Tuesday, January 5, 2010

NYTIMES: Iran's nuclear shell game.

Last September, when Iran’s uranium enrichment plant buried inside a mountain near the holy city of Qum was revealed, the episode cast light on a wider pattern: Over the past decade, Iran has quietly hidden an increasingly large part of its atomic complex in networks of tunnels and bunkers across the country.

Amir Pourmand/ISNA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Iran's nuclear plant at Isfahan has many buildings above ground, but American nuclear analysts say that Iran has also filled the nearby mountains with tunnels.
In doing so, American government and private experts say, Iran has achieved a double purpose. Not only has it shielded its infrastructure from military attack in warrens of dense rock, but it has further obscured the scale and nature of its notoriously opaque nuclear effort. The discovery of the Qum plant only heightened fears about other undeclared sites.

Now, with the passing of President Obama’s year-end deadline for diplomatic progress, that cloak of invisibility has emerged as something of a stealth weapon, complicating the West’s military and geopolitical calculus.

The Obama administration says it is hoping to take advantage of domestic political unrest and disarray in Iran’s nuclear program to press for a regimen of strong and immediate new sanctions. But a crucial factor behind that push for nonmilitary solutions, some analysts say, is Iran’s tunneling — what Tehran calls its strategy of “passive defense.”

Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has repeatedly discounted the possibility of a military strike, saying that it would only slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions by one to three years while driving the program further underground.
Some analysts say that Israel, which has taken the hardest line on Iran, may be especially hampered, given its less formidable military and intelligence abilities.
“It complicates your targeting,” said Richard L. Russell, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at the National Defense University. “We’re used to facilities being above ground. Underground, it becomes literally a black hole. You can’t be sure what’s taking place.”
Even the Israelis concede that solid rock can render bombs useless. Late last month, the Israeli defense minister,Ehud Barak, told Parliament that the Qum plant was “located in bunkers that cannot be destroyed through a conventional attack.”
Heavily mountainous Iran has a long history of tunneling toward civilian as well as military ends, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has played a recurring role — first as a transportation engineer and founder of the Iranian Tunneling Association and now as the nation’s president.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of big tunnels in Iran, according to American government and private experts, and the lines separating their uses can be fuzzy. Companies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary GuardsCorps of Iran, for example, build civilian as well as military tunnels.
No one in the West knows how much, or exactly what part, of Iran’s nuclear program lies hidden. Still, evidence of the downward atomic push is clear to the inquisitive.
Google Earth, for instance, shows that the original hub of the nuclear complex at Isfahan consists of scores of easily observed — and easy to attack — buildings. But government analysts say that in recent years Iran has honeycombed the nearby mountains with tunnels. Satellite photos show six entrances.
Iranian officials say years of veiled bombing threats prompted their country to exercise its “sovereign right” to protect its nuclear facilities by hiding them underground. That was their argument when they announced plans in November to build 10 uranium enrichment plants. Despite the improbability and bluster of the claim, Iran’s tunneling history gave it a measure of credibility.

They will be scattered in the mountains,” the chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran’s Press TV. “We will be using the passive defense so that we don’t need to have active defense, which is very expensive.”
Mr. Gates, along with other Western officials, has dismissed that line of argument as cover for a covert arms program.
“If they wanted it for peaceful purposes,” he said of the Qum plant on CNN, “there’s no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.”

Iran denies that its nuclear efforts are for military purposes and insists that it wants to unlock the atom strictly for peaceful aims, like making electricity. It says it wants to build many enrichment plants to fuel up to 20 nuclear power plants, a plan many economists question because Iran ranks second globally in oil and natural gas reserves.

Ploy or not, any expansion seems unlikely to zoom ahead. After a decade of construction, Iran’s main enrichment plant, at Natanz, operates at a tiny fraction of its capacity. The Qum plant is only half built. Nuclear experts say the new plants, if attempted, may not materialize for years or decades. Even so, they note that tunnels would be the easiest part of the plan and may get dug relatively soon.


CIA bomber was a Jordanian doctor,

CNN) -- The man identified as the double agent who killed eight people at a U.S. base in Afghanistan was a Jordanian doctor recruited as a counterterrorism intelligence source, a senior Jordanian official said Tuesday.
A former U.S. intelligence official identified the suicide bomber Monday as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi.
The Jordanian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities in Jordan arrested al-Balawi more than a year ago "for some suspicious information related to him" but released him because of a lack of evidence.
"After few months, he got in touch with us through the Internet and sent us several e-mails that include very important and rather dangerous information that might affect the security and stability of the country," the official said.
"We kept in touch with him through e-mails in order to get more information and also trying to bring him over to be able to get more information. We shared and exchanged the information he gave us with some other friendly countries that are involved in countering terrorism."
The official said Jordan could not confirm that al-Balawi was the bomber, "because we are not on the ground."
"But we are not denying that if he is the one, then he is the Jordanian doctor," the official said.
The December 30 blast at a U.S. base in Khost, in southeasternAfghanistan, killed seven CIA operatives including two from private security firm Xe, formerly known as Blackwater. The eighth victim was Jordanian Army Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a cousin of Jordan's King Abdullah II.
U.S. sources said bin Zeid was the Jordanian operative working closely with al-Balawi, who was from the same hometown as the onetime leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.


Our failures are known - our successes are not.

President Obama said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence had enough information to uncover the terrorist plot to bomb a Northwest Airlines flight but "failed" to piece it all together before the suspect boarded a plane for Detroit armed with explosives.

The president, who spoke after meeting with top officials to discuss internal reviews of the attempted bombing Christmas Day, said the suspect's name should have been added to the no-fly list based on information available about him. He said the government will quickly make changes to ensure future attempts are thwarted.

