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Leading Alarmist on Iran Ignored What He Knew Was True

Albright has left a trail of evidence indicating that he has embraced the Iran alarmist line coming from the United States, Israel and the IAEA, despite his knowledge that there were serious problems with the evidence on which it was based. (Image: Facts for a Better Future / Flickr)

For the past several years, David Albright has been the primary nonofficial source in news media reporting of the alarming message that Iran presents a nuclear weapons threat. In dozens of media interviews since Spring 2008, he has provided ostensibly independent support for the case made by the United States, Israel and the IAEA, that Iran has hidden an alleged nuclear weapons program and must now confess.

Despite being presented as outside expert on nuclear proliferation, however, Albright has acted more like a functionary in a political apparatus than as an independent analyst.

Albright, the founder and executive director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, DC, has left a trail of evidence indicating that he has embraced the Iran alarmist line coming from the United States, Israel and the IAEA, despite his knowledge that there were serious problems with the evidence on which it was based.

Albright’s support for an official line on WMD proliferation even though he had good reason to be skeptical of the intelligence case being pushed by powerful political forces did not begin with Iran. He did something very similar in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, as the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration assembled a dodgy intelligence dossier with which to justify the invasion.

Albright became aware months before the invasion that the most notorious element in the intelligence dossier – the claim that Saddam had acquired aluminum tubes that could be used for gas centrifuges only – was very dubious.

Albright thus confirmed that his role was not to ascertain the actual facts independently of the official line on WMD issues, but to adjust his analysis to meet that line.

In early October 2002, Albright told The Guardian, “There’s a catfight going on about this right now. On one side you have most of the experts on gas centrifuges. On the other, you have one guy sitting in the CIA.” He further revealed that someone at Lawrence Livermore national laboratory had tipped him off that those who knew the truth about the aluminum tubes issue had been ordered to keep quiet about the issue.

With that knowledge, a truly independent nongovernment expert would have insisted at the very least that the Bush administration’s broader case involving WMD in Iraq be thoroughly investigated. But instead, Albright simply shifted his emphasis and pushed the Bush administration line that Saddam had biological and chemical weapons. In a CNN interview on October 5, 2002, he said the only question was “how Saddam would deliver them.”

Albright admitted that he had not done any independent investigation of the issue, but had simply “accepted the administration’s claims on chemical and biological weapons.” Albright thus confirmed that his role was not to ascertain the actual facts independently of the official line on WMD issues, but to adjust his analysis to meet that line.

Warnings about the Laptop Documents

Beginning in 2005, Albright was confronted with another such issue: The Bush administration began leaking information to the news media about intelligence documents that it claimed had been stolen by a spy from the laptop computer of an Iranian scientist involved in a covert program of nuclear weapons research.

Those documents were said to include a series of highly incriminating computer-modeling studies of the redesign of the reentry vehicle of Iran’s Shahab-3 missile to accommodate an unidentified payload that was assumed to be a nuclear weapon. The Bush administration passed them on to the IAEA in 2005, and they eventually became the centerpiece of the campaign to accuse Iran of nuclear weapons research.

Albright had played along with the propaganda line that Undersecretary of State John Bolton had begun to develop in mid-2004, suggesting that Iran might be hiding facilities for testing nuclear weapons designs at its Parchin military base. In September 2004, he published satellite photos of the base, leaked to him by Bolton, on the ISIS website

But despite sensational media articles starting in 2005 and continuing through 2008, Albright maintained a discrete silence on the subject of those documents. I learned directly from Albright himself in September 2008 that someone who had studied the document had warned him about serious questions surrounding them.

Albright said the unidentified source had cited obvious technical flaws in the reentry vehicle redesign studies, which raised the obvious question whether they were actually done by Iran’s missile designers. The source also told Albright that the reentry vehicle shown in the documents was different from the one on the missile that had been flight-tested by Iran in August 2004.

