WASHINGTON - Contrary to a news media narrative that Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri has provided intelligence on covert Iranian nuclear weapons work, CIA sources familiar with the Amiri case say he told his CIA handlers that there is no such Iranian nuclear weapons programme, according to a former CIA officer.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism official, told IPS that his sources are CIA officials with direct knowledge of the entire Amiri operation.
The CIA contacts say that Amiri had been reporting to the CIA for some time before being brought to the U.S. during Hajj last year, Giraldi told IPS, initially using satellite-based communication. But the contacts also say Amiri was a radiation safety specialist who was "absolutely peripheral" to Iran's nuclear programme, according to Giraldi.
Amiri provided "almost no information" about Iran's nuclear programme, said Giraldi, but had picked up "scuttlebutt" from other nuclear scientists with whom he was acquainted that the Iranians have no active nuclear weapon programme.
Giraldi said information from Amiri's debriefings was only a minor contribution to the intelligence community's reaffirmation in the latest assessment of Iran's nuclear programme of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)'s finding that work on a nuclear weapon has not been resumed after being halted in 2003.
Amiri's confirmation is cited in one or more footnotes to the new intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear programme, called a "Memorandum to Holders", according to Giraldi, but it is now being reviewed, in light of Amiri's "re- defection" to Iran.
An intelligence source who has read the "Memorandum to Holders" in draft form confirmed to IPS that it presents no clear-cut departure from the 2007 NIE on the question of weaponisation. The developments in the Iranian nuclear programme since the 2007 judgment are portrayed as "subtle and complex", said the source.
CIA officials are doing their best to "burn" Amiri by characterising him as a valuable long-term intelligence asset, according to Giraldi, in part in order to sow as much distrust of him among Iranian intelligence officials as possible.
But Giraldi said it is "largely a defence mechanism" to ward off criticism of the agency for its handling of the Amiri case.
"The fact is he wasn't well vetted," said Giraldi, adding that Amiri was a "walk- in" about whom virtually nothing was known except his job.
Although an investigation has begun within the CIA of the procedures used in the case, Giraldi said, Amiri's erstwhile CIA handlers still do not believe he was a double agent or "dangle".
What convinced CIA officers of Amiri's sincerity, according to Giraldi, was Amiri's admission that he had no direct knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme.
A "dangle" would normally be prepared with some important intelligence that the U.S. is known to value.
Amiri's extremely marginal status in relation to the Iranian nuclear programme was acknowledged by an unnamed U.S. official who told The New York Times and Associated Press Friday that Amiri was indeed a "low-level scientist", but that the CIA had hoped to use him to get to more highly placed Iranian officials.
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Giraldi's revelations about Amiri's reporting debunks a media narrative in which Amiri provided some of the key evidence for a reversal by the intelligence community of its 2007 conclusion that Iran had not resumed work on nuclear weapons.
An Apr. 25 story by Washington Post reporters Joby Warrick and Greg Miller said the long-awaited reassessment of the Iranian nuclear programme had been delayed in order to incorporate a "new flow of intelligence" coming from "informants, including scientists with access to Iran's military programs...."
They quote Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair as explaining in an interview that the delay was because of "information coming in and the pace of developments".
Warrick and Miller reported that Amiri had "provided spy agencies with details about sensitive programs including a long-hidden uranium-enrichment plant near the city of Qom." Their sources were said to be "current and former officials in the United States and Europe".
Warrick and Miller could not get CIA officials to discuss Amiri. Instead they quoted the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) as saying that Amiri "has been associated with sensitive nuclear programs for at least a decade".
NCRI is the political arm of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), the anti-regime Iranian terrorist organization which has been a conduit for Israeli intelligence on the Iranian nuclear programme.
On Jun. 8, David E. Sanger of the New York Times cited "foreign diplomats and some American officials" as sources in reporting that a series of intelligence briefings for members of the U.N. Security Council last spring amounted to "a tacit admission by the United States that it is gradually backing away" from the 2007 NIE. Sanger referred to "new evidence" that allegedly led analysts to "revise and in some cases reverse" that estimate's conclusion that Iran was no longer working on a nuclear weapon.
Sanger cited "Western officials" as confirming that Amiri was providing some of the new information.
Three days later, the Washington Post ran another story quoting David Albright, director of the Institute for Science and International Security, as saying that the intelligence briefings for Security Council members had included "information about nuclear weaponisation" obtained from Amiri.
Albright said he had been briefed on the intelligence earlier that week, and the Post reported a "U.S. official" had confirmed Albright's account.
Subsequently, ABC News reported that Amiri's evidence had "helped to contradict" the 2007 NIE, and McClatchy Newspapers repeated Albright's allegation and the conclusion that the new assessment had reversed the intelligence conclusion that Iran had ceased work related to weaponisation.
In creating that false narrative, journalists have evidently been guided by personal convictions on the issue that are aligned with certain U.S., European and Israeli officials who have been pressuring the Barack Obama administration to reject the 2007 estimate.
For the Israelis and for some U.S. officials, reversing the conclusion that Iran is not actively pursuing weaponisation is considered a precondition for manoeuvring U.S. policy into a military confrontation with Iran.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.