Iran: Why Did the CIA Get It Wrong?

Evgeny KIRSANOV (Russia)

The leak of secret documents about the US war in Afghanistan gave rise to a flood of articles about the US intelligence community’s effectiveness against Islamic terrorism and about its Middle East operations overall. The Washington Post is preparing a series of articles on the subject, and Edward J. Epstein’s articles in the Wall Street Journal deal with the CIA’s mistakes concerning the likelihood that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. He concludes that the CIA knew about Iran’s plans and activities as early as 2006 but radically changed its position a year later and began maintaining in its reports to the President that Tehran had frozen its program in 2003. That, in turn, caused the United States to lose time. Epstein also maintains that the CIA was led to that conclusion by Iranian defectors and VIP agents close to the Iranian leadership. That is, assessments of Iran’s prospects for developing nuclear weapons changed fundamentally in less than a year. Epstein asks a rhetorical question: how could this have happened?

The answer is: very easily. Let’s start with the fact that the entire situation with agents and defectors he describes is a classic large-scale cover operation (or “red herring”) run by Iran’s intelligence services, and you have to give them credit They conducted a massive disinformation campaign: deceptive information from defectors and agents was accompanied by radio transmissions that NSA naturally intercepted. There was nothing novel about the operation; it was a classic example of the type of operation that Soviet intelligence did so well during World War II (Operation Monastery, for instance). Incidentally, the Germans were also pretty good at deception Iranian intelligence deserves high marks for the precision with which it carried out the operation. That was one reason why the Americans “bought into” the disinformation. But not the main reason.

The primary cause of failure lay in an area entirely unrelated to purely operational factors. We are confident that if Epstein, who specializes in the US intelligence community, were to look into the reshuffling of personnel that occurred at CIA during 2007, he would see that new people took over the Iran desk. That obviously came about due to the rapid changes in “guidelines.” That is, the people who had been warning for 10 years that Iran could develop nuclear weapons left their posts. New people came in. They probably arrived as a result of an order from the White House to put more emphasis on Iran. And their more intense efforts began at a time when there was an extreme shortage of quality agents. A search for good agents was carried out through the Shah Diaspora in Turkey, the United States and Europe. Considering the boldness with which the search was conducted, Tehran naturally learned about it and began preparing an ambitious deception. Epstein doesn’t know how much the CIA paid its newly recruited sources, or his article together with the irate comments it generated would have been a couple of pages longer.

The CIA employees newly assigned to the Iran desk did not trouble themselves with doubting or verifying their information. They needed to demonstrate success quickly and upstage the competition (even if it was detrimental). They did not want to question the reliability of the information they had collected, forgetting that that is what an intelligence organization is paid to do. Rather, they confined themselves to polygraphing the defectors (oh, the sacred trust that laymen place in the omnipotence of science!), and the dicey results gave them the answer they needed. We can’t say they were fed a steady diet of disinformation. In Tehran, they know how to put on a good deception operation, so they also slipped the Americans good quality material. We know what the outcome was.

This story reveals once again the level at which the US intelligence community works, and this isn’t the only instance. The problem of penetration and deception has been its weak point since time immemorial. In the 1960s, the defector Golitsin created paranoia among the CIA’s leadership. The same sort of thing happened with al-Libi, a key al-Qaeda figure who fed them disinformation for a long time and then was freed to work in the headquarters of the Islamists. Five years later they were trying to kill him. Every manager who gets hold of an “al-Libi” begins exploiting him and relying on him alone, realizing that his career is short and he needs to advance. He needs to prove that he is necessary and unique. And a career can’t be based on doubts and long-term verification procedures. Because every intelligence manager is beholden to his patron in the country’s leadership to some degree, he justifies his position by regularly providing his benefactor with an “exclusive,” and he in turn must be the first person to give it to the President. All this creates competition between and within agencies; and unlike the way things work in the economy, competition interferes with intelligence production. In Iran, the entire operation was managed by one person, no one was treading on his heels, and he had no one to compete with. He was just doing his job. By the way, that tells us something about the myth common in the West regarding the incompetence of intelligence services in the Middle East.

But such a situation can only develop when it suits a country’s top leadership, when an agency that should produce reliable information is transformed into an agency that “manufactures” the intelligence needed at a given moment in time. That intelligence has to match the senior leaders’ concept of a situation. The leaders didn’t need an Iran with a nuclear bomb in 2007. And the CIA cheerfully provided the confirmation. Iran isn’t very important even today; they have enough trouble with Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem has simply become so obvious that intelligence can’t be used to cover it up, although attempts are being made to do so. Recall Pentagon head Robert Gates, who incidentally was in charge of the CIA in 2007, and his statement that the Iranians will be able to produce their bomb within about 10 years. Gates will no longer be in charge 10 years from now, so it won’t be his problem.

There is no continuity between generations, and no independence in assessments. And most importantly, there is no demand for it from the country’s top leadership. They have short-term interests and frequently make stupid attempts to justify their blunders with truths and falsehoods. So Epstein and the other experts who specialize in intelligence issues have many marvelous revelations to look forward to.

Source: New Eastern Outlook


  1. To transform an information in to intelligence. it needs basic information which American never has or tried to know like the British did.

    American hired mostly those people who spoke their language and were more interested in money than objective analysis and advise.

    They are suffering as they designed the intelligence and never tried to extract it from the given information as it is.

    They have failed the moment they took off, such a flight never make up to destination.

    I can bet.

  2. The problem with US intelligence is that they got their noses poked into too much of other problems. Its very bureaucratic. Moreover, they don’t have good agents any longer.

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  4. Islam ChildrenHomeEx CIA officers worked for years to create this civil war among Muslim brothers. Zoran Veljovich , Michael Huley , Cofer Black and Michael S. were among top officers of American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) .
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