These and other issues raised by Albright’s source concerned him so much that he actually questioned – albeit relatively discretely – the Bush administration’s use of the documents to advance its case for punishing Iran. After The New York Times ran a report by David Sanger and William Broad in November 2005 that discussed the “efforts to design a nuclear warhead,” allegedly shown in the documents, Albright wrote to coauthor William J. Broad, asking “Why did you not report on the technical flaws in the work by this group of engineers? Did your sources not tell about these flaws . . . ?” [1]

And in a letter to editor of the Times about the same article, Albright pointed out that photographs of the missile Iran had tested in August 2004 indicated a nuclear weapon would have to be about 600 millimeters in diameter to fit into the reentry vehicle. But the bomb design that had been sold to Libya by the A.Q. Khan network and was presumed to be the one that Iran might use, he noted, was about 900 millimeters in diameter – one-third larger than would fit in the reentry vehicle being tested.

From 2006 to the Spring 2008, Albright avoided the subject of those allegedly incriminating intelligence documents completely. And in one commentary in February 2006, he even criticized a House Intelligence Committee report for asserting that Iran’s civilian nuclear program was merely a cover a nuclear weapons program. Albright retorted, “The evidence supports Iran’s claims that it seeks a nuclear power program, though it may also seek a nuclear weapons capability.”

With both the Bush administration and Heinonen pushing the same arguments, Albright quickly fell into line behind them.

Albright’s silence on the intelligence documents came during a period in which the Bush administration was not commenting publicly on them. And from 2005 through 2007, the leadership of the IAEA was being publicly noncommittal about the documents that the United States had foisted on it. Indeed senior IAEA officials believed that the authenticity of the documents was highly questionable.

Albright’s Political Shift

But by Spring 2008, a significant political shift was occurring inside the IAEA: Olli Heinonen, the Finnish deputy director of the agency for Safeguards, had committed himself to supporting the Bush administration’s Iran strategy. The new US line was that the IAEA should force Iran to make a “confession” to the activities described in the intelligence documents, and Heinonen had convinced US officials that he was aligned with Washington on the issue, as a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks reveals. In the IAEA report published in late May 2008, which strongly reflected Heinonen’s views, the documents were pronounced “credible” for the first time.

With both the Bush administration and Heinonen pushing the same arguments, Albright quickly fell into line behind them. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, immediately after the May 2008 report came out, Albright began stressing the decisive importance of the very documents about which he had previously expressed skepticism. “The information itself, collectively, is pretty compelling,” he said, and Iran “needs to produce evidence that it’s not true, or explain what it is and even admit to having worked on nuclear weapons.”

Albright’s insistence on proving a negative neatly reversed the normal burden of proof in a situation where the evidence was not of proven reliability.

Albright parroted Heinonen’s clever use of words in the report clearly implying, without saying so directly, that Iran had admitted that some parts of the documentation were authentic. “Iran does admit that some facts are correct,” Albright said. “It says, ‘Well that wasn’t for a nuclear weapons program, but for some other military program or other application.'”

After Heinonen had left the agency, the agency acknowledged for the first time in 2011 that Iran had admitted only that certain people, institutions and places mentioned in the documents did exist.

Albright also mentioned “a piece of evidence” in the IAEA report, “where you have a high-level person from Iran in 2006 talking about the option of getting nuclear weapons.”

Despite having declared publicly his conviction that Iran was now obliged to “come clean” on the basis of the intelligence documents, however, Albright was no more convinced by them than he had been in 2005.

That was a reference to another claim Heinonen had put into the report that was so wildly inaccurate as to be comical. The report insisted that Iran had to answer questions about “a letter published by the chairman of the Expediency Council in September 2006, which makes reference to possible acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

In fact, however, the letter in question was not written in 2006 and was not from the chairman of the Expediency Council. It was a letter from Ayatollah Khomeini written in 1988 but published only in 2006, in which Khomeini describes a letter from the IRGC military commander telling him it would be impossible to carry out offensive operations against Iraq without “a substantial number of nuclear weapons,” as well as large numbers of conventional weapons that Khomeini clearly felt would be impossible for Iran. In fact, Khomeini cited that information to help explain why he had decided that Iran would have to accept a ceasefire in the war.

Despite having declared publicly his conviction that Iran was now obliged to “come clean” on the basis of the intelligence documents, however, Albright was no more convinced by them than he had been in 2005.

