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"Iran and the Bomb", Seymour M. Hersh

"Iran and the Bomb", Seymour M. Hersh

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Published by Giuliano Valverde
How real is the nuclear threat?
How real is the nuclear threat?

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Published by: Giuliano Valverde on Jun 11, 2011
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30THENEWYORKER,JUNE6,2011
ANNALSOFNATIONALSECURITY
IRANANDTHEBOMB
How real is the nuclear threat? 
BYSEYMOURM.HERSH
lah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iranis heavily invested in nuclear technology,and has a power plant ready to go on linein the port city of Bushehr, with a secondin the planning stage. In the past four years, it has tripled the number of centri-fuges in operation at its main enrichmentfacility at Natanz, which is buried deepunderground. On the other hand, theIranian enrichment program is beingmonitored by the International AtomicEnergy Agency, and Natanz and allIran’s major declared nuclear installationsare under extensive video surveillance.I.A.E.A. inspectors have expressed frus-tration with Iran’s level of coöperationand cited an increase in production of uranium, but they have been unable tofind any evidence that enriched uraniumhas been diverted to an illicit weaponsprogram.National Intelligence Estimates, whose preparation is the responsibility of the Director of National Intelligence,Lieutenant General James Clapper, of the Air Force, are especially sensitive,because the analysts who prepare themhave access to top-secret communica-tions intercepts as well as the testimony of foreign scientists and intelligenceofficials, among others, who have beenenlisted by the C.I.A. and its military counterpart, the Defense IntelligenceAgency. In mid-February, Clapper’soffice provided the House and Senateintelligence committees with an updateto the N.I.E. on the Iranian nuclear- weapons program. The previous assess-ment, issued in 2007, created consterna-tion and anger inside the Bush Admin-istration and in Congress by concluding,“with high confidence,” that Iran hadhalted a nascent nuclear-weapons pro-gram in 2003. That estimate added,“We do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.” The Bush White House had insistedthat a summary of the 2007 N.I.E.be made public––an unprecedentedmove––but then President Bush andVice-President Dick Cheney quickly questioned its conclusions. Peter Hoek-stra, a Republican from Michigan whohad been chairman of the House Intel-ligence Committee, characterized theN.I.E. as “a piece of trash.” The public dispute over the 2007N.I.E. led to bitter infighting within theObama Administration and the intelli-gence community over this year’s N.I.E.update—a discrepancy between theavailable intelligence and what many in the White House and Congress be-lieved to be true. Much of the debate, which delayed the issuing of the N.I.E.for more than four months, centered onthe Defense Intelligence Agency’s as-tonishing assessment that Iran’s earliernuclear-weapons research had beentargeted at its old regional enemy, Iraq,and not at Israel, the United States, or Western Europe. One retired seniorintelligence official told me that theD.I.A. analysts had determined thatIran “does not have an ongoing weap-ons program, and all of the availableintelligence shows that the program, when it did exist, was aimed at Iraq. TheIranians thought Iraq was developing abomb.” The Iranian nuclear-weaponsprogram evidently came to an end fol-lowing the American-led invasion of Iraq, in early 2003, and the futile huntfor the Iraqi W.M.D. arsenal. IsraeliPrime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuinsists that Iran, like Libya, halted itsnuclear program in 2003 because itfeared military action. “The more Iranbelieves that all options are on the table,the less the chance of confrontation,”Netanyahu told a joint session of Con-gress last week. The D.I.A. analysts understood thatthe 2011 assessment would be politi-cally explosive. “If Iran is not a nuclearthreat, then the Israelis have no reasonto threaten imminent military action,”the retired senior intelligence officialsaid. “The guys working on this aregood analysts, and their bosses are back-ing them up.”
 The internal debate over the Iran as-sessment was alluded to last fall by W. Pat-
rick Lang, a retired Army intelligenceofficer who served for years as the rankingD.I.A. analyst on the Middle East andcontributed to many N.I.E.s. “Do you allknow what an N.I.E. is?” Lang said to an
I
s Iran actively trying to develop nu-clear weapons? Members of theObama Administration often talk as if this were a foregone conclusion, as didtheir predecessors under George W.Bush. There is a large body of evidence,however, including some of America’smost highly classified intelligence as-sessments, suggesting that the UnitedStates could be in danger of repeating amistake similar to the one made withSaddam Hussein’s Iraq eight yearsago––allowing anxieties about the poli-cies of a tyrannical regime to distort ourestimations of the state’s military ca-pacities and intentions. The two mostrecent National Intelligence Estimates(N.I.E.s) on Iranian nuclear progress,representing the best judgment of thesenior officers from all the major Amer-ican intelligence agencies, have statedthat there is no conclusive evidence thatIran has made any effort to build thebomb since 2003.
Despite years of covert operationsinside Iran, extensive satellite imagery,and the recruitment of many Iranianintelligence assets, the United Statesand its allies, including Israel, havebeen unable to find irrefutable evidenceof an ongoing hidden nuclear-weaponsprogram in Iran, according to intelli-gence and diplomatic officials here andabroad. One American defense consul-tant told me that as yet there is “nosmoking calutron,” although, like many  Western government officials, he isconvinced that Iran is intent on be-coming a nuclear state sometime in thefuture.
 The general anxiety about the Iranianregime is firmly grounded. PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly questioned the Holocaust and expresseda desire to see the state of Israel elimi-nated, and he has defied the 2006 UnitedNations resolution calling on Iran to sus-pend its nuclear-enrichment program. Tehran is also active in arming Hezbol-
 
