Nuclear Mangos

This blog is intended to provide reliable technical analysis of nuclear issues with non-state actors and nuclear beginner states. Some technical issues have important policy implications that citizens in a democracy should be able to make informed decisions about. The motivation for the blog has been the incredible amount of lies & hyperbole on the Iran situation of early 2006. The blog title is to remind you constantly of the quality of minds in charge of our nuclear security today.

Location: MA

Until recently I was a physics professor at Harvard, where I taught the nuclear and particle physics course, among others. I've recently left that position to work as an R&D physicist in security applications. I have never done classified weapons work.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Speculation: What Went Down in the NIE Release

Let's did the NIE come to be public? First, it had to be, declassification having been mandated by Congress, but as we'll see, it seems DNI was ready to overlook that little nicety.

It seems the main plan, from the point of view of the IC, was to hold the NIE closely. The IC was very nervous about parts of it being selectively leaked. I want to point out that had Cheney been in charge of leaking selective pieces of it, these are what we would have gotten (all of these sentences are taken directly from the 12/03 Iran NIE):

A. [W]e also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is
keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.

B. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon.

D. Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons

F. We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities—rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity

H. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial
capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

The headlines would have read:

NIE Concludes Iran Is Building The Bomb

I think it's a little scary how easy it would be to pull those bits out of the very NIE we all recognize was completely fatal to any idea that we should be attacking Iran, into a story that says exactly the opposite.

Each of the above points surely has a lot of evidence in the full NIE. For the left-out context of these claims (namely, that the program has been halted since 2003), there is probably some counter-evidence. Imagine had the above leaked, along with tidbits of those pieces of classified
evidence. Michael Gordon of the NYT would have spun it out into six breathless articles detailing the secret evidence that Iran is building a weapon.

Not wanting this to happen, the AP reported on DNI McConnell on Nov. 13:

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell said Tuesday he would resign if administration officials mischaracterized or "cherry-picked" intelligence to support their own political agenda.

Bush administration officials have been accused of selectively releasing intelligence that supported the case for an invasion of Iraq prior to the war.

McConnell also said a new national intelligence estimate on Iran should be complete in about a month, but its key findings will not be released publicly. He says doing so could alert Iran to its intelligence vulnerabilities.

From the WaPo article of 12/8:

No one told participants about the new information, but on the same day they were gathering in Annapolis on Nov. 27, the National Intelligence Board met to finalize the new NIE. McConnell and others briefed Bush and Cheney the next day. Even though intelligence officials planned to keep it from the public, Bush later that day passed it on to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Cheney told Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

From the WaPo article of 12/8:

By last weekend, an intense discussion broke out about whether to keep it secret. "We knew it would leak, so honesty required that we get this out ahead, to prevent it from appearing to be cherry picking," said a top intelligence official. So McConnell reversed himself, and analysts scrambled over the weekend to draft a declassified version.

(As emptywheel points out, this seems to parallel Pat Lang's observation that senior members of the IC basically revolted.)

From the Deputy DNI's statement on the release of the NIE, Dec. 3:

While the decision to release the declassified Key Judgments was coordinated in discussion with senior policy makers, the IC took responsibility for what portions of the NIE Key Judgments were to be declassified.

So here's the speculation on the order of events. Senior IC officials read McConnell the riot act in October, saying they better not see the above-posited series of Gordon articles. McConnell decides to wall the NIE off, and publicly threaten to resign if any of it comes out. When they brief Bush two weeks later, within 24 hours McConnell and the IC learn it has left the reservation and there is no longer any way to control what gets cherry picked. (Doubtless fearing that it would become recycled as "Israeli intelligence" reports in some European newspaper.) The senior members of the IC tell McConnell, "We're calling the WaPo tomorrow if you don't declassify this." Between that, and his previous statement about being prepared to resign, he has no choices but to declassify it himself. He wants to make it clear that the IC, and not Bush / Cheney chose what to go in there, so they also released the 12/03 statement with the above verbiage.

Getting the Story Straight

President George W. Bush, December 4:

David, I don't want to contradict an august reporter such as yourself, but I was made aware of the NIE last week.

