Sunday Times: For two days in London in February 2004, top American defence and intelligence officials huddled with senior officers from MI6. They were there to discuss Iraqs missing weapons of mass destruction with General Ihor Smeshko, head of the Ukrainian secret service, but he also had some riveting information to pass on about Iran. The Sunday Times
Backlash over intelligence U-turn
Sarah Baxter, Washington
For two days in London in February 2004, top American defence and intelligence officials huddled with senior officers from MI6. They were there to discuss Iraqs missing weapons of mass destruction with General Ihor Smeshko, head of the Ukrainian secret service, but he also had some riveting information to pass on about Iran.
The Iranian regime, Smeshko revealed, was pestering Ukraine, a postSoviet nuclear power, for access to its nuclear technology.
The meeting with MI6 had been arranged by John Shaw, who was the Pentagons deputy undersecretary for international technology security.
There was no doubt that the Iranians were focused on developing a nuclear weapons capability, Shaw recalled last week. It wasnt about keeping the lights burning in Tehran.
American intelligence agencies startled the world last week by judging with high confidence that while Tehran continued to enrich uranium which could be used for nuclear power or bombs it had halted its nuclear weaponisation programme in 2003, before the MI6 meeting.
The declassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran not only ran contrary to its insistence two years earlier that Iran was determined to develop nuclear weapons, but flew in the face of accepted facts among western intelligence agencies.
President George W Bush, who warned recently that a nuclear-armed Iran could provoke a third world war, was left with a dollop of egg on his face.
When Dick Cheney, the vice-president and leading Iran hawk, was briefed on the about-turn a couple of weeks ago, there was a pretty vivid exchange with intelligence officials in the White House, one participant told The New York Times.
According to an intelligence source, Cheney sought to block the NIEs release, but was overruled.
Vincent Cannistraro, the CIAs former counterterrorism chief, believes the view expressed by Robert Gates, the defence secretary, and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was: Whatever the intelligence shows, it shows we wont influence it, but it should be released.
In an interview last week, Cheney conceded that there was a general belief that we all shared that it was important to put it out that it was not likely to stay classified for long, anyway. He added, Everything leaks, a wry admission of the in-fighting that has divided the Bush administration.
War with Iran now appears to be off the agenda and it will be difficult to persuade the international community to approve harsher United Nations sanctions against Iran. But was American intelligence really fooled for four years? Or is it being undermined from within?
Some American officials believe the NIEs findings could present a historic opportunity to open direct negotiations with Tehran.
Robert Kagan, an influential neoconservative writer, argued that with its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favour, by opening direct talks.
But other neoconservatives and Iran hawks mounted a ferocious counterattack, insisting the report was payback by a trio of antiBush former state department officials, who opposed the Iraq war and sanctions on Iran.
David Wurmser, Cheneys former Middle East adviser, charged: One has to look at the authors of this report to judge how much it can really be banked on.
The guilty men were named as Thomas Fingar, Kenneth Brill and Vann Van Diepen, all now in top US intelligence posts, who had seethed at Bush policies for years and were said to have executed a triumphant revenge.
One very senior intelligence official who was privy to the same classified information on Iran described the NIEs conclusions as a piece of crap, according to Jed Babbin, a senior defence official under the first President George Bush. The high confidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme was not justified by the data he had seen, Babbin said.
Yet there was an infusion of new information about Iran that persuaded all 16 American intelligence agencies to back the NIE.
Israeli sources told The Sunday Times that a key part of the jigsaw was supplied by General Ali Reza Asghari, 63, a former Iranian deputy defence minister who is believed to have defected after disappearing from his hotel room in Istanbul in February.
The Iranian regime accused Washington of kidnapping him, but western intelligence sources say he is in America of his own accord. His debriefing was so secretive that information went directly to the director of the CIA, rather than to senior officials. People who would normally know, and should know, are completely out of the loop, said one informed source.
American intelligence agencies also received a trove of information last summer, including intercepts of Iranian phone calls by GCHQ, the British listening station, which suggested that Iranian military officials were angered by a decision in late 2003 to halt a project to design nuclear weapons. The suspicion that the revelations might be a complex hoax were discounted.
After the report was released, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Irans president, exulted that a fatal blow had been delivered to Americas war party.
Yet some American intelligence experts remain baffled by the black and white picture presented by the NIE. Former CIA official Paul Pillar, who helped to compile the 2005 NIE on Iran, believes the difference with the 2007 report has been greatly exaggerated.
Its described as a dramatic 180-degree reversal but its not. The key pacing element about when Iran is going to get a nuclear weapon is the uranium enrichment issue and that hasnt changed, he said.
As before, the NIE suggests with moderate confidence that the Iranians could be capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon by 2010-2015.
You can differ with the president on his policy direction but the issue remains the same, said Pillar. He maintains that the intelligence community has shot itself in the foot by oversimplifying the debate.
Additional reporting: Marie Colvin and Kayvon Biouki, Tehran