Saturday, January 02, 2010

Iran and disinformation 

A couple of days ago, Stratfor published an interesting note about the disinformation campaigns that may, or may not, be swirling around the various bits we have recently learned about Iran's nuclear program and the protests that confronted the regime last week. I would be disappointed if Stratfor's assessment were proved true, but it struck me as important enough to pass along in full (with the hope that my usual endorsement -- subscribe to Stratfor -- will suffice for consideration). Very short commentary follows.


N INTER PRESS SERVICE (IPS) REPORT emerged Monday in which a former CIA official claims that a widely circulated document describing Iran’s nuclear weapons plans was fabricated. The document in question appeared in the Times of London on Dec. 14 and cited an “Asian intelligence source” who allegedly provided the newspaper with “confidential intelligence documents” on how Iran was preparing to run tests on a neutron initiator, the component of a nuclear bomb that triggers an explosion.

Former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Giraldi, however, claims in the IPS interview that the Rupert Murdoch publishing empire — which includes the Sunday Times, Fox News and the New York Post in addition to the Times of London — has been used frequently by the Israelis and occasionally by the British government to plant false stories to exaggerate the Iranian nuclear threat. Giraldi has been credited in the past with exposing disinformation campaigns by the previous U.S. administration that were designed to bolster claims that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy uranium from Niger.

Disinformation campaigns are common practice in the world of intelligence. Diplomatic negotiations, economic sanctions and military strikes are all tools of statecraft that require a considerable amount of political energy. In the grey areas of intelligence, however, policymakers have a relatively low-cost option of directly shaping the perceptions of their target audience through carefully calibrated disinformation campaigns. U.S. administrations, for example, often use The New York Times and The Washington Post for leaks while Israel tends to rely on British media outlets like the Times of London to plant stories that support their policy objectives.

“It takes a jolt like this to get Washington to go back to the drawing board and re-examine its assessments on Iran.”

We don’t know if the document on the neutron initiator was completely fabricated, but we do know that these leaks serve a very deliberate political purpose. Israel clearly has an interest in building up the Iranian nuclear threat. The United States has pledged to do its part to neutralize the Iranian nuclear program, and Israel has every incentive to drive the United States toward action. Although they share an interest in eliminating the Iranian nuclear program, each side has very different perceptions of the urgency of the threat and the timetable upon which it must be addressed.

Giraldi’s counter-leak, on the other hand, plays into the interests of the Obama administration. President Obama has no interest in getting pushed into a military conflict with Iran and wants to buy time to deal with the issue. By discrediting intelligence that has influenced the U.S. net assessment on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Giraldi could quite effectively send the U.S. intelligence community into a tailspin. Obama can then raise the issue of faulty intelligence to gain more time and room to maneuver with Israel. After all, Israel would have a much more difficult time making the case to Washington that Iran is approaching the point of no return in its nuclear weapons program if the United States can argue that the intelligence supporting that assumption is resting on fabricated evidence.

It takes a jolt like this to get various policymakers and intelligence officials in Washington to go back to the drawing board and re-examine their assessments on Iran. And Iran’s nuclear progress is not the only issue in question. Western media outlets and certain U.S. non-governmental institutions are spreading the perception that the opposition movement in Iran has gained considerable momentum and that the Iranian regime is on the ropes. Again, we have to take into account the use of disinformation campaigns. There are a lot of people around the world and in Washington that have an interest in painting the perception of an Iranian regime teetering on the edge of collapse. Twitter, YouTube and a handful of mostly U.S.- and Europe-based reformist Web sites, backed by upper-class Iranian expatriates no less, are a useful way to spread this perception.

But the facts on the ground appear to suggest otherwise. The Dec. 27 Ashura protests, described by many (including our own Iranian sources) as the big showdown between the regime and the opposition, were far more revealing of the marginalization of the opposition and the endurance of the Iranian regime than what many Western media outlets have led their viewers to believe. The protests have failed to break the regime’s tolerance level and have in fact empowered the regime, however fragmented, to crack down with greater force. This is broadly the view we have held since the June protests, but we, like many other intelligence organizations, are also in the process of reviewing our net assessment on Iran. The process is a painfully meticulous one, but one that requires great discipline and, of course, an ability to recognize multiple disinformation campaigns at work.


The first bit -- that the Israelis are manufacturing evidence to support their claims about the state of Iran's nuclear weapons program -- would be disinformation. The second -- that dissident groups claim greater significance for the Ashura protests than the facts prove -- is just public relations. All "social change" movements try to make themselves look bigger and more significant than they are. The propaganda of would-be revolutionaries tends to be more or less believed by people who more or less support them, respectively.

Beyond that, there is an obvious circularity in Stratfor's note. Personally, I have subscribed for years and regard that organization's analysis as generally interesting, credible, and valuable. I wonder, though, whether Stratfor's note also looks like disinformation to readers who do not share that assumption.


By Anonymous Mr. Ed, at Sat Jan 02, 11:35:00 PM:

I think a good case can be made, that nothing we read which has some political significance is happenstance. That does not, however, establish verity or falsehood.

With respect to the document regarding the neutron initiators, maybe I missed something but I do not recall anything which either factually supports it or debunks it. I don't know what to make of it except that if I were to err, it would be to assume the worst. Furthermore, given the history of Iran's nuclear program over the last 20 years, why would I assume their intentions were peaceful? And, if there intentions were not peaceful wouldn't development of an initiator, regardless of whether the document in question establishes the fact, be expected?

Taking into account the infamous intelligence agency assessment in 2007, we have to take seriously the fact that our own intelligence community can be just as ideologically driven and intellectually corrupt as the ostensibly high minded folks that brought us the global warming mess.