President George W. Bush, December 4 :

In August, I think it was Mike McConnell came in and said, we have some new information. He didn't tell me what the information was

National Security Advisor Steven Hadley, December 3:

On at least five different occasions, Hadley said the White House learned of the NIE sometime in the “last few months.”

Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto, December 5:

Q Just to clarify one point from the press conference yesterday, the President was -- said that he was told by Mr. McConnell, just generally, that there had been some new intelligence and that people were taking another look at it. Did the President at that point ask any follow-up? Did Mr. McConnell offer any comments that, in fact, there might have to be a serious reevaluation of the whole intelligence?

MR. FRATTO: What Director McConnell said is that we're going to go back and do rigorous analysis of this intelligence, and when we can be certain of it, we're going to come back and talk to you -- and that's what they did...

Q In that conversation did McConnell tell him that our previous intelligence could be all wrong? How -- (inaudible) -- was he about that?

MR. FRATTO: I don't have anything on that.

White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, December 5:

In August, DNI Director McConnell advised President Bush that the intelligence community would not be able to meet a congressionally imposed deadline requiring a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran because new information had been obtained just as they were about to finalize the report.

He said that if the new information turns out to be true, what we thought we knew for sure is right. Iran does in fact have a covert nuclear weapons program, but it may be suspended. The Director advised that there were many streams of information that had the potential to be in conflict, and it would take more time to vet it all to determine validity, and that’s why they were not able to meet the deadline.

Director McConnell said that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran’s covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time, and it wouldn’t be right to speculate until they had time to examine and analyze the new data.

White House Spokeswoman, Dana Perino, December 6:

This one you just have to read for yourself. It's a bloody massacre. Two passages:


Q But the President said, "He didn't tell me what the information was." But you're now saying he was told that Iran may have halted its nuclear weapons program and also that there may be a new assessment, right?

MS. PERINO: Right, but he doesn't -- he didn't get any of the details of what the information, in terms of what the actual raw intelligence was.

Q He didn't say, he didn't tell me what the information --

MS. PERINO: Okay, look, I can see where you could see that the President could have been more precise in that language, but the President was being truthful.

Q Dana, but listen to what he said: "He didn't tell me what the information was; he did tell me it was going to take a while to analyze." Was the President told that there was a possibility that Iran's nuclear program could be suspended? That's what you said he was told.

MS. PERINO: Yes, the President was told that there is new information in the context of raw intelligence, not told the details of what it was, and told that he's going -- they're going to have to go back and do some more checking on it because they didn't have a high degree of confidence in it, and it could potentially be in conflict.

Q But he said he didn't know what the information even was. I can see the details of it, but --

MS. PERINO: Martha. Okay, you could -- I grant you, he could have been more precise in his language. But if you look at the follow-up -- the following sentences of that quote he says -- I have it right here -- he says, that "it would take a while to analyze." "It" -- he's referring to "it" in terms of what the information was. I think that --

Q But he said he didn't know what the information was.


Q Can you just clarify one more thing? What day was the President actually briefed on the NIE?

MS. PERINO: I don't know. I don't know.

Q Well, because Mr. Hadley left the impression that it was last Wednesday.

MS. PERINO: Oh, the NIE specifically? Yes, it was last Wednesday.

Q Last Wednesday. Okay. But there have been reports that the President briefed Prime Minister Olmert last week, maybe on Monday. Is that --

MS. PERINO: I don't know.

Q Did he brief Prime Minister Olmert? And how could he brief Olmert on Monday about a report that he found out about on Wednesday? Can you --

MS. PERINO: I don't -- I will check. I mean, it's possible that he knew that there was information coming, the intelligence community was checking it out --

Q -- he didn't just find out about it Wednesday. This was out there.

