Bad Intelligence Leading Us to War Again?

by Robert Kelley

On August 6, Jeb Bush did us the tremendous favor of reminding us of the bad intelligence that led us into a strategic disaster in Iraq that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands—nearly 5,000 of them American. Actually, it wasn’t bad intelligence. It was cherry-picked intelligence, even faked, and designed to mislead politicians and the public into believing, among other things, that Iraq was actively developing a nuclear weapon.

Politicized intelligence may be at work once again. On August 5, a Bloomberg column (“Iran Already Sanitizing Nuclear Site, Intel Warns”) by Josh Rogin and Eli Lake reported that the “U.S. intelligence community” had informed Congress of “evidence that Iran was sanitizing its suspected military site at Parchin, in broad daylight, days after agreeing to a nuclear deal with world powers.” The column cited an August 3 briefing to the Senate Intelligence Committee by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) that disclosed “satellite imagery picked up by U.S. government assets in mid- and late July show[ing] that Iran had moved bulldozers and heavy machinery to the Parchin site.” The ODNI had reportedly concluded “with high confidence that the Iranian government was working to clean up the site ahead of planned inspections by the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency).”

“I am familiar with it,’ Committee Chairman Richard Burr told Rogin and Lake on Tuesday. “I think it’s up to the administration to draw their conclusions. Hopefully this is something they will speak on, since it is in many ways verified by commercial imagery. And their actions seem to be against the grain of the agreement.”

Responding to these revelations with unusual clarity and speed, the Iranian mission at the UN immediately rejected the charges, calling them “preposterous.”

The Parchin military complex covers a very vast area, which includes different military, industrial, administrative and residential sections. It is, thus quite normal to have construction works underway at any time.

Let’s Go to the Photos

Enter David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), who (inadvertently) exposed the questionable basis for the Bloomberg column. ISIS published three commercially available satellite images of a “parking lot” located close to a building that Albright has long claimed was the site of proscribed nuclear-weapons-related experiments before 2003. Two of the three images—captured during July 12, 19, and 26, respectively—were captured after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action signed in Geneva July 14 and presumably covered the period referred to in the ODNI’s briefing. And, like the U.S. government satellite imagery, all three of the photos that ISIS released were taken “in broad daylight.”

So what did the latter photos reveal? In the first two images, nothing is happening: no vehicles, no earthmovers, no activities of any strategic significance. In the third image, two vehicles are seen parked near a gate to the compound. Each vehicle is about four meters long and resembles the sedan automobiles, one black and one white, that are commonly seen in satellite photos throughout Parchin (a hilly area of more than 50 square kilometers). In fact, three passenger sedans are seen occupying almost exactly the same spots near the gate in a Google Earth photograph taken on May 11, 2015—some five weeks before the JCPOA was concluded.


Moreover, a survey of other publicly available satellite images of the suspect site shows that, with just a few exceptions, several cars were parked at this very same parking lot every workday of the week (except Fridays, the Islamic sabbath). According to these images, the number of vehicles parked at the site actually decreased in late July. The sedans depicted in the July 26 ISIS photo are too small to be capable of moving earth (despite ISIS’s description of the black one as “possibly” a bulldozer or steamroller), and nothing else is going on anywhere else in the scene. In short, there is no evidence whatsoever of efforts to “sanitize” the area in or around the suspect site.

The reader can compare the relative sizes of an earthmover (about 8 meters long) and a typical Parchin sedan (about 4 meters long) in this satellite image that was taken in January 2015 over a completely different part of the Parchin site. Thus, the object ISIS labeled an “unidentified vehicle, possibly bulldozer or steamroller” in its July 26 photo appears far too small to have been an earthmover of the kind used in at Parchin.

The reader can compare the relative sizes of an earthmover (about 8 meters long) and a typical Parchin sedan (about 4 meters long) in this January 2015 satellite image taken in  a completely different part of the Parchin site. Thus, the object ISIS labeled an “unidentified vehicle, possibly bulldozer or steamroller” in its July 26 photo appears far too small to have been an earthmover of the kind used in at Parchin.

