Iran, Nukes,
and the ‘Laptop of Death’

by , December 11, 2007

The pushback against the recent finding [.pdf] by America’s 16 intelligence agencies that puts "high confidence" in their evaluation that Iran stopped its covert nuclear weapons project in 2003 has the Lobby going into overdrive – with (who else?) John Bolton leading the charge, crying "Putsch!" and decrying the NIE as pure "politics." Bolton and his neoconservative co-thinkers are really just echoing the Israelis, however, who have sullenly asserted their own dissent, albeit discreetly enough to maintain the fiction of their own complete lack of influence. For the Israeli view, however, all we have to do is go over to The New Republic, which has always reflected the allegiances of its publisher and sometime owner, where Yossi Klein Halevi derides the NIE as an "insult to intelligence." The it’s-all-political theme, echoed by the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, Bob Baer in Time, and the Israeli-occupied regions of the blogosphere, is neatly summarized by Halevi:

"No one with whom I’ve spoken believes that professional considerations, such as new intelligence, were decisive in changing the American assessment on Iran. What has been widely hailed in the American media as an expression of intelligence sobriety, even courage, is seen in the Israeli strategic community as precisely the opposite: an expression of political machination and cowardice. ‘The Americans often accuse us of tailoring our intelligence to suit our political needs,’ notes a former top security official. ‘But isn’t this report a case study of doing precisely that?'”

Anyone who has been following this story is bound to wonder: what world is Halevi living in? The provenance of the NIE has been widely discussed in several news articles, which reveal a number of sources for fresh intelligence utilized by U.S. analysts, including intercepts of conversations between at least one Iranian military officer connected to "Project 1-11" (the code name for the Iranian nuclear program) and some unidentified others in which the officer complains bitterly that the project has been nixed, and speculates on the question of whether or not it will be revived at some future date.

That sure sounds like new intelligence to me. Yet there is a deeper level of deception here, which we can dig into when we pose the same question posed by the NIE’s critics, such as Norman Podhoretz, who asks:

"A full two years after Iran supposedly called a halt to its nuclear program, the intelligence community was still as sure as it ever is about anything that Iran was determined to build a nuclear arsenal. Why then should we believe it when it now tells us, and with the same ‘high confidence,’ that Iran had already called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003?"

Since Podhoretz is arguing from his own a priori assumption that the 2005 NIE was correct, he never asks what was the basis of the American contention – made with "high confidence" – that Iran was "determined" to build nukes?

It all goes back to what is called "the laptop of death" – a portable computer obtained in mid-2004 from a "walk-in" source, who had supposedly received it from another unidentified person in Iran, which contained "voluminous" plans for the construction of a missile containing a nuclear warhead. U.S. officials used this "find" to convince the Europeans that the Iranian nuclear threat is real and menacing: it was a key part of the rationale for the alarming 2005 NIE. Yet the story of where this treasure trove of intelligence allegedly came from kept getting murkier and more dubious. According to Dafna Linzer, reporting in the Washington Post, it was "allegedly stolen from an Iranian whom German intelligence tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit as an informant. It was whisked out of the country by another Iranian who offered it up to foreign intelligence officials in Turkey as evidence of a nuclear weapons program."

If this sounds like the Niger uranium papers, the crude forgeries that somehow got past the president’s Praetorian Guard and formed the basis for the infamous "sixteen words," then the question asked by Podhoretz and his pals – how did we get it so wrong? – takes on a meaning they never intended. Because, if we look at the timeline of this evolving narrative, the discrepancy between the discovery of the "laptop of death" in mid-2004 and the termination of the Iranian nukes program in 2003 raises a simple question: Was "the laptop of death" a deliberate effort to deceive?

Given the record of this administration in the run-up to war with Iraq, and the extremely dicey "intelligence" that was created out of whole cloth by Iraqi exiles in league with our own domestic neocons, alarm bells ought to be going off about now.

Ewen MacAskill, writing in the Guardian, reports that the authors of the new NIE "have gone back over the material and subjected it to a higher level of scrutiny. They took the same data but reached different conclusions. They also had some new material." In other words, they went back and looked at the "intelligence" used to justify the last NIE – and rejected it. The new material, including the intercepts, debunked the claim that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Apparently, the single official mentioned in the "laptop of death" documents, one Mohsen Fakrizadeh, was one of the individuals we spied on, recording his complaints about the program’s demise. And there are yet more clues about the walking-back process that provide a clue to our earlier cluelessness. In a Washington Post piece on the laptop documents published two years ago, we get this:

"After more than a year of analysis, questions remain about the trove’s authenticity. ‘Even with the best intelligence, you always ask yourself, "Was this prepared for my eyes?"’ one American official said. Several intelligence experts said that a sophisticated Western spy agency could, in theory, have produced the contents of the laptop. But American officials insisted there was no evidence of such fraud."

While the laptop documents, according to one account, were convincing because they described progressive developments in the Iranian nuclear program extending into "early 2004" – a year after the secret effort was ended – the fraud perpetrated here isn’t necessarily a pure forgery. What apparently happened is that someone stole the documents, some or most of which may have been authentic, in order to pass off a defunct operation as an active enterprise. In other words, someone – whether a foreign intelligence service or some U.S. officials is not known – tried to deliberately deceive us.

Now, who, I ask you, would try to pull off such a dastardly deed?

Incredibly, there is to be no investigation into the case of the "laptop of death" – or how the phony intelligence contained therein became the basis of U.S. policy toward Iran. Instead, a gaggle of "liberal" policy wonks are crying out that the "threat" from Iran still needs to be dealt with, and they are calling for the imposition of stricter sanctions – in other words, they’re going along with the Israeli-neoconservative line that the whole thing is "political" and doesn’t involve any new intelligence. They’d rather be deceived, and please don’t burden them with any inconvenient facts – they’ve already made up their minds. That list includes Anthony Lake, a top foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama, who says that the NIE shows we have to take "action" (i.e., impose sanctions via the UN) and that it isn’t too late to "stop" the Iranians from doing what they aren’t trying to do.

We were almost lied into war again – and the Lobby may yet succeed in manipulating us into a conflict with Iran. As I said last week, the danger of war has not yet passed, and may even be increased on account of the new NIE – because the War Party never rests. At any moment, some fresh "intelligence" similar to the "laptop of death," the infamous "dodgy dossier," or the Niger uranium forgeries could come out of the woodwork. All we know is that the current crop of national security bureaucrats is going to put up a fight before they allow us to be duped again. The question that cries out for an answer, however, is: who duped us the last time around?

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

My piece on Robinson Jeffers is now out. Go look for The American Conservative at your local newsstand, because I’m not at all sure they’re going to put it online.

Also: go check out Taki’s Top Drawer, where I’m blogging on "the president’s mistress" and other matters…

Read more by Justin Raimondo