Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq | Page 3

ISIS CW Attacks in Europe or Beyond?

In 2016, ISIS may once again take its terror out of the region of its “caliphate.”  It had success in Paris last November and is losing ground in Iraq.  Watch out for a new horror—they may take chemical attacks overseas—to the far enemy as Al Qa’ida would call it—Washington must ratchet up concern for chemical weapons attacks.

Reports in the last two months state ISIS has used mustard agent and aspires to produce its own chemical agents including the nerve agent sarin (  These risks are credible and serious.

Recall that the progenitor of ISIS, Mussab al Zarkawi planned and almost successfully executed a massive attack against Jordanian government buildings in April 2004.  He planned to lace the explosives with poisonous chemicals.  He was only thwarted by incredible skill and luck on the part of the Jordanian intelligence services—using methods and knowledge unavailable in the US.  (See Joby Warrick’s recent book  “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” for a great discussion of this near disaster.)

On the one hand, this underlines the importance of the success of removing the Syrian government’s large CW stockpile following the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry in September 2013.  Imagine if those stocks fell into the hands of ISIS?  The UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did an extraordinary job implementing this agreement. However, there are still instances of the use of chlorine as a rudimentary chemical agent and, a fact-finding mission of the OPCW has now reported a confirmed use of mustard agent (though they have not attributed who was responsible).

While the Syrian stocks appear to have been accounted for fully, this was not the only path to chemical weapons for ISIS.  They might, (and possibly have) obtained access to undeclared residual stocks from the Libyan arsenal.  The Libyan inventory was declared destroyed by international weapons inspectors last year.  This may be, but unexpected stores have been discovered in Libya before.  Now that Libya is in chaos, weapons inspection teams are unable to work there.  It is possible that mustard chemical weapons used by ISIS in Syria followed the path of Libyan conventional weapons once Qaddafi’s government collapsed.

Worse is the potential for ISIS to produce their own nerve agent.  ISIS has the will (demonstrated in their own statements and actions) and they probably have or can obtain the capability–at least to produce moderate quantities of sarin.  

To produce sarin (or other chemical agents) four things are needed:  a secure space; some laboratory facilities; chemical expertise; and, chemical precursors.

ISIS controls territory with substantial infrastructure (something Al Qa’ida never has).  Certainly within a city like Mosul Iraq, they can set up a secure facility capable of producing small amounts of sarin.  This would not be large scale, such as the enormous facilities established under Saddam.  (He produced and used over 100,000 chemical rounds against Iran and the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s.)  However it would be sufficient for ISIS to cause terror.

The expertise to produce sarin could be drawn from a variety of sources.  Iraqi experts remain in the area.  They may willingly or by force be called to the ISIS cause.  I would not want to be a chemist living in Mosul.

There are also other experts with experience in production of CW in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.  Ideology, force or money could drive them to serve ISIS.

This requirement may be key.  ISIS needs to obtain the requisite precursor chemicals.  ISIS has been adept at getting illicit weapons, but getting precursor chemicals may be more challenging and intelligence agencies may be able to pick up indications of such activity.

The concern of ISIS matched with WMD sounds like 2002 and the concerns of the Bush Administration over the “nexus of terrorism and WMD.”  This threat did not materialize then, but that is no reason to ignore the risk now.  ISIS is has territory, funds, and a global network of sympathetic supporters willing to die for their cause.

It is worth remembering that Aum Shinrikyo, the much smaller Japanese cult, produced enough sarin in a clandestine laboratory to create terror in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.  They had access to far fewer resources than ISIS.

Hopefully, the US and other intelligence agencies have this risk near the top of their threat matrix.  ISIS appears to have used chemical agents locally.

And, unlike Saddam, they seek to attack the West.  Given all the horrors they have perpetrated, why wouldn’t they use chemical weapons?