ISIS subsequently released a much broader view of the July 26 image that depicted a larger area in Parchin, including the site that is supposed to have been subject to “sanitization.” But that image also offers no evidence of earthmoving or anything else that could be considered part of an effort to “sanitize” the site. It did depict another parking lot housing 20 vehicles. But 20 vehicles on average have been parked on workdays at the very same lot over the past five years, according to a survey of 36 publicly available satellite images captured since 2010.

The question Albright himself posed in an op-ed published in the August 11 print edition of The Washington Post is indeed the correct one. Quoting Chico Marx, he asked “Who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?” In this case, we have to rely on the eyes Albright himself has provided us through the commercial satellite images he published on the ISIS website. And what they show belies the ODNI’s testimony as reported by Chairman Burr and the other various unnamed sources cited by Bloomberg’s Rogin and Lake. There were no “sanitization” activities taking place “in broad daylight” after the JCPOA was signed July 14. Albright deserves our thanks for clarifying this issue.

Elsewhere in Parchin

We cannot exclude the possibility that the ODNI was referring to “sanitization” activity in an entirely different area within the Parchin complex, an area that neither the IAEA nor the U.S. intelligence community has ever publicly designated. Until now, the assumption has been that the site subject to “sanitization” is the same as that on which ISIS has focused its attention. According to the group, the building depicted in the photographs houses a large explosive containment chamber in which Iran may have experimented with simulated internal components of a nuclear weapon using natural uranium before 2003.

Since November 2011, when the IAEA published a report regarding such tests based on intelligence submitted by an unnamed member state (paragraph 49 of the Annex), the IAEA has claimed on several occasions that Iran has tried to “sanitize” the site through bulldozing, road-building, culvert-digging, and other activities. Last December I wrote a piece for LobeLog addressing the probability—or, rather, improbability—that such a containment chamber (as well as the tests it was allegedly designed to contain) ever existed at the particular site identified by ISIS.

The Iraq war and the disasters that followed it were largely based upon politicized intelligence and selective leaks. That pattern may be repeating here. Chairman Burr did not say that he agreed with the intelligence, only that he was familiar with it. In light of the enormous stakes in the pending Iran deal, responsible lawmakers should demand a hearing on who leaked the latest intelligence to the press and what were their motivations for doing so. They should also demand a comprehensive assessment of the entire Parchin controversy and the repeated claims regarding efforts to “sanitize” whatever purported nuclear-weapons-related activity took place there.

Despite the clear evidence revealed by ISIS’s most recent photos that nothing significant has been going on at the suspect site since the JCPOA was signed, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was peppered with questions about Parchin in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. Bad intelligence may be coming around again. And a lot more people may die this time.

[Editor’s Note: Kelley is a veteran of over 35 years in the US Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex, most recently at Los Alamos. He managed the centrifuge and plutonium metallurgy programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and was later Director of the Department of Energy Remote Sensing Laboratory, the premier US nuclear emergency response organization. He was also seconded by the USDOE to the IAEA where he served twice as a Director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq, in 1992 and 2001. For those of LobeLog’s readers who were interested in his critique of the IAEA’s analysis of the al-Kibar site in Syria, he has just published a new study for the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), of which he is an associate research fellow. It can be found here.]

Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is a licensed professional nuclear and mechanical engineer in California. He spent his career in nuclear weapons development activities such as plutonium metallurgy, survivability of U.S. nuclear warheads in ABM intercepts and isotope separation by gas centrifuge and lasers. He later used these hands-on skills to lead intelligence analysis of foreign nuclear weapons systems for the U.S. government and then as a director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, particularly in weapons related non-proliferation analysis in Iraq, South Africa and Libya. Along the way, he has been a research reactor supervisor, a plutonium facility manager and director of the DOE Remote Sensing Laboratory at Nellis Air Force Base. He currently writes on non-proliferation for a number of publications and is an associate research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.



