Israeli Defense Minister publicly divulges US intelligence report

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Israel’s Defense Minister raised some eyebrows in the United States when he told Israel Radio Thursday that a new, previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence assessment shares Israel’s sense of heightened urgency about Iran’s nuclear program.

Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that there is “apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices,” in Washington, CBS News reported.

“As far as we know, it comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak continued. “It transforms the Iranian situation to an even more urgent one and it is even less likely that we will know every development in time on the Iranian nuclear program.”

Generally, foreign leaders don’t publicly disclose allied nations’ classified intelligence reports in such a provocative manner, intelligence experts said.

“The rules of the spy game are clear,” former US Navy intelligence analyst John Schindler wrote on his blog. “When intelligence services share information, as they do every day, you don’t pass it to third parties without clearance. Ever. And if you do, eventually you will get burned and nobody will want to play marbles with you.”

A cavalcade of top American officials have traveled to Israel in recent weeks to confer on Iran, and President Obama this month signed a $70 million US military aid package for Israel. Israeli officials have expressed growing impatience with US reluctance to endorse military action on Iran at this time.

The Israeli Defense Minister’s comments followed a report in Israeli daily Haaretz Thursday which said that there was a new US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. But several American former intelligence and security officials told Al-Monitor that the product is not an NIE, but a smaller, more focused report or series of reports on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps related to suspected weapons-relevant research activity.

Non-proliferation analysts speculated that it could involve one of the categories of continuing research activities specified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its November 2011 report on Iran. Among them: engaging in experimental research, after 2003, on hemispherical initiation of high explosives; further validation, after 2006, of a neutron initiator design; conducting modeling studies, in 2008 and 2009, that could determine the yield of a nuclear explosion.

However, “carrying on scattered research activities does not amount to a full-fledged restart of an integrated weapons program,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst and senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, wrote in an ACA Iran Nuclear Threat Assessment brief (.pdf).

A March 2012 report by the Institute for Science and International Security said that an update to the US 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear program was being prepared. The 2007 NIE “judged with moderate confidence that restart [of Iran’s nuclear weapons program] had not happened as of mid-2007,” ISIS wrote. “It should be noted that this assessment about restart was rejected by key European allies and Israel, which all assessed that Iran was likely continuing to develop its nuclear weaponization capabilities and that its nuclear weapons program likely existed after 2003.”

A spokesman for the US intelligence community did not immediately respond to a request for guidance on Barak’s comments.

But a U.S. National Security Council spokesman “disputed the Israeli reports, saying the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities had not changed since intelligence officials delivered testimony to Congress on the issue earlier this year,” Reuters reported.

“We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, backed by growing international pressure on the Iranian government,” the NSC spokesman said, according to Reuters. “We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.”

(Photo: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (R) and U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speak to the media at a joint news conference while visiting the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)