Posted in Intelligence, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS, ISIS Chemical Weapons, Sunni, Syria, Syria CW, Terrorism, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Iran Nuclear Deal – IAEA calls Iran out Weapon Design Work

The IAEA report, now circulating publicly, states clearly that Iran conducted nuclear weapon design related efforts before 2003 and between 2004 and 2009.  Iran denies this. Now it is up to the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council to decide if they are going to give Iran a pass in the interest of letting the agreement go forward, or hold Iran to the commitment to explain its work as the agreement demands.

This was the first early test of the agreement.  The IAEA has, despite political pressure, stuck to facts that can not be explained away.  Their report will be condemned by Moscow as biased, but it adheres to the facts as known to the IAEA.

Washington will probably seek to explain away the importance of the report or the discrepancies.  Secretary Kerry has laid the groundwork for this by saying the past is not important.  What is important is the future non-nuclear work of Iran.  Maybe he is correct, but to start this process with a lie and pushing aside inconvenient facts is not a good sign.  Maybe Iran will comply with the agreement going forward and the international community may have bought some time and some will have a significant new trading partner.

But maybe not.  The growing role of Iran all over the region, teamed with Russia, doesn’t look very promising.

Posted in Intelligence, Iran, United Nations | Leave a comment

Iranian General Killed in Syria – US Iran Policy – Nuclear Deal Prospects

The Iran nuclear deal would be a whole lot more palatable if we had a clear picture of a robust Iran strategy that included actions to punish the part of the Iranian government that has killed so many Americans.  Nuclear negotiations with Rouhani are OK, but the security brief is more in Kamenei’s hands and through them to the IRGC.  The IRGC is the real driver of Iranian security actions and they are acting against the US and its friends and allies directly.  I have argued that accompanying the carrot of the nuclear agreement should be a tough stick for those who kill Americans.  Why should we treat the al Quds force of the IRGC any differently than al Qa’ida?  They have been responsible for hundreds of American deaths.  Why should we not treat them in the same fashion?   Maybe we will…

Last Friday (October 9, 2015) it was reported by Iran media that Brig. Gen. Hossein Hamedani was killed in Syria by ISIS.  It would be nice if more of these leaders were taken off the battlefield as they say.  Hamedani, was reported to be a very close deputy to Qasem Solemeini, the Qods force commander.  I don’t know if Iran is certain it was ISIS that was responsible for the death of Hamdani, but it wouldn’t hurt if they wondered if the US was somehow connected.  Watch this space. 

Back to the Nuclear deal.  I wrote a piece for Politico in September 9 ( saying that the Iran nuclear deal might work….for a while.  I highlighted again that we will soon get a powerful indication of how things would work.  Iran, by October 15th is meant to have responded to IAEA road map requirements to disclose details related to their nuclear weaponization program.  Tehran has denied these efforts though the international community and even the IAEA believe they took place. (See the November 8, 2011 IAEA report which has an incredibly detailed description of the people, places, things, etc. related to a weaponization program.)

The IAEA will report to its Board of Governors and the UN Security Council on December 15th regarding their assessment.  At that time we will know if Iran is starting with a big lie, and we will know how tough IAEA reporting will be.  AND we will see how tough the US and other P-5 + 1 parties intend to be.  Don’t expect much.  

Certainly Putin will not want to see the deal blow up before sanctions are further loosened.  The US will also not want to blow up the deal even though it begins with a lie.  Kerry has already said, the past doesn’t matter, it’s only important what Iran does in the future.  He states we already know what Iran did whether the admit it or not doesn’t matter.   Somehow, that doesn’t sound right.

So my take is the deal may buy some time.  How much?  I bet on the short side.


Posted in Intelligence, Iran, ISIS, Syria, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Iran Verification – Wobbly

Verification is wobbly. Yes the provisions are better than other IAEA systems, but this is nothing compared to the access and techniques used in Iraq.  Moreover, it is very sensitive to how aggressive the IAEA intends to be.  And there will be huge pressures on the IAEA Director General to be “balanced.” There will be huge pressures for the mechanism to be “successful.”