  1. Dick Cheney admitted the US invaded Iraq because it could.

  2. (re-submitted, links removed)
    re: “who leaked the latest intelligence to the press and what were their motivations for doing so.”

    Wendy Sherman’s appearance before- and comments to- Bob Corker’s committee, with yellow-jacketed MEK members immediately behind her chair, also suggest that war against Iran is on the agenda even for those who purport to support the agreement.

    In response to Corker’s complaint that the Senate did not have the text of the IAEA agreement with Iran, Sherman explained that those agreements are highly confidential. USA has such an agreement with IAEA and it is confidential. Yukio Amano appeared before the US Senate (itself an extraordinary occurrence: the office of the president, not the Congress, oversees US – IAEA activities) to assure it that it is customary to maintain confidentiality of IAEA agreements with NPT signatories.

    Nevertheless, Sherman told the senators that she and her “experts” had seen the IAEA-Iran agreement in “provisional” form, in the course of negotiations at Vienna. She offered to disclose to the senate, in closed session, “all that I know” about the IAEA-Iran agreement.

    This seems to me to be a breach of the confidentiality that Sec’y of State John Kerry appeared to think should be maintained by the United States negotiators, with respect to the IAEA-Iran agreement.

    Furthermore, the presence of the MEK delegation during Wendy Sherman’s comments and offer to reveal otherwise confidential information is extremely troubling.

    MEK has been implicated in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. Shortly after one such assassination, NBC’s Brian Williams interviewed Ronen Bergman, who frequently acts as a spokesman for the Israeli government. Bergman stated that “Israel has used assassination more than any other state, more than even Stalin;” that Israel considers the use of assassination to be “moral and legal;” and that assassinations that Israel has carried out “have changed history.”
    Asked if Israel made use of MEK to carry out assassinations in Iran, Bergman demurred: assassinations are “Blue and White” activities, that is, to be carried out by Jewish Israelis. But then Bergman explained that “Iran is a special case; it’s difficult for Jews to operate there.” The broad implication is that Israel does employ Iranian agents, like MEK, to do Israeli dirty work in Iran.

    Dr. Dan Joyner is a professor of international law with special expertise in the nonproliferation treaty. In March of this year he mentioned on his blog an LA Times article that revealed that USA had used “voluminous data” from IAEA to aid in the construction of a mock-up of an Iranian nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In the blog post, titled LA Times Reports the IAEA is Unlawfully Sharing Safeguards Information with the U.S. Government, Joyner mused–

    “this new replica enrichment facility – which I can’t help thinking of as a Madurodam for US nuclear engineers (“Bill, look at the little Iranian nuclear scientist, he’s going into the centrifuge hall. And look, there’s a little Mossad figure on a motorcycle outside, waiting to kill him when he goes home from work.”). Ok, that got too tangential and too weird to continue. Let’s start that sentence again.”

    As Joyner’s next sentences reflected, there is nothing humorous or weird about the breaches of confidentiality that have, not implausibly, aided and abetted the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.

    Netanyahu’s government has already broadcast its intent to continue the practice of assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists.

    In the course of one or another of his discussions regarding the Iran agreement, Senator Corker said, “From my real estate background I understand how these negotiations and contracts are done,” (or words to that effect).

    Most Americans have some understanding of such contracts.
    They understand that when an agent discloses confidential information, he/she is acting in bad faith.

    It is extremely difficult to ascribe to Wendy Sherman’s behavior anything other than bad faith, in disclosing information about the IAEA-Iran confidential agreement.

    Likewise, to the extent that the United States government and IAEA are conspiring to breach the IAEA’s confidentiality, that behavior is in bad faith. It is unworthy of a great nation. It must be fully exposed, punished, and halted.

  3. is interpreting “death to america” literally “bad intelligence”?

Comments are closed.