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February 16, 2011

New NIE on Iran nuke program appears to differ little from 2007 findings

The U.S. intelligence community has completed a new National Intelligence Estimate for President Barack Obama and Congress on Iran's nuclear program. The key judgements, however, aren't being released like those of a November 2007 NIE that concluded that Iran had halted the development of a nuclear weapon four years earlier.

But that may not matter. Because logic and U.S. intelligence community practices tell us that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper essentially laid out the new NIE's key judgments in the Annual Worldwide Threat Assessment that he presented today to the Senate Intelligence Committee and on Feb. 10 to the House Intelligence Committee. And in effect, the conclusions of the new NIE are pretty close to those of the 2007 NIE.

"We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it chose to do so," Clapper says in the threat assessment. "We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons."

Translation: The 16 U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran's covert nuclear weapons work remains suspended for now, but could be restarted if the Iranian regime decides to do so. And if it does proceed, the United States may not know it.

Here's what the 2007 NIE said: U.S. intelligence analysts "assess with moderate-to-high confidence
that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons."

And this: "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."

That doesn't mean that Iran hasn't been aggressively pursuing the technologies that it would need to build weapons. That is especially so when it comes to centrifuges, the supersonic spinning machines that are used to produce both low-enriched urnanium for power reactors - which is what Tehran insists it's using them for - and highly enriched uranium for bombs. The effort centered at Natanz has been considerably slowed, however, by attacks by the computer virus known as Stuxnet, experts say.

"Iran's technical advancement, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthens our assessment that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons, making the central issue the will to do so," Clapper says in the threat assessment. "These advancements contribute to our judgment that Iran is technically capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for a weapon in the next few years, if it choses to do so."




February 15, 2011

U.S. civilian intelligence program budget request made public for first time

$55 billion.

That's how much the Obama administration wants from Congress in FY 2012 for the National Intelligence Program, which funds civilian U.S. intelligence agencies and activities. It is the first time that any administration has ever made that request public.

"Any and all subsidiary information concerning the National Intelligence Program (NIP) budget, whether the information concerns particular intelligence agencies or particular intelligence programs, will not be disclosed," said a news release issued on Monday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The administration was required to make the FY 2012 NIP budget request public under a 2010 law, although President Barak Obama had the option of using a waiver to keep the figure secret.

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy over at the Federation of American Scientists, hailed the disclosure as "a new milestone in the 'normalization' of intelligence budgeting."

"It sets the stage for a direct appropriation of intelligence funds, to replace the deliberately misleading practice of concealing intelligence funds within the defense budget.  Doing so would also enable the Pentagon to (accurately) report a smaller total budget figure, a congenial prospect in tight budget times," Aftergood said in Tuesday's issue of his blog Secrecy News.

As Aftergood noted, the disclosure follows years of contentious debate and litigation, including an unsuccessful 1999 court suit brought by FAS. In a sworn declaration to the court, then Director of National Intelligence George Tenet insisted that revealing the intelligence community's budget request would undermine U.S. national security by providing "foreign intelligence services with a valuable benchmark for identifying and frustrating United States' intelligence programs."

"From our perspective, Mr. Tenet was wrong in 1999, and the damage he foresaw would not have resulted from the disclosure that he prevented," wrote Aftergood. "More fundamentally, the changing official assessment of the need to classify this information reflects the subjectivity that is inherent in the classification process, which makes it possible for two intelligence community leaders to reach opposing conclusions."

The administration's request for the Military Intelligence Program remains classified.


February 03, 2011

Central Asia on the brink?

Twenty years after emerging from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, the five countries of Central Asia are grappling with an accelerating collapse of their physical and human infrastructure, threatening dire consequences for their near-term stability, warns a new International Crisis Group report.

"Quietly but steadily, Central Asia's basic human and physical infrastructure - the roads, power plants, hospitals and schools and the last generation of Soviet-trained specialists who have all this running - is disappearing," says the report entitled "Central Asia: Decay and Decline. "Post-independence regimes made little effort to maintain or replace either, and funds allocated for this purpose have largely been eaten up by corruption."