Further, the many limits on Iran are intentionally reversible.  It’s good that all but 300 kg of Uranium is eliminated or removed from Iran.  However, enrichment capacity, i.e. centrifuges are put in storage, not destroyed.  Iran has explicitly said it will eventually improve its enrichment capability.

But, the goals of this agreement are far more limited than the case in Iraq.  The deal is intended to delay Iran from achieving a weapon, maybe for ten years, maybe less if Iran decides to whittle down on cooperation as time passes.  So, depending on your evaluation criteria, this may be good enough, or at least, better than nothing. The verification mechanism will probably achieve the limited goal of slowing the progress of Iran having a nuclear weapon. It cannot categorically inhibit Iran.

Key weaknesses include:

The focus is on nuclear supply chain, but other aspects of nuclear weapons development can proceed, i.e. ballistic missile delivery systems. Weapons design work. If Iran tests fuzing and payload separation techniques needed for delivering a nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile, the IAEA will not do anything.

Verification is also very sensitive to following:

  1. This is highly dependent upon the attitude, aggressiveness of IAEA inspectors (Director General).  And, consider the political machinations that will surround the selection of the next Director General in 2017.
  2. IAEA has typically focused on monitoring for diversion of material, not inspection of suspect sites. Agressive forensic types of inspection are not their forte.
  3. The investigation of “Possible Military Dimensions” is highly uncertain, but critical. There is only a brief paragraph point in the agreement.  But if Iran won’t disclose what they have accomplished in “weaponization” how will inspectors know what to look for in future?  What does this say about Iran’s long term willingness to comply?  Iran has blocked IAEA investigation of this subject for years.   The IAEA Director General has declared that he and Iran have agreed on a “roadmap” to address these questions, but they have not made it public. The PMD’s are vital. If Iran does not come clean on this, it puts into question their overall intentions to comply.
  4. This will be first and critical early test of Iran’s will to comply AND IAEA’s willingness to push. They need to show major progress by 15 October deadline.  This will be a critical point.  Sanctions lifting hinges on this.  The political pressures for this to go forward will be enormous.
  5. The process for gaining access to non-declared sites is terribly slow. This lengthy process is not credible for detecting non-enrichment related violations.  Imagine you are in Iran at a location doing design work on detonators.  You know that you will have 24 days to cover your tracks should the IAEA declare the intention of coming to your location.
  6. The dispute resolution will be convoluted once it gets to Security Council.  Will the Security Council generally (or even the US) want to reinstall sanctions because IAEA inspectors are denied access to some site that they have suspicions about?  Sanctions snap-back of sanctions may happen if there is a blatant egregious violation and the international community is willing to give up the massive flow on commerce.  Dubious.
  7. Unlike Iraq, the restrictions on Iran are reversible. Unlike Iraq, inspectors will not be destroying centrifuges, they will be monitoring their non-use.

With all these weaknesses, it may be better than nothing, but don’t oversell it. This slows Iran’s nuclear program, but when Iran wants a weapon, they can build it. This may be the best we can get.  It may fit in with some strategic realignment with Iran and a hope that Iran (including the IRGC and other elements) will somehow become more aligned with US interests in the future.  Secretary Kerry and his team worked extremely hard to come up with this deal.  Maybe they did well considering the hand they were dealt.  Clearly Iran has done well.


Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, Russia, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

A Nuclear Deal?

Iran needs this more than US.   The sanctions hurt them.  If there is an agreement, they will get out of sanctions much faster than if they simply wait for sanctions to erode or collapse.
What does the US get? The US is not getting a non-nuclear Iran.  At best, we get an Iran that, for a decade will not quite be a nuclear weapon state.

Presumably, the American strategy is something like this: We hope to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons capability while we expect Iran will evolve into a more responsible international actor. Underlying this thought is that the preponderance of the Iranian population is youthful, on-line and will be less radical when they gradually assume positions of power in the government.

Maybe this is the best we can do.