"The system has failed in a potentially disastrous way," Obama said. "The bottom line is this: the U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list."

The president's remarks counter suggestions from other officials that U.S. intelligence did not have enough information to prohibit the suspect from flying or take other severe action. Obama cited the fact that intelligence officials knew Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen, knew he had contact with extremists and knew that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula wanted to strike not only U.S. targets in Yemen but the United States itself.

"This was not a failure to collect intelligence. It was a failure to integrate and understand the intelligence that we already had," Obama said. "That's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it."

Obama ordered the internal reviews while on vacation in Hawaii. While he has received preliminary reports since Christmas, Tuesday marked the first time he sat face-to-face with the heads of the various intelligence agencies to discuss how it was possible for 23-year-old Abdulmutallab to board Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit with an explosive device in his pants.

The administration is in the process of making and considering a number of changes in the wake of the incident. For one, Obama confirmed that the administration will not transfer additional Guantanamo Bay detainees to Yemen, though he insisted he will still shutter the controversial prison camp.

The president said initial reviews will be completed this week and a summary will be made available to the public in the next few days.

"We have to do better and we will do better. And we have to do it quickly -- American lives are on the line," he said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president has full confidence in CIA Director Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. Panetta and Blair were just two of the high-level officials meeting behind closed doors with Obama.

Other meeting participants included: FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Adviser James Jones, counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Gibbs dismissed the notion that there would be any finger-pointing at the high-level meeting.

"The president will not find acceptable a response where everybody gets in a circle and points at somebody else," he said.

Fox News' Daniela Sicuranza contributed to this report.

Bomber that killed 7 CIA was double agent.

  •  (CNN) -- The suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officials and a Jordanian military officer last week in Afghanistan was a Jordanian double-agent, a former U.S. intelligence official told CNN Monday.

The bomber was a source who came to the base camp in Khost near the Pakistan border for a meeting on December 30, a senior U.S. official also confirmed.
The man had been used by both countries' intelligence services in the past, and had provided information about high-value targets, the senior U.S. official said.
"Yes, it was a joint U.S.-Jordanian source who had provided over the period of his cooperation a lot of very detailed good information that was of high interest at the most senior levels of the U.S government," the former U.S. intelligence official said.
The security breach occurred because the bomber was met off-base by U.S. intelligence officials who failed to search him before they put him in a car and drove him onto Forward Operating Base Chapman, the former intelligence official said.
Both the Jordanian and U.S. intelligence services believed the man was loyal, according to the former intelligence official.
"Clearly there is a lot of soul searching" at CIA headquarters in Virginia, according to the former intelligence official.
The bomber was identified as Human Khalil Abu-Mulal al Balawi, from the Jordanian town of Zarqa, also home to the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the one-time leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the former intelligence official said.
Both the Jordanian and U.S. intelligence agencies apparently believed al Balawi had been rehabilitated from extremist views and were using him to hunt Ayman al Zawahiri, the second-ranking al Qaeda official to Osama bin Laden, the former intelligence official said.
Jordanian intelligence services have long covertly cooperated with the United States, specifically in the hunt for al Zawahiri and bin Laden, because of the ability of Jordanian agents to blend into the al Qaeda organization, noted the former intelligence official.
Also killed in last week's attack in Afghanistan was Jordanian Army Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a cousin of King Abdullah of Jordan. The Jordanian government has not publicly commented on the specific circumstances of bin Zeid's death, but U.S. sources confirmed bin Zeid was present and was the Jordanian operative working closely with al Balawi.
The CIA refused to comment Monday, saying the matter was under investigation. The bodies of the seven CIA employees were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to a private ceremony attended by CIA Director Leon Panetta, other agency and national security officials, and friends and family.
A Jordanian official who did not want to be identified said bin Zeid "was killed on Wednesday in the line of duty as he was taking part in a humanitarian mission carried out by the Jordan Armed Forces inAfghanistan."
The Jordanian official added: "Jordan's position in the war on terror is clear; we are fully committed to fighting al Qaeda, which is a threat to Jordan as it is a threat to the United States. We are also committed to continuing our cooperation with the United States and the international community in the fight against terror and in defeating al Qaeda."
In a posting on its Web site last week, the Taliban in Afghanistan claimed the bomber was an Afghan National Army soldier.
On Sunday, however, Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud said in an e-mail that "we claim the responsibility for the attack on the CIA in Afghanistan."
"The suicide bomber was a Jordanian national. This will be admitted by the CIA and the Jordanian government" the message said.
The attack occurred at a forward operating base, which a U.S. intelligence official acknowledged was a crucial CIA post and a "hub of activity." The main purpose of CIA forward operating bases in Afghanistan, officials have noted, is to recruit informants and to plan and coordinate covert operations, including drone surveillance and targeting.
The attack was "a huge blow, symbolically and tactically," because it eliminated such a large number of CIA officers, who can require years to become ingrained in the region, said Reva Bhalla, director of analysis for STRATFOR -- an international intelligence company. In addition, the attack showed the ability of the Taliban to penetrate perhaps the most difficult of targets -- a CIA base, she said.
Former CIA official Robert Richer called it "the greatest loss of life for the Central Intelligence Agency since the Beirut Embassy bombing" in 1983, which killed eight agents.
An American intelligence official vowed last week that the United States would avenge the attack. Two of those killed were contractors with private security firm Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, a former intelligence official told CNN. The CIA considers contractors to be officers.
On Sunday, a local administration official and an intelligence official told CNN that two guided missiles struck a compound in the Pakistani village of Musaki in North Waziristan suspected of being a gathering place for local and foreign militants.
The attack killed Sadiq Noor, a teacher; his 9-year-old son; and three people from outside the country, according to the sources, who said the missiles were believed to have been fired by an unmanned drone. There was no immediate U.S. confirmation of the missile attack.


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