THENEWYORKER,JUNE6,201131
There is no conclusive evidence that Iran has tried to build a bomb since 2003.
audience at the University of Virginia.“The National Intelligence Estimate isthe ground truth of the American govern-ment hammered out on the anvil of theLord. . . . Then, once things are approved,people stand up at meetings and wavethem and point to them and say, ‘Seehere, it says here that Saleh’ ”—Ali
Abdul-lah Saleh, the President of Yemen—
“ ‘isa fink.’ And then everybody has to agreethat Saleh is a fink.”
Lang told his audience that there was“enormous pressure” on intelligence an-alysts in 2002 to produce an N.I.E. thatbuttressed the Bush Administration’sclaims about the threat posed by Iraq’ssuspected nuclear arsenal before the in- vasion of Iraq. After the disaster of Iraq,the atmosphere shifted. “Analysts in theintelligence community are just refusingto sign up this time for a lot of baloney,”Lang said. “I regard that as a highly en-couraging sign.” The D.I.A. analysts in-sisted that the updated N.I.E. deal pri-marily with the facts about Iran’s nuclearprogram, Lang told me later, and Lieu-tenant General Ronald L. Burgess, Jr.,the director of the D.I.A., supported
this approach. “These guys are not drink-
ing the Kool-Aid,” Lang said. “They stopped the N.I.E. cold.”Burgess, whose long career in Army intelligence includes two years with the Joint Special Operations Command, hasrepeatedly stressed his belief that Iran would be capable of building a bomb atsome point in the future. But Burgessalso told the Voice of America in Janu-ary, 2010, that “the bottom-line assess-ments of the [2007] N.I.E. still hold true. We have not seen indication that thegovernment has made the decision tomove ahead with the program. But the
fact still remains that we don’t know what
 we don’t know.” (A spokesman for Gen-eral Burgess told me that “because of theclassification of the information in theN.I.E., it would be inappropriate for usto engage in a discussion with you.”) Agovernment consultant who has read thehighly classified 2011 N.I.E. update de-picted the report as reinforcing the essen-tial conclusion of the 2007 paper: Iranhalted weaponization in 2003. “There’smore evidence to support that assess-ment,” the consultant told me. The D.I.A.’s conclusion that Iran’sultimate target would have been Iraq,and not Israel or a Western power, wasnot included in the final version of the2011 report, as presented to the UnitedStates government, in February. “It wasin, and then got taken out, because, asthey”—the analysts in General Clap-per’s office—“told the D.I.A., ‘There’sno hard proof, and we can’t know be-cause of the uncertainty of the informa-tion we’re getting,’ ” the retired seniorintelligence official said. “ ‘But the im-plications of Iran’s getting nuclear weap-ons are so dire and the benefits to themare so great that it will compel them tocontinue pursuit of a nuclear capability.And you’ ”—meaning the D.I.A. ana-lysts—“ ‘cannot disprove there is a weap-ons program.’“It’s the same old shit: the N.I.E.does not say absolutely or unequivocally that Iran has a nuclear program that isgoing to be deployed,” the retired officialcontinued. “The important thing is thatnothing substantially new has beenlearned in the last four years, and noneof our efforts—informants, penetra-tions, planting of sensors—leads to abomb.”
 T
he N.I.E. makes it clear that U.S.intelligence has been unable to finddecisive evidence that Iran has been mov-ing enriched uranium to an underground weapon-making center. In the past six years, soldiers from the Joint Special Op-erations Force, working with Iranian in-telligence assets, put in place cutting-edge surveillance techniques, accordingto two former intelligence officers. Street
   G   U   Y   B   I   L   L   O   U   T
 
