was directing the whole NIE process,
gave an exclusive interview to NPR's Mary Louis Kelly on April 27 in which he
dropped hints of the new phase of the NIE process.
Fingar referred to "some new information we have" and declared, "We
are serious about reexamining old evidence." Fingar even said that the
estimated time frame for Iran's obtaining a nuclear weapon "might change,"
because "we are being completely open-minded and taking a fresh look at
It now seems clear that these were references to the search for corroboration
of the basic intelligence obtained from Asgari about the Iranian nuclear program.
But Fingar misled listeners about the direction of the intelligence community's
investigation by seeming to suggest that advances in Iranian uranium enrichment
announced earlier that month might cause analysts to shorten the minimum time
frame within which Iran might have sufficient fissile material for a bomb.
Fingar said the evidence that Iran was beginning to enrich on an "industrial
scale" was "one of the questions we have got to weigh the new information
to see what it does to our judgment." He also referred to International
Atomic Energy Agency reports on the Iranian program, allowing listeners to infer
that that the delay in the NIE was due to new evidence that would lead to a
more alarmist estimate on Iran's nuclear program
The Fingar interview suggests that the process of seeking corroboration of
the 2003 change in nuclear policy in Iran was already well underway in April.
The intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program obtained as a result of the
U.S. debriefing of Asgari, however, would have been made available to Bush as
soon as it was evaluated as important by the intelligence officials. The debriefing
of a high-ranking defector represents very important intelligence, and summaries
of the most important information from such a debriefing would normally go into
the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB), the summary of key intelligence developments
that is prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency each night and given to
the White House the first thing the next morning.
"It is inconceivable to me that the PDB did not included whatever information
Asgari gave us on the nuclear program," says Ray McGovern, a 26-year veteran
of CIA who once presented the daily briefing to Richard Nixon. Furthermore,
every major new development in the collection of intelligence obtained as a
result of Asgari's debriefings would have been included in the PDB, according
Contrary to Hadley's suggestion that he didn't know when Bush had first gotten
the new intelligence, moreover, McGovern points out that the national security
adviser has gotten the same PDB as the president for decades. The former CIA
analyst told IPS that Hadley certainly would have known when the new intelligence
regarding the covert Iranian nuclear weapons program was presented to the president.
(Inter Press Service)