It's a grim scene in the press room when you find yourself defending the proposition that "The President was being truthful". And even worse when this article comes out the very next day:

Washington Post, December 8:

They call them "deep dives," special briefings for President Bush to meet with not just his advisers but also the analysts who study Iran in the bowels of the intelligence world. Starting last year, aides arranged a series of sessions for Bush to "get his hands dirty," in the White House vernacular for digging into intelligence to understand what is known and not known.
As analysts scrambled to finish by April, they were reaching the conclusion that Iran was still a decade away from nuclear weapons, senior intelligence and administration officials said.
McConnell told Bush about the new information in August during a daily intelligence briefing, but did not provide much detail or anything on paper, White House officials said.
Bush periodically asked McConnell for updates. "The president and his advisers were regularly and continuously appraised on new information as we acquired it," an intelligence official said.
No one told participants about the new information, but on the same day they were gathering in Annapolis on [Tuesday] Nov. 27, the National Intelligence Board met to finalize the new NIE. McConnell and others briefed Bush and Cheney the next day. Even though intelligence officials planned to keep it from the public, Bush later that day passed it on to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Cheney told Defense Minister Ehud Barack.

All emphasis mine. (h/t emptywheel for the WaPo article)

Just take a moment to absorb.

I will come back to the very last point in my next post with some speculation about how the NIE came out.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Looking Back

The obvious question about the Iran NIE is now coming up: when did the principals (Cheney, Gates, Bush, Rice) learn about the conclusions of the NIE? Several people have suggested looking at rhetorical shifts in the past; Josh Marshall flags Bush's October 17 "World War III" speech ("That's the tell.That change is no accident. He wants claims that will survive the eventual revelation of this new intelligence -- while also continuing to hype the imminence of the Iranian nuclear threat that his spy chiefs are telling him likely does not exist.") ; Digby points to earlier in October ("I noticed at the time that there was a rather alarming rhetorical conformity on this issue coming from the Iran hawks").

I've written four times on the nuclear rhetoric on Iran. As a retrospective, here are the links and they key passages. I think as early as February 2007, it was clear they didn't want to directly defend the nuclear charges.

Things were quiet again on the Iran front until roughly the beginning of the year, starting more or less when it became clear that Bush would reject the Baker-Hamilton ISG Report. And the theme is clear: Iran is attacking our boys in Iraq. The nuclear issue has been successfully introduced, and pushed into the background. So it will be there, an ominous note that will cloud careful judgment, without being an explicit reason to go to war. So that when all those claims about Iran's nuclear program turn out to be wrong, it won't matter, since the war will have been undertaken with heavy heart due to an Iranian attack.

In some ways I recognize that the White House and its idealogical allies may not always be able to control the message. But the shift here is clear, clearly intentional, and clearly cynical. And that, more than anything else, scares the hell out of me that they really mean it.

As I pointed out some time ago--the nuclear angle has been at least temporarily abandoned (though I fully expect it to return.) So the rhetoric has shifted to Iran's role attacking American troops.

I also want to point something out. Nowhere in the text of the bill do they mention Iran's nuclear program. I've pointed out before that there seems to have been something of a rhetorical shift with respect to Iran; and this amendment shows it in blazing lights. They've laid down the WMD as a dark whisper. But since it's not front and center, it will never get properly debunked, and it won't bite them as much when Tehran's program isn't really as advertised. I'm impressed in a perverse way.

Second: " it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon". Sorry, Mr. President, but this train has left the station. It left, incidentally, in the 1940's. The problem in building a bomb is not knowing how to build one, it's in actually building one.

If your entire understanding of nuclear proliferation comes from Boris and Natasha's machinations on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, then this sort of misunderstanding can be excused. In a President, it is either a deliberate misstatement designed to allow a dangerously low bar for starting the next war, or it is an expression of naivete so extreme that his advisors must be setting him up for signing off on a dangerously low bar for starting the next war. Heads, we lose; tails, we lose.

Rumor Mill

Col. Patrick Lang, a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces (The Green Berets), reports:

The "jungle telegraph" in Washington is booming with news of the Iran NIE. I am told that the reason the conclusions of the NIE were released is that it was communicated to the White House that "intelligence career seniors were lined up to go to jail if necessary" if the document's gist were not given to the public. Translation? Someone in that group would have gone to the media "on the record" to disclose its contents.