signs were surreptitiously 
removed inheavily populated areas of Tehran—say,near a university suspected of conductingnuclear enrichment—and replaced withsimilar-looking signs implanted with ra-diation sensors. American operatives, working undercover, also removed bricksfrom a building or two in central Tehranthat they thought housed nuclear-enrichment activities and replaced them with bricks embedded with radiation-monitoring devices.High-powered sensors disguised asstones were spread randomly alongroadways in a mountainous area where asuspected underground weapon site wasunder construction. The stones were ca-pable of transmitting electronic data onthe weight of the vehicles going in andout of the site; a truck going in light andcoming out heavy could be haulingdirt—crucial evidence of excavation work. There is also constant satellitecoverage of major suspect areas in Iran,and some American analysts were as-signed the difficult task of examiningfootage in the hope of finding air vents—signs, perhaps, of an underground facil-ity in lightly populated areas. This year, when intelligence officialspresented the N.I.E. on Iranian nuclearcapacity to the Senate and House intel-ligence committees, they did not issue asummary for public consumption. Thebriefings were closed, but, as always, afew legislators and officials providedbackground accounts to the press. Theaccounts were incomplete, and did notrelay the essential finding of the esti-mate: that nothing significantly new had been learned to suggest that Iran ispursuing a nuclear weapon.
 The few official statements at the timemade it clear that U.S. intelligenceofficials simply did not know whetherIran would become a nuclear state. Gen-eral Clapper told the Senate IntelligenceCommittee on February 16th, in his an-nual Worldwide Threat Assessment, thatIran was “keeping open the option to de- velop nuclear weapons, in part by devel-oping various nuclear capabilities that bet-ter position it to produce such weapons,should it choose to do so. We do notknow, however, if Iran will eventually de-cide to build nuclear weapons.” He addedthat Iran was technically capable of pro-ducing enough enriched uranium for anuclear weapon in the next few years, “if it chooses to do so.”
A month later, in public testimony before the Senate Armed Services Com-mittee, Carl Levin, Democrat of Michi-gan, the committee’s chairman,
askedClapper about his conclusion that Iranhad not decided to re-start its nuclear-
 weapons work: “Is that correct?” Clap-per said yes, but added that he wouldprefer to speak more fully in a classifiedhearing. Levin persisted: “O.K., but what is the level of confidence that youhave? . . . Is that a high level?” Clapperresponded, “Yes, it is.” Joseph Lieberman, an Independent who is conservative on security andforeign-policy issues and one of Israel’sstrongest supporters in the Senate,chose to speak publicly about Iran afterthe hearing. “I can’t say much in detail,”Lieberman said, according to AgenceFrance-Presse, “but it’s pretty clear thatthey’re continuing to work seriously ona nuclear-weapons program.”Lieberman’s statement reflected the view of many in Congress and in theObama Administration. As Presidentialcandidates in 2008, both Barack Obamaand Hillary Clinton had warned of anIranian nuclear arsenal, and occasionally spoke as if it were an established factthat Iran had decided to get the bomb.In Obama’s first prime-time news con-ference as President, in early February,2009, he declared that Iran’s “financingof terrorist organizations like Hezbollahand Hamas, the bellicose language thatthey’ve used towards Israel, their devel-opment of a nuclear weapon, or theirpursuit of a nuclear weapon—that all of those things create the possibility of de-stabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests but I think arecontrary to the interests of internationalpeace.” Thomas E. Donilon, Obama’s na-tional-security adviser, returned to thattheme a few weeks ago. In a speech onMay 12th to the Washington Institutionfor Near East Policy, he said that theUnited States would continue its aggres-sive sanctions policy until Iran provesthat its enrichment intentions are peace-ful and meets all its obligations under thenonproliferation treaty, to which Iran isa signatory. “Like all N.P.T. parties, Iranhas the right to peaceful nuclear energy,”Donilon said. “But it also has a responsi-bility to fulfill its obligations. There is noalternative to doing so.” He did not men-tion the current intelligence stating thatthere is no conclusive evidence that Iranis making any efforts to weaponize; norcould he say that the current sanctionsregime is aimed at forcing Iran to stop anuclear-weapons program that does notexist. Later in his speech, however, Don-ilon said that Iran’s nuclear program “ispart of a larger pattern of destabilizingactivities throughout the region. . . . Wehave no illusions about the Iranian re-gime’s regional ambitions. We know thatthey will try to exploit this period of tu-mult and will remain vigilant. . . . The

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