Key data in report weren't so secret
Lots of information in a new report on Iran's nuclear weapons was far from classified.
Published December 7, 2007
WASHINGTON - Governments have long prized intelligence gleaned by spies, satellites and wiretaps. But senior intelligence officials said key findings in a new intelligence report on Iran's nuclear weapons hinged on intelligence that was hidden in plain sight - on the Web, in newspapers and in nongovernmental reports.
The National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program released Monday relied in important ways on pictures of Iranian nuclear sites snapped by reporters during government tours of the facilities. The first was in March 2005. At the time, a U.S. State Department spokesman derided the visit as a "staged media tour." Two years later, Iran opened a different facility to the press.
But now, those photos, along with unclassified reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency and intelligence gathered in clandestine ways, have led U.S. intelligence agencies to predict that "technical problems" will prevent Iran from being able to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear warhead for at least two years. The State Department's intelligence office believes the enrichment would not occur for at least five years because of "foreseeable technical and programmatic problems."
Donald Kerr, principal deputy national intelligence director, said Thursday at a House intelligence subcommittee hearing that the Iran report was perhaps the most deeply sourced National Intelligence Estimate ever. The document has more than 1,000 footnotes, he said.
Open-source intelligence generally makes up between 80 percent and 90 percent of the information analysts use in their reports. But it has fallen in and out of fashion, and the cultural obstacles to its use inside intelligence circles can be high.
"There's an inherent bias in the mid generation (of analysts) toward believing there is greater credibility in classified information," David Shedd, the deputy director of national intelligence for policy, plans, and requirements, told the subcommittee.
"It used to be the use of this kind of material was not valued much because it wasn't secret," agreed Arthur Hulnick, who worked at the CIA for 28 years and is now a professor at Boston University. "Policymakers used to say, 'Don't give me something I can read in the New York Times. I want something sexier than that.'"
U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly incorporating open-source intelligence into their work, lured by the vast amount of information now available online and in specialized publications.
"People are using it. They are seeing the value now," Kerr said.
In November 2005, the director of national intelligence unveiled the Open Source Center - a digital and physical library created to organize everything the intelligence community discovers and knows to be reliable. The official said it is in the early stages of ingesting information and vetting it with experts.
Still, barriers remain, the official said. Some intelligence officers still do not have Internet connections at their desks.