If true: it is not every day that senior intelligence officers line up to go to jail for revealing contents of a classified document.

To the extent it demonstrates the ability of this Administration to command the respect and trust of those sworn to uphold the Constitution, we're not in a good place.

(h/t MadDog)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Iran NIE Links (Updated)

Some things I've been reading:

  • emptywheel's NIE timeline
  • CKR's outstanding questions
  • The Energy/Weapon Line
  • A somewhat less jubilant take from ACW guest post from James Acton
  • The wikipedia summary of the Iranian nuclear program
  • The Congressional mandate leading to the release (h/t to someone, but sadly I've lost track of whom. I think one of the commenters at emptywheel's place.)
  • The TPM stories on how long Bush has been lying to the American public about the Iranian nuclear program: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
  • TPM cafe by Michael Levi on nuclear terrorism. Some of the points may be relevant to the discussion of how easily Iran could weaponize any fissile stocks they have.
  • Update: Chinamatter's take: look hard at North Korea. I'm not sure I understand completely what he's onto here; but this is a really good blog in general for reminding us that the Middle East does not orbit the United States. Or, as he puts it in his post:
It’s an unsurprising but regrettable fact of life that the United States—and its opinion leaders and shapers—find it difficult to understand an international situation in which our framing and priorities are not necessarily decisive.

Monday, December 03, 2007


I'm having a very disorienting experience reading the just-released declassified summary of the Iran NIE. A document has been released from this Administration which seems in solid contact with reality and with which I find myself largely in agreement. More than that, the points of disagreement probably find me a tiny bit more hawkish than the document.

The key conclusions are (emphasis mine):

A. We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

B. We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

C. We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.
• We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.
• We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of
producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame.
(INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of
foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the
possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo
the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many
within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.

H. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial
capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

I really can't disagree with any of that--except possibly the importation of some weapons-grade material. It's possible that by that, they are referring to what is likely Pakistani contamination of imported centrifuges.

But in the main: they don't seem to be building a weapon now. They really couldn't build a weapon before 2009 at the earliest, and perhaps as late as 2013. Actions to date have shown that it may be possible for the cost-benefit calculus of the Iranian leadership to conclude that weapons are not in their best interest. All that said, they may very well be pursuing a breakout capability and seem very likely to acheive that by 2013-2015 at the latest. And that said, if Iran wants a weapon, we can't really stop them.

If that to you sounds like a situation in which you should be fueling up the F-18's, then I think you need to understand more about what is wrong with the 1% doctrine.

It's also useful to ask: what's different this time? After all, the summary of the Iraq WMD NIE was completely wrong. (A fact which the Cheney factions are going to use to argue that we must act now in Iran. The irony is killing me.) There has been some evidence that the classified full report on WMD was not nearly so inaccurate as the summary.

Here are the key conclusions of the Iraq NIE:

  • If Baghdad acquires sufficient fissile material from abroad it could make a nuclear weapon within several months to a year.
  • Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until 2007 to 2009, owing to inexperience in building and operating centrifuge facilities to produce highly enriched uranium and challenges in procuring the necessary equipment and expertise.
    • Most agencies believe that Saddam's personal interest in and Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuge rotors--as well as Iraq's attempts to acquire magnets, high-speed balancing machines, and machine tools--provide compelling evidence that Saddam is reconstituting a uranium enrichment effort for Baghdad's nuclear weapons program. (DOE agrees that reconstitution of the nuclear program is underway but assesses that the tubes probably are not part of the program.)
    • Iraq's efforts to re-establish and enhance its cadre of weapons personnel as well as activities at several suspect nuclear sites further indicate that reconstitution is underway.
    • All agencies agree that about 25,000 centrifuges based on tubes of the size Iraq is trying to acquire would be capable of producing approximately two weapons' worth of highly enriched uranium per year.
The first of these points is inane. If I acquired sufficient fissile material from abroad, along with a tidily-sized grant to hire enough of the right people and to equip a spiffy new lab and to buy enough pizza to keep everyone in the lab 18 hours a day, I could build a weapon in a few months to a year. (Or so I think. But making sure of that is exactly the point of the lab!)

