WASHINGTON - White House officials have now admitted that President George W
Bush was told that the intelligence assessment on a covert Iranian nuclear
program might change in 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 December 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 first been 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 NIE 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 US 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 US 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
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 Central Intelligence Agency officer Philip Giraldi has told
Inter Press Service (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 sources.
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 US intelligence to gain new access to sensitive communications
within the Iranian military. That was crucial to the intercepted electronic
communications which also played a role in the analysis that led to the
Gary Sick, who was the principal White House aide on Iran during the Jimmy
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
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 National Public Radio'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 openminded and taking a fresh look at the subject."
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
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 US
debriefing of Asgari, however, would have been made available to Bush as soon
as it was evaluated as important by 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 (CIA)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
the 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
received the new intelligence, moreover, McGovern points out that the national
security adviser has received 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.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. His latest book, Perils of Dominance:
Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.