Four months after repeating the IAEA report’s arguments without the slightest investigation, Albright raised a series of fundamental questions about the documents in an interview with me: Why, he wondered, were the studies of the reentry vehicle’s redesign “so primitive”? Why did the documents as a whole include only the redesign of the missile reentry vehicle, some high-explosives experiments and a process for uranium conversion? “Why not other projects?” he asked.

Albright had blackballed me for raising the possibility of fraud in the “laptop documents.”

He also noted the absence of indications in the documents that the three projects were in touch with one another. “So how could the documents be in the same collection?” he asked rhetorically.

But after I had raised the suspicion in a second interview a week later that a specific document that had just been mentioned in the IAEA report might be a fabrication and did not agree with the explanation he offered to try to explain the problem away, his attitude changed dramatically. Albright abruptly ended the interview, declared that he would not talk with me further and forbade me from quoting anything he had said, although everything had been on the record.

After that no one at the ISIS would respond to my messages. Albright had blackballed me for raising the possibility of fraud in the “laptop documents.”

In a July 2009 article on his website, Albright claimed that he had done independent research on the authenticity of the documents and “did not uncover any evidence that the laptop documents were forged.” That statement was highly misleading. He never acknowledged publicly after his decision to support the Heinonen line on the documents that he had been given specific warnings that they might not be what they seemed.

Albright Moves to the Right

After his turnaround on the intelligence documents in 2008, Albright became one of the most aggressive advocates of forcing Iran to “come clean” and admit that it had carried out the covert nuclear weapons program portrayed in the documents.

In fact, he began to insist in 2012 that, unless Iran admitted to having had such a program, there should be no negotiated settlement of the issue with Iran. In an interview with Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor, Albright disagreed with the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy of dealing first with Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which was considered by Washington to be the biggest proliferation threat, and the demand that Iran close the Fordow enrichment facility (on the apparent argument that otherwise the United States and Israel would be unable to destroy the facility by bombing). Instead, Albright said the priority should be on an Iranian confession. “How quickly they can make nuclear weapons depends on what they did in the past,” he said.

In January 2014, Albright told National Public Radio that if Iran failed to “come clean,” the IAEA would be “left with too many questions,” and “any hope of a lasting agreement will fade.”

Albright’s shift to rejecting a diplomatic settlement in the absence of a detailed Iranian confession of its supposed covert nuclear weapons work has aligned him with the Likud government of Israel and against the Obama administration. The Israelis and their supporters in the United States had been pressuring the Obama administration to insist on such a confession as part of the interim deal with Iran reached last November. When the Obama administration backed away from that position and substituted more flexible language in the agreement, those pro-Israel organizations, including the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, reacted with undisguised anger.

Albright added to the chorus warning of terrible consequences if Washington does not insist on a confession from Iran. In a May 14 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Albright repeated the “come clean” demand and again suggested that the agreement would be worthless without it. “[W]hat use will an agreement be if Iran hides a capacity to secretly build nuclear bombs?” he wrote.

As the negotiations with Iran became serious late last year, Albright began warning that Iran had capability for “breakout” – enrichment of enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb within a month or two. That scenario was seized upon by the pro-Israel contingent in Congress. The result was to create strong political pressure on the Obama administration to demand a radical reduction in Iranian enrichment capabilities.

The notion that Iran would actually contemplate racing to obtain an arbitrary amount of weapons-grade uranium is generally regarded, however, as “implausible.”

As the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and the sanctions aimed at crippling its economy enter their final weeks, Albright will continue to be the news media’s favorite “independent” expert on the talks. But what the media will fail to tell their audiences is that Albright has an agenda that is very close to that of one of the interested parties – and very far from that of getting at the truth about the issues at stake.

1. Albright’s letter to Broad was recorded as part the larger correspondence with the Times in a pdf, to which a link was provided at the “Arms Control Wonk” November 18, 2005, but the link to the pdf no longer works, reflecting Albright’s decision to withdraw it. However, the author copied the Albright letter as a Word document before it was withdrawn.

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