All in all it's a messy situation that obscures the truth. I think finding the truth of these situations is difficult and necessary. Rather than rely on a single source, like Strafor, I can only think to look about continually for insight. It's hard. If anyone knows the magic formula I'm all ears.


By Anonymous astonerii, at Sat Jan 02, 11:56:00 PM:

The way the statement is written smacks completely of propaganda style writings. Maybe that is because these people cover propaganda so much they are corrupted by it, or they really are just pushing propaganda. The first thing I look for in a missive like this is the angle and style, and then i look into the meat of the subject. Until the angle is known, you cannot figure out what parts are worth noting and which parts are wholesale trash.  

By Anonymous sirius_sir, at Sun Jan 03, 01:35:00 AM:

Why don't we just send in U.N. inspectors to determine the truth?  

By Blogger Gary Rosen, at Sun Jan 03, 02:26:00 AM:

At least one thing suggested by Stratfor has the ring of truth - that BO considers Israel to be more of an adversary to the US than Iran.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jan 03, 10:45:00 AM:

It is all fun and games until some one gets hit in the eye with a nuclear bomb.

When some one tells you that they want to kill you, you should believe them.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jan 03, 11:03:00 AM:

It is a shame STRATFOR did not provide additional information on the current status of former CIA man Giraldi.

Such information could be useful in evaluating his agenda and possible intent, and most certainly would be useful information should future events provide an answer to the question about Iran's nuclear program.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jan 03, 11:03:00 AM:

And the first zinger goes to -



By Blogger Magnafan, at Sun Jan 03, 11:12:00 AM:

In this ever-deepening fog of war, I reserve judgement until I see three independent corroborations. Meanwhile, all I can do is work to ensure the safety of my family.

The odds continue to favor a brutal economic depression. A widespread war with disruptive terrorism in North America seems now as likely as an economic depression. Moreover, domestic terrorism will either provoke or intensify the depression to come.

This is like living in the Middle Ages, you knew the odds: famine, attack, disease, something was going to get you. You had to work to minimize the damage to your family.

Meanwhile, all these stories and rumours, even from praiseworthy Stratfor, are bits of possible evidence.  

By Anonymous Armed Liberal, at Sun Jan 03, 11:17:00 AM:

And of course there's this credibility-enhancing sentance: "Giraldi has been credited in the past with exposing disinformation campaigns by the previous U.S. administration that were designed to bolster claims that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was attempting to buy uranium from Niger."

Except that Joe Wilson himself was cited as saying that the Iraqis attempted to buy uranium from Niger in the Senate report.

So who's disinforming who here?


By Blogger Koblog, at Sun Jan 03, 11:31:00 AM:

And Stratfor is credible because...why? Who are they? A private CIA with human operatives inside Iran and Yemen feeding them reliable first-hand pro-US information?

Or a website looking at suspect leaks from here and there and spinning them to Stratfor's own slant?

We know our own CIA has woefully incomplete assets on the ground and has certifiably blown obvious tells time and again:

"What? The Berlin wall came down? Why wasn't I told of this?!"

"What? The Soviet Union folded? Why wasn't I told of this?!"

"What? Saddam invaded Kuwait? Why wasn't I told of this?!"

"What? Foreign operatives were taking flying lessons under our noses in stinkin' FLORIDA, for MONTHS, learning only how to take off... and then flew three aircraft into NY, WADC and PA? Why wasn't I told of this?!"

So the CIA fails again and again for the past twenty years, but the Stratfor website has the undeniable real trooth, eh?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Jan 03, 12:07:00 PM:

Well, Koblog, you are sort of reiterating the point I make in the last paragraph. I've decided Stratfor is credible because I've been reading them for years and have developed a sense for their point of view over many hundreds of reports and hundreds of thousands of words. But I am not suggesting that you should take my word for it -- after all, what do you know of me? -- so there's the "circularity."  

By Blogger Alec Rawls, at Sun Jan 03, 02:26:00 PM:

Take a look at the main reason Giraldi cites (at AntiWar.com) for thinking that the document is phony: that it comes through Murdoch/Fox, which is attacked as too Jewish:


Giraldiā€™s intelligence sources did not reveal all the reasons that led analysts to conclude that the purported Iran document had been fabricated by a foreign intelligence agency. But their suspicions of fraud were prompted in part by the source of the story, according to Giraldi.

"The Rupert Murdoch chain has been used extensively to publish false intelligence from the Israelis and occasionally from the British government," Giraldi said.

The Times is part of a Murdoch publishing empire that includes the Sunday Times, Fox News, and the New York Post. All Murdoch-owned news media report on Iran with an aggressively pro-Israel slant.


Can't get much weaker than that. They also try to make a big deal about the lack of official security stamps, as if the only way to pilfer intel is to steal the official stamped copy! Ludicrous.

Obviously it is difficult to tell what is real, in which circumstance the ax-grinding of a partisan like Giraldi is worthless.  

By Blogger JM Hanes, at Sun Jan 03, 11:53:00 PM:

Wish I could cite you chapter and verse, but from what I've seen quoted on the net over the last several years, I think their track record on Iran, in particular can't be terribly good. Back when Condi Rice was SoS their tea leaf reading was off enough times that I ended up wondering about their ostensible sources. I'm not a subscriber though, so I'm looking through a pretty narrow window.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Jan 04, 02:43:00 AM:

"we, like many other intelligence organizations, are also in the process of reviewing our net assessment on Iran. The process is a painfully meticulous one, but one that requires great discipline and, of course, an ability to recognize multiple disinformation campaigns at work."

'It might turn out that we have been completely wrong about Iran for years, but there's no way for you to know that and we're sure as hell not going to own up to it if we don't have to.'

Without names, I fought a bitter losing battle with those folks about Iran... I'm just waiting for the right moment to send an 'I told you so' letter. Utterly valueless, except to my ego.  

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