But, don’t believe that this agreement provides anything more than fair chance of preventing Iran from edging forward on a nuclear weapons program. The inspection regime that seems to be emerging, while better than nothing, is by no means rigorous.

Indeed, the mechanism may be deeply flawed depending on how some key issues are addressed:

1.  Will Iran come clean on its previous work on the design and testing of a nuclear weapon? If not, then they clearly have not given up their weapons ambitions. In fact, it appears we have given up on trying to get them to truly give up weapons aspirations.
2.  How robust will inspections be? Can they deter cheating? For example can IAEA inspect (not just visit) a wide range of sites, have access to staff, take samples, etc. Watch the language agreed on these points. “Managed access” to a military site does not equal an inspection.
3.  Is there a sensitive hair trigger for the re-imposition of sanctions?  This is hard to imagine at this point.  Moreover, whose finger is on the trigger?  The Director General of the IAEA?  If so, what magnitude violation by Iran will suffice to renew sanctions?  Will the Russians, Chinese, and everyone else be required to agree? If there is some dispute resolution process, how long will that take and will Putin have a veto?
4.  How can we be sure this will be sustained over time? Drawing on the experience in Iraq, the consensus in the Security Council will inevitably erode. Three or four years from now, Iran can be pretty confident that the will of the Security Council will have diminished.

The Regime in Washington will change before the Regime in Tehran.

At this point, why rush to meet an artificial deadline? The US can afford to take time to press for a strong resolution of these points.

If Iran walks away, that may be a good outcome.  Sanctions will remain. (In my opinion, this might be the best outcome)

Open question is:  Where does this fit in overall US strategy towards Iran and the region?  I have not seen any clear exposition of this.  The West has already conceded a huge point to Iran, ie. it can be a “virtual” nuclear weapons state and that is ok.  What else can Iran do? Control most of Iraq? Continue to undermine US friends in the region? Have we opted to align with a future Iran that we hope will be less antagonistic at the expense of current friends in the region?

Washington will no doubt have a story on all this whenever a nuclear agreement is rolled out. But will it be credible and will it be sustainable over more than two years?

Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Russia, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Looming Iran Nuclear Deal

Secretary Kerry in a question and answer session yesterday seemed to be saying that Iran’s progress in weaponization, that is developing and testing the design of a nuclear weapon is not important for the completion of a deal with Iran.

“We know what they did. We have no doubt. We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in. What we’re concerned about is going forward. It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.”

I wonder if Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper would agree with this.  If we “have absolute knowledge” about Iran weapons design, then there has been a massive improvement in intelligence on the Iran program.  On the other hand, if we are writing off this requirement because it is “unattainable” like so many other things related to the Iran negotiation, this is troubling.  Secretary Kerry and his team have worked endlessly on this task.  But at some point, they have to hold firm and if Iran walks away, so be it.  In fact, that might be a good outcome.  Those who are so deeply involved in the process, and who have given so much of their time, reputation and lives to achieve an agreement, may not be the best positioned to judge its benefit.  Congressional review of whatever may be agreed by the Administration will be very important.  And “no” is an acceptable answer.
Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Russia, United Nations, WMD | 1 Comment

Judy Miller’s Book

“The Story” provides a fascinating perspective on a terrible period.  For those who want to look at the Iraq mess from various angles, this will add a valuable perspective (she quotes me in it, so I may not be unbiased).

There have been harsh comments about Judy Miller’s reporting, but the intelligence community did no better–as has been acknowledged publicly. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 has now been largely declassified.  This was the baseline document for Congress and the Administration regarding the decision to go to war.  It was awful.  Now it serves as an example of how not to create intelligence assessments. And, the intelligence community has taken many steps to improve its collection, analytic process and intelligence products in the aftermath.  But don’t think there won’t be future intelligence “failures.”  It’s inevitable.

Journalists face many of the same problems as intelligence officers–vetting sources, not getting locked in on a single hypothesis, checking your assumptions, reviewing all the sources of bias that seep into analysis, etc, etc, etc.  For both journalists and intelligence officers Iraq was a tough problem.