Iran, a relatively wealthier national government with a larger technically trained populace, has been pursuing their (civilian) enrichment program, with outside aid, operational experience, and no difficulties obtaining equipment, since 2002. Five years later, it is hobbling along (see below) an has a minimum of another two years to go. That's at least seven years from go for a program with outside aid and no constraints imposed by the need to operate clandestinely. That puts in a pretty clear light how likely it was that Iraq would be able to run a clandestine operation to produce weapons in a shorter time.

Also, I highlighted the DOE portion in the third point. Most people think that the DoD makes nuclear weapons, but actually, in the US, it's the DOE. If DOE is telling you the tubes are not for enrichment, they are the ones who would know. That knocks out, in turn, the third and fifth subpoint. What are you left with? The entire Iraq WMD argument is left resting on the fourth point--the observation that there are more people and activities at some sites suspected of being nuclear. That's so shoddy that embarrassing doesn't even cover it.

This time around is very different. Which is to say, the NIE is not obvious fantasy. Unlike Iraq, Iran is indisputably actually operating enrichment cascades. The Iranian enrichment rate capability is, within a large but containable uncertainty, quantitatively known. This has allowed technical, third-party groups such as ISIS to make technically credible estimates of when enough uranium will have been enriched to make weapons-grade material available. These are not the sort of wild-guesses of the Iraq NIE about what bogeymen in the dark might be doing, but rather based on known quantitative data on an operational program. That's a world of difference.

Among the ISIS observations is that the enrichment rate acheived to date implies very large down-times and therefore likely considerable technical difficulties. Their conclusion is that should Iran run flat out, without concern for the long-term survival of the cascades, and without any concern for external political ramifications, and without any further technical difficulties, then they might able to build a small number of weapons at the end of 2009. This seems in good accord with the NIE. To the extent any of those assumptions are not met, the date gets pushed outwards.


The other big difference this time is, of course, that Dick Cheney and his crew did not have their mitts all over this NIE before it was drawn up. He only got the chance, apparently, to object after it was already written.


Even from the beginning, when we were being assured that US intelligence would be able to draw up a list of potential nuclear sites, even the likes of Bill Kristol were admitting military strikes would, at best, buy us a couple of years. Now, Atrios brings up an excellent point:

It must be understood that since our intelligence agencies don't believe Iran has a nuclear weapons program, it also means that they don't know where such a program would be physically located if it did exist. This means that any desires of Dick Cheney and his people to bomb Iran simply involve... bombing the shit out of Iran.
Emphasis mine.

emptywheel has written up a timeline of Iran-NIE related events; it accords well with Seymour Hersh's comments. Long and short: this NIE has been floating around for at least a year.

I realized I left a hawkish teaser in the post and didn't follow through on it. It's simply this: regardless of the conclusions of the NIE, we should be acting as if (a) Iran is pursuing a breakout capability and (b) there's really nothing we can do to force them to stop. I think that outlook puts the policymaker in the right frame of mind: what can we do to induce them to stop, or to manage the consequences if they acheive that capability? Those are the questions where a policymaker can actually choose meaningful options.

(More disorientation there, as George Bush and I agree that the conclusions of the NIE don't really change very much. It's just that we've come to the opposite conclusions! It seems to me only one of them is, in the main, supported by the intelligence community's data...)

And a final note. If we lived in a normal (not even necessarily rational) political system, this NIE would be a death blow to military action. This report basically says, "Stop panicking and pull yourself together, man!" With its conclusions known to the Administration, at a minimum, since July, there is no way around the fact that they've been caught lying for the past five months. There's no way around the fact they're hysterical ninnies.

In a normal political system, at this point I could kick back, pour myself a brandy, stop worrying about whether my family should be in a coastal metroplitan city in case of a war, and have no worry greater than kicking myself for not having shorted oil. But we don't live in that sort of system. So help me God, the MSNBC headline this morning was, "Bush: Iran Report is a Warning Signal". We still have to work to make it through another fourteen months.

By the way, now that blogger's fixed, you should really click on the graphic for this post to enlarge it.