Thursday, October 8, 2009

CIA Knew About Iran's Secret Nuclear Plant Since 2006

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This summer, as the Obama Administration prepared to confront Iran with proof of its undisclosed uranium-enrichment plant in Qum, CIA Director Leon Panetta ordered his staff to work with European intelligence agencies to compile a comprehensive presentation about the facility. Although the Iranians had taken great pains to keep the facility a secret, building it into a mountain 100 miles southwest from Tehran, the CIA had known about it for three years. Panetta was told about Qum during the White House transition period in January. "This was presented at that time as something nobody knew about, a secret facility," he told TIME in an exclusive interview. "It was built into a mountain; obviously that raised question marks." Panetta said that after he was confirmed as the agency's director, "we spent the next months trying to get better intel about what was going on there ... and conducting covert operations into that area." As part of that effort, the CIA worked with British and French intelligence, which had also been on the lookout for the secret plant. They knew there had to be one; once Iran's primary enrichment plan in Natanz was revealed, in 2002, it was assumed that the Iranians would build a second one somewhere.

The Qum site first attracted the attention of Western intelligence agencies in 2006, when the CIA noted unusual activity at the mountain: the Iranians moved an anti-aircraft battery to the site, a clear sign that something important was being built there. Exactly what, however, was hard to know. "We didn't jump to any conclusions and considered a number of alternatives," says a U.S. counterterrorism official. Iran is suspected of having a number of secret research labs and manufacturing facilities linked to its nuclear program. Roland Jacquard, an independent security and terrorism consultant in Paris, says there was some debate among analysts about the Qum site. While some said it had to be a nuclear facility, "others warned it could also easily be a decoy the Iranians wanted to fix Western attention to as [it] continued clandestine work on another facility elsewhere," he says. Jacquard says doubts gradually vanished as European and U.S. intelligence agencies shared information, "and the Americans could use that alongside what was being learned through the infiltration of Iranian computers." (Read more...)