The crisis, the report finds, is most accute in the two poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where local experts say that in the next few years there will be no more teachers or doctors. "Experts in both countries are haunted by the increasingly likely prospect of catastrophic systemic collapse, especially in the energy sector," it says.

Things aren't that much better in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and even Kazakstan, the best-off of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, is being "tested by infrastructure deficiencies, particularly in transportation and training of technical cadre," the report warns.

The bottomline: unless steps are taken by the regimes and their international donors to halt the deterioration, poverty and anti-government anger will deepen, fueling instability and providing Islamic radical groups with "further ammunition against regional leaders."

Central Asia's leaders, especially the aging despots, might want to read the report in light of events in Tunisia and Egypt. It's doubtful, however, that they will.

February 01, 2011

Human Rights Watch: Iraqi units under Maliki running secret detention site

Elite security forces that answer directly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office are running a secret detention center in Baghdad and have tortured prisoners "with impunity" at a different location in the Iraqi capital, an international human rights group says.

Human Rights Watch says the allegations against the 56th Brigade of the Iraqi Army and the country's Counter-Terrorism Service are based on interviews with former detainees and classified Iraqi government documents that it obtained.

The secret detention facility is located within a legitimate Justice Ministry detention center in Camp Justice, a former notorious intelligence compound during the rule of Saddam Hussein. More than 280 prisoners were transferred into the site in November from a detention center in the Green Zone that had come under public scrutiny following a Los Angles Times story last year on abuses and miserable conditions there, Human Rights Watch said.

The transfers took place just days before an international inspection team was to investigate conditions in Camp Honor, the Green Zone detention center, it said.

About 80 of the detainees in the Camp Justice site are in 56th Brigade's custody, while the remainder are being held by the counter-terrorism unit. The detainees have no access to lawyers or family members and prison inspectors are barred from the section of the facility controlled by the 56th Brigade, it said.

Human Rights Watch said that it had obtained 18 documents underpinning its allegations, including one from a prosecutor asking Maliki's office to authorize access to the detainees by lawyers and relatives. Another concerns a refusal by a 56th Brigade officer to allow Human Rights Ministry inspectors inside.

More than one dozen former detainees told Human Rights Watch in interviews that they were subjected to inhuman conditions and a wide range of abuses during interrogations at Camp Honor, including beatings and electric shocks.

Iraqi officials have previously denied such allegations and Maliki has previously promised to reign in abuses.

Human Rights Watch called on the Maliki government to close all of the facilities.


Senate committee report sees security risks facing U.S. diplomats in Iraq

A new report by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee raises serious concerns about the security of hundreds of U.S. diplomats who will remain in Iraq to support the government after the departure of the last 50,000 American troops at year's end.

While Iraq has undergone a "remarkable transformation" since the height of the civil war in 2007, with a more than 90 percent reduction in violence and an elected government now seated, "these advances remain fragile, uneven and reversible," said the report released at a committee hearing on the issue on Tuesday.

Al Qaida's Iraqi affiliate remains a threat, serious sectarian tensions persist and the country has yet to resolve potentially incendiary issues like a new oil law and the status of the city of Kirkuk, it said. All that poses significant security risks to an estimated 17,000 U.S. diplomats, military trainers, support personnel and private security contractors.

"The diplomatic mission that remains will be an initiative of unprecedented size and complexity, currectly projected to consist of some 17,000 individuals on 15 different sites, including 3 air hubs, 3 police training centers, 2 consulates, 2 embassy branch offices and 5 Office of Security Cooperation sites," said the report. "The State Department is scheduled to assume full security responsibilities in a still dangerous and unpredicable environment."

The report said that the State Department and Pentagon bureacracies are having problems coordinating the transition from the military mission to the diplomatic mission, such as agreeing on how many helicopters should remain in Iraq or be sent to Afghanistan.

Finally, the report warned that the success of the State Department-run mission will require a "cohesive and sustainable funding mechanism" at a time when congressional support "has been undermined by a constrained fiscal environment and war fatigue."




"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

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