December 11, 2007

The Iran NIE: the British weigh in against American estimate

Just a week after the American intelligence community released a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that reverses the assessment of Iran’s nuclear program, British intelligence officials have stood with their Israeli counterparts in opposition. The Israeli and British services – both professional organizations with excellent sources and reputations – still believe that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. intelligence would be well-advised to listen to their counterparts in London and Tel Aviv. The British have long-standing ties to Iran, as well as an embassy in Tehran – they have much better access than we do. Likewise, Israel has the advantage of its population of Iranian Jews, most of whom arrived in Israel after the 1967 war, with contacts in Iran. If both countries’ services believe Iran still has an active nuclear weapons program, perhaps our intelligence services should listen.

Good idea, right? Not so fast – intelligence services worldwide are reluctant to share information. Well, more accurately, they are reluctant to share their sources. Most of the time, it is not the information that requires protection, it is the need to protect the source that causes services to hoard information. For example, if the British had recruited an Iranian nuclear engineer who could provide information on the problems Iran is experiencing with their uranium enrichment centrifuges and he was easily identifiable as the source, they would be reluctant to provide that information to cooperating services – the Americans and Israelis – since that could lead to his identity.

Source protection is the paramount issue among “case officers” – intelligence operatives who spot, assess, recruit and manage spies. Give too much information away and you run the risk of “losing” your source. “Losing” your source generally means the source is either arrested and imprisoned or executed – you can imagine the treatment in Iran. Take it from an old case officer, we want to make sure we conduct our operations securely so our sources are not “compromised” – spy-speak for discovered and arrested.

On the other side, analysts are concerned about information, not the source. That’s why each report, each piece of information collected is classified at the appropriate level to protect the source. It usually is the source that is sensitive, not always the information itself. If the information could only be derived from a certain source, any compromise of that information places the source in jeopardy.

Because intelligence services jealously guard their sources, they are reluctant to share that information with other services. That’s why the British and the Israelis may have different, complementary, possibly contradictory information – they have different sources, and they may be reluctant to provide information from those sources.

Every country has information they are not willing to share. In the U.S. intelligence system that information is marked NOFORN, the abbreviation of “not releasable to foreign nationals.” The British and the Israelis have similar restrictions. This becomes a problem in combined operations, those military operations involving the forces of more than one country. For example, in Operation Desert Storm, we provided American NOFORN information to intelligence officers of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, our closest allies, but only for those at the headquarters and only for the duration of the operation.

We all have different sources of information on the Iranian program. Maybe we should be listening to the Israelis and British. Of course, they may have to reveal some sources and methods – that may be unlikely.