There was little data.  Defectors were wobbly and hard to check. (Curveball was only the most famous fabricator).  And the mindset was, given Saddam’s history, why wouldn’t he have WMD?  Chemical weapons saved him (by offsetting Iranian “human wave attacks”) in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s.  Later, in the 1991 Kuwait war, Saddam believed his WMD stocks saved him again by deterring George Bush the elder, from going to Baghdad.  Add to those two facts, the years of Saddam’s playing cat and mouse with UN inspectors (91-96 or so), and it is understandable that intelligence analysts were not postulating that Saddam had finally given everything up.

In the absence of evidence, but with the requirement, nevertheless, to make a judgment for policymakers, giving Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt was improbable.

Of course the assessments were mostly wrong, especially on Nuclear where they were way off the mark–embarrassingly so.  The other assessments (CW, BW, and ballistic missiles) lacked caveats and qualifications that misled readers to assume there was real data underlying the judgments.  As Ms. Miller’s account relates, journalists did not do much better.

It’s worth recalling that the UN weapons inspectors also found it impossible to give Saddam a clean bill of health.  Obviously the consequences of their judgments were not the same as the US intelligence community.  However, their work formed the basis for many key assessments.  And the weapons inspectors were certainly unconvinced that Saddam had come clean.  In fact, they delineated the areas where Saddam had not provided verifiable accounts of his WMD activities.  And the substantial gaps in his story were more readily explained by “hidden WMD” than he innocently “forgot how much he had or where it went.”

From Ms. Miller’s description, it also seems the ugly bureaucratic fights in the government bureaucracy (e.g. between State and Defense) had their counterparts inside the NY Times. The friction between management and staff is quite similar.  So too were the slippery responses by management when things go wrong.

The circumstances leading to the war were not simple.  Quite the contrary.  For those who already have their minds made up (“Bush lied and People died”) and do not want any contrary evidence, perhaps this is not for you.  However, if you are inclined to build on your background this book adds a lot.  I would expect journalism students would find it on future syllabi.

As for Jon Stewart, he certainly expounds a point of view.  And he knows his audience.  He gives them what they want to hear.  Maybe he should become the head of the CIA in his next job.  He’d be better than some and worse than others.  But, I suspect he will run for congress (Senate) next.  Those jobs’ are more in line with his talent.  And maybe the hearings would be even more comical.

Posted in Intelligence, Iraq, United Nations, WMD | 2 Comments

Policy and Intelligence

There has always been a debate about the relationship between the Intelligence Community and the Policy leadership.  The idea was that those charged with intelligence should stick to intelligence collection and assessments.  For the past few weeks, one of the most vocal spokespersons for the Administration’s foreign policy has been John Brennan.  He as given presentations at the Harvard Belfer Center and a long interview with Charlie Rose at the Council for Foreign Relations in New York.  He discussed all sorts of matters related to international security policy and the status of the Administrations efforts around the globe.  Probably one of the best spokespersons for the Administrations efforts.

But is that the job of the director of CIA?  At not time did he say, sorry, your question relates to policy matters and I can only address the subject from the standpoint of the intelligence community.   Nor, did anyone ask him if he wasn’t straying outside his lane.  His presentations are well done, but in another administration, criticism was piled upon intelligence officials who were seen to be supporting a policy view rather than sticking strictly to the business of making assessments of intelligence.

It will be interesting to see if it is Brennan or DNI Director Clapper who makes the case about whether Iran’s nuclear program can be monitored and whether we will have sufficient confident warning that they are breaking out.


Posted in Intelligence, Iran, WMD | 1 Comment

Inspectors in Iran-Political Science and Physical Science

In the President’s announcement of the Iran Nuclear deal, he highlighted the authorities of the IAEA inspectors under the new agreement–even though the details are not worked out.  This will not be the case.  The UN inspectors in Iraq had far more authority than anyone has considered for Iran.  Moreover,  I am certain they will be caught in the middle of incredible political pressures to provide convenient judgements–just as the inspectors were in Iraq.  The Security Council wanted political science reports and the inspectors were guided by physical science.  See  my piece in Politico of 2 April 2015.


