For three long years, the United States, Britain, and France kept the secret while their intelligence services shared information they had been gathering on what appeared to be a top secret underground nuclear weapons plant near Qom.
At the very last minute, just four days before the allies planned to shock the world by revealing detailed information on the secret nuclear plant, the Iranian government sent a tersely worded letter acknowledging the existence of the site to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and pledged to open it for future inspections.
“Someone leaked,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, who works extensively on U.S. policy toward Iran. “Someone informed the Iranians that we knew about the plant, prompting them to write to the IAEA. “
The consequences of that leak may prove fatal to the effort by Western powers to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions short of war. The leak allowed the Iranians to defuse a tense standoff with a Western alliance united as never before.
French President Sarkozy was visibly fuming when he stood next to President Obama in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25 to talk about the new nuclear plant whose existence the Iranians had just revealed. Sarkozy had been planning to drop that bombshell the day before, during a speech at the United Nations. But Obama personally asked him to hold back.
Pletka believes the leak occurred at the political level. “Everyone thinks it came from the Germans,” she told Newsmax, adding the U.S. could have been the culprit.
A French diplomat, who accompanied Sarkozy to the United Nations and to the G-20 summit the following day in Pittsburgh, discounted the notion of a German leak.
“The Germans were briefed [on the intelligence] before the planned presentation at the United Nations. But not long before,” he said. “Because they hadn’t helped to develop the intelligence, they were not in the loop.”
The White House has been telling reporters that the U.S. intelligence community first detected unusual activity at the site dug into a mountain to the northwest of Qom in 2006. But it appears that the French may have been the first to identify it as a nuclear-weapons facility.
“We all wanted to have solid intelligence before making a public presentation,” the French diplomat told Newsmax. “We needed human intelligence sources to corroborate the satellite images.”
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano called the joint investigation into the Qom facility “a rigorous, painstaking process that drew on information from multiple sources, all of which had to be assessed and tested. This was a classic intelligence success, one that gave our government a clear window into a major, concealed facility,” he told Newsmax.
The intelligence included human sources, believed to have come through the French, and was buttressed by signals intelligence, satellite imagery, and internal documents from the Iranian nuclear and missile research programs.
The flow and quality of the intelligence accelerated early this year as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) intensified work on the site.
The United States was able to monitor the excavation activity of the underground enrichment facility using surveillance satellites. By measuring the “spoils” brought up out of the earth by dozens of trucks and spread out at the foot of the nearby mountains, U.S. analysts were able to get an idea of the size of the underground facility.
CIA Director Leon Panetta says he was first told about the Qom facility during the White House transition in January. “This was presented at that time as something nobody knew about, a secret facility,” he told Time magazine.
But Newsmax has learned that President George W. Bush personally briefed select members of Congress who were closely tracking Iran’s nuclear weapons activities many months earlier.
Despite those briefings, not a word of the secret project leaked out, even as top Republicans in Congress blasted the CIA for what they considered to be a politically-skewed National Intellience Estimate on Iran issued in December 2007 that concluded that Iran had shut down its nuclear weapons programs in 2003.
“Public disclosure of this site is actually an important component of testing if Iran is prepared to take the concrete, tangible steps needed to create confidence and transparency and demonstrate that Iran is committed to establishing its peaceful intentions,” the White House said in a question-and-answer “fact sheet” on the facility.
Several Iranian sources with close ties to Western intelligence agencies believe that a defector from the IRGC named Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asghari provided key information on the Qom facility. Asghari was debriefed by U.S. intelligence in the spring of 2007, and by French intelligence in late summer.
The French intelligence officials who interviewed Asghari found his information so credible and alarming that they took it to president Nicolas Sarkozy in September 2007.
Sarkozy was stunned by Asghari’s revelations, which totally contradicted everything France and its allies had been hearing from the International Atomic Energy Agency and from the CIA about Iran’s nuclear programs.
“Gen. Asghari’s information caused Sarkozy suddenly to change his tune in September 2007 and take a hard line on Iran,” one of these Iranian sources told Newsmax.
But Sarkozy’s stance on Iran, and his effort to generate international focus on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, was undercut by a politically-charged National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran released by the National Intelligence Council in December 2007.
That much-disputed NIE seemed to run counter to everything that Sarkozy and French intelligence had learned from General Asghari. It also challenged earlier CIA conclusions about the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Shortly after the NIE was released, Sarkozy dismissed it in an interview with the French newsweekly, Le Nouvel Observateur.
“Everyone agrees that what the Iranians are doing has no civilian explanation,” he said. “The only debate is whether they will have military capability in one year or in five years."
Read: "Skepticism Mounts Over NIE Findings."
Some of the analysts who worked on the December 2007 NIE have told reporters that they felt an overwhelming sense of political responsibility in drafting their report: to make sure they didn’t give President George W. Bush an excuse for launching military strikes on Iran.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger publicly chided the analysts who wrote the NIE for politicizing intelligence. They saw themselves as “a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch,” Kissinger said. He excoriated them for seeking to become “surrogate policy-makers and advocates,” instead of analysts.
The goal of the analysts writing the NIE was widely seen as tying the hands of President George W. Bush on Iran and specifically taking a military option off the table.
Former State Department intelligence analyst Tom Fingar, who coordinated the NIE, told an audience at the New Americas Foundation that the Iran NIE had been written and rewritten by June 2007, but that he and other analysts weren’t pleased with it because it repeated earlier estimates that Iran was continuing to pursue nuclear weapons.
Fingar intimated that he was afraid this conclusion would give the Bush administration an excuse to launch military strikes on Iran, so he said he held the report, hoping something would come up.
“Then we got new information — significant new information,” Fingar said. “And then a lot more information came in,” causing the CIA analysts to look at everything they thought they knew “in the light of the new information.”
The dramatically rewritten estimate now concluded that Iran had shut down its nuclear weapons program, and appeared to have been based on information that Asghari provided to the CIA during debriefings.
Sources who read the 1,500 source notes to the 140-page report said that its most dramatic assertion was based on “a single, unvetted source,” most likely Asghari.
But when Newsmax asked Asghari personally through a trusted intermediary how he felt about the way the information he had provided the CIA had been used in the NIE, his response was startling.
“That’s not what I told the CIA,” he said. “I didn’t tell them that the nuclear weapons program had been shut down, but that it was ongoing.”
Congressional Republicans are now calling on the intelligence community to review the December 2007 NIE using a “red team” of outside analysts.
An intelligence community fact sheet on the Qom enrichment facility released by the White House recently claimed that the new information on Qom “does not contradict our 2007 assessment of Iran’s nuclear program.”
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