Posted in Iran, Iraq, Russia, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment

Monitoring Iran? Don’t bet on it…

There are a series of massive problems with the Iran nuclear agreement. A key one is the assertion of tough inspections. The diminished US objective of “limiting” Iran’s enrichment capacity to a point where there would be a one-year “breakout” time. This is to say that from the moment Iran begins work to build weapons, the US and international community would detect this and have time to react. Such warning would depend on US intelligence and, more critically, the UN weapons inspections.

The weapons inspectors will have two massive problems. One is access. By the standards of the nuclear inspection standards globally, Secretary Kerry will argue that the inspectors will have strong rights of access. Watch that space. Currently, the IAEA can monitor what Iran lets them monitor. The new agreement, presumably, will allow them to go to additional sites in Iran under some circumstances. We will have to wait to see the details on this, but whatever they are, they will be a distant second to the authorities the UN inspectors had in Iraq during the 1990s (established in UN Security Council Resolutions 687 and 715).

Inspection teams in Iraq could go anywhere with no notice; they could interview anyone; they could seize documents, they could fly anywhere in Iraq with their own helicopter fleet, they could emplace all sorts of sensors anywhere, essentially the teams could do whatever they deemed necessary to account for Iraq’s WMD. And it wasn’t enough.

The UN inspectors (dubbed UNSCOM) operated from 1991 to 1998 before leaving Iraq. Even with all that access (with blockages, deceptions and obstructions by the Saddam), it was not possible to say, with confidence, what Saddam did or did not have.

What’s worse, the UN Security Council very quickly became massively divided between those who did not want Saddam to be seen as complying and those who did not. The inspectors were caught in a vise and their reports could never be categorical, because evidence is rarely categorical—certainly when the inspected state wishes to preserve as much deception or ambiguity as possible. The dynamics surrounding the UN inspection process will be brutal.

The result will be reports that may suggest non-compliance, but inevitably there will be long contentious debates over the meaning of inspection results. The consequence is that the notion of having a years’ unambiguous and internationally agreed evidence of a decision by Iran to “breakout” is dubious at best.

The agreement may make sense in some overall strategy hoping to buy time until the regime in Tehran (which has killed far more Americans than ISIS) goes away and some better regime replaces it. But call the reality we are accepting for what it is: a weak attempt to slow Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It may be “the best deal possible,” but this is a far cry from having a real warning time of a year during which, something may be done…that is a myth.

Remember, Iran has clearly NOT decided to give up its nuclear weapons ability in exchange for being re-accepted into the global economic system. International businesses are well on their way to get back into the Iran market. The competition is lining up. The leaders in Iran (as in Saddam’s Iraq) understand this dynamic. They are shrewd businessmen and will have learned from the Iraq experience. The sanctions on Saddam were crumbling in the 1990’s. Remember the oil-for-food program and the Russians and others were happily taking bribes and eluding the UN sanctions.

Whatever spin is put on the emerging agreement, watch particularly for the claims about monitoring. Especially watch for the assessment of the US intelligence.

CIA chief John Brennan should not be the spokesman on this. He has given interviews lately that clearly express political and policy views—something the CIA is not charged with.   DNI Director Jim Clapper has steered closer to the ideal of keeping intelligence judgments separate from policy assessments. DNI Director Clapper will inevitably say that the US could have warning of Iran breakout. Really? Listen for the caveats. Does he have high confidence? Moderate confidence?

We have been surprised many times before, in Iran and elsewhere.

In the end, the agreement will be a reflection of how much we care about a nuclear Iran and how little the United States can do about it. Like many other problems around the world, it seems there is little the the US believes it can do about it.





Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Russia, United Nations, WMD | Leave a comment